Almost twenty years after he first started touring in the Southeast, Azar signed his first major label record deal with Mercury in 2001. The resulting album Waitin’ on Joe, included a top five single “I Don’t Have to Be Me (‘Til Monday)” and the title track, best known for its corresponding video clip featuring Academy Award-winning film star Morgan Freeman. But Azar’s brand of delta blues failed to bust through radio’s brick wall. Instead of enduring an endless cycle of false starts, he exited the major label system.
Released on his own Dang Records, Indianola (named for the Mississippi birthplace of B.B. King) is a tribute to his down-home roots and a symbol of his vast store of experience. He’s pushed most of the right buttons on an album that teems with the gritty reality that stems from a life fully lived. By engineering and producing the set, along with writing or co-writing every track, Azar firmly establishes an engaging musical identity.
“Crowded” kicks off Indianola with a complaint, with Azar railing against a shrinking world (“I moved out to the country, but the city keeps movin’ in”). And as the album unravels, Azar’s longings for emotional freedom form the common thread. “Flatlands” takes him on a journey through “a thousand acres of cotton rows” as he seeks the comfort of the wide-open country. Later, in “Still Tryin’ to Find My Way Around,” digs under the skin with its story of a misdirected soul, sweetened by a beautiful steel guitar.
The strongest moments on Indianola come courtesy of Azar and co-writer Rafe Van Hoy. The pair’s artistic chemistry is evident on “The River’s Workin’,” a relevant portrait of back-breaking manual labor as a means of living. “Empty Spaces” is a reflective number tinged with traditional gospel, as Azar describes life as a “search of the pieces and the parts” that eventually fill our needs. And he seems to have stumbled upon what’s truly important in the Radney Foster co-write “You’re My Life,” where he worships a faithful wife, his first source of security during hard times.
The slightest stumbling block on Indianola is the fluctuation in musical arrangements, prompting some of the consistency in the collection to be lost. The best moments are the simplest. Two hidden tracks, “Mississippi Minute” and “Highway 61,” are bathed with acoustic settings, suggesting that Azar’s true strengths aren’t in the polished product, but in matter-of-fact musical statements that cut right to the chase without screeching guitars and bombastic production. By any stretch of the imagination, Indianola isn’t a radical change for Azar, but taking ownership of his craft has enabled him to follow his own path and reach deep for meaning within the music.