Literature & Recording


Literature & Recording

To acknowledge achievements in both publishing and recording.

Jane Austen Sings the Blues

(University of Alberta Press, 2009)

Jane Austen Sings the Blues was conceived to honour the memory of blues aficionado and Jane Austen scholar, Bruce Stovel (1941 – 2007). Bruce performed a key role in many people’s lives whether he was booking blues acts for the Yardbird Suite, co-hosting CJSR radio show “Calling all Blues” with his son, Grant, or lecturing on Jane Austen and literature of the eighteenth century at the University of Alberta. In remembering Bruce, UAlberta Professor Emeritus Isobel Grundy said he was, “someone that everybody liked, that everybody trusted, that everybody was always glad to see−and that everybody had banked on seeing around for a whole lot longer.” His unexpected death from a heart attack in January 2007 left family, friends, colleagues and students bereft.

Jane Austen Sings the Blues gathers essays by established Austen scholars including Margaret Drabble, Isobel Grundy, Juliet McMaster, and Peter Sabor and some of his exemplary students, together with blues lyrics, poetry, and memoir. The companion CD features some of Bruce’s favourite blues performers from across the blues world. It contains contributions from internationally-renowned artists like Ann Rabson, Maurice John Vaughn, Big Dave McLean, Tim Williams, Donald Ray Johnson and Vaan Shaw — alongside many of the Edmonton blues people who were closest to Bruce’s heart, such as Kat Danser, Graham Guest, Larry Lever, Bobby Cameron, Jim Guiboche and David “Crawdad” Cantera.

Bruce’s wife of over 40 years, Nora Foster Stovel, oversaw the editorial work of the collection. She invited contributions from a wide variety of individuals and along with retired professor Juliet McMaster and director of UAlberta Press Linda Cameron, shaped the final selection. On the musical side, Bruce’s son Grant and friend Graham Guest, often worked tirelessly late into the night, with the performers who were eager to make a contribution to the CD. Without exception everyone who Grant and Graham asked to participate agreed immediately. Grant and Graham were ably assisted and supported in their work by Ian Martin at The Twilight Living Room recording studio. In addition to engineering the tracks, on occasion Ian was called upon to play back-up on recordings, as in the wee hours of the morning, there were only a couple of people in the studio.

Kat Dancer’s contribution to the CD, ‘The Other Side’ was composed especially in honour of Bruce. Here is an excerpt:

Jane’s singing the blues, child, all day and night
So you don’t have to worry after me
I’m doin’ pretty good here on the other side

The following is a track-by-track description of the CD:

1) Maurice John Vaughn is a world-renowned Chicago blues musician. He’s been to Edmonton countless times to play, and developed a close relationship with Bruce. Maurice recorded a live DVD at the Commercial Hotel’s Blues on Whyte pub years ago — and he asked Bruce to interview him on camera as part of the DVD’s bonus features. “Small Town Baby” is an old number by an artist that was a mentor for Maurice many years ago — the late Chicago bluesman, Jimmy Walker. Maurice is joined on this recording by his long time musical partner, trombonist B.J. Emery.

2) Michael Jerome Browne is a brilliant blues and roots musician from Montreal. He’s made many acclaimed albums of his own, and has also toured and recorded as an accompanist for Eric Bibb. Bruce originally connected with Michael by calling him to express his admiration for Michael’s debut album, and to encourage him in his musical pursuits. Michael originally came into the studio to back up Kat Danser on her track, but asked if he could also record a contribution of his own for the project. “It Takes Time” is a 1950s song by Otis Rush — as it happens, a big favourite of Bruce’s. It showcases Michael’s skills as a singer and guitar player in a straight-up traditional electric blues style — which, oddly enough, is a very unusual setting for Michael. That’s Graham on keyboards, Ian on bass and Grant on drums.

3) Graham wrote his piece especially for the project. It’s an amazing song. “You’ve Got to Cry Out Loud (When the Sun Goes Down)” features a half-Edmonton, half-Chicago band. Graham is on keys and vocals with Grant playing drums. The other guys are members of legendary Chicago blues band, Eddie Shaw & the Wolf Gang — Vaan Shaw (Eddie’s son) plays guitar on this track, and Lafayette “Shorty” Gilbert plays bass.

4) Ann Rabson was a distinguished pianist, guitarist, singer and songwriter. She was known for her work as a solo artist, as well as for being part of the hugely successful band, Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women. “Struttin’ My Stuff” was a Lucille Bogan song from 1930 that Bruce had once suggested Ann might want to perform; Ann ended up making it the title track of a solo album of hers back in the year 2000. Here, she revisits it after a long day spent playing at the Edmonton Blues Festival. She recorded a piano instrumental to begin with — then, when it was suggested that it’d be nice to have a vocal piece as well. She kindly agreed to try recording “Struttin’ My Stuff”. Ian reshuffled the entire studio around to accommodate this, Graham and Grant backed her up on piano and drums, respectively. Ann played guitar and sang. So brilliant. Ann had already been ill off and on before this. She died in 2013 as the result of cancer, at the age of 67.

