The Wife to Whom I'm Married was recently asked by her Kenyan co-worker, Derek, what kind of music I liked and who some of my favorite artists are. Among the styles listed was the blues. Her co-worker was not sure he knew what this was. Her answer: my husband likes to listen to old, Black men sing about their troubles. Derek found this hilarious. Thanks, dear.
TWTWIM was just having a little fun with that description but there are a lot of people who think of the blues as nothing more than old, Black men singing songs about how their woman done them wrong. There is a reason for that: the blues is such a venerable institution and its influence is everywhere. That kind of far-reaching impact has its plusses but can also at times be a drawback. When everyone thinks they know what the blues is, stepping outside that box can be risky. There are some listeners who will dismiss music because it too closely resembles the stereotype or because it strays too far from it. Some listeners will shy away from the entire genre after hearing a small sampling of it.
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, now 70, takes the image of what the blues is about and gently brushes it aside without straying too far from the genre's most basic conventions. Way Back is not the hair-raising blues of Son House. The hellhounds on Robert Johnson's trail are not haunting Smith — at least not now. You won't hear a lot of the overt sexuality of Muddy Waters, for whom Smith famously drummed.
This is the sound of a man returning to his roots and revisiting his home. The clothes fit a little differently these days and the buildings don't look the same — some are sadly no longer even there, but Smith sounds like he still remembers his way around this block. The strut and swagger have morphed into a stroll. Youth may have been more exciting but experience counts for a lot. It would be easy to label Way Back as a nostalgia album but it would be a mistake to dismiss it.
"Big Eyes" might be best known as Muddy Waters' drummer but here handles all vocals and plays harp on all but two tracks- he even wrote six of the 11 songs. Smith sounds at home and relaxed on Way Back because he has surrounded himself with members of his musical family as well as his real one. He has called on fellow Muddy Waters' alums James Cotton (harmonica), Calvin "Fuzz" Jones (bass), Bob Margolin (guitar), and living treasure Pinetop Perkins (piano). Smith drums on two tracks, his son Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith handling the rest.
"Big Eyes" has not redefined the blues but has reconnected with it by reconnecting with friends, both in the form cover material ("Tell Me mama" and "Don't Start Me to Talkin'" among them) and musicians. Way Back may not soar to the heights of other blues recordings but it never disappoints.