American Blues Scene Premieres “Tappin’ That Thing’

In 1989, when Dutch folklorist Ko de Korte taped Wilburt Lee Reliford play a solo harmonica session that became the core of Seems Like a Dream (June 25 / Big Legal Mess), he could not have imagined that half of those tracks would be fleshed out with an ace Memphis studio band. Some 32 years after the initial recordings and 28 after Reliford’s death, co-producers Bruce Watson (A.A. Bondy, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough) and Will Sexton (Dale Watson, Luther Dickinson, Alejandro Escovedo, Roky Erickson) built a band behind Reliford with Sexton on guitar, alongside, George Sluppick on drums (Chris Robinson, JJ Grey & Mofro), Mark Edgar Stuart on bass and guitar (Alvin Youngblood Hart), and Rick Steff on piano (Afghan Whigs, Cat Power, Todd Snider, James Blood Ulmer, Luther Allison). They also chose about half of the songs to remain raw and sparse as they were on that day in 1989. American Blues Scene has debuted the band track “Tappin’ That Thing.”

A staple of the North Mississippi blues scene, Reliford was born in 1924 near Rossville, TN, the hometown of Mississippi Fred McDowell, but he grew up near Chulahoma, Mississippi, the location of Junior Kimbrough’s infamous juke joint. He first picked up harmonica (and guitar, though his guitar is not heard on this release) around the age of 11, soon after he went blind due to a medical accident. He performed at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival.

This isn’t the first time that Watson has created a mis-en-scene behind a solo blues recording, with the success of 2019’s Jessie Mae Hemphill album.

Reliford said, “They would want you to play all day and all night for them … They just wanted some music going. Usually there would be no dancing … Sometimes a few women were around, but most of the time it was just men. They wanted music to console the gamblers.” He mostly stuck to the harmonica, saying that he preferred the accompaniment of a good guitarist—his partners included Henry Hardin and Claudell Campbell—and he recalled becoming known as the “champ” of the diminutive instrument through his gigs at “gin houses” across the hill country and as far away as Clarksdale in the Delta. His engagements sometimes lasted all weekend, playing for gamblers in juke joints and oil-lit barns.

1. Seems Like A Dream (band)
2. Coal Black Mattie (band)
3. Sugar Mama (harp and guitar)
4. Going Away (band)
5. Tappin’ That Thing (band)
6. Hello Stranger (solo)
7. Somebody’s Knockin’ (band)
8. I Won’t Be Back No More (band)
9. Peaches (solo)
10. Rock Me (solo)
11. I’m Gonna Leave (solo)
12. Call Mama (solo)

Wilburt Lee Reliford - Album Art - Thumbnail