Graded on a Curve: Reverend John Wilkins, Trouble

We remember Reverend John Wilkins via the archives from just one month ago. His brand new release is in stores now.Ed.

Reverend John Wilkins can be described as a specialist in the sanctified blues, but that’s really only the tip of his stylistic iceberg. As the son of noted pre-war bluesman (and also ordained minister) Robert Wilkins, there is a firm North Mississippi root in his work, but more prominent is the sound of soul and even a well-integrated turn toward country gospel. Although he has been playing music and preaching for decades, Trouble is only Wilkins’ second album, but it’s an assured one, cut at Royal Studios in Memphis, TN with family and friends and engineered by Willie Mitchell’s son Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell with production by Amos Harvey. It’s out on vinyl (300 blue, 500 black) and compact disc September 18 through Goner Records.

To start, we should shed light on the achievements of Reverend Robert Wilkins, first as a blues singer and guitarist for the Victor and Brunswick labels from 1928-1936 including such major sides as “Old Jim Canan’s,” “Rollin’ Stone” (an influence of Muddy Waters’ later bombshell of the same title), and “That’s No Way to Get Along,” this last one likely better-known in its later gospel version, reworked, extended and renamed by Wilkins as “Prodigal Son” (covered by The Rolling Stones on Beggars Banquet).

If reliably placed in the country-blues category, Robert Wilkins is more aptly classified as a songster in his pre-war days, with the breadth of his talent well expressed by Yazoo’s compilation The Original Rolling Stone. This is all worth mentioning in relation to his son John (one of seven children), as Trouble thrives on diversity while keeping a firm grip on Southern gospel tradition with an underpinning of Hill Country blues (Wilkins has been a pastor at Hunter’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Como, MS since 1983).

What is Hill Country blues, you might be asking? In short, it’s a rhythmically driving, often hypnotic style from the North Mississippi region that’s distinct from the sound of the Delta; its celebrated exemplars include Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Robert Belfour, and Jessie Mae Hemphill. The North Mississippi fife and drum bands (Sid Hemphill, Othar Turner, Napoleon Strickland) are closely related to the Hill Country style.

And so it was fitting that Wilkin’s 2010 debut, You Can’t Hurry God, was released by Big Legal Mess, as that label’s parent company, Fat Possum, was largely responsible for a surge of interest in the Hill Country blues sound through releases by Burnside, Kimbrough, Belfour and more. The influence was audible in Wilkins’ music then and continues to be felt now, though Trouble’s opening title track hits a vivid hard-edged soul-blues sweet spot complete with Hammond B3 from Rev Charles Hodges and a little backing vocal spice near the end from his daughters Tangela Longstreet, Joyce Jones, and Tawana Cunningham.

The cut is executed with enough vigor to stir the interest of blues-rockers, but with Wilkins’ singing, hearty but unstrained, a little reminiscent of B.B. King, and with his lyrics refreshingly topical. The sound of “Down Home Church” gets a bit funkier and with attention to groove that reinforces the connection to the aforementioned Hill Country stuff.

What assists Trouble in standing out next to Wilkins’ prior album is its sheer boldness of soulful conception, which a novice might just chalk up to “Boo” Mitchell’s involvement (as his father was the man in charge of Hi Records), but please hold that thought, as Wilkins is noted for playing guitar on O.V. Wright’s ’65 soul killer “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry.”

Having backed Wright makes clear that Wilkins’ soul inclination here is no new development, a fact reinforced by “You Can’t Hurry God,” the song carried over from his prior record. While the soulfulness is strong on the first version, it’s even more abundant here as his daughters’ contribution helps to bring the Staple Singers to mind, but with some prime ’60s-era grit.

The only thing missing is a horn section, but with the band’s tight urgency, missing isn’t really the correct term. From there, a cover of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” drives home that Memphis is as vital to Wilkins’ conception as the Mississippi Hill Country, and certainly more pronounced in the mix. Indeed, with the largeness of Jimmy Kinnard’s bass, “Wade in the Water” is downright citified, though the thrust stops short of sophisto.

“Walk With Me” exudes a more rural sensibility, just guitar and singing, its aura recalling Blind Willie Johnson and even more so Son House. And then, another stylistic shift, as “God Is Able” is an undisguised rewrite of “(Night Time Is) The Right Time” as recorded by Ray Charles, with Wilkins’ daughters fully up to the task. In fact, it’s really more appropriate to credit the three as sharing singing duties with their father across Trouble rather than simply backing him up.

They take the full vocal spotlight in “Darkest Hour,” a Stanley Brothers song that amplifies the diversity (reflective of the songster approach of Wilkins’ father’s younger days) by tapping into the country gospel tradition, while never registering as a radical departure, partly because Hodges and Kinnard are so present in the scheme. Guitarist Kevin Cubbins and drummer Steve Potts fill out the band, with the latter’s contribution crucial to the success of the late ‘70s-style gal-sung gospel pop nugget “Found Love.”

At this point, it might seem that Wilkins is fading into the background on his own LP, but right on time, he steps back up front in “I’ve Got Something,” and sounds magnificent in the rousing feelgood finale “Storm and Rain.” These last two cuts emphasize a mature progression by Wilkins from gospel-soul bluesman toward the assured leader of a family band.

This set was first released on CDR last year, and that Goner is bringing out a vinyl edition is a fine turn of events. Even better is learning of Wilkins surviving a two-month battle with Covid-19. His fortitude is in ample evidence throughout Trouble, an infectious grower of an LP.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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