Randy McAllister - Dope Slap Soup
Reaction Records 
Unless you really have something important to say with it, it is probably not as useful to readers as some critics think, for a reviewer to weigh down a piece of music with a lot of “genre” judgments. It robs the reader of an opportunity to hear something fresh in a piece of music; it sets up too obvious and not necessarily fair comparisons. Expectations stifle our experience and are a stale substitute for new thought.
So, I say with embarrassment, that my first reaction to this album was, “This isn’t blues! It’s country music.” If you are making a reconnaissance of the contemporary blues scene by reading these Blues Blast reviews, you can safely pass over Randy McAllister. But it would be a pity to dismiss Dope Slap Soup too quickly. There is a lot to enjoy here, and a musician who may become a good companion to you, a friend who is able to take you somewhere new on your musical journeys.
This album is framed around the myth that McAllister is the balladeer from “Dope Slap, Texas,” a rustic escape so far off the main road no mapmaker has ever found it. This might be a clever device, but the thing about the album is that its coherence is not framed so much by a tiny West Texas burg as by the musician’s life on the road. The two song lyrics on the album that hit me hardest are the two comic numbers, “Baptist Church Van” about riding home from Dickson, Tennessee in the back of a U-Haul truck, and “$127.00 Sandwich” about writing a bad check on the road between shows. There is something about these songs that ring of the highway the way nothing in the album depends on the fictional “Dope Slap.”
So, if McAllister is a man of the road, what has he taken from all those miles? All of the songs here are Randy McAllister originals; and he is a fine song writer, able to craft lines that fit his own breath and speech, to make rhymes that work without intrusion, and to fashion whole narratives (more like country music) and not just suggestions of stories (as is so common in blues and rock). McAllister sings his words as if he is delighted to share them with us.
The band here, the quality of the production of the recording too, is simply excellent. Four guitarists, two drummers, two B-3 and piano players, and bass player Sonny Collie back McAllister. Benita Arterberry-Burns and Angie McWhirter do magnificent supporting vocals. McAllister drums on one song, and throws in harmonica. These drummers do not just ride along and occasionally fill; there has been actual design and composition in the percussion throughout this album.
hese guitars, keys, harp, and backing vocals pull from the great American popular music sound-scape (including some really nice blues borrowings), supporting McAllister’s stories and helping him communicate.
As in so very much of our blues music, the lead singing on Dope Slap Soup is good enough, at its best good, never great. Is this more than anything else the public test the blues, and we your blues critics too, are failing? We reviewers are calling bad singing “good” and tolerable singing “great,” and the public meets both our assessment and our beloved music with knowing indifference? Would anyone pay serious money, the kind of money that could get our Texas troubadour out of that jankety Baptist church van and into proper transportation, to hear Randy McAllister sing? My estimate is that not too many people would do it.
Don’t get me wrong: McAllister is exactly the guy we take advantage, if the album is any indication—a skillful, energetic, and good humored live act-- who begs us to swing from Dickson to Peoria on his way back to Dope Slap, and will do it for $5 covers or skimpy festival contracts, until he just won’t beg anymore. This is the nether world of most of our blues players today. Our music is hinged on our most subtle instrument, not the electric guitar but the human voice—and our great voices are very, very rare. Too few of us will get out from in front of our televisions to hear a Randy McAllister. Too many of us don’t think there is anyone worth discomforting ourselves to go see on a week night or for more than $3 cover. We are waiting, with no particular hope, for the great voice with the great song.
And that brings us back to the genre judgment with which I started. The singing here goes to the heart of the difference between country music and blues, and why no matter what guitar chop you point to arguing Dope Slap Soup is a blues album, you will be more wrong than right. Male country singing today is all assertion, never any ambivalence or self-doubt; our blues singers at their best are still vulnerable people, practice a poor person’s irony, wink and let you know they know they are full of it. There is none of that in Dope Slap Soup. McAllister comes off as unchangeably confident in everything from his failed finances to his assessment of women, to the music itself. Maybe this is too fine a point, but I don’t think so. Blues is pain while country is pissed off. Country has answers where blues has inarticulate groans. Blues is worn-out grownups; country is old men who wish they were adolescents. Some artists hyphenate the two musics, but most only borrow licks.
The upshot about Randy McAllister for us is that if he can deliver this show live, he and his are simply better all-around musicians, more promising entertainers, than a great many I hear. His blues craft is good enough, if you are on the committee for a blues festival or book for a blues house, you have to take his application seriously. I get the feeling, if you gave him a chance, he will be your new friend, and if you don’t end up in Dope Slap, you will, at minimum, ride some happy miles that direction. But you can’t climb on board thinking you are heading for the future of the blues.
Reviewed by Dale Clark