James Cotton has long referred to his regular working band as “my family,” so close is their sense of musical symbiosis, so long is their history. Still, to my ear, he’s never put out a more personal album than the forthcoming Cotton Mouth Man.
Due May 7, 2013, from Alligator Records, the album is the first to feature a vocal from the boogie-burning harp legend since a scary bout with throat cancer — on raggedly honest, deeply emotional closing track “Bonnie Blue,” named after the plantation where Cotton was born in Tunica, Miss. That’s one of seven stunning originals on Cotton Mouth Man, the most he’s put on a single release since leaving Muddy Waters for a solo career in the mid-1960s.
Tom Hambridge (best known for recent collaborations with Buddy Guy and Susan Tedeschi), serves as drummer, producer and chief co-writer, while several notables stop by to make flinty contributions — including a trio of Allman Brothers-related figures: vocalist Gregg Allman (who growls and wails through “Midnight Train”), pianist Chuck Leavell (on several cuts including the “He Was There,” “Blues is Good For You” and the delightfully funky “Young Bold Women”), and guitarist/vocalist Warren Haynes (on the scalding romp “Something for Me”).
Elsewhere, Cotton sits in with guitarist Joe Bonamassa (the grinding, locomotive title track), vocalist Keb Mo ( “Mississippi Mud’ and “Wasn’t My Time To Go,” both of them simmering delights), vocalist Ruthie Foster (who brings back-pew gumption to “Wrapped Around My Heart”), the criminally underrated vocalist Delbert McClinton (the down-home “Hard Sometimes”), and Darrell Nulisch, the long-time Anson Funderburgh sideman who sings on six cuts, including “Bird Nest on the Ground,” where he lets loose a barrel house-rattling bray.
Still, don’t get the idea that Cotton is relegated to a sideman role on his own album. Cotton Mouth Man remains firmly within Cotton’s grasp, as he unleashes run after blast-furnace run on the harmonica, even while weaving his own story through the album’s raft of original material.
That narrative works like a shotgun marriage of hard-scrabble challenges and hard-won triumphs. (In spite of his humble start, Cotton willed himself towards becoming an accomplished performer long before that 12-year stint with Waters, having already learned harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II, toured with Howlin’ Wolf and recorded for Sun Records.) Cotton’s used that same steely resolve to overcome his recent health scare, and to craft a third-act triumph here for the ages.
His determination not just to survive but to absolutely thrive comes through on Cotton Mouth Man with every gale-force, reed-splintering exhalation on the harmonica.