Paul Rishell, a W.C. Handy Award-winning singer, guitarist, songwriter, historian, and educator, has dedicated his life for the past half century to bringing recognition and respect to prewar blues, what he refers to as “the bedrock of all American music.” His latest album, “Talking Guitar,” (Mojo Rodeo, 2012) is his first solo project in 19 years and a reconnection with his Country Blues roots.
The album offers a powerful mix of songs from Blues Hall of Famers such as Leadbelly, Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake and others. To round out the collection, “Talking Guitar” includes two original songs by Rishell. It also includes Annie Raines, his partner and critically acclaimed harmonica virtuoso, appearing on three songs, including "Big Road Blues" and the rousing original "I'm Gonna Jump and Shout."
Rishell’s original music has been used in plays, films, and countless television shows including Friends, Oprah, and A&E’s Biography. He and Raines have appeared on the cover of Blues Revue and performed on various radio and TV shows including A Prairie Home Companion, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and PBS’s Arthur. They received the W.C. Handy Award for Acoustic Blues Album of the Year in 2000 for “Moving to the Country” and earned two nominations for their albums “Goin’ Home”(2004) and “A Night in Woodstock” (2008). As a duo, Rishell & Raines have opened for Ray Charles, Asleep at the Wheel, Susan Tedeschi, Leon Russell, Little Feat, Dr. John, and John Sebastian. They were also featured members of the J Band, led by John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful, and appear in the 2007 jug band music documentary, Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost.
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1950, Paul Rishell was named after his grandfather, a Methodist Minister who was pastor of the South Congregational Church. He moved around with his family to New Jersey, England, and finally Connecticut. There, at the age of 13, captivated by a recording of Son House singing “County Farm Blues,” Rishell began a lifelong study of the music and its progenitors. He moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in the early 1970’s and began to perform with and learn from blues greats such as Son House, Johnny Shines, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. He soon became a well-known blues artist in his own right headlining Boston-area clubs and opening for his musical heroes. “I loved them because they were all there for me on their records when I was a kid.” explains Rishell. “It made me feel better to listen to their music.”
His first albums, Blues on a Holiday (1990) and Swear to Tell the Truth (1993) received critical acclaim and launched Rishell’s career as a recording artist. “My first record was a dream come true - I began to dream about making records as soon as I started listening to them. Making a solo album feels good because I’m a much more seasoned person and musician and I feel like I’ve grown into this material. I was probably 13 when I first heard Leadbelly’s recording of Fannin’ Street but I was 61 when I recorded it. It took me 47 years to figure out how to play the thing.”
In 1992 Rishell met and partnered up with Annie Raines. Born in 1969, Raines began playing the blues harp at 17 and went on to play the New England club circuit with local bands, and traveled to Chicago where she met and played with many of her musical idols including Pinetop Perkins, Louis Myers, and James Cotton. She has been hailed by fans and peers as one of the world’s top blues harp players, but it is the duo’s chemistry that steals the show. As Jerome Clark of rambles.net explains, “…Paul Rishell and Annie Raines in stratospheric form, which means that some of the most satisfying blues around these days are wafting down on your head and into your being, courtesy of a partnership the theologically inclined may suspect to have been conceived in heaven…”
Though they always perform together, Raines encouraged Rishell to record a solo album. “I was making an instructional video for harmonica, and it was taking forever,” she said. “Meanwhile, I really wanted to hear Paul do more of that unadulterated, pure blues that he does like nobody else. I got to step back and watch his working process and appreciate all the amazing things he can do with his voice and his guitar. So many of these techniques are in danger of disappearing. And they’re part of what made blues such an influential music to begin with: songs that make you stop what you’re doing and say ‘What the hell is THAT?’”
Rishell recorded “Dirt Road Blues,”an instructional video of country blues songs (Truefire, 2008) and is currently serving as a Visiting Artist at Berklee College of Music. “Among other reasons, I made ‘Talking Guitar’ for a generation of kids who may not ever have had a chance to hear country blues.” In his 45 years as a performer, teacher, historian, and torchbearer of the country blues tradition, he has drawn students and professionals (including Susan Tedeschi and Michael Tarbox) who want to learn the techniques required to do justice to the originals and hear his first-hand accounts of meeting iconic prewar blues legends. Sometimes they just come to hear to him talk, about singing, about music, about history.
Rishell likes to point out that the music industry and blues music were rocked in the same cradle, as musicians, businessmen and electrical engineers were drawn together by opportunities to make a living off of an emerging technology. In his live shows, his historical narration is built on his fascination with the people on both sides of the microphone. He’ll often introduce a song by telling you it was recorded in August of 1929 in Memphis, that it was probably mighty hot in the studio and the engineers kept the wax mastering disc on ice until it was time to record, or that Charley Patton was recruited by one of the first A&R men, a storekeeper named H.C. Speir, or how during prohibition, when thirsty Americans turned to patent medicines, hair tonic or Sterno, Tommy Johnson fancied the latter so much he wrote the “Canned Heat Blues.” These are entertaining glimpses into the past, but Rishell has an uncanny ability to summon this lost world into the present when he touches the strings. Boston Phoenix writer Ted Drozdowski wrote, “Paul has reached a place as deep and resonant as Robert Johnson’s crossroads, where authenticity, soul and a sense of purpose ring out in every note he sings and plays.”