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I woke up this morning to the news that Henry Townsend had died. I’m still reeling from the shock.

It’s not as though I have any real reason to be surprised by his death. After all, Henry was 96 years old and had looked increasingly frail in recent years. But to me and to many of his fans, Henry seemed as timeless as his music.

His accomplishments are well known. Through the years, he recorded some of the most profoundly accomplished blues ever set to wax. He was the only bluesman to record in every decade from the 1920s to the new millennium. But unlike many of the elder statesmen of the blues, Henry continued to record and perform music that was virtually without peer up to the end.

Which brings us to My Story, Henry’s CD for the APO label. Recorded in 1999 but released in 2001, the album turned out to be the last of Henry’s CDs released in his lifetime. Like all of his recordings that preceded it, this one commands the listener’s attention from start to finish.

The album features Henry on both piano and guitar, the latter instrument a rarity in Henry’s final years. He is given tasteful and sympathetic accompaniment by slide guitarist Ron Edwards and acoustic bass player Sho Komiya. Guitar slinger Jimmy D. Lane joins in with dobro on two tracks. But with a force of nature like Henry Townsend, the star of the proceedings is obvious from the first notes.

“Less Than A Man” sets the tone for the rest of the disc. It features Henry on guitar and lyrics that manage to sound both superbly crafted and breathlessly improvisatory at the same time. Henry plays guitar on three additional tracks – “No Fuss and Fight,” “My Story” and “Put Me On Hold.”

For the remaining eight tracks, he plays piano with equally devastating results. Like his long-deceased contemporary Skip James, Henry is best known as a guitarist but had the power to astound listeners with his spontaneous piano runs that rumbled and tumbled in unexpected and thrilling ways. That talent can be found in full force throughout this album.

Throughout My Story, Henry also manages to write songs that are both universal and intensely personal. In the title track, Henry slides in a couple of lines that snap the listener to attention with the realization that these are no generic blues, but a wrenching story of the personal hardships of an ailing old man: “You asking me darling/I don’t see why you can’t see/You asking me to swallow a pill right now/The darn pill is bigger than me.”

I have to admit a slight bias against many of the recordings for the APO label. While many blues fans praise the recordings for their crisp, clear sound, I often find the label’s sound a bit too polished, with some of the rougher edges knocked off. As a profound fan of vintage country blues recordings, the rough edges tend to be my favorite part. In the case of Henry Townsend, it hardly matters. No amount of polish can restrain the majesty of his blues.

This is a fine introduction to the music of one of the true blues greats.

Rest well, Mr. Townsend. You’ve earned it.

Rating 4.9 out of 5 on the STLBluesometer.

Jeff Konkel
Broke & Hungry Records
The STLBluesometer

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