A well-reported but not entirely satisfying consideration of a hardy R&B subgenre.
Veteran blues observer Whiteis (Chicago Blues, 2006) examines a style, nestled not always comfortably on the cusp of classic deep soul and funky blues, which has operated mainly below the commercial radar since the late Z.Z. Hill put it on the map with “Down Home Blues” in 1981. The bulk of the book comprises lengthy in-depth profiles of seasoned performers Latimore, Denise LaSalle, J. Blackfoot and Bobby Rush and younger successors Willie Clayton, Sweet Angel, Sir Charles Jones and Ms. Jody; other progenitors and latter-day practitioners receive shorter entries in two late chapters. Whiteis also delves into the realities of writing for the genre, the intrinsic difficulties of marketing the music and vague possibilities for its future. While the author is clearly enthusiastic about his subject, he seems to be in deep denial about the real potential for soul-blues. As he notes repeatedly, the music has always attracted a middle-aged (and older) demographic, and even its youngest stars are in their 40s and 50s. It continues to survive on what’s left of the Southern chitlin’ circuit or on the occasional package tour or a small festival circuit. Major U.S. labels and big-market R&B radio have never given the style a tumble, and its artists must be content with selling their material either through smaller independents or via their own imprints. While Whiteis holds out some hope that soul-blues can sustain itself in the wide-open world of Internet music distribution, he offers no compelling evidence that this is actually a path out of the wilderness. And his maddening reluctance to offer album sales or radio-airplay figures only confirms the reader's suspicion that this is an increasingly marginal music that is playing to a graying, shrinking and narrowly circumscribed audience.
Soul-blues fans will savor this love letter, but nondevotees will be left in the cold.