Way back in the '80s, I made a personal tape consisting of songs by my longtime (and probably alltime) favorite singer, Tracy Nelson, and a new favorite Cyndi Lauper. Now most people at the time, even the most musically knowledgeable, would not have seen much connection between the two artists--and I'm not sure that, if pressed, I could have easily explained myself. I doubt I could find it now, but I remember labeling it "TraCYndi" and playing it quite a bit, not even concerning myself that I was pairing a classic artist who couldn't even land a recording contract in the 80s with a newcomer whose music was, more or less, defining the era.
No, on the face of it, there was no justification for linking, musically or psychologically, a budding "megastar" like Lauper (or so it seemed at the time) with a hugely talented but chronically (and criminally) neglected singer like Tracy Nelson.
So I take some pleasure in the fact that, all these years later, Ms. Lauper is releasing a blues based record, featuring two tracks that have been closely identified with Ms. Nelson--and the sequencing is certainly telling: Tracy's classic composition "Down So Low" is back-to-back with the Memphis Slim classic "Mother Earth," both of which appeared on the first album Tracy recorded with her band Mother EarthLiving With the Animals
. Those were signature songs for Tracy and helped earn her real cult status if not actual stardom. Cyndi is no mere mimic, however. Her take on "Down So Low" is all her own, and while it seems likely that the Tracy Nelson/Mother Earth (her band took its name from the song)version of "Mother Earth" was the first version the teenaged Cyndi ever heard, she's done her homework and emerged with a version that is closer to the Memphis Slim original, in effect paying homage to two great prior versions by two distictive (and shamefully neglected) artists.
To cement the bond even further, Cyndi is joined here by Tracy's youthful beau and musical cohort, Charlie Musselwhite, one of several blues legends to make a guest appearance on the record. Also on board are B.B. King, Ann Peebles, Allen Toussaint, and as a nod to the current generation of up-and-coming blues artists, Jonny Lang. Skeptics will scream marketing ploy at a roster like that, but people who have followed Cyndi Lauper's career know that she has always loved to collaborate with other artists and that she respects and embraces all musical traditions.
But Cyndi is also an individualist, to the bone in fact. I've already seen some negative reaction to her entitling the record MEMPHIS BLUES, as though she's trying to co-opt a long and glorious tradition and/or implying that her take on the genre is somehow definitive. Nonsense. She went to Memphis and did a blues-based album, and she's telling the world just where she's coming from here. (She's also cluing her pop and dance music fans in on just exactly what to expect here and letting them decide whether they want to make this particular journey with her or sit this record out).
True Lauper fans WON'T sit this one out though. They'll appreciate and embrace her eclecticism and musical adventurousness. Yeah, she's still unusual, and it's evident she's still having loads of fun. She's just changed her address from Queens to Memphis. Good on her.