Big Bill Morganfield's latest album, Blues with a Mood [Black Shuck], opens with a smoking rendition of his father’s 1960 release “Look What You’ve Done.” There’s also a tune by his dad’s bassist, Willie Dixon, one by Memphis Slim, and another cover— but the seven songs penned by Big Bill himself mesh perfectly with his takes on the classics, which shouldn’t be entirely surprising given that he’s the son of McKinley Morganfield, a.k.a. Muddy Waters.
Perhaps more surprising is that the younger Morganfield didn’t begin playing guitar until he was in his late 20s. “When my father passed away in 1983, all of these guys were doing tributes, and I thought that it would be nice for his kid to do one, too, because he had expressed interest in somebody in the family playing blues music,” he says. “After all, when I listened to the blues, it didn’t sound that hard to play—though when I tried to recreate some of the stuff from the Chicago era I had a rude awakening. It took me six years to get something together, and I didn’t release my first record, Rising Son, until 1999.” That album led to Morganfield receiving the W.C. Handy Award for Best New Blues Artist in 2000.
Morganfield’s voice is eerily reminiscent of his father’s, and his authoritative rhythm, lead, and slide guitar work is showcased throughout Blues with a Mood, but guitarists Bob Margolin (who played with Muddy Waters from 1973 to 1980), Colin Linden, Brian Bisesi, and Eddie Taylor Jr. also contributed tracks. “I only played two guitars on the record, a Gibson ES-347 and an old Danelectro that I tuned down a wholestep for a different kind of feel,” says Morganfield. “I string them with custom GHS sets gauged .036, .032, .026, .016, .013, and .010, which is a weird combination but just feels right.” The guitarist got his killer tones just by plugging directly into a vintage Fender Champ. “You turn it on, turn up the volume, and the tone is there,” he says. “The amp breaks up just right and sounds wonderful in the studio.”
The tunes and tones weren’t the only aspects of the album that were infused with old-school vibe and mojo while still sounding fresh and exciting. “Those old blues records sounded great, and a big part of that sound was microphone placement, so among other things we paid a lot of attention to that,” explains Morganfield. “One of my favorite records is Muddy Waters Live (at Mr. Kelly’s), which sounds like you are right there in the room. You can hear every instrument and everything everybody is doing, and there are layers that you only hear when you listen to the record repeatedly. I wanted Blues with a Mood to be rooted in that past while still sounding like it was made today. Too many blues records just duplicate the past, but guys like my dad and Little Walter were innovators—and blues music would be much more fun and interesting today if more people were innovators rather than duplicators.”