Maybe it was his Mississippi roots, or perhaps it was his way with a lyric, but whatever the reason, B.B. King, who would have turned 94 on September 16th, had a certain affinity for country music and country songwriting. Over his career, he played with country pickers from Willie Nelson to Marty Stuart, and sang with the likes of George Jones and Sheryl Crow — always with dazzling results. Here, we look at the seven greatest country moments from the bluesman’s wildly influential career.
In 1994, country and R&B singers like Conway Twitty, Reba McEntire, Gladys Knight and even the Pointer Sisters came together for Rhythm, Country and Blues, an album that connected the dots between the genres. But it was most memorable for pairing up two royals: B.B. King and George Jones. Together, the vocalists interpreted the story-song "Patches," about an Alabama boy growing up in poverty who's asked to take care of his family after his father dies from a heart attack. Both the bluesman and the Possum knew a thing or two about humble beginnings, and they infused this tearjerker with their own hardscrabble experiences. While King speaks the lyrical story, Jones soars in the chorus, and it stands as a rare meeting between two of music's most iconic figures.
More than 60 years after Louis Jordan recorded the definitive version of this jump-blues classic, Brad Paisley got a piece of the action too, sharing the spotlight with B.B. King during a tag-teamed cover of "Let the Good Times Roll" in 2008. The collaboration appeared on Paisley's Play album, a predominantly instrumental release, but "Good Times" did feature both a guitar and vocal duel between the two players. Paisley sounds a little squeaky-clean and PG-rated, as though his idea of unleashing a night of good times revolves around a family trip to Chuck E. Cheese, but King brings the gritty, guttural Delta dirt, howling his verses with a ferocity that belied his 83 years.
B.B. King toured heavily throughout his career, but he remained seated during his final years of performances. Here, a group of A-list guitar heroes — Keith Urban, Buddy Guy and John Mayer — join him during the 2009 Grammy Awards, all four players remaining in their chairs out of solidarity. If their two-minute version of “Bo Diddley” lacks something in stature, though, it certainly doesn’t skip on swagger, with each musician taking a turn at the mic before moving into a game of pass-the-solo.
“Listen to the blues they’re playing,” Willie Nelson sang during “Night Life,” his slow-smoked tribute to the wee small hours of the morning. Decades later, B.B. King did more than listen — he joined in, covering the song throughout several decades’ worth of live performances and even recording it for his 1997 duets album, Deuces Wild. Here, he nearly triples the original tune’s length in a live performance from 1984, kicking things off with his own five-piece band before welcoming Nelson to the stage. Together, they trade quick, bluesy blasts of fretwork firepower, with Nelson strumming his trusty acoustic, Trigger, and King letting loose on his favorite electric, Lucille.
Marty Stuart may be country’s preeminent historian, but the ascot-favoring picker sure knows how to moan the blues. Yet Stuart and King shared more than just a musical kinship — both men were born in Mississippi. And you can hear that familiarity all through “Confessin’ the Blues,” Stuart’s contribution to King’s 1997 Deuces Wild album. While Stuart normally can’t play a note that doesn’t evoke country and bluegrass, here, inspired by King, he effortlessly draws upon the swampy sounds of his youth, pushing along this Jay McShann number (which was also covered by the Rolling Stones) with ample grease.
To mark his 80th birthday, the bluesman enlisted some of his likeminded pals for an album of duets, B.B. King & Friends: 80. While Sheryl Crow hadn't officially "gone country" by then, her soulful voice held a hint of the quaver that she'd employ on her underrated 2013 LP Feels Like Home. Here, it complements King's husky growl, making for one of the album's most aching collaborations. "Need Your Love So Bad," dating back to the Fifties, was an oft-covered blues song, but in the hands of King and Crow it rings with a renewed urgency.
With performances by Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard, the kickoff Farm Aid concert in 1985 focused heavily on country music. That didn’t stop B.B. King from reminding everyone that country and blues music share the same southern roots, though, making his point not with any sort of soapbox speech, but with a joyous performance of “How Blue Can You Get.” He even replaces a broken guitar string halfway through the song, all the while singing the formal trousers off his 1964 hit.