There is no room for compromise when singer, guitarist, and harmonica player John Long plays the blues. In the early 1970s, he left his home in St. Louis for the blues mecca of Chicago. In the Windy City, he met the legendary slide guitar master Homesick James Williamson, who became his mentor and friend. For decades, Long, who now resides in Springfield, Missouri, has honed his craft, staying true to the authentic blues stylings he learned from Williamson. With Stand Your Ground, he not only pays homage to the legacy of this man he considered his “adoptive father,” but he also follows his own creative impulses, making sure the tradition is alive and well. Although he draws on the influence of other forms, everything he sings and plays on his guitar and harmonica stands solidly in the blues.
It is quite hard to fathom that an artist like Long, who exhibits such a stunning mastery of the idiom could go a decade without making a recording, but Stand Your Ground is the welcome follow-up to his first recording for the Delta Groove label since the acclaimed Lost & Found (2006), the Blues Music Awards’ Acoustic Album of the Year. In addition to his wooden resonator guitar, Long has expanded his sound with a Washburn Montgomery model archtop, which he calls “amplified acoustic.” Both his guitar and harmonica work are strikingly inventive, and his heartfelt, down home vocals—which feature an incredible range from a deep bass resonance to a stirring falsetto—are heartfelt and genuinely down-home.
Appropriately, he begins the program with Williamson’s “Baby Please Set a Date” backed by Washington Rucker on drums, Bill Stuve on upright bass, and Fred Kaplan on piano, evoking the rough and tumble glory days of Chicago’s South Side. The trio also backs Long on “One Earth, Many Colors,” a honky-tonk blues that reflects the leader’s ability to introduce a contemporary sensibility into the tradition. Bass and drums support Long on the title track, a funky shuffle featuring stinging slide runs, and “Mop, Bucket and a Broom,” a rocking celebration of hard work that boasts some outstanding brush work from Rucker (he teaches a master class in brush technique at USC).
The lion’s share of Stand Your Ground is comprised of solo performances, and highlights abound. In addition to his guitar and harmonica mastery, he drives the songs with his signature foot stomping on a vintage 1938 Samsonite suitcase, like on his original “Red Hawk,” an epic slide showcase with lyrics that evoke an awareness of the spirituality found in nature. Long employs searing slide work and his pleading falsetto on Blind Willie Johnson’s “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole.” His autobiographical, original tribute to his biological father, “No Flowers For Me,” again signals Long’s ability to invigorate the tradition by crafting a harmonica and guitar driven slow blues that is both a personal reflection and a call for social advancement. Solo harmonica along with foot stomps and finger snaps provide the backing for an intense, vocal tour de force on Blind Willie McTell’s “Climbing High Mountains,” and Long unleashes an infectious boogie groove on the suitably named “Suitcase Stomp.” Stand Your Ground is a long-awaited gem from a blues master who knows what it means to stand up for the blues in which he steadfastly believes.