Everything about Bill Sheffield is authentic.
It’s there in the intense, transcendent way he finger picks his guitar with hints of John Hurt and Blind Blake flashing through. It’s there in his songs that wrestle with earthly pleasure and the need for redemption. And it most definitely is there in Got A Gig, Gotta Go, his 9th studio recording on American Roots Records. Journal On A Shelf, Sheffield’s release and the new Got A Gig, Gotta Go distill a lifetime pursuit of authentic American roots music that announce the arrival of one of the most significant roots musicians to emerge in the past decade.
How exactly did a middle-aged white guitar player from Atlanta, Georgia, come to produce a stunningly accomplished collection of folk, roots and blues music-one that calls to mind the genius of John Hurt, Hank Williams and Muddy Waters?
Flashback 40 years or so to a young, burgeoning guitarist who fell in love with a special ece of American music history. It was a song that would launch him on a lifetime journey down the tributaries and runnels of the Delta. “Blind Willie Johnson played the greatest piece of music I ever heard,” he says. “That was ‘Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground).’ It’s still the best piece of American music ever recorded. It changed my life and made me understand what I was trying to do. He was the best slide player that ever lived. He was able to do something that’s never been touched really.”
Bill’s self-described “obsession” with the blues began even earlier than his discovery of Blind Willie Johnson. His father turned him on to music by repeatedly playing a favorite Jimmy Reed song. The inquisitive younger Sheffield listened and absorbed the whole Reed album. Shortly after that he discovered the Folkways collection at the local library and began immersing himself in early American roots music. He was also beginning to play guitar, learning the intricate style used by the guitar greats of the early blues movement.
“I play a fairly rare style,” he says. “It’s a finger picking style inspired by John Hurt and Blind Blake. It dances by itself. You can sit there and play guitar and it just dances. Sometimes when I’m really swinging it feels like my hands are disconnected from my body.”
He was playing in coffeehouses and bars around Atlanta by the time he was 18. Not much of folk-blues town at that time, Sheffield was one of the only authentic blues players in the city. That led to opening slots for such greats as Big Mamma Thornton and Muddy Waters. He soon put together a band called Cool Breeze, which toured up and down the East Coast playing R&B and Motown covers. After about seven years he broke up Cool Breeze to start The XL’s, moving his sound back closer to the roots music he loved so much.
Around that time, he began writing his own original compositions almost by chance. He was practicing, trying to imitate the slide genius of Blind Willie Johnson, and couldn’t quite get the riff. But he liked what he was playing and it soon became a song. More quickly followed. Sheffield was 40 years old. In most musical genres that would be ancient to be began a career based on original music. But roots music is special. You have to live and experience life, heartbreak and desperation to write with any authenticity. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
He began performing his own tunes at time when roots music was coming back into favor. Texas-blues stars like Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was guitar slinging his way to national fame, helped make the blues cool. Vaughn, in fact, once opened for Sheffield, who’s also performed in concert with a who’s who of music greats including Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Delbert McClinton and Bonnie Raitt.
Over time his style has evolved, melding the pure emotionalism and great guitar work of the blues with country, gospel and soul. Categories don’t do justice to Sheffield because he effortlessly transcends genres to create what can only be called great American music. While he’s steadily been gaining a reputation as an unsung hero in the roots community, Journal On A Shelf, and Got A Gig, Gotta Go are poised to break Sheffield on a national level. They’re rare albums showcasing an artist as he is tapping into genius.
“There are nights when you get absorbed by the music,” he says. “Everything else disappears and you are lost in the song. Those nights are like nirvana.”
When he does get back on stage and he’s lost in the music, there’s a sense of peace that washes over him. If he’s playing, then no matter where he’s at, he’s at home, because everything about Bill Sheffield is authentic.