Johnny Shines, ‘Too Wet to Plow’ (05/04/78)

Too Wet to Plow captures the brooding, un­repentant passion of the Mississippi blues like no music I’ve heard in years. It’s a record Johnny Shines, born in Memphis in 1915, has had in him for a long time: an unelectrified, completely personal statement that speaks as well for the cutting power of country blues in the late Seventies as Muddy Waters’s Hard Again did for that of Chicago blues. Robert Johnson, Shines’s mentor and the greatest of all country blues artists, called the blues a heart disease, and that’s what Too Wet to Plow is—the disease and the cure.

Shines, whose first hero was Howlin Wolf, traveled the eastern half of the country with Johnson in the mid-Thirties. In 1941, three years after Johnson’s murder, he went on to Chicago, where he recorded sporadically, often brilliantly, until 1958, when, defeated (Chess had not even released his stunning “Joliet Blues;’ cut in 1950), he gave up music altogether. Seven years later, he burned his way off the third volume of Chicago/The Blues/Today! with an astonishingly vivid recasting of Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues”; since that time, Shines has made many albums in many styles, from solo acoustic to full Chicago band. He’s been at his strongest (“Mr. Tom Green’s Farm” on The Johnny Shines Band, or “Last Night’s Dream” on Johnny Shines) with only, minimal accompaniment, playing country blues on electric slide guitar. Such a sound is made for drama—midnight at the crossroads but it also brought out Shines’ introspective side: he looked in, and saw shadows flickering. With notes so stark they carried a pure sense of doom, and with an unforgiving, unforgiven momentum that took him out from under Johnson’s shadow and into a private hell of his own, Shines invoked terror, horror, a refusal to make peace with life. The cover of one of his records pictured a black woman who has just realized that snakes are nesting where her hair used to be; Shines played that image on his guitar, caught it in his voice.

Too Wet to Plow has the power of such blues, but the point of view is different. Working with Louisiana Red (guitar and harp) and Sugar Blue (a superb young harpman from Brooklyn) or alone, Shines communicates not rebellion but acceptance. It’s as if he’s gone far enough, grown old enough, to believe that in some essential way he won’t be beaten; that from now on, the battle with life will be on his terms, or at least on terms he has long understood. There’s great tension in the music, but there’s an unbreakable peace, too—not peace of mind so much as peace of the soul. The music comes out of a no man’s land that is also a hometown.

Shines offers a house built right on the edge. It’s his voice that builds the house, it’s his guitar that defines the edge. On “The Wind Is Blowin’,” “Moanin’ the Blues” and—with grace not received from God but snatched from Him—“You Better Turn Around,” Shines plays the most spare, softly echoing notes imaginable. The guitar seems to shrink from the singer’s pronouncements (as it does on Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen”), to retreat and then slip back, now threatening, now comforting. This blues creates a silence asking to be broken. In “The Wind Is Blowin’,” there’s a line about leaves whistling on the trees, but in “You Better Turn Around,” you hear them.

What you hear in Shines’ voice is the essence of his acceptance: compassion. His voice is deep, thick, rich, sometimes swooping high but mostly very steady: a voice held in check. It extends that compassion as far as it will reach—to you, to anyone you might be thinking of, to Shines himself. There’s not a trace of the self-pity so central even to many of the greatest blues; Shines steps outside himself, considers his place in the world, draws you into his body, and then, still standing a few steps off, tells you where you are: where, for the moment, you live.

The music on Too Wet to Plow is played in country time, which means that on the ensemble numbers the musicians find their own rhythms. The beat is not kept so much as it is passed from man to man, giving each musician the freedom he needs to find his own voice. Such music can sound clumsy, unsure—but only at first. After a time, what you hear is confidence and delight. Those are the emotions that drive the acceptance of Shines’ music home, make it seem natural, preordained, derived not from culture but from, say, the weather. One doesn’t know whether to be surprised that, forty years after the country blues achieved its finished shape, the form—in Shines’s hands anyway—seems not to have dated at all. Johnny Shines seems to speak not in the unfamiliar accents of styles that are “revived,” but simply to speak clearly, and without wasting a word.

Rolling Stone, May 4, 1978

One thought on “Johnny Shines, ‘Too Wet to Plow’ (05/04/78)

  1. G>M> understands what so many musicians today refuse to understand about time -especially blues time-it’s not about the metronome or the click track….this should be required reading for all the under 40 hot-shots

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