Grady Champion Tough Times Don't LastChampion mixes blues, funk and soul like an artisan. Welcome to the essence of the electric South.

Label: Grady Shady Music
Time: 12 Tracks / 50 minutes

Once the confident, harp-driven swagger of opener “My Time Baby” is over, I find that I can’t listen to Grady Champion without thinking of the Allman Brothers. It’s that raspy vocal drawl, his world-weary phrasing and the lead fills, as well as the piano tinkling in the background, that bring out his Greg Allman, and never more than on “Things Ain't What They Used to Be”.

The exception is when he reminds me of Stevie Wonder. “Ghetto” is a barely disguised and less vibrant version of “Livin for the City,” both in melody and theme. It also sports some fine bass work.

These tracks summarize the essence of Grady Champion: he may not be that creative in terms of melody and developing ideas (the guitar licks on “Broken Down Cadillac” have attitude and start early, yet don’t go anywhere) but he is a great copier of moods and styles from all over the South. Sometimes it rocks, sometimes it's sultry soul (“Missing You”) and sometimes a real bluesy mood. Maybe that's what earned him victory in the 2010 International Blues Challenge.

Champion’s message is resilient and laced with hope, but wary.  On “Trust Yourself” (decorated with a beautifully fluid flanged guitar) he sings, “If you want to be free you gotta trust yourself." That approach to life may be flawed, but it comes after verses that document his brothers and sisters being used and betrayed.

Upping the mood, he sings, “Tough times don’t last, but people do” on the slow, bluesy, finger-clicking title track, enhanced by clarinet. And on the light and bouncy “Glory Train,” he borrows the classic image, adding his own “Chuff, chuff, chuff, chuff” to the already tight and lively rhythms of his highly supportive band.

Having done such a fine job, he really should not have ended the collection with “What Would Christmas Be Without You?” The title should be warning enough, and delivers that threat completely. It is everything you expect from a stereotype cheesy Christmas track, right down to the plastic peal of bells.

But finish this early and you have a tasty slab of Southern style, each portion well prepared and distinct from the others.

Derek Walker

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