He’s had a little success in a life mostly marked by failure…
From 2006-2010, I was pleased to receive a Watermelon Slim album annually, and to praise his vison for the blues for various publications. From the self-titled Watermelon Slim & the Workers album (2006) through Ringers (2010)—which I actually sought out and purchased—I was consistently impressed by the music William Homans and his band produced, highlighted perhaps by his epic Wheel Man (2007) release and the country-rich Escape From the Chicken Coop (2009).
I haven’t heard from his label in recent years, and as such the most recent Watermelon Slim albums escaped my notice. Until now, and the release of the aptly titled Church of the Blues.
I’ve already admitted I’m a fan of the Massachusetts-born, North Carolin-raised, and Oklahoma-based bluesman. There is something so deep and enlivening about his music, I can’t help myself whenever it comes on the radio. Watermelon Slim’s groove is so distinctive, instantly recognizable, and his vocal delivery, slightly slurred due to lack of upper teeth—an outcome of life as a truck driver—is unique, but entirely suited to his songs. To these ears, his slide guitar work remains as exciting as when first heard.
Slim has won Blues Music Awards and a Maple Blues Award, and well-deserved they were. Still, Watermelon Slim may have reached a new pinnacle with Church of the Blues. Give a listen to “Holler #4,” as powerful a vocal statement Homans has made across the recordings I’ve encountered. Approaching his 70th birthday, Watermelon Slim’s voice displays no sign of regression, deep and resonant on this contemporary field holler, accompanied only by stomps and brief harmonica fills.
Within Watermelon Slim’s blues, there is no hiding—he just lays everything out for our observation.
Church of the Blues is comprised of seven engaging new originals and seven tracks paying homage to the roots of Homans’ diverse blues foundation. Howlin’ Wolf (“Smokestack Lightning”), Mississippi Fred McDowell (“Highway 61”), and Muddy Waters (“Gypsy Woman”) receive a nod from Homans, but so do Oregon’s Tom McFarland (“Tax Man Blues”) and New Orleans’ legend Allen Toussaint (“Get Out of My Life Woman”). Watermelon Slim has always allowed himself glances toward the past as he has moved forward in his career, from “Baby, Please Don’t Go” to “Everybody’s Down On Me,” and “Got Love If You Want It”: he knows how to make a familiar song his own.
Slim’s own blues and roots numbers are as important. “Post-Modern Blues” and “Charlottesville (Blues For My Nation)” shine a contemporary light on events occurring in the land to the south of my Canadian home, and one gets the sense that Homans finds leadership and decency lacking, “no matter who may be our president.” His gritty, guttural approach is ideal for these examinations of that which he considers ‘false and fake’ while the dumbing down of what is considered of vital importance swirls about us.
“Mni WIconi: The Water Song” provides further evidence that Watermelon Slim is justifiably worried about the deteriorating state of our society and planet. Still, “That Ole 1-4-5,” “Halloween Mama,” and “Too Much Alcohol” excavate more familiar blues territory in his own inimitable manner.
Watermelon Slim. If you’ve not encountered him on your roots music journey, you owe yourself the detour. If you have, I am confident you will enjoy Church of the Blues.