Country blues musician combines sophisticated lyrics with Delta groove

Madjack Records
Delta Joe Sanders releases his new album, Working Without a Net, at a free show Saturday at the Blue Monkey.

Madjack Records Delta Joe Sanders releases his new album, