(In addition to the GRAMMY Awards, The Recording Academy presents Special Merit Awards recognizing contributions of significance to the recording field, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trustees Award and Technical GRAMMY Award. In the days leading up to the 55th GRAMMY Awards, GRAMMY.com will present the tributes to the 2013 Special Merit Awards recipients.)
When one becomes deeply familiar with the blues genre it is glaringly evident how the different regional styles connect, evolve and intersect yet remain very clearly individual in their own personalities. Rural and urban blues, country and city blues, electric and acoustic blues, solo troubadours, small combos, big band blues. And there's Mississippi Delta, Memphis, Chicago, and Texas blues. All rich with flavorings of their own, all rich with a legendary lineage of mythical names, all rich with a clear musical evolution dating back to the 1920s and further, to chain gangs, field hollers and experiences deeply rooted in Africa and specifically Mali.
To understand the importance of Sam Lightnin' Hopkins requires a look at Texas blues itself. Texas, often referred to as a "country within a country," stays true to its reputation as a century-long hotbed for the blues alongside Mississippi and Chicago. Its style: wide-open, flashy, dangerous, rule-bending, and always swinging. Its lineage staggeringly rich: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Lead Belly, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin' Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Lil' Son Jackson, Freddie King, Larry Davis, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Pee Wee Crayton, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbons, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and many others.
Lightnin' Hopkins was born in Centerville, Texas, in 1912. His roots lie in the rural blues sounds of Texas and the Deep Ellum area. His foundational influence was the seminal blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson. Legend has it that as a young boy he met and followed Jefferson around street corners and church gatherings in Texas, absorbing, learning, and eventually acompanying him. It is believed that Hopkins was the only guitarist to ever play alongside the great Blind Lemon.
Lightnin' was the bridge between ancient and modern, similar to the great legends Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf who bridged the Mississppi Delta style to Chicago blues. What is particularly important to Lightnin's place in this legacy was his bridging of the rural country style characterized by a singular man, wielding his voice, his poetry and an acoustic guitar into the plugged-in electric guitar-led drum-and-bass combos headed by Freddie King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others. He carried the primitive rawness and intimacy of his rural Texas blues forefathers into the futuristic and powerful modern and electrified sound of the second half of the 20th century, which is still a part of mainstream Texas blues and Southern rock.
His landmark three-piece combo Herald recordings bear witness to an earthy power that would inform later power trios such as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream and ZZ Top.
Lightnin's sound was deep, raw and primitive yet had the flash and swagger of a switchblade knife. His vocals were raspy and rich and his quicksilver guitar playing incorporated hypnotic open-string bass lines and percussive tapping mixed with dynamic fingerpicking and fluid single-note lines across the entire fretboard. His lyrics spoke of heartbreak and love, sexual innuendo and the racial issues of the Deep South. He had humor and charm in both his lyrics and instrumental prowess. It is speculated that Lightnin' recorded nearly 1,000 songs and more albums than any other bluesman.
(Native Texan Gary Clark Jr. has drawn favorable comparisons to such guitar icons as Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. His latest album is 2012's Blak And Blu. Fellow Texan Doyle Bramhall II is an in-demand guitarist and songwriter whose songs have been recorded by Eric Clapton, among others. He co-wrote "Glitter Ain't Gold [Jumpin' For Nothin']" on Blak And Blu.)