5) Winnipeg’s Big Dave McLean is a legendary figure who’s considered by many to be Canada’s greatest living blues performer. He was on a duo tour with Tim Williams when this session took place; as a result, they back each other up on their respective contributions to the project. Here, Big Dave plays “Kind Hearted Woman” — an old Robert Johnson song, somewhat in the style of Muddy Waters, two of Bruce’s all-time favourites! Big Dave plays his vintage Johnson resonator guitar and sings, while Tim Williams plays some amazing mandolin.

6) Donald Ray Johnson is a Grammy-Award winner musician who’s originally from Texas, but who’s been based in Calgary for decades now. He was very close with Bruce, who loved Don’s stuff. The old traditional tune “Alberta” seemed like a good fit, for obvious reasons. Yuji Ihara of the Alberta band Boogie Patrol is featured on guitar, and the harmonica is by Edmonton’s own Scott McCrady. Bruce booked Scott to play one of his first gigs when Scott was just a teenager. Graham and Grant play keys and drums, and the bass is by the internationally-acclaimed Edmontonian, Chris Brzezicki. Chris was a favourite of Bruce’s and contributed to multiple tracks on this project.

7) Tim Williams is a hugely talented multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and producer who is based in Calgary. He’s known for a string of outstanding solo releases, as well as albums with Triple Threat, the Highwater Jug Band, Big Dave McLean and more. A “best-kept secret” for many years, Tim received global recognition when he won the prestigious International Blues Challenge a couple of years ago. “Let My Shoe Leather Do the Talking” is one of Tim’s own great compositions. Tim sings and plays guitar, while Big Dave McLean plays harmonica.

8) Tim Lee is a singer, songwriter and guitar player from Ontario who made his home in Edmonton for some years. He’s since moved (east, not west!) to England. We thought this recording of Tim’s own autobiographical tune “(Is That Train) Heading West” would be one that Bruce would really love. It features Tim backed up by our de facto studio house band, augmented by a horn section that consists of local luminaries Dave Babcock (saxophones) and Bob Tildesley (trumpet).

9) Kat Danser is a brilliant soul who is just finishing up a PhD in Musicology at UAlberta, with a particular interest in the blues. Kat often sought Bruce’s advice about music and blues, and certainly viewed him as something of a mentor. She performed live at Bruce’s memorial service, and wrote this phenomenal song in his memory. It was later re-recorded (with slightly more universal lyrics, substituting “Ma Rainey” for “Jane Austen”) for Kat’s 2013 album, “Baptized By the Mud”. She plays acoustic guitar and sings, Michael Jerome Browne backs her on 12-string and slide guitars, while Edmonton’s own Cliff Minchau overdubbed the upright bass.

10) Bobby Cameron is a widely acclaimed singer, songwriter and guitar player, based in Edmonton. Bruce always loved Bobby’s presence and energy as a performer. We thought it’d be great to capture Bobby performing in a truly bluesy setting, and Bobby obliged with his incendiary version of the old Robert Johnson classic, “Cross Road Blues”. It’s Graham, Chris Brzezicki and Grant backing him up.

11) Larry Lever is an Edmonton singer/ guitar player/ songwriter/ bandleader who originally gained renown as the frontman for local band Three Times the Blues, back in the 1980s and 1990s. Larry and his band were among the first live blues acts that Bruce really connected with personally, and he continued to be a fan of Larry’s through the years. Graham and Grant conceived this recording as a kind of culmination of the album, featuring some of Bruce’s favourite Edmonton players performing a Muddy Waters classic — one that’s ABOUT the blues, to boot! “No Escape from the Blues” is a song that Larry Lever has performed live for decades. Graham, Brzezicki and Grant are on the track — alongside two local musicians that we considered absolutely essential for the project, Jim Guiboche on guitar and David “Crawdad” Cantera on harmonica. Bruce loved their playing; the project would have been incomplete without contributions from them. They really shine here.

12) Vaan Shaw (sometimes known as Eddie Vaan Shaw, Jr.) is a Chicago guitar player and singer who also wrote the track featured here, “The Catfish Song”. It’s a beautiful, soulful piece that features a loping pace and an almost dream-like narration from Vaan, dedicated to Bruce. We felt like this would make a wonderful denouement for the album — almost like an epilogue. That’s Vaan on acoustic guitar and vocals, Yuji Ihara on electric guitar, Cliff Minchau playing upright, plus Grant and Graham.
A poignant example of the love and esteem performers held for Bruce is demonstrated by the story behind Ann Rabson’s (1945 – 2013) contribution to the CD. Ann was in Edmonton performing at the Edmonton Blues Festival (2008) when she learned from Grant and Graham about the Jane Austen Sings the Blues project. She wasn’t well at the time; however, after two live performances she insisted on going to the studio to record her contribution to the CD.

Compiled by Linda Cameron and Grant Stovel