November 15, 2022

It was June 2019 when the world lost the enigmatic New Orleans bluesman known far and wide as Dr. John. He was 77 years old and still writing, singing and recording; in fact his new album was already at an advanced stage, an homage to the country legends who inspired him. And so it happened that his daughter Karla, who also acted as the executor of his estate, was faced with the task of bringing the project to completion – and here it is, the rather wonderful Things Happen That Way, a mix of classic covers and new material, with a country twist. The set doesn’t so much kick off as slowly wake up, with the Doc playing a few twinkly notes on his piano, and singing Willie Nelson’s Funny How Time Slips Away, in such a laid-back, growling drawl that it’s tempting to wonder whether he’s fully conscious. The impression is further strengthened when the band come in – Will Lee plays an occasional note on the bass, backed by Carlo Nuccio’s sparse drumming, with soft horns that could have come from a Yorkshire brass band. Some sleazy, muted trombone work adds an extra texture, but it’s clear we’re not in for an adrenalin-fuelled ride.

A laconic version of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man follows, (not the Allman Brothers song of the same name), then the band drop into gospel mode for a catchy rendition of Gimme That Old Time Religion, which Dr. John sings as a drowsy duet alongside his old friend Willie Nelson himself, with some female backing vocals from a source sadly unnamed in the promo material. A number of religious references appear throughout the album, but Dr. John’s traditional bayou voodoo element is largely missing, except for the next song, an ominously atmospheric cover of one of his own early releases, I Walk On Guilded (sic) Splinters. It first appeared on his debut album Gris-Gris in 1968, and the titular gis-gris, a kind of voodoo good luck charm, is referenced in the song, which also features an electric guitar solo from Willie Nelson’s son Lukas, fuzzed up to the nines with spiky distortion.

The Dr. had already announced his intention of recording a Country & Western album featuring Willie Nelson and Lukas; it’s not clear whether that’s the actual album he was working on, but clearly this was the last-chance saloon for that particular concept, so Karla saw to it that they are both here. The songs are mostly covers drawn from country legends to be sure, but Dr. John’s treatment makes them all into folky, bluesy pieces, with the Western influence just occasionally poking its head above the parapet. The only really overtly country song in the set is another Hank Williams cover, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry; it’s almost a pastiche of a country song in fact, a broken-hearted weeper in waltz time with acoustic guitar and pedal steel accompaniment, which the Dr. drawls in a deep, lazy bass, reminiscent of Lee Marvin on Wand’rin’ Star. This is followed by a complete change in direction, as the band kicks up a cover of the Travelling Wilburys’ End Of The Line. Nuccio wakes up completely on this one, keeping the rhythm ticking along with some lovely rolling snare work, and it’s sung as a trio between Dr. John’s gravelly baritone, the smooth, soapy voice of none other than Aaron Neville, and a great bit of blues singing from the unnamed female singer, in the vein of Bonnie Raitt.

It’s not all covers though; the next section comprises of a trio of original songs: the penitent Holy Water finds the protagonist given a wake-up call by being cuffed and thrown into prison, and trying to reform from his evil ways for the sake of his dear old ma; Sleeping Dogs Best Left Alone advises the listener to stop whining and accept whatever happens in life; Give Myself a Good Talkin’ To is back to the repentance theme again, with the singer looking in a mirror and telling himself off. It’s all good; there’s nothing here to overly tax the intellect or the dancing muscles; it’s just atmospheric, laid-back, folk blues, but it’s so good at being that. There’s a treat right at the end though, with a cover of a vintage number from 1958 by Johnny Cash, the title track Guess Things Happen That Way. It’s a gorgeous ballad, sad without being depressed, resigned without being resentful. There’s tragedy in there, but the determination is to just get on with life and not to fight against the inevitable. It’s a sadly apt closer to the final album of Dr. John’s life, and the highlight of the set, to these ears at least. I’m sure there are more recordings waiting to be turned into fully-fledged releases, and we’ll welcome them when they come – for now though, do as the man says and leave sleeping dogs alone.