Some musicians are blessed with a rare, inexplicable gift for transporting listeners to another time and place. If you didn’t know that Nat Myers was 32 years old, you might initially mistake Yellow Peril, his Dan Auerbach-produced debut full-length, as a long-lost treasure from the mid-20th century.
Even as modern touches reveal themselves the more you listen, the Kentucky-hailing singer-songwriter channels an ancient quality that lies beyond what we can touch by simply trying to recreate the ambience of old recordings. On songs like the acoustic ‘75-71’ and the slide-driven title track, it’s as if Myers has opened a gateway to a realm of spirits whose wealth of musical wisdom awaits those who are in-tune enough to tap into it.
When former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant appeared on the Canadian morning program Q in 2010, he spoke of the powerful allure that rural Black-American roots music held for groups like Zeppelin, the Yardbirds, the Stones and Cream along with an entire generation of British youth.
For contemporary listeners who may only know the blues through the arena rock paradigm built on its vocabulary, Yellow Peril conveys a sense of what it is that enticed people like Plant, Alan Lomax and so many others to go searching for it. Myers, in fact, brings traditional blues and folk to life in such convincing fashion that one gets a feeling of being able to reach into the speakers and access a kind of eternal record of life experience.
A bookish youth with a rebellious streak, Myers didn’t follow the typical adolescent path into music. He was more captivated instead by Shakespeare and Homer — and by his own aspirations to become a poet — than by playing guitar. That all changed when it clicked for him that the blues tradition is poetry. Since then, Myers has steeped himself in what can only be described as a life of devout (though informal) musical scholarship.
No surprise, he put a great deal of thought into his picks for The Songs That Changed My Life. Check them out and listen below.
I first heard milo’s album So The Flies Don't Come in 2018. Talk about poetry! At the time, I was trying to figure out what to do with my wanting to be a poet. Dry ink and paper were starting to look like a poor fate for the things I was minding to create. But hearing “Rabblerouse” was galvanizing. I don't think I've ever heard someone mention Perseus in a cooler way. milo always had this foolish exquisiteness. He’s like an intellectual somersaulter who also somehow keeps it down and dirty as hell.
I discovered Kendrick kind of late. It was 2015, and I was listening a lot to Vince Staples' ‘Blue Suede.’ Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly had just come out around then. I started there and then dug back, as one often does. I was trying to learn the rules of verse, and I was hunting for true displays of the true heartbeat. The preoccupation with death in Kendrick’s bars — on top of the vortex of metrical play — struck me wholly, as I was reading a lot of Frank Stanford, the Arkansas poet of death.
I can’t remember when I first heard this song, but ‘Hesitation Blues’ is an early-jazz kind of blues standard. There’s a bunch of different versions of it, but Crying Sam Collins’ is my favorite. He plays it with this really frenetic energy. It’s honestly one of the songs that’s made me cry the most in recent memory. He sings in this almost ear-splitting falsetto, but the way that he’s able to manage the speed with the syncopation is truly incredible. It’s just a wonderful listening experience.
One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite artists. It’s one of the first songs he recorded under his own name. This was before electric recording, so he was literally singing into a “can”. It’s such a wild song. One of the things that attracts me to the old blues, aside from the poetry in it, is the history. With several types of pre-war music, you get something that approaches oral history. There’s a sense of preservation that’s very close to the David Van Ronk-ian concept of what folk music originally was.
‘Dry Southern Blues’ is such a beautiful song because he’s talking about taking a trip down South. I imagine he’s going down towards Mexico, because he talks about seeing “women on the border raising sand”. The song takes place after the draft for the first world war, so all these women are kind of by themselves. He’s got these beautiful lines like, “Uncle Sam weren’t no woman / but didn’t he draft your man”. There’s something about Texas blues in particular — there’s the speed and the ferocity, but the precision in the playing and singing is off the charts across the board. I’ve got a number of Texas bluesmen on this list.
