Whether singer and guitarist CeDell Davis is literally the "Last Man Standing" among rural Delta blues players, as the title of his forthcoming album puts it, he belongs to an undeniably exclusive club.
At 88, Davis is about to release a collection of songs that shines a spotlight on his earthy growl of a voice, though he now leaves the guitar playing to the younger cohorts backing him on this one (specifically Squirrel Nut Zippers founder Jimbo Mathus, who also produced "Last Man Standing").
The Times' music blog, Pop & Hiss, is premiering "Catfish & Cornbread," a track from the sessions recorded with a band that also includes Zippers bassist Stu Cole, drummer Barrett Martin (of the Screaming Trees, Tuatara and other bands) and guitarists Zakk and Greg Binns.
The song, notably recorded by John Lee Hooker — and later by Jimi Hendrix — is given a spacious arrangement behind Davis' growling vocal.
"While I was growing up on the plantation," Davis says of the song, "when I was just a kid, I would hear people say 'she be making cornbread for her husband, and biscuits for her man.' They'd be gossiping about a woman, saying she treated her lover better than she did her own husband, just wagging their tongues.
"Catfish was a big deal in the old days. You would go out to a house party on the plantation, and somebody always be cooking up some catfish to sell. I believe the first time I heard anyone play 'Catfish Blues' was when Elmore James came to play at my daddy's juke joint. Man, he could play some blues for sure. I really liked how Muddy Waters sang it too."
Davis, born in Helena, Ark., is a quintessential survivor, emerging damaged but unbowed from childhood bouts with yellow fever and polio that required him to re-learn to play the guitar after picking up the instrument when he was very young. Because his right hand was severely impaired from polio, he picked up a butter knife with his right hand to fret the strings while strumming with his left. He claims that, as a boy, he heard fabled blues musician Robert Johnson in person.
Then in 1957, while on tour as part of the band backing bluesman Robert Nighthawk, he was trampled and both legs were broken, leaving him in a wheelchair ever since but still making music.
Davis will play a handful of shows in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana in February and March to support the album's release, which is coming out on Sunyata Records, the label owned by Martin.