Take a Cadillac ride through the Southern States and you’ll hear a thousand flavours of music on the breeze. Listen to Neckbone Stew and you’ll hear them expertly stirred into one record. “It’s a mixture of all the spices and good stuff you’ll find in most Southern kitchens,” says the award-winning US bluesman Big Daddy Wilson. “To make a good stew, you need a little bit of everything, and this was the idea I went with for my new CD. A beautiful mélange of blues, spiritual, roots, soul and reggae. I just felt like mixing it up this time.”
Released in 2017 on Ruf Records, Neckbone Stew is the latest twist in a fascinating life story. Wilson was raised a “real country boy” in Edenton, North Carolina, but fate had other plans. By 1979, the young Southerner had escaped the grinding poverty of his hometown, enlisting in the US Army and relocating to Germany, where he fell for the raw power of live blues. “I met the blues here,” he remembers. “I didn’t know what the blues was before. It was here that I found a part of me that was missing for so long in my life.”
Wilson had sung in church as a child – a precaution by his mother and grandma to keep him “away from drugs and off the streets” – but his natural shyness meant he’d never considered stepping onstage. Now, he discovered a talent for songwriting and an unmistakable voice that soon won praise from the iconic Eric Bibb: “As soon as you hear Big Daddy Wilson’s voice, whether speaking or singing, you hear his southern country roots. It’s a voice baptised in the river of African-American song, a voice with the power to heal”.
That’s a sentiment echoed by the thousands who have watched the Big Daddy Wilson Trio perform on stages across the USA, Europe and Southern Hemisphere over the last two decades. Working from his adopted home in Germany, meanwhile, the expat bandleader has also earned acclaim for studio albums like 2009’s Love Is The Key, 2011’s acoustic Thumb A Ride, 2013’s I’m Your Man and 2015’s Time. And yet, according to the man in the hat, Neck Bone Stew is the jewel in his back catalogue. “For me,” he says, “it sits on top. The latest is always the greatest. I was in the mood, like John L. Hooker said.”
If Neck Bone Stew brings together a variety of genres, then it also unites a dream-team of musicians who helped these 13 songs soar. Led by the multi-instrumental talents of Wilson himself on vocals, guitar and percussion, long-standing Trio members Cesare Nolli (guitar) and Paolo Legramandi (bass) brought fire and flair to sessions at Italy’s Fire Place Room. “These guys are just incredible musicians and great to work with,” reflects the bandleader. “I have some special guests, too. The phenomenal Ruthie Foster. Mr. Staffan Astner. One of my blues heroes, the great Eric Bibb. And this CD is produced by the Goosebumps Brothers. It was a piece of cake – or should I say, Cookies Gone Kill Me. Thanks to the local café who supplied all the cookies…”
As for the songs, they run the gamut. There’s the rolling acoustic blues of Cross Creek Road. The exuberant brass lines, wah guitar and bad-luck lyric of 7 Years. The melancholy clipped chords of Damn If I Do, with its depiction of a lover brought his knees (“You got your hooks so deep in my heart/You got me crawlin’, but still you won’t stop”).
The album’s musical variety, meanwhile, is exemplified by the magical moment when the title track switches from an aching slide-blues into a reggae strut, with lyrics describing a lover who “got them big old hips, look just like two battleships”. Wilson is equally adept on the sun kissed balladry of I Just Need A Smile, which pairs lush chords with a lyric that implores us to ditch our gadgets and reengage with our humanity. “It’s all about life,” decides the bandleader of the album’s subject matter. “But there are two things you need in a good blues CD – a woman and some food.”
At a time when most mainstream music fails to satisfy, Neckbone Stew will give Big Daddy Wilson’s growing army of global fans the soul food they’ve been craving. “Throughout my career and journey,” he reflects, “I’ve been influenced and inspired by so many different and talented people, places and things. And somehow I wanted to bring it all together on this album. To put it all in the Stew…”