Cotton Mouth Man
by Mark Augustine
James Cotton’s latest release, Cotton Mouth Man, has a more ambitious goal that most blues records, especially among artists of Cotton’s age, reputation, and stature. It’s not uncommon for people in Cotton’s position to release a new record that’s largely just a re-hashing of previous successes and proven standards given a shiny polish with new studio recording technology. Not to suggest that this polish isn’t present on Cotton Mouth Man, because it certainly is. But the material is almost universally new and original. And the concept is larger and broader than just a loose collection of songs. If a term must be invented to describe it, Cotton Mouth Man is a blues opera. And much like Drive-By Trucker’s 2001 zenith, Southern Rock Opera, this record tells the story of a band (or, more precisely, a musician).
1.) the musician in question is real, and
2.) this is a blues record, not a rock record.
As you may have guessed, the protagonist of the story of this album is Cotton himself, and the record’s 13 songs trace the story of the man in question from Mississippi plantation to Chicago juke joints and onward throughout a life of wine, women, and blues. The disconcerting part is that nearly half of the album’s tracks are not penned by Cotton, but by his producers. And when you filter the story through third parties, there’s an obvious musical and lyrical disconnect. And given that Cotton doesn’t sing much anymore after his bout with throat cancer, the album leaves you feeling a great distance between its subject and its performer.
Brilliant guest artists abound to try and fill this gap, and most do so more than ably. Sitting in on vocals, you’ll find the likes of Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes, Keb Mo, Ruthie Foster, Darrell Nulisch, and Delbert McClinton. Chuck Leavell also stops in to play some piano and organ, and Joe Bonamassa throws down guitar on the album’s title track. But even with all the flash and glitter, the highlight of the album may be the final track, Bonnie Blue – straightforward Delta blues featuring nothing more than dobro and Cotton himself on harmonica and vocals, the only time he sings on the record. His voice is a strained, weary rasp; a jet stream of white-hot air blown over what the cancer has left of tissue-paper-thin, septuagenarian vocal chords. “There he is,” I found myself saying for the first time.