Nathan James plays an unusual homemade guitar made from washboards (see album cover photo at right), and from this he coaxes music that launders the essence from classic blues themes and hangs them out for you to enjoy.
James dubs his instrument a "washtar gitboard" and the music that he pull out of it "washtar soul."
The result, on his first national CD, "What You Make Of It" (Delta Groove Music), is a set of clever, original blues that draws on the Delta, the Piedmont, and even some bluesy soul music. James' basic three-piece band is enhanced just a little here, with horns on a couple of tracks. And it was recorded just like it was being played live, so there's no fussy electronics getting between you and music.
It sounds a little weird, and it's hard to describe, but it works, it cooks, and the music provides an old-timey feel without the scratch and hiss of dirty 78s.
The original title track is based on a chunky little riff and vocals that tell you that life is what you make it. "Black Snakin' Jiver" is based on a Blind Boy Fuller tune, features a kazoo and little ragtime, and could have been lifted right from an old Victrola.
They do a slow, soulful take on Jimmy McCracklin's "Later On," and step into finger-picking and harp on another original, "Get to the Country." "Blues Headache has a slight Jimmy Reed vibe, but once again, the unique sound moves everything in new directions. There's a lot more of this, and it's all thoroughly enjoyable.
James and his band, working out of Southern California, have put together a very unique sound here that's very good. If you crave a little scrathin' and pickin' in your old-fashioned blues, give the washtar a chance. You might even feel a little cleaner when you're done.
Here's a video of "Blues Headache" that should help explain some of this: