There’s a surprising fact behind Bex Marshall’s new album of countrified back-porch blues, House of Mercy: Even though it sounds (mostly) like down-home rural blues from Mississippi, House of Mercy was actually recorded in Marshall’s house in the north of London. Marshall, who has been getting more and more attention from the American blues community in recent years for her convincing take on mid-20th-century blues, was born in southwest England, an unlikely point of origin for a blues guitarist.
“Because I’m not American, I’d like to think that I bring a certain British sort of edge that’s representative of my own original style,” she says. “I do like to throw in the odd sort of Celtic lick—it’s a hodgepodge of great influences that I’ve been subject to.”
Marshall’s attraction to the blues began in childhood. An uncle on one side of her family played blues guitar, and another uncle on the other side of her family had a voluminous collection of old blues records. She still plays a Gibson Hummingbird acoustic guitar, just like her uncle played. After a wandering period in her late teens and early 20s, when she hitchhiked around Europe and worked as a croupier, Marshall settled into a career as a guitarist and singer, and the blues she grew up listening to helped her find her voice.
“I’m a singer/songwriter and my chosen music is the blues,” she says. “It’s where I feel comfortable.”
As a British player of a distinctively American style of music, Marshall is freed from the burden of authenticity that American blues musicians often bear. There’s no illusion when she takes the stage that she is anything other than what she is. On House of Mercy, she has crafted a twangy, rootsy kind of electric blues that connects the dots between the acoustic Delta blues of Robert Johnson and Son House and the electric northern blues of Muddy Water and Elmore James. It’s a sound that reflects the history of the blues, but isn’t bound to historical accuracy, and an approach that she says allows for originality within the broader framework of the music.
“It’s nice to be able to settle into a kind of rootsy sort of picking one minute and then launch into that electric slide the next,” she says.
House of Mercy owes its particular vibe to the presence of members of Hayseed Dixie, the American band best known for its bluegrass covers of AC/DC, Kiss, and other classic rock artists. Dobro, mandolin, and fiddle add rustic textures to Marshall’s generally more urban style for an unexpected sort of classic country blues; there’s even a bluegrass instrumental that could fit on an Alison Krauss album. It’s important, Marshall says, that blues players respect the genre’s traditions but also try to expand the idea of what can be considered blues.
“I don’t think it will ever change too much, but I think there’s so much room to push the boundaries of it,” she says. “That’s really where I’m headed towards and focused on. To be able to play the blues and be original at the same time is always a challenge. I think there’s rare artists out there doing that more and more all the time. You get those elements of traditional blues in the songs to keep the listener knowing that they’re listening to blues, but not to do this stereotypical thing over and over again. It’s not easy and does take a certain amount of a different attitude towards it.”
Blues and country, especially, she says, are connected in such deep ways that they can’t ever really be separated. Each informs the other to the point that it’s hard to say where country ends and the blues begin.
“There’s always been that connection,” Marshall says. “Blues seeps into every sort of genre—every roots genre, anyway. For me, it’s like the life’s blood of all music. It’s in there. You’ve just got to dig for it. The country-blues crossover—sometimes purist blues people don’t like the crossover, but I think you have to have it. You can’t deny it. It’s definitely there. And you have to touch on that. All the great blues singers have touched on that.”