Memphis-based guitarist “Michissippi Mick” Kolassa calls his brand of music “free range blues.” It’s his way of getting across the idea that he doesn’t confine his style to any one corner or subgenre of the form. He performs and records in a variety of styles, from electric blues-rock to jump blues/swing to acoustic Delta/Piedmont blues. The prolific Kolassa has explored myriad musical pathways on a string of more than a dozen albums – plus six digital-only releases – all released in the last decade.
Kolassa’s latest offering is Wooden Music. By design it’s a completely acoustic set of songs, with a decidedly spare arrangement aesthetic. Kolassa sings and plays his guitar, adding percussion and (on one cut) kazoo. He’s joined by a skilled and sympathetic core group of musicians – lead guitarist and session producer Jeff Jensen, upright bassist Carl Casperson, Rick Steff on piano and accordion, and Tom Lonardo on drums. A variety of friends and guest artists add their distinctive talents on select tracks; among the notable names are Tas Cru (guitar on “Memphis Wood”) and Bob Corritore (harmonica on “Sugar in Your Grits”).
“Educated by the Blues” is a story song set against a loping, jaunty backing. Kolassa name-checks some of the artists whose work has inspired him. Eric Hughes – one of three harmonica players on the album – turns in a bright if too-brief solo. Guest player Doug MacLeod’s slide guitar shines mid-song. Kolassa adopts a huskier vocal timbre for “You Gotta Pay the Price”; that tone fits the tune’s theme and highlights Kolassa’s vocal range. Steff’s subtle accordion work adds a contemplative feel to the arrangement.
Kolassa packs a lot of lyrics into “Sugar on Your Grits”; the song’s title is a metaphor for adding unnecessary ingredients to music. “You might think that you like the blues,” Kolassa sings. “But tell me: is that what you’re playing?” Corritore’s harp work is a highlight.
The sole cover tune on Wooden Music is a reading of Guy Clark’s “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis.” Libby Rae Watson helps out on vocals as Kolassa bends Clark’s song into a shuffling, country-blues shape. Thanks in large part to Lonardo’s approach to drumming on the track, “If I Told You” presents a kind of acoustic rock feel; in that regard it’s quite successful. The emotion-laden “Hurt People” takes things in a more serious direction.
Wooden Music’s title track features sweet accordion backing and lovely acoustic picking from Cru, all in support of Kolassa’s narrative, storytelling lyric. Steff’s agile piano forms the musical core of the bouncy “If Life Was Fair.” Country blues come to the fore on “Over My Shoulder.” The autobiographical “One Hit Wonder” finds Kolassa comparing present-day life with his rowdier early days; though the tune is infused with nostalgia, he makes it clear that he’s happy with life in its current form.
And that wry, uptempo character follows through for the album’s closer, “Gas Station Sushi.” A clip-clop percussion foundation moves the song along, and while the kazoo chorus is a bit silly, in this context it works. Overall, Wooden Music blows along at quick pace; working within a specific category of the blues, Kolassa demonstrates the variety that can be found within it.