Album Review: Johnny Rawls – Going Back to Mississippi

Johnny Rawls has deep Mississippi roots. Born and raised in small towns in the state, he developed proficiency on a number of instruments, and by his twenties Rawls had joined O.V. Wright’s band as guitarist. Rawls would go on to serve as Wright’s music director, and after Wright’s passing in 1980, Rawls kept the group going as the Ace of Spades Band, touring and backing a wide array of revered blues figures.

Rawls began a recording career under his own name with the 1996 release Here We Go. Since that time, Rawls has continued to release albums at a regular pace, averaging nearly one per year. His style is a hybrid of blues and soul, and his original compositions – more than 100 to date – explore that approach.

Around the time of the release of his 2002 album Lucky Man, Rawls was featured on the cover of Living Blues. His 2012 album Memphis Still Got Soul won LB’s Critic’s Choice Award, and he’s been nominated for several BMAs. His 2018 release, I’m Still Around won a Blues Music Award and was also named Living Blues’ soul/blues album of the year.

Now in late 2022 Rawls returns with his fourth release for Third Street Cigar Records, a tiny independent label based in Ohio. And the project brings him full circle. Going Back to Mississippi is an authentic and heartfelt collection of southern soul. Backed by a supple and sympathetic core band, Rawls is out front on vocals, singing ten originals.

Recorded in Denmark and Ohio, the album features effective use of a tight horn section. Rawls and co-producer Alberto Marsico ran the sessions in an uncluttered manner, giving the recordings an immediacy, a you-are-there feel that serves the songs well.

Love is at the core of Rawls’ lyrics; it figures into the titles of three tracks (“Your Love,” “Amazing Love” and “Love Machine”), and it looms prominently in the subject matter of many others. A first-person tale of you’re-gonna-want-me-back, “Reap What You Sew” is among the strongest cuts on Going Back to Mississippi. The lead guitar lines are clean and spirited, adorning but never overwhelming the arrangements.

The album’s title track is propulsive, its passionate rock energy enhanced by Marsico’s gurgling clavinet. “If You Ever Get Lonely” is a romantic, ‘70s style slow jam of the first order, reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “I’m So Proud.” Rawls’ raspy vocal texture adds just the right amount of grit to the smooth proceedings.

“I Got It” is one of the album’s few tracks that makes use of backing vocals, and even then, it’s done in subtle fashion; this is clearly Johnny Rawls’ show. And that’s how it should be. Variety is a key to the creative success of Going Back to Mississippi; each song has its own character. Rawls’ guitar and voice serves as the glue that holds the entire project together. Rawls may be into his seventies, but the man is clearly at the top of his game.