That the late blooming blues singer Mud Morganfield would be asked to record a tribute album to his father McKinley Morganfield, better known as the Delta-Chicago roots music pioneer Muddy Waters, would seem inevitable. Adding the harmonica talents of Fabulous Thunderbirds founder and frontman Kim Wilson, an avowed Waters disciple, seemed a cinch to heighten the authenticity of such a project.
But For Pops (A Tribute to Muddy Waters) is actually the end result of an unexpected collaboration and an equally unlikely career.
To start with, Morganfield shared little of his youth in the company of his father and didn't professionally pursue an inherent love of blues music until 2005. As for teaming with Wilson, that was done exclusively for the tribute album. The two barely knew each other before recording sessions began.
Still, For Pops sounds like the work of seasoned blues pros that have been playing together for years. The link between Morganfield's booming, bass-heavy singing and Wilson's effortlessly soulful blues harp work can't help but recall the champion recordings Waters cut decades ago with harmonica great James Cotton.
The catalyst for the project was David Earl of the indie blues label Severn Records, which issued Morganfield's Son of the 7th Son album as well as the Thunderbirds' On the Verge.
"What would have been my dad's 100th birthday was coming up," Morganfield says. "Dave made phone calls to different people because Kim and I were both on the same label — his label. They asked us to hook up and do something. We had met each other on the road. But these recording sessions were really the first chance we had to talk. We became great friends."
There were two keys to making For Pops sound pure and robustly blue. The first was the song selection. Morganfield wanted to avoid a simple recitation of warhorse Waters tunes like Hoochie Coochie Man, Got My Mojo Working and Mannish Boy in favor of a slightly less obvious repertoire. As a result, For Pops mixes a few familiar gems (Trouble No More), several underappreciated classics (most notably, a fervent take of Blow Wind Blow) and some comparative obscurities (My Dog Can't Bark).
"The songs were a combination of choices by me, Kim and Dave Earl," Morganfield says. "We would try to stay away from Mojo and Hoochie Coochie Man, that kind of stuff. People have done it a million times. We were just trying to get down to the nitty gritty Delta blues sound that pop did.
"Just for the record, I saw my father very little growing up. I was at an early age when he and my mother broke up. I mean, pop was a great dad as far as taking care of me financially. But I didn't study much of his stuff back then. As a matter of fact, every song on the album I sung off a sheet in front of me. Didn't even know the lyrics to them. I just sang them as the band played the songs, so it's as real and raw as you can get."
But For Pops is also an exploration of the link between Delta-based vocals and the harmonica sounds that have long supported them. That was what brought Morganfield and Wilson together in the first place, but it also served as a point of discovery for the singer when it came to his father's music.
"For a lot of years, I could never figure out why my dad loved Little Walter, James Cotton and all those great harp players so much," Morganfield says. "It took me quite a long time to understand that if you don't have harp player, the music is not really traditional blues.
"You could put all the horns in there you like. But if you don't have a harp player, man, you just don't got no blues."