Review: Jerry Lee Lewis- Mean Old Man
For most artists, working with three Rolling Stones, a former Beatle, and John Fogerty would be an unbelievable honor, a dream come true, and the ultimate highlight of their career. Yet in this case, they are the ones who should feel honored, because there is not a single performer on this disc who we would be talking about today were it not for the immense contributions of Jerry Lee Lewis. Only one living performer and very few dead ones have had a greater impact on the American musical landscape.
Yet history isn’t what one goes by when reviewing an album. History is for greatest hits collections. Jerry Lee’s latest album is great not because he recorded for Sun Records 50 years ago, but because he continues to make interesting music into the 21st century. That is why he, not Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, or Little Richard, is, as he said in 2006, the “Last Man Standing.”
On Mean Old Man, his first album in four years, rock’s original bad boy performs with everybody from fellow legends Merle Haggard, Mick Jagger, and Mavis Staples (and that’s just the M’s) to newer greats such as Slash and Gillian Welch to questionable partners like John Mayer and Tim McGraw. Frankly, none of this matters. Frankly, it would not matter if John Lennon and George Harrison somehow came back to life and the Beatles performed a duet of “Penny Lane” with Jerry Lee. To be completely honest (as much as it pains me, the ultimate Elvis fan, to say this), Jerry Lee Lewis is the only performer to ever upstage the King (see the Million Dollar Quartet session). So it goes without saying that these duet partners are unnecessary, but luckily most of them have the good sense to simply stand back and let the Killer do his thing.
Things kick off with the great Kris Kristofferson-penned country-rocker “Mean Old Man,” that is very befitting of the 75-year-old Lewis and features excellent guitar work from Ronnie Wood. This tune alone is ample proof that he isn’t ready for retirement anytime soon. Next he revisits “Rockin’ My Life Away,” with help from former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash and Kid Rock. I’m not a big fan of Kid Rock, but one thing I will say is that unlike many of today’s stars, he has a deep respect for those who came before him. But of course Jerry Lee and his piano are the real stars of the tune. “My name is Jerry Lee Lewis,” he sings to end the song, “and I’m damn sure here to stay.”
Mick Jagger makes an appearance singing harmony vocals on the hard-edged Stones classic “Dead Flowers,” which sounds as if it was written especially for Lewis. The backing band is top-notch here as usual with Greg Leisz delivering one hell of a pedal steel solo.
I have mixed feelings about the next track, a re-recording of Jerry Lee’s 1977 hit “Middle Age Crazy.” For starters, the original simply cannot be equaled. It was probably the most poignant performance of his career, in part because it was clear that he was living the lyrics at the time. Yet, for the first verse this version is at least worthy of the original with Jerry Lee telling the story as if he is now observing a much younger man going through the same phase. Then Tim McGraw takes the lead on the second verse and, to be perfectly honest, to hear one of modern “country” music’s biggest stars attempt to sing a country tune is nearly as heartbreaking as the song itself.
Two of rock’s greatest guitar players- James Burton and Eric Clapton- join in on a spirited version of Roy Hamilton’s “You Can Have Her,” followed by the classic Jimmie Davis tune “You Are My Sunshine.” The piano playing is particularly great here and while his duet partner, Sheryl Crow, tries a little too hard she manages to deliver a respectable performance. The classic honky-tonk weeper “Hold You In My Heart” is up next and, because Shelby Lynne’s contributions are very minimal, this is basically a solo performance. And as I stated at the opening, that is really all that is necessary.
On the other hand, the next track features three music legends having the time of their lives. Jerry Lee is joined by James Burton and Merle Haggard on a version of Merle’s own “Swinging Doors.” I’ve always loved this tune, but the mood of this version is more fun than depressing, making for one of the album’s best. This is followed by the Chuck Berry number “Roll Over Beethoven” featuring the classic Jerry Lee style, as well as Ringo Starr on drums and John Mayer on guitar. Next, Keith Richards joins in on the definitive version of “Sweet Virginia,” another great Stones tune.
“Now I used to do this song back when I was a kid,” Lewis says to open the next track, “in a small Assembly of God church there in Ferriday, Louisiana with all my kinpeople lookin’ down my throat. It was good then and it was good now.” Amen. Indeed this classic country-styled version of “Railroad to Heaven” featuring call-and-response vocals by Solomon Burke is one of the best tracks on the album.
John Fogerty performs his own “Bad Moon Rising” with Jerry Lee and this version manages to be both more laid-back musically and more urgent lyrically than the CCR original. This is followed by the country classic “Please Release Me,” the first of two collaborations with Gillian Welch. It is obvious that both performers have a deep love for the material and it produces an effective, if not spectacular, rendition.
Jerry Lee performs a fun run-through “Whiskey River,” the number that has become Willie Nelson’s signature tune, with the man himself and his harmonica player Mickey Raphael, who plays throughout the album. Gillian returns for an excellent cover of Eddy Arnold’s “I Really Don’t Want to Know.”
Following this Jerry Lee gives his best performance since the late ’70s with a solo version of “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Only certain people should be permitted to sing this tune. I’m talking about guys like Kristofferson and Cash who not only lived it, but made it a way of life. For that reason, Lewis’s passionate rendition ranks among the very best versions. I would place this with any of his classic country sides from the ’60s and ’70s and as the definitive performance from the latter part of his career.
Mavis Staples and Robbie Robertson join in for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and, as some of you know, the tune happens to be my favorite song of all time. Lewis is wonderful on both vocals and piano and Mavis turns in a great vocal performance here as well, but I actually prefer Jerry Lee’s live solo version from a few years ago. Still, any version of this tune is fine by me.
The album ends with a very stark solo version of the Jimmie Rodgers classic “Miss the Mississippi and You.”
This record is not perfect. For starters, 18 tracks is a bit lengthy even for excellent material like this. (To be fair, I reviewed the “deluxe edition.” The regular edition is 10 tracks, but skips over most of my favorites here.) Also, the inclusion of Tim McGraw must be mentioned as a major problem. Yet Mr. Lewis manages to overcome all of this by his passion for the material and while he will never equal his classic ’50s output or his amazing string of country records in the ’70s, this album is easily the best thing he’s done in 30 years.
Here’s hoping that I’m this damn cool when I’m his age.