Everything about Bill Sheffield is the blues. It's there in the intense, transcendent way he finger-picks his guitar with hints of John Hurt and Blind Blake flashing through. It's there in his songs that wrestle with earthly pleasure and the need for redemption. And it most definitely is there in Journal On A Shelf, his latest studio recording on American Roots Records.
Journal On A Shelf distills a lifetime pursuit of the blues and authentic American roots music into 14 songs that announce the arrival of one of the most significant roots musicians to emerge in the past decade.
How exactly did a middle-aged white guitar player from Atlanta, Georgia, come to produce a stunningly accomplished collection of blues and roots music—one that calls to mind the genius of John Hurt, Hank Williams and Muddy Waters?
Flash back 40 years or so to a young, burgeoning guitarist who fell in love with a special piece of American music history. It was a song that would launch him on a lifetime journey down the tributaries and runnels of the Delta blues.
"Blind Willie Johnson played the greatest piece of music I ever heard," he says. "That was 'Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground).' It's still the best piece of American music ever recorded. It changed my life and made me understand what I was trying to do. He was the best slide player that ever lived. He was able to do something that's never been touched, really."
His self-described "obsession" with the blues began even earlier than his discovery of Blind Willie Johnson. His father turned him on to music by repeatedly playing a favorite Jimmy Reed song. The inquisitive younger Sheffield listened and absorbed the whole Reed album. Shortly after that he discovered the Folkways collection at the local library and began immersing himself in blues and early American roots music. He was also beginning to play guitar, learning the intricate style used by the guitar greats of the early blues movement.
"I play a fairly rare style," he says. "It's a finger picking style inspired by John Hurt and Blind Blake. It dances by itself. You can sit there and play guitar and it just dances. Sometimes when I'm really swinging it feels like my hands are disconnected from my body."
He was playing in coffeehouses and bars around Atlanta by the time he was 18. Not much of a blues town at that time, Sheffield was one of the only authentic blues players in the city. That led to opening slots for such greats as Big Mamma Thornton and Muddy Waters.
He soon put together a band called Cool Breeze, which toured up and down the East Coast playing R&B and Motown covers. After about seven years he broke up Cool Breeze to start The XL's, moving his sound back closer to the blues music he loved so much.
Around that time, he began writing his own original blues compositions almost by chance. He was practicing, trying to imitate the slide genius of Blind Willie Johnson, and couldn't quite get the riff. But he liked what he was playing and it soon became a song. More quickly followed. Sheffield was 40 years old.
In most musical genres 40 would be considered ancient to be beginning a career based on original music. But the blues are special. You have to live and experience life, heartbreak and desperation to write the blues with any authenticity. The timing couldn't have been more perfect.
He began performing his own tunes at a time when the blues were coming back into favor. Texas-blues stars like Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was guitar-slinging his way to national fame, helped make the blues cool again. Vaughan, in fact, once opened for Sheffield, who's also performed in concert with a Who's Who of blues greats including Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Delbert McClinton and Bonnie Raitt.
Over time his style has evolved, melding the pure emotionalism and great guitar work of the blues with blue-eyed soul, country, gospel and jazz. Categories don't do justice to Sheffield because he effortlessly transcends genres to create what can only be called great American music.
While he's steadily been gaining a reputation as an unsung hero in the blues community, Journal On A Shelf, is poised to break Sheffield on a national level. It's one of those rare albums showcasing an artist as he is tapping into genius.
From the toe-tapping, grin-inducing "New Tattoo" to the gritty, somber reinterpretation of Tom Waits' "Invitation to the Blues," Sheffield shows a mastery of the blues and all its hybrid children—country, folk, jazz and gospel. If it's authentic and can be played on an acoustic guitar, this aficionado of American roots music sings new life into it.
"Back in My Baby's Arms" is a roadmap to the place country music and blues intersect. The stripped down ache and gospel yearning of "Shooky Come Home" is chill inducing. The wry but pointed humor of "I Don't Hate Nobody" and the gorgeous slide guitar work and sing-along chorus of "It Don't Bother Me" amplify the skills Sheffield displays on what is lining up to be his breakthrough album.
He'll hit the concert trail in support of the new record, getting back to one of his true loves—performing live.
"There are nights when you get absorbed by the music," he says. "Everything else disappears and you are lost in the song. Those nights are like nirvana."
When he does get back on stage and he's lost in the music, there's a sense of peace that washes over him. If he's playing, then no matter where he is, he's at home.
Because everything about Bill Sheffield is the blues.