Dr John: Things Happen That Way

The Night Tripper's last studio album reveals his fondness for country and western music, including that of the 'hip' Hank Williams

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Throughout his six-decade-long career, New Orleans pianist Dr John embodied a multitude of musical identities, as an ambassador for New Orleans jazz and funk, a bluesman and rock and roll innovator, a fine singer and songwriter, and of course the revered high priest of psychedelic voodoo. His final studio album – he died in June 2019 – adds to that list, revealing his lifelong, and surprising, affinity for country and western music.

As his daughter Karla Pratt, explains: The covers on this set are “a musical tip of the hat to the greats that preceded him . . . Years ago he talked about how hip Hank Williams was. He loved how simple yet emotionally complex Hank’s songs are, that they have a hook with a twist. For this album inspired by listening to the Louisiana Hayride [radio show] and icons of country and western, he was excited to do songs in a way that evokes emotion that sticks with you long after one of the songs – done his soulful way – is played.”

Hence the cover versions here of Hank Williams’s ever-painful I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and Willie Nelson’s languid Funny How Times Slips Away. Nelson himself joins Dr John on a light jaunt through the traditional Gimme That Old Time Religion, while Aaron Neville joins in gloriously on a fine, gospel-flavoured version of the Traveling Wilburys’ End Of The Line.

Aside from cover versions, Dr John revisits his history with a new and impressive version of I Walk On Guilded Splinters – for his 1968 debut album Gris-Gris – and introduces some new songs written during recording: Holy Water, in which he looks back at his drug bust and jail term in the 1960s, and a rollocking Give Myself A Good Talkin’ To, which is basically a good-natured scolding for his life of misdemeanours.

Throughout, Dr John’s voice is wonderfully growly and ruminative, his piano playing ever evocative. But it is the overall atmosphere that counts, the good-time camaraderie of playing with a strong band and some fine guests. Goodbye Dr John: this is a great way to remember you.

Discography
Funny How Time Slips Away; Ramblin’ Man; Gimme That Old Time Religion; I Walk On Guilded Splinters; I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry; End Of The Line; Holy Water; Sleeping Dogs Best Left Alone; Give Myself A Good Talkin’ To; Guess Things Happen That Way (39.04)
Dr John (p, v); Shane Theriot (elg); Will Lee (elb); Jon Cleary, David Torkanowsky (kyb); Carlo Nuccio (d); and others (t, tb); plus variously Willie Nelson, Katie Pruitt, Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real, Aaron Neville (v, other instruments). New Orleans, 2018.
Rounder Records