Things Happen That Way
Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, Jr., better known as Dr. John, passed away in 2019. He had a very distinguished and successful career, popularizing Cajun-style music from New Orleans. He surprised everyone with a top ten single in 1973, “Right Place, Wrong Time”. He was even a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band for their first tour. Since his days as a session musician, and throughout his career, Dr. John never stopped working. In fact he was working right up until the time of his passing. He always had in mind to record an album of country songs done in his own style, to really mix the genres together. In many ways the resulting album, Things Happen That Way, is his version of the Ray Charles classic album Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music. Dr. John approaches the classic songs with his own voice and character.
In true Dr. John style, he takes on songs that one would expect and others that seem to be right out of left field. For example, he takes “End Of The Line” and turns it into a bluesy song with help from Aaron Neville. Some may not enjoy his arrangement but it is an interesting take on a now classic song. His version of Johnny Cash’s “Guess Things Happen That Way”, from which the album gets its title, is a moving interpretation. While Cash provides an upbeat style for the song, Dr. John zones into the sadness and despair of the song. That is an example of the beauty of the album and, really, Dr. John’s career. He finds the emotion of the song and utilizes his voice and music to express the underlying sentiment. He even covers his own song, “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” which sounds better than the original.
There are also three new songs that Dr. John wrote for the project and they are quite good and, in some cases, better than the covers he is performing. A song, such as “Sleeping Dogs Best Left Alone” (which was co-written with Shane Theriot of Darryl Hall and John Oates fame), which is a brilliant song. “Sometimes we scream for help, and still can’t be heard”, he sings and when one thinks of hurting songs, it doesn’t get much more hurting than that. Although he does cover the king of all hurting songs, Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, which comes off very well with a sparse arrangement.
Overall, this is a great album. Other guest voices pop up, like Willie Nelson, who joins Dr. John with the well-known gospel song “Gimmie Old Time Religion”. The two elderly performers complement each other and the end result is chilling in its beauty. Dr. John has always had the ability to make any song his own and this comes across on Things Happen That Way. Where the album falters is when he doesn’t go far enough and trusts himself to fully interpret the song on his own, such as the opening track, “Funny How Time Slips Away”. That particular song, while good, lacks the distinct flavour of the other songs on the album.
It seems that Dr. John had other albums planned and other projects he wanted to work on, and his unexpected passing ended those plans. But, Things Happen That Way was completed and it is a fine tribute to a wonderful artist. Dr. John was a very unique individual and artist. He presented music in his own distinct way and created his own sub-genre within the styles he worked. This album provides more evidence to the fact that he will be missed.
SPILL ALBUM REVIEW: DR. JOHN – THINGS HAPPEN THAT WAY