The last few years have been tough for traditional blues music in America, but Davis Coen thinks the last year has been the hardest. “Seven or eight blues guys died last year, like Honey Boy Edwards, the last guy to play with Robert Johnson, and Hubert Sumlin, who played with Howlin’ Wolf, and several others,” he says. “It might have been the biggest blow to the blues in years. It’s what people have been warning you about for years: ‘They’re not going to be there forever,’ and now it’s finally happening.”
Coen, whose deep, soulful growl sounds remarkably like some of the elder statesmen he talks about, copes with this unfortunate development with a conflicted heart. Since his dad played him a Howlin’ Wolf tape when he was 15, he’s been in love with the blues. He is, of course, devastated that it continues to lose traction in popular music, but in an odd way, he’s ready for a new opportunity.
“The fact that this past year was such a hit to blues is a good reason to have done what I did,” Coen says. “I’ve been trying to live out the blues in Memphis with the availability of learning from all the mentors who played with the old guys. But there’s a feeling that that era’s past. It’s gotten to that point where you really feel like you’re entering a new zone.”
After five years in Memphis, Coen returns to his sometime-home of Charleston with a new album titled Hard Luck Café. It is a departure from the straight-blues work in his past. As the album was being created, Coen challenged himself to focus on his songwriting and add new elements that were on his “bucket list.” Plus, this is Coen’s first album with no covers.
“When you’re in the business of recording music, you have a bucket list of things you want to do,” Coen explains. “My bucket list has mandolin on it, pedal steel, and dobro, and I wanted to have a female vocal, which I did on this one. So I checked those off this time. Horns are still there, and fiddle, but I can get to them later.”
Coen recorded Hard Luck Café at Jimbo Mathus’ rustic Delta Recording Service in Como, Miss. Mathus, singer/guitarist and studio producer, contributed a lot of guitar, drums, and production ideas to Coen’s last two albums, but he’s less prevalent on Hard Luck Café. Coen’s longtime bassist Justin Showah handled more production duties this time. It was bittersweet, as the studio was closing. “I might have been the last album that was done there, actually,” Coen says. “So it was sentimental because of my connection to the studio, in the little town of Como, with the amps and guitars I like and all the great local musicians available.”
No matter who’s available, chipping in, or passing away, it’s clear that the blues will never leave Coen.