Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
BIG DOG MERCER
It Ain’t Easy
by Greg Easterling
You have to love a guy who airmails a good natured kiss-off to a former employer in the credits to his new album. Singer-guitarist Marty “Big Dog” Mercer is such an individual. He’s the kind of working class blues man likely to be found playing weekends at hardcore blues lovers joints like the Harlem Avenue Lounge in Berwyn.
Mercer’s 2016 indie release, It Ain’t Easy, is a highly listenable album’s worth of “Chicago Blues and Rock” as plainly printed in blue on the front cover of the CD beneath a black and white photo of the Windy City skyline. There’s no truth in advertising issue here. Big Dog plays slide guitar with a vengeance and his bluesy vocals are very effective as well.
It Ain’t Easy kicks off with a three song sequence of Chicago related blues numbers, the first two of which are bonafide classics. This trio of tunes serves as a strong positioning statement just in case there’s any question about Mercer’s influences or intent. Big Dog leads with Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues”, the oft covered standard that traces its blues blood all the way back to the Mississippi crossroads. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and local blues legend Paul Butterfield recorded it for his second album, East-West with Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop. Mercer’s compelling arrangement with plenty of good slide guitar action is a great way to begin the proceedings here.
Big Dog is a large man physically (6’10”, 300 lbs.) so his choice of Willie Dixon’s “300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy” is more than appropriate, plus Mercer definitely has the voice and musical muscle to pull it off. It’s reminiscent of the much missed Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows (RIP Larry Nolan and Pete Special) who also recorded this blues classic. As the song goes, “This is it, look what you get!”.
“Me and My Woman” is the third blues cover, written by onetime Chess session ace, Gene “Daddy G” Barge, who also played with Big Twist. Big Dog sings and solos well on this track, confiding, “we don’t get along but one day at a time.” The only complaint here is a small one; the song fades out too early.
Next, Mercer slows it down with nice original “One for Gabby.” The guitar licks are sweet and the mood melancholy at times as Big Dog’s slide comes close to the sound of steel you might hear on a country record. He sings, “Blow wind blow, that’s the only thing gonna set me free.” It’s the sort of feeling that comes from the heart.
Big Dog heads another direction with “Canadian Sunset,” a vintage easy listening favorite. It’s a classic instrumental that was once rearranged by Muscle Shoals session guitarist Pete Carr. Mercer brings a hip jazzy blues sensibility to this onetime middle-of-the-road standard that you might have heard on The Lawrence Welk Show decades ago. It’s also a reminder to keep an open mind about so-called genres and styles, as Mercer obviously does.
The tempo picks up with the next track, “The Truth About Your Friends…Unfortunately.” You can depend on Big Dog for an unbridled assessment of the situation with a set of particularly personal lyrics about relationships. Another original, “Revelation” follows with a literal thunderclap sound effect and comes off as something of a blues march musically while lyrically making numerous allusions to its near namesake, the book of apocalypse and prophecy at the end of The Bible with references to “seven seals” and “seven deadly sins.” This blend of classic literature with the blues makes Big Dog much more than a one trick pony, while he tears it up on slide guitar again with plenty of tasty licks.
Mercer saves the title cut, “It Ain’t Easy,” until the album’s eighth track. The song works on any number of levels and it’s a good name for Big Dog’s album because it couldn’t have been easy for him to pursue his musical dreams while working a day job and trying to survive financially. It’s hard to make it these days especially when more modern styles and ways of acquiring music often overshadow the roots of the blues and more traditional ways of performance.
“Blues # 44,” in which Mercer spins off the Howlin’ Wolf classic “Fourty Four,” is one of the most cleverly written songs on the album although the story is deadly serious. Big Dog uses the number 44 to represent the protagonist’s age at a crucial moment in his life. It’s also the caliber of the pistol he used and the time remaining on his prison sentence. The album closes with a blues confession of sorts, “I’m Not a Good Man.” It’s not a boast but instead a blunt admission of humanity. “I’m not a strong man but I never said I was.” Mercer’s Allman Brothers style guitar sound here reminds one of Dickey Betts, which also distinguishes the album’s final track.
Marty “Big Dog” Mercer released his first recording, Swamp Boogie, back in 2003 and was recognized as “King of the Blues” in a competition sponsored by the Joliet Guitar Center several years later! Big Dog has also received honors from organizations such as the Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Slide Guitar Championship, Chicago SuburbaNites Magazine, the Chicago Blues Challenge at the Chicago Blues Festival, the Joliet and Chicago Blues Hall of Fame, and the Kankakee Valley Music Awards.
Along the way, Mercer has managed to release three more albums prior to his fourth, It Ain’t Easy. Mercer co-produced with Grammy Award winning drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith who also drummed on the album. Kudos also go to Mike Boyle and Matt Cartwright on bass, D. Bernal (also on drums along with Smith), and Jeff Walroth on piano. The album was recorded at The Spot Studio.
It’s back to the album credits for a final word. Big Dog sends these dedications out to his brothers: “To Matt, you never told me I can’t” and “To Mike, for telling me you’ll never be as good as Jimmy Page, so why bother?” In this life, you need to be loved but also challenged to make it. It sounds like Big Dog Mercer got the right mix from his family because as we know, It Ain’t Easy!
For info on Marty “Big Dog” Mercer or to buy the CD:
Greg Easterling hosts the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM)
He also hosts American Backroads
on WDCB (90.9 FM), Thursdays 9-10 p.m.