Blues men John Lee Hooker and B.B. King beckon from the side of Delta Blues BBQ in downtown Bristol.
Out back, a barren stage awaits. Come Saturday, Oct. 16, the Red Dirt Revelators bring bright lights and blues music to Delta Blues BBQ in Bristol, Tennessee.
“First time ever in Bristol for us,” said Willie Shane Johnston of the Red Dirt Revelators. “Real excited about it.”
From the ashes of another band named WSNB, Johnston established the Red Dirt Revelators in 2006. Though based in North Carolina’s red dirt, the soul of the Red Dirt Revelators belongs back in Johnston’s swampy Delta Mississippi.
“I’m from the Mississippi Delta,” Johnston, who sings lead and plays harmonica in the Red Dirt Revelators, said. “You get a lot of that indigenous, swampy blues in what we do.”
One may recognize the crunch of rock ’n’ roll in some of what Johnston’s juke-jointers perform. Onlookers just might detect loud beats in there, too. But when Johnston clamps down on his mouth harp, stand back. Or lean in close-like for maximum impact.
“We’re the best damn weekend warriors out there,” he said. “It’s our job to entertain and make people feel good.”
Through Johnston, aficionados of the blues may hear strains of harmonica honkers of the past including Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter. He’s no covers singer, and his band plays mostly originals. However, blues men of yore play a part in the construction of the sound as projected by the Red Dirt Revelators.
“I love me some Freddie King,” Johnston said, by way of example.
But when they do offer a reimagination of a song of renown by someone else, the Red Dirt Revelators choose carefully. For instance, they occasionally perform Tom Waits’ “Walking Spanish.” Why, the band may even summon Gillian Welch’s “Pass You By.”
Not exactly blues classics.
“What drives the Red Dirt Revelators is our mental ailment of wanting to write original music within the frame of Delta blues,” Johnston said. “That drives us. We do play a few covers, but 80% of the covers are so not mainstream.”
Whether it’s a song from blues’ three Kings — B.B., Freddie, Albert or perhaps folk’s Carole King, Johnston’s Red Dirt Revelators maintain a Tony Joe White sort of vibe. Yeah, it’s grimy, their whirlwind of swampy blues. Much of that feel, Johnston said, was retained from his prior band.
“WSNB formed in 2002,” Johnston said. “The rhythm section of this band (Red Dirt Revelators), the drummer and bass guitarist, were in WSNB. I call them Mississippi asphalt because they lay it down far and wide.”
Now that’s casino bingo right there. When one hears the Red Dirt Revelators, it’s not exactly Mississippi John Hurt singing “John the Revelator,” but it’s deep in the Delta groove unadulterated. It’s shake-your-butt boogie time music. Spin “Hwy 49” for evidence. Or perhaps “The Rub.”
“We wrote this song called ‘The Rub,’” Johnston said. “It was written about a club, which was just beyond the county line. It was in a double-wide trailer that ran off a generator. Had a pool table and jukebox and cold beer in there.”
Listen to Johnston speak. Hear him wail and wow on the harp. Experience his Red Dirt Revelators. One may well conclude that while he and his music live in North Carolina and will perform in Tennessee on Saturday, that his head remains in Mississippi.
“We’re gonna be drivin’ and groovin’. Come and dance, exorcise your demons,” Johnston said. “We play swamp boogie music.”
Tom Netherland is a freelance writer. He may be reached at email@example.com.