That Buddy Flett is recording at all, after an encephalitis-induced coma, is its own kind of miracle. That Flett, whose songs have been recorded by John Mayall, Percy Sledge and Tab Benoit, is sounding perhaps better than ever — deeper in the groove, deeper in the lyric — is quite another.
A new album makes the case. Boasting five originals, two collaborations with long-time writing partner David Egan, and a trio of well-placed cover songs, Rough Edges is testament to Flett’s steely resolve to return. He does so, more often than not, all alone — clawing his way back with a striking intensity accompanied by nothing more than his own guitar and stomping foot.
The effect on songs like the opening “Train” is one of unforgettably stark emotion. It’s a moment of scary portent, as Flett unleashes a watery riff, but not the last: “Honky Tonk” weeps with a lonely slide, even as Flett recalls the simmering majesty of his first experience with the blues. He squeezes every ounce of hurt feeling out of a new take on “First You Cry,” the Egan co-write memorably covered by Sledge. He explores Duane Allman’s “Lil Martha” with a stoic delicacy. “Third House on the Left” boasts a howl that’s redemptive yet still sensual.
Elsewhere, the spirit of Hubert Sumlin, a key influence and old running partner of Flett’s, is something of a recurring theme — and not just in a touching tribute with drummer Brian Blade and upright bassist Chris Michaels, called “Born in Mississippi.” The second Egan co-write “Good To Ya Baby” connects Flett’s sound even more completely with Sumlin, as Flett catches a scalding little groove all by himself. Later, Flett references the former Howlin’ Wolf sideman when introducing a determinedly sad take on the blues standard “Bad Luck and Trouble.”
Meanwhile, a sweet, ringing romanticism surrounds “Tenaha,” which finds Flett coupled with acoustic player Jason Wienhammer. Harp player Billy Gibson drops by for the menacing “Dance For Me,” which boasts just as much bubbling passion for an elusive woman as it does serrated desperation. Then there’s “Sylie,” a gorgeous country blues from Huddie Ledbetter.
Still, I kept going back to the earlier “Nothin Easy,” with its matter-of-fact take on getting through the tough times. As Flett growls every hard-eyed line (“Well, there ain’t nothin about living. Nothin easy at all. But you still got to keep on moving”), the song just keeps gaining topical resonance. Flett’s blues aren’t the made up kind; he didn’t achieve this vista by studying old records. He’s lived these things. And while it assuredly wasn’t easy getting to this place, Flett has arrived with a newfound intensity, and a damned fine record.