Hammond Washes Waits Songs in Delta Blues

March 9, 2001 -- "I don't have the words to describe what went down," veteran blues singer and guitarist John Hammond says of the recording of his new album, Wicked Grin, which will be released on Pointblank/Virgin on Tuesday.

With Tom Waits as producer, Hammond describes the experience as "unearthly" in the synchronicity and ease with which they worked.

Unearthly is an apt description of the record's raw, dreamlike swamp-blues covers of 12 of Waits' songs. The one non-blues treatment is a brand-new song, "Fannin Street," which marks Hammond's first ever country ballad — albeit a tongue-in-cheek murder ballad.

"It didn't start out that way," Hammond says of Wicked Grin's song lineup. "But as soon as I recorded one of his songs, which was '2:19,' everybody just said, 'Yeah, we can do this.'"

"Everybody just fit right in the groove; I knew that was the direction to go," he adds, speaking from Chapel Hill, N.C., during a stop on his solo tour.

All in all, 20 of Waits' songs were recorded with the selection for the CD whittled down to 12: "Tom has so many incredible songs, and so many are right up my alley," says Hammond.

Recorded in just five days at the beginning of 2000, Wicked Grin takes Hammond's traditional Delta blues and adds Waits' through-the-looking-glass illustrations. "It kind of combines what Tom does with what I do, and we just kind of made it work," Hammond says.

The two have known each other since the early '70s, and in 1992, Waits provided a song, "No One Can Forgive Me but My Baby," for Hammond's Pointblank debut, Got Love if You Want It. Hammond returned the favor, playing on Waits tour de force return to recording, Mule Variations, which was released to huge acclaim in 1999 on Epitaph Records.

However, the final track on Wicked Grin breaks the mold, as Hammond and Waits perform an incredible, bellicose duet on the traditional gospel song "I Know I've Been Changed."

"Tom loved that song, and it was just unique, the duet," says Hammond on the decision to break Wicked Grin's pattern and include it. "It was so simple and so real."