Seventy-year-old Watermelon Slim sings a lot about his mortality and he’s not going gently into that good night.
The “Okie Dynamo” is nominated for two Blues Music Awards – Traditional Album of the Year and Album of the Year – for “Church of Blues,” and on Friday, March 27, he releases a live double CD, “Traveling Man,” the ninth collaboration with producer Chris “Wick” Hardwick and 14th overall.
“Traveling Man” was recorded at a pair of performances in his native state Oklahoma. Bill Homans is called Watermelon Slim for his time spent farming the wandering plant. But he’s worked the longest at driving trucks and performing music, so the solo live album titled “Traveling Man” is most apt.
He plays slide left-handed on a right-handed guitar. He bought one during the Vietnam War for $5 at an evacuation hospital in Cam Rahn Bay. He tried to play it like Hill Country great Mississippi Fred McDowell, but wound up developing his unique style.
He also plays harmonica, and Deak Harp from his hometown Clarksdale, Mississippi, said Slim “can play in any key, in any position. The man is a savant with any instrument you give him.”
Watermelon Slim brings out the harp on the album’s fourth track, “Jimmy Bell,” penned by Cat Iron (William Carridine, born in 1898).
But on “Traveling Man,” Watermelon Slim mostly performs with a resonator guitar and an erudite blues voice.” Of the 18 songs, most are original stories of life and travel. There are a couple of Mississippi Fred covers, along with Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lighting,” a staple of a Watermelon Slim concert.
Blues purists will dig this record. Watermelon Slim is nothing if not authentic.
He’s paid close attention to the word during his 70 years on the road. He was Dude before the Dude, his bowling career curtailed by a shoulder injury from repetitive motion saw milling. He was an investigative reporter, exposing energy transfer partnerships at the Standing Rock Reservation. He’s been getting paid for gigs for 50 years but didn’t cut any records from 1973 to 2000. The inflated price of polyvinyl fluoride was a factor, he says.
Slim keeps in-between song banter to a minimum on “Traveling Man.” But during a 2019 interview the eccentric sage “jazzed it up” by passing his cellphone to people at the harmonica store. He introduced Lee Williams as the best drummer in Clarksdale.
So I asked Williams what makes Slim and outstanding bluesman? “The way Slim dresses with his nice, cool clothes and his old hat,” the drummer said.
A historian, and maybe a prophet, Watermelon Slim closes out “Traveling Man” with a song called “Dark Genius.” He sings about assassinated presidents John F. Kennedy and Anwar Sadat, and the potential of martial law in this country. A notion that doesn’t seemed farfetched in these times.
“I always tend to speak my mind and that’s what gets my ass in trouble. … A lonely-hearted man they say, I’ll probably end up just like them someday.”
— Tim Parsons
Label: NorthernBlues Music
Release: March 27, 2020
Highlight tracks: 'Dark Genius,’ ‘Truck Driving Songs,’ ‘Let it Be in Memphis’