In the space of just two songs, acoustic guitarist Paul Rishell and harmonica player Annie Raines electrified the sophisticated blues fans attending Memphis' W.C. Handy Awards late last month.
"They were amazing," guitarist Anson Funderburgh said.
"I know they made themselves lots of new fans tonight," Blues Music Association member Cary Baker said.
They were right. The Massachusetts duo went on to win a Handy Award for Best Traditional Blues Recording for their album Movin' to the Country (Tone Cool, 1999).
"We played 'Got To Fly' (RealAudio excerpt), which is one of our 'hits,' " Raines said in a conversation from her Cambridge home. "Not that we've sold a billion copies of it, but it is one that people always ask for. And 'Michigan Water,' the other song we did there, is one of the oldest blues songs around. It's by Jelly Roll Morton, who was making music even before there was recorded blues.
"It really introduces everything historically, and it's one we do almost every night we play," Raines added.
Discovering The Source
Rishell, who started out in music playing the drums and listening to jazz drummers such as Buddy Rich and Max Roach, was drawn into blues when, as a teenager, he heard a recording by Son House. "I had been listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, to Chuck Berry, to Elvis Presley, trying to figure out who they were listening to, but I didn't know country blues existed," Rishell recalled.
"A friend of mine brought over Son House's Library of Congress recordings, and when I heard those, all of a sudden everything made sense, the pieces began to fall into place. I got a guitar and started trying to figure out things from Son House, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson."
Raines began playing harmonica when she was in high school. "This was in the 1980s and there were a lot of synthesizers around in pop music," she said.
"One day another student played me a Muddy Waters record, and from the time I heard the first note I completely fell for it. Something actually went click in my head, and I knew this was something much different and much better than anything I'd experienced."
Raines began hanging out in blues clubs, watching and learning from older players while developing her own style. "Annie thinks chromatically, not diatonically as most harmonica players do. She's able to come up with parts where there are no parts," Rishell said.
Rishell and Raines crossed paths while sitting in at Boston-area gigs and eventually began performing and writing together. They share a similar outlook of wanting to blend the old and the new in their work. On their 1996 Tone Cool debut, I Want You To Know, they included the folk gospel standard "I Shall Not Be Moved" alongside Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway" and Blind Boy Fuller's "Step It Up and Go" (RealAudio excerpt).
Old Tradition, New Tunes
There were several originals, too, including "Blues for Tampa Red." "When I write something, I work on [it] and work on it and work on it," Rishell said, "and bury it and dig it up and beat it into the ground and work on it again."
Raines admitted to a different writing style: "I'm much lazier than Paul. I have sort of a passive filtration system, and keep adding things, Then when I'm finished with a song, I might play it out, but it could be five or six years before I'm sure it's ready to record."
When they write together, they sometimes exchange ideas through tapes and in writing rather than by sitting down and playing together. "We're careful about showing things too soon," Rishell said, "but I think that's healthy."
And it apparently works: Movin' to the Country, their sophomore album, contains five such collaborations, including "Even Good Women Have Bad Days" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Turning Corner."
There's also a Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli tune, "Tears," which was first done as a hot jazz tune in Paris in 1937.
"I think you should listen to everything," Raines said, "not just your instrument or the style of music you play.
"That said, though, after I listen to a great jazz record or a great country record and then come back and listen to Muddy Waters or Little Walter a great blues record that's just the coolest thing. It's the best music."