From the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Kenny Berkowitz
At 32, Ryan Lee Crosby heard the music of Skip James for the first time, and it changed his life. In the ten years since, he’s been traveling back and forth between Boston and Bentonia, Mississippi, apprenticing with Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, the last living bluesman to learn from James’ mentor, Henry Stuckey (1896–1969), and writing his own deep blues in the Bentonia School’s D-minor tuning, sometimes singing in a weary, haunted falsetto.
Produced by Bruce Watson, Winter Hill Blues is Crosby’s strongest work yet, alternating between hard-droning blues on an electric 12-string (Fender Squier Jazzmaster body with a Fender Villager acoustic 12-string neck) and softer, brooding blues on a 1957 Gibson J-45, 1961 Gibson B-25 12-string, 1971 Stella Harmony 12-string, amplified Strad-O-Lin 12-string, and an amplified mid-’60s Stella parlor guitar set up lap-style. On several electric tracks he’s ably augmented by drummer George Sluppick and bassist Mark Edgar Stuart.
Crosby really digs into the frayed, meandering vulnerability of solo songs like “Going to Bentonia,” where he sings, “Going to Bentonia/ I’m gonna put my feet in the dirt/ going to find the root of all my hurt.” In “Was It the Devil,” he searches for meaning in his mother’s mental illness, and in “Slow Down” thinks about dying as he sees “evil and trouble all over town.” It’s here we feel most deeply the ghostly emptiness of Bentonia blues and the ragged solitude of the minor tuning. And it’s where Crosby makes his mark most powerfully, turning this old-school sadness into something profoundly modern.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.