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Reese Wynans

Biography

Reese Wynans is everywhere. Scan the history books and he's there on every page:  a vital strand of rock ‘n' roll DNA, present at a thousand cultural flashpoints. Over the last five decades, you might have found him cutting his teeth with the early nucleus of the Allman Brothers Band. Taking the stage with Boz Scaggs. Saving the '80s blues scene with Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble. Bringing the blues to the people with Joe Bonamassa. Adding his thumbprint on piano and B3 to the work of Larry Carlton, Delbert McClinton, Los Lonely Boys – and hundreds more.

During a celebrated career that recently saw him inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, the one omission on Wynans' résumé was that this fabled keys man had never released a solo record – until now. Sweet Release is the album we always knew Wynans had up his sleeve: a glorious collision of stellar musicianship, classic material given fresh mojo and a glittering roll-call of star guests – including Keb' Mo', Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Warren Haynes and Bonamassa himself on production – that confirms the deep respect Wynans commands on the scene.

To play Sweet Release is to be led by the songs through Wynans' fascinating backstory. His roots in '50s Florida are given a tip of the hat in the form of two tracks by Tampa Red: the local blues legend whose piano-men, Thomas Dorsey and Big Maceo, would figure highly amongst Wynans' early influences. "I loved the tinkly old blues piano stuff," he remembers. "Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnnie Johnson with Chuck Berry – something about the piano always did it for me. When I got in my first band, The Prowlers, I bought an electric piano and I never thought about doing anything else. It was the way my brain worked. I wanted to play piano in a rock ‘n' roll band."

Other songs salute the '70s, when the keys man could be found flanking Boz Scaggs as the rising songwriter established his reputation on the West Coast. For Wynans, one song in Scaggs' acclaimed catalogue shone brightest, and decades later, it gives Sweet Release its title track. "I thought it was a great song back then," he reflects, "and through the years, I've been waiting for people to cover Sweet Release. But no one ever did, so I suggested it for this album."

Of course, the Sweet Release tracklisting wouldn't be complete without a nod to the great Stevie Ray Vaughan. In 1985, Wynans' world changed forever when the iconic Texas bluesman drafted him into the Double Trouble band for the era-defining Soul To Soul and In Step albums. "It was unbelievable to play on a stage with those guys," he remembers. "I have to tell you that I hardly ever heard Stevie play a bad note. He was on his game every single night. It was daunting, because I had to step up every night as well. And of course, the Stevie songs on Sweet Release – Crossfire, Say What!, Riviera Paradise and Hard To Be – are our tribute to him." 

In 1990, SRV's tragic death robbed the blues world of an all-time great and Wynans of a cherished friend. But the keys man bravely brushed himself down and walked on, soon becoming one of Nashville's most in-demand players with credits for headline acts including Lee Roy Parnell, Brooks & Dunn and Hank Williams Jr. In 2015, the seed of Sweet Release was planted when post-millennial blues master Joe Bonamassa called up with a tantalising offer. "He wanted to do a series of shows at Red Rocks where we would feature the music of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters," says Wynans. "And y'know, that's right up my alley. So things went on from there."

Sweet Release feels like a musician coming home. Wynans was already a familiar face at Ocean Way: the Nashville studio where he'd previously added fairy-dust to endless tracks for other artists. And when sessions began for his own solo album, it was a joy to reconnect with the Double Trouble rhythm section of Tommy Shannon (bass) and Chris Layton (drums) – plus modern guitar great Kenny Wayne Shepherd – and lay down stinging contemporary takes of SRV gems like Crossfire and Say What!. "Everybody knew the songs," Wynans recalls. "There was hardly any need to even run through them – it was perfect right from the start, and we played each song three times at the max. There's a lot of people who play Stevie songs and try to sound like he used to. With Kenny Wayne, it's like he has the same DNA that Stevie had. He just wanted to rip it – and I just loved what he brought to it."

Meanwhile, Bonamassa lent his own famed guitar skills to SRV moments like Riviera Paradise. "I'd always thought of that song as a movie soundtrack," considers Wynans of the In Step highlight, "so I wanted to do it with all the strings on it. And I wanted people to realise that it's OK to play that song, that it's not some untouchable song nobody should ever play. Joe's solo on Riviera Paradise was beautiful. His solo on Tampa Red's So Much Trouble was very fiery, too, and so was his vocal."

Even on the year's most star-studded record, there's one name that shines brightest. For a full half-century, Reese Wynans has been the engine-room behind America's greatest roots music. Now, with Sweet Release, this modest legend has delivered the long-awaited solo album that puts his own name top of the bill and places his world-class talent in the spotlight. "I've never had an album out with my name on it before," he considers, "so I'm very excited. I'd like this record to make people feel happy and celebrate the music. Because that's what we were doing…"

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