Modern Mississippi mojo—namely, harmonica-huffing Grady Champion’s brighter, more urban shade of blue—now lives triumphantly where it belongs, in its natural-born home: on Malaco Records. Hailing from just half an hour away, up I-55, in nearby Canton, the 45-year-old, who first freshened the genre in the 1990s, matches up perfectly with the same Jackson, Miss., label which brought us Bobby Rush, Johnnie Taylor and Bobby Bland. Distilled with a smooth, soulful golden touch, Bootleg Whiskey kicks like Crown Royal, not gutbucket firewater. Backstabbed, two-timed, and busted, Grady and his Rice Miller-inspired harping are nonetheless plenty blue here, as some “Beg, Borrow, Steal” boogie or brassy sway of “Home Alone” assure. But the friction generated from the rub of his sandpaper rasp against Tommy Couch Jr.’s smartly contoured orchestrations is what really elevates these everyman gripes into chitlin’ circuit heaven. Sometimes the jagged serrations on Champion’s ripsaw voice cut with even extra power, as when slicing through “Don’t Waste My Time” with extendedly drawled phrasing. No problem, though. Because what would a Malaco record be without their standard of stylish excellence ensured by a topnotch band composed of a fleet of backup singers, a bank of horns, and a core of former Muscle Shoals’ Swampers? The catchy laidback lope which rolls singalong choruses through “South Side,” Grady’s own “Ten Dollars,” and George Jackson’s title track about liquid nights in cheap motels make Bootleg Whiskey precisely the kind of record Z.Z. Hill once famously prescribed for kicking off those shoes, getting your head banged, and partying off these down-home blues.
By Dennis Rozanski