John Mooney doesn't give a damn about blues "purity," whatever that is. While many of his peers have stuck to just one brand of blue-hued music to the point of repetition, Mooney has spent the past thirty years deftly melding two disparate forms: straight-from-the-fields Delta blues and complex New Orleans soul. The result -- a sound that stretches from Parchman Farm to the Crescent City and touches on both the aching and the uplifting -- appeals to lovers of both extremes without diluting the merits of either."The thing about my stuff is that I come from a different place about it," Mooney says. "I'm coming from the Delta, but with the New Orleans thing that's rooted in the syncopation stuff.
"Blues is not necessarily known for its syncopation or its funk factor," he adds with a chuckle. "But if you put the Delta stuff with the sound of New Orleans, it's a whole different area than where most people go with blues."
That it is, and it's a sound as refreshing as a cold Dixie beer on a humid afternoon in Cajun country. It's also a style that came to him firsthand. In his early teens in the '60s, Mooney left home ("I was kind of independent-minded and didn't like anybody telling me what I should be doing," he says), took up the acoustic guitar and immersed himself in a crash course in the blues. His education took a bullfrog's leap forward when a local player introduced Mooney to another player living in Rochester, New York: the legendary Ed "Son" House. A peer of Robert Johnson's who had set up shop in New York, House slowly warmed up to Mooney, and the odd couple became friends and gig-mates. They did shows together for a handful of years in the northeast; when they weren't performing, Mooney would spend hours at House's home, talking and singing gospel songs inside and playing the blues outside. (House's devoutly religious wife didn't allow "devil" music in her homestead.)
"He taught me a lot about playing and singing and life," Mooney recalls, "and he was a really big influence on me at a time when I needed it. I was just sixteen, and I needed a little straightening out." Mooney says House never actually gave him instructions per se, but merely allowed him to hang around and pick up what he could by observation of patient example. Mooney says his open tunings and other guitar techniques he uses today were strongly influenced by House, as were his full-throated vocals.
The image of the teenage, aspiring-white-kid guitarist hanging with a legend is a great one, the musical equivalent of a dreaming Little-Leaguer having Mickey Mantle for a neighbor. But, Mooney notes, the reality was not so glamorous. "We'd hang out at his house and go play parties and gigs," Mooney recalls. "But Son was so disarming, there was never any sense to me of it being cataclysmic or anything. But I definitely soaked up what he was giving to me -- not just musically, but spiritually. And now when I do look back on those days, I'm like, "Boy, what was I thinking back then?'"
After his years holding court with House, Mooney went on to spend much of the late '60s and early '70s thumbing and hoboing around the nation, feeding himself with dollars he earned by playing his National Steel guitar. He eventually ended up in New Orleans, where he endeared himself to another musical icon, the late piano great Professor Longhair. Mooney also rubbed elbows and played with numerous other Louisiana heavies, including guitarist Earl King and pianist James Booker, George Porter (of the Meters) and others, all of whom helped Mooney develop the more swamp-friendly ingredients in his musical gumbo.
In 1979, Mooney documented his hybridized stew with his debut, Comin' Your Way, for Blind Pig Records. Since then, he's put out more than a half-dozen releases that feature his brand of roots fusion -- some heavy on the back-porch stuff, others leaning more into Bourbon Street territory. In April, Mooney released Gone to Hell, a disc that marks his return to the Blind Pig label. Hell is a sharp collection, a muscular platter highlighted by Mooney's stabbing electric and acoustic slide playing and sweat-soaked, blue-collar singing. The CD's blues tunes are nicely balanced by hearty doses of Crescent City R&B and mambo-friendly tunes that temper the recording's darker parts. ("We like to sing about some heavy shit," Mooney says, "but then we'll make jokes about some heavy shit.") Mooney is joined in the effort by Alfred "Uganda" Roberts (on congas and percussion), bassist Jeff Sarli and drummer Kerry Brown. The disc also includes some genius piano work from another New Orleans stalwart, Dr. John.
Gone to Hell's title track is a swing at backstabbers and money-stealers in which the singer makes it clear that he's had enough and is pulling out for a place farther south than Louisiana. It's a percolating treat, with Robert's percussion lifting the song out of the Delta and into new territory; Mooney's skull and crossbones guitar-playing adds a dose of danger to the tune. "Funky Arkansas" is a deadly bit of blues, cut to the bone by Mooney's nappy, primitive playing. On the sunnier side of the disc are giddy New Orleans-style raveups and tongue-in-cheek tunes such as the infectious "That's What Lovers Do" and "Cypress Grove." Somewhere in between these opposing forms are Mooney's deep blues -- intense, solo flame-throwers like "Dry Spell Blues" and "I Wonder Blues" that make that Clapton guy's acoustic fluff sound like so much Mississippi muzak.
"I like it to be real raw and emotional," Mooney says with considerable understatement. "And I like it more rhythmic and immediate. I'm not the smoothest player in the world, and I don't play the same licks most blues players play." He credits that to what he considers his own limitations and the fact that he's not interested in musical mimicry. "Sometimes I'll sit down and think, "I'll play this like Hubert Sumlin would play it.' But inevitably it turns out like me playing Hubert."
Mooney might not be playing like himself or anyone else had he not taken pause to exorcise some personal demons a few years ago. In the early '90s he uprooted his wife and kids and left New Orleans for Fort Myers, Florida, in order to distance himself from a crowd of peers that had led him to a serious substance-abuse problem. It worked. Following a nearly two-year hiatus during which he virtually stopped playing and performing while cleaning up his act, Mooney returned to New Orleans in 1998 to play the city's Jazz & Heritage festival. "It was so emotional," he recalls, "and it was great to be welcomed back home. But if I'd come back in the shape I'd left in, it would have been a whole different story."
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Mooney's career is experiencing a resurgence, thanks to his unaddled approach, a new disc and the continuing appeal of his brand of musical voodoo. In a sense, Mooney's playing does evoke the sort of ritual and spiritual alchemy of the voodoo priests who dot the bayou. He uses his music for positive effect -- but it's some mighty powerful juju, all right.
"When most people think of voodoo," he says, "they're thinking of the Hollywood version. But that's all wrong. For one thing, you cannot use voodoo for bad purposes in any way. You just can't. And if you try to do that there are karmic repercussions. But that's the misconception that people have of voodoo. They think it's some dark, evil thing, but it's actually the opposite of that. You use it to block bad things that people are trying to do to you."
The same could be said of Mooney's music, which welds seemingly dark and dangerous elements into a thing of healing power. Is Mooney's music touched by voodoo magic?
"They're all the same principles," he adds. "It's using the saints and the spirits."