The native music of New Orleans is singular in its magic, and visionary guardian of this energy, Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack Jr., best known as Dr. John, used his power to share far and wide this incredible specialty of sounds. Beyond the blues and jazz, Dr. John’s reach was cosmically undefinable, but rooted firmly in old traditions of spirit. For his final studio album, Rebennack fulfilled a homecoming of sorts, tapping into Classic Country & Western with I Guess Things Happen That Way, a collection of songs both old and new, and at all times unmistakably Dr. John.
Leaning on Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” as the opening track sets the tone. “Dr. John had the most unique musical style and language that would take me to another time and place whenever I heard him play or sing,” Nelson remembers. Nelson appears later with Dr. John on the gospel tradition, “Gimme That Old Time Religion,” and Nelson’s progeny Lukas Nelson with his band Promise of the Real lend haunting background and production to a remake of Rebennack’s own “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” originally found on his 1968 work Gris-Gris. Lukas explains, “It’s a great honor to attempt to interpret the work of Dr. John. His music has inspired me since childhood. He was a friend to many, and we all miss him dearly. His music is medicine.”
Rebennack pays ample tribute to the greats here as well as adds to the cannon of classics with track of his own. Hank Williams is honored with “Ramblin’ Man” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and old friend Aaron Neville joins on The Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line.” Further original work like “Holy Water” looks back on time served, and “Sleeping Dogs Best Left Alone” warns of different consequences. The album closes with a moving “I Guess Things Happen That Way” performed closer to “Cowboy” Jack Clement’s melancholy original than the upbeat and more commonly found Johnny Cash version, but the song lives on with an indelible new mark uniquely Rebennack.
Attendees of the 2022 JBE Triple A SummitFest were treated to Lukas Nelson’s solo performance of “I Walk On Guilded Splinters,” and I Guess Things Happen That Way is finding adds at WUIN, WMOT, WNCW, and elsewhere.
Photo by Bruce Weber