Dr. John was an utterly original artist and even more complex human being. An icon of New Orleans music, he was prone to roam far outside the boundaries of conventionality. The adjectives “easy” and “straightforward” rarely applied to anything he did.
Including the making of his final album.
Mac Rebennack, best known as Dr. John, was 77 when he died June 6, 2019, of a heart attack. Three years later, Rounder Records will release his farewell studio album, “Things Happen That Way,” on CD and via streaming services on Friday; the vinyl version, held up by manufacturing issues, arrives Oct. 14.
To help craft the country-inspired album he had long dreamed of making, Rebennack recruited New Orleans guitarist Shane Theriot. Theriot’s long music resume includes stints with the Neville Brothers and Dr. John’s band. He won a Grammy for producing a Jo-el Sonnier album and is the longtime guitarist for Daryl Hall and John Oates.
Overseeing the recording sessions for what became “Things Happen That Way” was a challenge. As Rebennack’s health deteriorated, Theriot and the engineers were forced to improvise a mobile recording rig so they could capture Rebennack’s vocals at home whenever he felt up to the task. His stamina was often short-lived.
After Rebennack’s death, his estate could not reach an agreement with Rickie Lee Jones, who had sung on three tracks; her vocals were subsequently removed from the album. Theriot and Rebennack recorded a stripped-down remake of his early hit “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.” But the version on “Things Happen That Way” retains only Rebennack’s vocal from the Theriot recording session, which was grafted onto an entirely new musical track performed and produced by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson and Lukas’ band Promise of the Real.
Unless those original recordings one day turn up on a boxed set or collection of outtakes, it’s impossible to judge which version of “Things Happen That Way” would have been better. The 10-song album that Rounder Records has released must be considered on its own merits.
As far as farewells go, it is at times bittersweet, at times triumphant, with enough nuance to convey that it came in the twilight of Rebennack’s remarkable life and career.
His sonic trademarks — the gravelly growl, the sly, deceptively leisurely phrasing, the hybrid Big Easy piano — are not always as pronounced as usual, but they’re present.
The very first sound we hear is Rebennack counting off the opening number, a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” with what sounds like, in his Big Easy drawl, “One, two, tree, fo’.” Over an understated piano passage, his familiar voice swings into action with, “Well, hello ‘dere, my, it’s been a long, long time.”
David Torkanowsky’s Wurlitzer piano slips in behind Rebennack with a bit of church. The drums, courtesy of the late great Carlo Nuccio, who died this summer, then tumble in, followed by horns. The whole take is utterly luxurious and laid back, sliding by like a Mississippi River steamboat on a steamy afternoon. The lines, “I gotta go now, guess I’ll see you around/Don’t know when, never know when, I’ll be back in town,” resonate.
An ominous take on Hank Williams Sr.’s “Ramblin’ Man” comes courtesy of Theriot’s spooky lap steel over Nuccio’s percussion and bassist Will Lee’s bottom line, with cameos by Rebennack’s piano. Rebennack and Willie Nelson swap lines and harmonize over Herlin Riley’s tambourine and Jon Cleary’s organ in the opening of “Gimme That Old Time Religion.”
The Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real version of “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” is something of a sonic outlier. The drums and cymbals are brighter and bolder than on the rest of the record, as is the concluding guitar solo, even as this version clearly shows reverence for Rebennack’s long-ago original.
Rebennack’s voice is deeper and rougher than usual on Hank Williams Sr.’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”; it sounds as if he was struggling a bit.
Aaron Neville swoops in on the refrain of the Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line.” Nashville-based singer-songwriter Katie Pruitt, who released her debut album on Rounder Records in 2020, supplies country-tinged backing vocals, apparently in place of Rickie Lee Jones.
She also steps in to duet with Rebennack on the mid-tempo “Holy Water,” the first of three songs he co-wrote with Theriot.
Having fun, harkening back
Rebennack sounds like he’s having fun on “Sleeping Dogs Best Left Alone,” a full-bodied original bolstered by horns, organ and backing vocalists Yolanda Robinson and Jolynda “Kiki” Chapman. Unlike most of the album, it harkens back to his classic Night Tripper romps. To a lesser degree, so does “Give Myself a Good Talkin’ To.”
Just as quickly, the album’s closing track, “Guess Things Happen That Way,” reverts to Rebennack’s reality during the recording sessions. Torkanowsky’s plaintive Wurlitzer sets a reflective tone. Over an understated arrangement, Rebennack muses, “Don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way.”
In Johnny Cash’s 1958 recording of the song, he’s saying goodbye to his lost love. In Rebennack’s version, he’s simply saying goodbye.