If Livin’ with the Blues Again had been released in 1969 instead of 2019, Mary Flower might have been mentioned in the same breath as Stefan Grossman, Duck Baker, and other fingerstyle players of approximately her generation. Then again, maybe not, given the Old Boys networks largely in place in traditional music back in the day. Even now she doesn’t show up on the Wikipedia page of fingerstyle guitarists. But Flower has never been much of a self-promoter, and the majority her records, about a dozen on small independent labels, were made over the past two decades. Livin’ with the Blues Again provides 12 examples of Flower’s prowess, as she moves seamlessly between seven original compositions rooted in Piedmont blues and ragtime guitar styles, five traditional blues and gospel tunes associated with the likes of Mance Lipscomb, Ma Rainey, and Reverend Gary Davis, and “Left All Alone Again Blues,” a ditty written by Jerome Kern and Anne Caldwell for the 1920 musical comedy The Night Boat.
Given free rein for her debut release on the San Francisco Bay Area’s prolific Little Village Foundation label, the Portland, Oregon–based Flower put together a diverse program that reflects the eclecticism of her live sets. For those who like their acoustic guitar in isolation, Flower opens with her “Crooked Rag,” just over two minutes of bouncy, intricate picking at a steady pulse. After introducing us to her warm, unforced singing and her sly way with words on “Baby Where You Been”—with harmony vocals by Lisa Leuschner and Suzy Thompson (who adds a couple of fiddle solos)—Flower shapes another solo gem, “Refuge,” its gentle lilt leaning a bit toward the American Primitive tradition of Fahey and Basho. Other solo features, performed on a Fraulini Angelina guitar, include the originals “Barrelhouse” and “Waltz” (see full transcription on page 92), models of concision (only one track on the album clocks in over four minutes) and precision, and evidence of why Flower is a two-time finalist at the National Finger Picking Guitar Championship.
In addition to Leuschner and Thompson (who also adds old-time jug-band flavor to “Left All Alone Again Blues”), guest performers from the Little Village Foundation cohort include Aki Kumar (harmonica), Kid Anderson (string bass), LVF founder Jim Pugh (piano), and harmony vocalists Dwayne Morgan, James Morgan, and Walter Morgan (aka the Sons of the Soul Revivers). Kumar and the Sons are especially effective at putting a Western spin on the leisurely paced rendition of “See See Rider,” as Flower sculpts brilliant lap-slide lines on a 1949 Gibson HG-2 squareneck. Pugh and the Sons amplify the gospel optimism of “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” before the album closes with the elegant and poignant “Waltz.” Mixed with what Pugh calls a midcentury sensibility, the album has a tightly centered focus, like a bluegrass band gathered around a single mic, rather than a showy, manipulated stereo soundstage.
Flower is a renowned guitar instructor, teaching at music camps and festivals, offering lessons via Skype, and frequently crafting articles and tips as a regular contributor to Acoustic Guitar. But she cannot be narrowly defined. Livin’ with the Blues Again showcases her talents as a complete artist, deeply versed in an array of vernacular styles for which she demonstrates an abiding love that underlies her quietly jaw-dropping technique. She may not sing with the soulful grit and urgency of Rory Block, Maria Muldaur, or Bonnie Raitt, but her stylistic range is broader, approaching that of David Bromberg and Ry Cooder. What fun for those who don’t know her music to discover her here.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.