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Music Review: John Dee Holeman You Got To Lose, You Can't Win All The Time

It was a couple of years ago that I first heard about the work that Tim Duffy was doing with the Music Makers Relief Foundation. Initially he started out with the simple goal of recording some of the older musicians who lived in and around the area of North Carolina where he was living in order to preserve some great music that he feared would be lost otherwise. This soon evolved into trying to parlay the recordings into a means to raise money to assist those same musicians, who time and fashion had forgotten.

From those humble beginnings the Foundation took shape. Yet this isn't just some charity giving handouts; most of the men and women Tim met while making his initial field recordings were quite capable of still getting up on stage and performing, or going into the studio and cutting sides like they did forty years ago. Sure when someone's in dire straits from medical bills or other such calamity the Foundation is there to lend a hand, but a good many people are being helped by being given the chance to work again doing what they do best - making music.

The Music Maker performers have now played festivals across Europe and down into Argentina, and released numerous CDs and a collection of DVDs. The early recordings were pretty raw, having mostly been culled from Tim's time out in the field from recordings made on a two track machine. As the foundation became more established they built their own studio and were able to bring the musicians in and record them with proper equipment in a more controlled environment. Now it appears they've reached the stage where they are making the leap to the next level and are no longer content to just preserve the music, but inject some new life into it as well.
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John Dee Holeman has been one of the stalwarts of the Foundation's roster. He's recorded three discs for them already, two solo releases and one where he was paired up with the Australian alternative folk group The Waifs. Now, for his forthcoming release, You Got To Lose, You Can't Win All The Time, John is backed by a full band, and a slew of special guests adding finishing touches to his music that range from Wurlitzer solos to pedal steel guitar fills.

John plays an old time County/Blues style that has more in common with the simplicity of backwoods music than the modern electric Blues that most of us are familiar with. In fact you're as liable to hear traces of the Carter family in his style as you are Mississippi or Chicago. So when I read in the press release about what they had done with this disc, I was concerned that in their attempts to add to John's music they might have ended up diminishing it through over production. Make something too gaudy with decorations and it loses the integrity that made it attractive in the first place.

Well, as it turns out I needn't have worried, producer Zeke Hutchins has taken the same amount of care working with these songs as an art restorer would take working on a masterpiece. He never once lets any of the additions do anything but augment John Dee's voice and playing, or accentuate the distinctiveness of his style. Of course it doesn't hurt that the key musicians include the president of the foundation, Tim Duffy, on acoustic guitar, and core Music Maker players like Cool John Ferguson on electric guitar, and Jay Brown on bass.

Anytime you get a group of like minded people together working on a project you know the results stand a good chance of being special, and that's the case here. Take the three traditional songs that John arranged for this recording; "Early Letter Blues", "One Black Rat". and "John Henry". I've heard other people record versions of these songs before, heck I've heard John do versions of "John Henry" and "One Black Rat" before, but I've never heard them performed so they sound as alive as they do on this disc. The addition of mandolin and fiddle, plus harmonizing from Ellen Stevenson and Taz Halloween, on "One Black Rat" fills out the sound in such a way that it adds another dimension to the song while still allowing it to maintain its core identity.

When John made his original recordings with Music Makers, they had the comfortable feel of having been recorded on the back porch one night when everyone was gathered around to listen to some tunes and have a few drinks. Listening to them you could feel the atmosphere and the environment that was responsible for creating this style of music all those years ago. Not only does You Got To Lose, You Can't Win All The Time retain that atmosphere, it actually improves on it. Instead of just one man playing for some friends on his back porch, it's now a community barn dance, where all the musicians from miles around have brought their instruments.

John Dee Holeman has been playing the Country/Blues of the Carolinas for decades, and at nearly eighty years old, he was born in 1929, he still brings energy and spirit to his music than most musicians half his age. Not only does You Got To Lose, You Can't Win All The Time showcase John's talents, it does so in a way that brings new life and vigour to his material. It just goes to show, that which was old, can be made new again.

You can pick up a copy of You Got To Lose, You Can't Win All The Time by going to the Music Makers Relief Foundation web site.

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