Few artists lived the blues with an intensity that equaled their performance drive as did Blind Willie Johnson. Born poor, supposedly blinded by his stepmother after having lye thrown in his face, and dead by age 48, Johnson led an existence that would cause even Southern sharecroppers who cultivated blues and gospel music over the past century to shudder. But he sang the music with rigid conviction, underscoring his ragged tenor (and occasional bass) singing with slide guitar that provided wiry counterpoint to his immovable faith.
In the extensive, Grammy-worthy liner notes to the new Johnson tribute album God Don’t Ever Change, producer Jeffrey Gaskill terms the lost blues giant’s music as “imperishable,” a quality brought often-eerily to life by an all-star roster that includes Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Tedeschi-Trucks, among others.
Not surprisingly, the Waits tunes alone — The Soul of a Man and John the Revelator — make the album a worthwhile purchase. The lean, earnest might of both songs is carried by the singer’s familiar doomsday chant and the thundering percussion of Waits’ son, drummer Casey Waits.
Williams, a versed blues stylist long before her sublime original music garnered attention, travels similar and seemingly murky paths during It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine and the title tune, the latter sporting a powerfully stark intro that Williams sings alone before her band’s groove oozes in like a bayou river.
Similarly, the husband-and-wife crew of Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi gives its orchestra-size band the day off and tackles Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning as a bare-bones gospel piece, with Trucks’ potent but unforced slide guitar colors leading the charge. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time (a retitled Motherless Children) is a slice of sweet, churchy solace, while Luther Dickinson’s version of Bye and Bye I’m Going to See the King with the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band is a cheery requiem full of rustic, percussive Southern soul.
Now for the surprise. Cowboy Junkies awaken from Americana purgatory to pull a rabbit of the hat with Jesus Is Coming Soon. Singer Margo Timmons sounds positively possessed as she chants verses about lands desperate for faith amid the decimation of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, alongside a sample of Johnson singing the chorus. It’s a wild, fuzzed-out spiritual nightmare and the last thing you would expect from the usually sleepy-sounding Junkies.
Maria McKee’s Let Your Light Shine on Me goes in the opposite direction. Amid the darker corners of God Don’t Ever Change, the singer serves up gospel testimony that is effortlessly bright and soulful. It’s more than a call to wake the spirits. It’s a summons for Johnson to take his forgotten place in the pantheon of blues righteousness.