On 80 Highway

  • 2008
  • On 80 Highway
  • Sleepy John Estes
  • Delmark


A unique and memorable figure in the pantheon of 20th. Century blues greats, Sleepy John Estes lived a life of poverty and musical integrity. Ensconced in his home in Brownsville, Tennessee, Estes formed a partnership in the 1920’s with harmonica virtuouso Hammie Nixon and mandolinist Yank Rachell, and recorded for various companies until about 1941, when he dropped into obscurity until being re-discovered in the early 1960’s. From then until his death in 1977, he filled a lauded and respected niche in the blues world.

Estes’s career represents an impressive breadth stylistically and thematically as well as chronologically. The leader of a railroad work gang in his youth, he developed an evocative singing style noted for its raspy raw emotion. In addition to the country blues genre, he was adept with spirituals, and even recorded with electric Chicago blues bands featuring Carey Bell, Mike Bloomfield, and Jimmy Dawkins before his demise. His themes ranged from the personal to the universal, from lust to religious devotion to politics. Few artists have exhibited such range while remaining true to their own muse.

“On 80 Highway” is an album recorded in 1974, when Estes was 75 years old, and features him and Nixon as a duo. In songs ranging from the lascivious “Potato Diggin’ Man” to the reverential “Do Lord Remember Me” to the traditional “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Estes’s guitar provides a steady base for his moving vocals. Equally impressive are Nixon’s harmonica contributions, reminiscent of but less flashy than Sonny Terry’s later renderings but equally adept and appropriate. Nixon is also a wizard at blues kazoo, and the vocal duets between Estes and Nixon are excellent.

Two brief talking interludes add ambience to the album, although they require concentration to decipher the deep Southern accents.

This album is a worthy addition to the oeuvre of a revered country bluesman.

[This review originally appeared on the BluesWax website.]