Memphis Minnie is perhaps my favorite musician ever, and it was really hard picking my favorite song out of her absolutely brilliant repertoire of music. But ‘Don’t Turn the Card’ takes a common image of gambling as a metaphor for love that’s been very popular these days because of Charley Crockett, and with good reason.
Her delivery on this song is really beautiful, but also my deep love of this song comes from feeling like these people are friends. I don’t know them, and I’m so far removed from their lives, but I want to know what’s going on. It’s like when you have a real-life friend whose profile is set to private. You can’t really see what’s happening in their life, other than these little snippets that really intrigue you. This song is like that.
Memphis Minnie was famously copped-from by people like Led Zeppelin. She wrote the song ‘When the Levee Breaks’ with her husband Kansas Joe McCoy. But when they split, her sound completely changed. ‘Don’t Turn the Card’ has this absolutely beautiful attitude that hits you with deeper listening — this power and independence she exudes throughout, but also a playfulness. I just absolutely love this song.
Not to be confused with Texas’ Abraham Alexander, who’s killin’ it right now, this is another beautiful song. I’ve felt deep emotions and deep loves, and this song really captures a lot of the personal sorrow and perspective that I’ve felt myself. There’s something about the blues, and this kind of song in particular — you often listen by yourself, and you often listen very deeply. This one just threw the coin right into the well of my heart.
I’m going to say this for every song on this list, but this is one of my favorite songs. ‘Low Down’ is such a beautifully-delivered piece about exactly that: being low down. Anybody who can speak to that feeling — of not feeling good, not feeling up — and do so in a powerful way, I call them my brother or sister. ‘Low Down’ is just a wonderful take from somebody who transfigured their loneliness into something that’s celebratory.
Weaver’s slide playing and his yodeling just give me chills every time I listen to him. And this is such a playful song, it cheers me up every time I’m down.
This one just makes me want to dance. I just love it. It’s a really simple narrative played in a progression that you only really hear out of him. He’s got such a unique sound. The vibrato in his voice is such a chilling thing when you hear it for the first time. I’ve listened to this song a thousand times, just over and over again. I just can’t get enough of it.
I remember hearing this song for the first time and being like, “Man, if I could sing even just a sliver like that — I don’t even gotta do the yodel parts, if I could just do the singin’ parts — I’d call myself a real musician.” I still ain’t achieved it.
This song really showed me the capacity of the narrative storytelling within blues music — and that it’s something you can fit in three minutes. It’s just astonishing. The narrative power of the song is breathtaking, and it informs me for where I want to go. If I could write a song with the same kind of narrative depth as something like this, I’d be truly inspired.
This one strikes home for me. I heard it at a time in my life when my mom had just told me she had breast cancer. She’s doing well and it’s been a number of years where it ain’t showed up again. But every time I hear this song it kind of takes me back to that vision of myself if things had gone in a different direction. The delivery’s just really powerful.
Once I started learning more about the song — and the recovery of the artifact of the song, the actual 78 — it gives it even more power. The thing about ‘Motherless Child Blues’ is that it almost shouldn’t exist, insofar as there were only two known copies of the 78 itself. I mean, to think of just how rare this thing was to be found — and then for it to grace our ears — is really powerful to me. And now, by the grace of the internet, it can be presented to more than just the friends and family of the person that owns it.
With Memphis Minnie, Bukka White, Mance Lipscomb and Jimmy Rogers, we know their biographies. But when it comes to Elvie Thomas and her musical partner Geeshie Wiley, there’s hardly any details about them. And what details we do have, a lot of them are apocryphal. That’s what’s striking to me about a lot of blues: it does kinda fade into a mist.
With these musicians that I grew to love, it’s not lost on me how happenstance it is that I even got the opportunity to hear their voice in the first place. I just recently learned that, back in WWII, there was a shellac drive. Apparently, they collected hundreds of millions of records. What a magical thing it is to have a record of these people who would have just disappeared.
Nat Myers 2023 album, Yellow Peril, is out now via Easy Eye Sound. For more on Nat Myers, see below: