Pork Chop Willie


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New album, Love is the Devil, benefits Mississippi blues artists and includes members of the Kimbrough family showcasing Bill Hammers hook-rich roots songwriting and Melissa Tongs virtuosic fiddle

Pork Chop Willies debut national album Love is the Devil lights a new fire under Americas musical melting pot, bringing fresh heat to the Mississippi hill country blues tradition while blending in elements of Americana, rock, alt-country and even classical music. The 13-song disc serves as a bridge between those genres, the past and the present, and the bands Magnolia State inspirations and Manhattan home.

Led by singer-guitarist Bill Hammer and violinist Melissa Tong, Pork Chop Willie is fueled by grooves, grit, honesty and passion as well as a unique blend of down-home and uptown musicianship. Love is the Devils songs have integrity and tell stories about real people in a direct, unfiltered way that anybody can relate to, says Hammer, who founded the band in 2007. Thats something I dont hear much in blues anymore, or in music in general.

The albums tunes, most written by Hammer, cover a lot of territory. The rollicking two-step Lonesome Poor, which classically trained Tong colors with Louisiana roadhouse fiddle lines, and the hip-shake chant Aint Nobody, a one-chord wonder sung in the voice of a lonesome ghost, both embrace the longstanding blues ethos of telling sad tales in a joy-inspiring way, thanks to the undeniable power of their hooks and grooves.

Many songs evoke the kudzu-covered hills of North Mississippi, where Hammers inspiration dwells. He pays tribute to Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside the blues wizards of Chulahoma, an unincorporated county just over the Tennessee line with their All Night Long and Snake Drive, respectively. Both numbers reflect the regions strong preservation of its African musical roots in their hypnotic single-chord, call-and-response arrangements, made even more mesmerizing by the turbulent dance of Hammers slide guitar in Snake Drive and Tongs graceful, melodic ballet in All Night Long.

Hammer and Tong are joined on those tracks by drummer Kinney Kimbrough and bassist Eric Deaton, the anchors of Pork Chop Willies Mississippi rhythm section. Another of Junior Kimbroughs sons, David, contributed guitar in the studio for a graceful rendition of the traditional Crawdad Song, with Kinney providing a percolating rhythmic base. David also plays on Hammers heart-broken Shes Gone and his brooding, swinging Black Heart.

These guys, along with legends like Junior, R.L. and Kenny Brown, are my heroes, Hammer explains. They grew up steeped in the music and by playing with me over the years theyve helped me evolve from imitating what theyre doing to the point where I am creating my own music, albeit with strong ties to the tradition. Love is the Devil is, in part, payback for that musical education. All proceeds from its sale will be used to benefit the musicians and music of the hill country.

For the cuts recorded in Water Valley, Mississippis Black Wings Studio by engineer Winn Elroy, who mixed the entire album, the group was also joined by vocalists Monique Townes, Wanda Stokes and Justin Showah. The sessions at New York Citys Dubway Studios included Pork Chop Willies regular NYC-based line-up of drummer Robin Gould, bassist Tony Coniff and guitarist Steve Tarshis. Despite its dual cast, the sound of Love is the Devil is consistent driving, gleeful, mesmerizing and memorable.

For Hammer, Love is the Devil is the culmination of his discovery of that magical sound, which has echoed in various forms across North Mississippis hills since Africans first arrived there. Hed already been playing blues with a New York band called the Maxwell Street Roosters, where hed gotten the nickname Pork Chop Willie, when its strains first reached his ears.

I would go out and hear bands regularly in Manhattan, but only get to stay for four or five songs because of my day job, Hammer recounts. One night I went out to hear Jimbo Mathus at the Rodeo Bar. At one point Mathus turned the stage over to his bass player, Eric Deaton, who did three hill country songs. It was life changing. I stayed the whole night and talked Jimbo into giving me a lesson the next day. Armed with some licks and a raft of suggestions from Mathus, Hammer began acquiring albums by R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, Jessie Mae Hemphill and other proponents of the NoMiss sound.

Im an American male, and were taught to hide our emotions, Hammer relates. This music was so naked and real that it brought out all of my emotions. I could feel the loneliness and the desire in the songs, and I kept getting drawn back to those hill country rhythms.

Thus inspired, Hammer took a blues pilgrimage to Mississippi which included a stop at the site of Kimbroughs burnt down juke joint and a visit with Kenny Brown, R.L. Burnsides musical compatriot and adopted grandson, at Browns home in Potts Camp, Mississippi, where Brown and his wife Sara stage the annual Hill Country Picnic music festival. Brown has said, Pork Chop Willie took to the hill country music like a catfish to the mud.

Hammer returned to New York intent on putting together a new band that would focus on the hill country sound. He needed a strong musical foil and began to imagine the sound of a fiddle out front in the mix. Thats when he recruited Tong, a freelance violinist and member of New Yorks respected Artemis Chamber Ensemble with a long list of classical and pop album credits. She has also toured with violinist/composer Mark OConnor, accompanying him on piano, and played such prestigious venues as Lincoln Center and Bostons Symphony Hall. Tong was initially skeptical of Hammers efforts to draft her into a juke joint band.

So many of the songs had one chord, and I didnt see how my violin would fit into such a gritty, swampy style, because there was no fiddle on any of the records Bill played me, Tong recalls. But Hammer booked studio time, and one session of duet recordings clinched the deal. I was really shocked at how well the guitar and fiddle meshed. I was new to the idea of playing roots music, but I was in! And its been amazing. This music puts me in a trance and I tap into another voice that I dont have playing anything else.

Pork Chop Willie has grown through frequent gigs in the New York City area, headlining the Washington Square Festival and playing a variety of well-known clubs including B.B. Kings, Terra Blues and Harlems Shrine. The band also appears annually at Clarksdale, Mississippis internationally renowned Juke Joint Festival, making stops at the tourist destination Ground Zero and authentic juke joints like Reds, also in Clarksdale, and Merigolds Po Monkeys during its visits. In 2009 Pork Chop Willie recorded Hill Country Roll for sale at shows.

Through all of that, Hammer and Tong have developed a chemistry thats both liquid and incendiary. Its in full, graceful and raucous display on Love is the Devil entries like Devil in My Soul and Too Many Cuts, where Tong plays like an old-timey Delta street musician and Hammer balances raw swagger with trim precision. And in Falling, where Hammer plays a four-string cigar box guitar, they push the roots music envelope, crafting an elegant, otherworldly soundscape that transcends all limitations of genre.

Right now too few people play this style of music, Hammer says of the Mississippi hill country blues that serves as Pork Chop Willies true north. Its so honest and emotional that we cant help but speak from our hearts when were playing. Even when were covering a song by one of the styles masters, the form is so open that we can make it our own. This music changed my life and put me more in touch with myself. Id like to expose more people to it.
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