Just call John Nemeth The Hungarian Heymaker.
A bluegrass song with high-spirited fiddle solo always gets a hoot, and Bobby “Blue” Bland throated his “Hawk,” named for the powerful Chicago wind, at the crescendo of an R&B ballad. With a mastery of joyous, melodic notes, soul singer Nemeth has a penchant to punctuate a verse with “Hey!”
Nemeth’s new studio album is filled with catchy hooks and cheerful “heymakers.” Released May 19, “Feelin’ Freaky” is a knockout.
Not even scalding Memphis grease can entirely wash away Nemeth’s roots, although the influence of his adopted home is unmistakable.
Nemeth’s father was among 200,000 Hungarians who fled the Soviet Union’s post-World War II suppression. When he came to the United States, he had hoped to be sponsored by a distant relative in New York. Instead, he was transported with other “refugees” by railroad boxcar to Kellogg, Idaho, to work in lead mines. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, it paved the way for a new career.
“The government needed folks trained in working with concrete,” Nemeth said. “The Nazis had trained Hungarians to build the autobahn, a freeway system. He was able to get out of the lead mine and get himself a real job and he was able to buy a stereo and some cool records.
“He’d sit in the basement and listen to Hungarian music on a short-wave radio and drink his homemade Hungarian fruit liquor.”
Nemeth’s father was an aficionado of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, whose folk dance music known as csardas (a Hungarian word for tavern) influenced bebop jazz artists such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.
“They swing and they swing really hard,” Nemeth said. “Their music will be burning 300 beats per minute and then it comes down to 100 beats per minute.”
Nemeth was inspired to play harmonica and sing after he heard a Junior Wells record. But on “Feelin’ Freaky,” his eighth studio album, he often strays from the traditional 12-bar blues formula. He cited csardas for his new direction and then took his new songs to an ideal producer, Luther Dickinson, who performs the hypnotic roots music known as Hill Country blues.
Dickinson rearranged a couple of Nemeth’s songs, but not those a listener might expect — the three with the heaviest trance grooves – “I’m Funkin Out,” “Get Offa Dat Butt” and “STONED.”
“Those were actually ones that I came in with and the arrangements stayed the same,” Nemeth said. “That’s why I knew he was the guy to produce this record because what I was feeling was that certain pulse that might definitely be represented in Memphis and North Mississippi. It’s a very folk-driven feel and that goes way back to banjo blues and early Delta blues.
“What kicked that off was when I was writing ‘STONED,’ I wrote it with six-beat measures and in order to maintain that six-beat, you can’t feel it with 1-2-3-4, you have to feel it with 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. It’s almost like classical music and some of the Hungarian music I grew up listening to where you have this pulse and you keep on spinning effortlessly.”
Predicting which will be the hit songs from “Feelin’ Freaky” could be anyone’s guess because each are catchy and strong, short and — with the exception of the hilarious “Kool Aid Pickle,” which goes with the cover art – radio friendly.
The album is recorded with Nemeth’s touring band, The Blue Dreamers – Johnny Rhodes, guitar; Danny Banks, drums and Matthew Wilson bass and guitar – as well as a stellar horn section Marc Franklin, trumpet and flugelhorn, and Art Edmaiston, tenor and baritone sax, that really sparkles on the song “Rainy Day.” Also contributing are Charles Hodges, organ. and J. Kirkscey, B Luscombe, J Munson and P. Tsai on strings.
Nemeth is in his prime and he clearly revels by living in Memphis and absorbing its scene. His previous record, “Memphis Grease,” won the 2015 Blues Music Award for Soul Blues Album of the Year. It would be a shock if The Hungarian Heymaker’s “Feelin’ Freaky” is not nominated for the same honor in 2017.
Release: May 19, 2017
Label: Memphis Grease Records
Standout tracks: ‘I’m Funkin Out,’ ‘Rainy Day,’ ‘Get Offa Dat Butt’
Video: Here’s the title track. Nemeth lands the first of his three Heymakers at the 1 minute, 20 second mark. There’s also some karate.
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