Now in its 3rd edition, updated and considerably expanded from its almost
pocket-sized first printing, as well as being fleshed out by almost 100 pages since the 2nd edition in 1999, the All Music Guide to The Blues is still the largest and most comprehensive blues recording guide available. While there are other handbooks on the subject, including Robert Santelli's Big Book of Blues and The Best of the Blues, Leland Rucker's Essential Album Guide from musicHound, and assorted others, the competition has yet to reach the size or scope of AMG's brainchild. Discounting the 1st edition from 1992, mainly due to its size and first year growing pains, we'll concentrate on comparing the new volume against its most recent predecessor,
looking at what's been improved, what's been left open to criticism, and what needs to be corrected to help this grow into a completely worthwhile and exhaustive book on the subject of blues and blues recordings.
For the most part, the book is smartly laid out with biographical sketches covering an artist's career along with a list of recordings (both LP and CD format), as well as reviews of many of those works, and a rating system (using one-to-five diamonds) that informs the reader of how well recordings should stack up compared to other projects by the same artist, or compared to other artists entirely. While the 2nd edition of the AMG to Blues featured a full 520-plus pages devoted to individual blues artists or bands, and their albums, or various artist compilations, this newly expanded volume consists of 680
pages of biographical entries and album or CD reviews. In short, it's grown from over 950 artists to include 1,200 while the recordings listed and rated have been expanded from roughly 6,000 to 8,900. That in itself is impressive, and the suggested retail price has increased a mere two dollars in four years.
However, none of this was done without making a number of changes in the book's layout. The removal of the near 60-page Blues In Jazz section can be counted as a smart move considering AMG also has a guide dedicated strictly to jazz, and the Essays have also been condensed. Gone are areas that focused on independent record labels, magazines, and books on the subject of blues. While some might condemn these changes, they have opened up additional space for new items in an artist's catalog, as well as some artists that weren't listed in previous volumes, and the expansion of
the Various Artists section has been bolstered from its twenty pages in the 2nd edition to more than forty in the updated volume. The improvements haven't come without warts, faults, or inexplicable inconsistencies, and those need to be addressed as well.
The book begins with better than forty brief descriptions that break down and discuss differences in blues so the reader will hopefully have a better understanding of the nuances that distinguish East Coast from Piedmont Blues, and what the audible characteristics are between Contemporary Blues or Modern Electric Blues, but when things are categorically defined in this somewhat rigid fashion, it can lead to overwhelming confusion for the novice. For example, there are six separate explanations on Acoustic Blues, Acoustic Chicago Blues, Acoustic Louisiana Blues, Acoustic Memphis Blues, Acoustic New Orleans Blues, and Acoustic Texas Blues. Likewise, there are another half-dozen dedicated to Electric Blues, Electric Chicago Blues, Electric Delta Blues, Electric Harmonica Blues, Electric Memphis Blues, and Electric Texas Blues. Odds are decidedly in favor of a large portion of readers already having a grasp on the major difference between acoustic and electric blues; that being amplification. And while many should enjoy the geographic distinctions spotlighted, getting your head around Modern Electric Blues which "began in the late 70's and early 80's" when Modern
Electric Chicago Blues "begins in the late 60's" might be disconcerting for both beginners and scholars alike.
With more details packed inside the pages, the print has become smaller and more difficult to read and the number of contributing writers has grown from better than sixty in the earlier volume, to more than two-hundred in the current edition. For those who have either of the earlier versions, this might make the overall outcome seem a bit more uneven. Some biographic sketches have been expanded and there are changes to some reviews also. Rare And Unissued, a Muddy Waters compilation
received a four diamond rating in the second edition, and while Bill Dahl's brief review is unchanged in the new volume, this title now garners five diamonds, and for Jimmie Vaughan fans, Rick Clark's short look at Strange Pleasure is now gone while that rating has also grown from four to five diamonds. Both Natural Boogie and Beware Of The Dog in Hound Dog Taylor's catalog have also increased, as well as titles by Eddie Taylor, Tarheel Slim, and many more. And although the new volume is updated with a wider selection of artists, there are still numerous people strangely
absent from the pages. Otis Grand, Hollywood Fats, Arthur Williams, R.J. Mischo, Kirk Fletcher, Paul Lamb and the King Snakes, Big Al Blake, Roy Gaines, and others are little more than asterisks in someone else's review. Excluding these superb blues players in favor of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, or G. Love & Special Sauce will irritate the well-informed reader.
Robert Nighthawk is still covered well with Delmark's Bricks In My Pillow and Wolf's Complete Recorded Works 1937-1940 reviewed, as well as Rounder's Live On Maxwell Street set, which still ranks the highest rating. This entry is a major sore since it is little more than an unauthorized, stripped-down bootleg, when a Rooster Blues 3-disc set, correctly credited and fully authorized, is nowhere to be found in the book. Houston Stackhouse is featured, and while there are now two individual discs rated, neither is reviewed, nor is a Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis CD on the
Wolf label, yet the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Spooky Tooth are better profiled. Problems such as these are further compounded when three pages are devoted to Eric Clapton, another full page under the Cream banner, and an additional half-page when he masqueraded as Derek & The Dominos. The Rolling Stones, whether or not you consider them the world's greatest rock and roll band, have six pages dedicated to them, and as startling as they were when they recorded 12 X 5, Out Of Our Heads, Aftermath, Beggar's Banquet, or Sticky Fingers, those titles each rating five
diamonds seems ludicrous in a blues guide. And a full three pages for Carlos Santana isn't a necessity, nor is it fair for Elvis Presley to be detailed when Doctor Clayton is awarded barely a paragraph. Including blues-influenced rock artists will increase the sales potential, and financial gains are important issues if this is planned to be an evolving work, but these matters do need to be better addressed before the next update.
Another problem is that the rating system itself isn't explained in the outlines at the front of the book. It isn't hard to figure that one diamond is a low rating and five is the highest, but there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the ratings other than an artist's overall importance or a favorite title by the reviewer. Without any guidelines to refer to, readers are left to figure out why Little Walter's Chess Blues Masters Series two-record set receives five stars from Ron Wynn while the Boss Blues Harmonica set, practically a carbon copy, receives four stars from Eugene Chadbourne, a reviewer
as interested in cover art as with blues harmonica mastery. And Bill Dahl hands a Lightnin' Hopkins disc on Collectables a top rating even though it is an over-priced, incomplete look at the artist's Herald recordings, but Al Campbell's review of an Ember CD including all 26 Herald tracks Hopkins waxed manages only three diamonds. Similarly, each Charley Patton title listed receives the highest rating, even though Yazoo or Document's poorer sounding single CDs are measured next to fully remastered,
multi-disc sets from competing labels.
While the All Music Guide to The Blues - 3rd Edition isn't yet an exhaustive or fault-free manual, there are distinct improvements that show a determined effort by the editors to update and upgrade the product. And although the book's drawbacks have been spotlighted here, each successive volume has been better than the previous one. Hopefully, this project will continue evolving, but better consideration is needed in the future when deciding who is deserving of space in a guide to blues. Many would prefer seeing coverage on some of the key figures still missing, instead of putting more focus on the blues-rock crowd.
In closing, for anyone interested in where to start their Muddy Waters collection, getting a better idea of T-Bone Walker's recording history, or wondering why Otis Spann is still considered the finest blues piano player ever, this is a strong point of entry. Complaints aside, for the amount of solid information passed on through the many reviews, ratings, and biographical outlines, it offers solid value for the money and should prove an excellent, all-around addition to any personal blues library, for the novice and experienced collector alike. Recommended.
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