J.B. Lenoir’s searing, soaring Alabama Blues sits with Nina Simone’s most brilliant and confrontational work. And Richard Hawley can’t understand why it’s not revered by us all.

Richard Hawley’s new album, Hollow Meadows, hangs in a smoky sonic space that will never sound dated as long as grown hearts break and adults fill ashtrays and empty glasses to ease their pain. His songs evoke the timeless ache, sweeping emotion, and meticulous craft of Roy Orbison, Scott Walker, Glen Campbell, and even Frank Sinatra’s lost masterpiece, Watertown. So it was a surprise to hear that Hawley was brought up on the greasiest rhythm and rawest blues. He still feeds his soul with those records, and when we asked him to share what he’s obsessed with these days, he pointed us toward a particularly intense and gorgeous album by the inexplicably under-appreciated J.B. Lenoir (after making a powerful case for a lost album by the great Little Willie John). Take it away, Richard . . . 

I’m not trapped in the past, I’m freed by it

I live totally in a bubble. I don’t engage with media — TV, the internet — I just listen to old records. That’s all I do when I’m not out walking my dogs. Now, I’m not “trapped” in the past, I’m freed by it. I don’t have to listen to what’s being rammed down our throats. I choose to disengage from that part of the modern world. I just don’t give a shit, and that makes me free. There’s a lot of catching up to do with all the music that is out there. To create a piece of music now takes weeks. In the past, you’d have one-hour sessions and the studios would be running 24/7. So there’s so much to go back and discover. Like Little Willie John. I got a stack of his 78s from my father and I think they should be played on American radio every single day. This is a guy who left behind an insane amount of music that nobody knows and that’s an injustice. When I heard the record he made with David Axelrod [the producer who’s provided samples for Lil’ Wayne, Wu-Tang Clan, De La Soul, DJ Shadow, and countless others], I couldn’t believe that it had been silent for almost 50 years. And why? Maybe legal reasons? Whatever it was, it fucked me up so bad. John and Axelrod working together should have sounded like a car crash, but it works. When I heard it my fucking head was blown off! If music was breakfast, that would be the first thing my fork would go to in the morning.

I can’t believe J.B. Lenoir’s Alabama Blues isn’t mentioned constantly

But a record I’ve been listening to constantly these days and wish more people knew about is Alabama Blues by J.B. Lenoir. Some people pronounce his name “LenWAH,” but it’s not. It’s “LeNORE.” Anyway, I can’t believe this isn’t one of the most influential records of all time, that it isn’t mentioned constantly. Blues fans tend to be people who dig around for this kind of thing and I can’t believe it’s not talked about, even in those circles. It’s just such a powerful record. There’s a song on there called “Move That Rope” about segregation, about lynching, and maybe that’s why the album was buried — there’s a lot of politics and anger on there you didn’t hear in the pre-civil-rights era.

J.B.’s voice fucks my head up when I hear it. He can get so high it pulls you up with him. When he hits those notes, he raises my IQ. What he’s doing here is not even “blues.” It’s not what I call the “three-chord grunt,” if you know what I mean. It’s simplicity! There’s, at most, only an acoustic guitar and a drummer. And the drummer on this album is Fred Below, who played with Muddy Waters and Little Walter and he’s incredible. Totally unique. There’s no big orchestration, either. They’re just jamming together. The track begins and when it gets to the end, they just stop. You’ll get a really gentle track followed by a real banger, and while it’s very much at odds, it works.

It’s reassuring to know that you don’t know everything that’s out there

I got in to J.B. a while ago when I found a 7″ of his. Whenever I’d DJ, I’d put it on and people would always come up to me saying, “WOW! Who IS that??” That’s when I started to look for more by him. And it was amazing because I was brought up on this stuff and somehow I’d never heard of him. I mean I had heard of him, but only in the most cursory way. When I finally heard Alabama Blues it just blew my fucking head off. And that’s the thing: I thought I knew all of this stuff, all of these blues records, and then this comes along.

I love it when that happens. It’s reassuring to know that you don’t know everything that’s out there.

Check out Richard Hawley and his latest album, Hollow Meadows, at www.richardhawley.co.uk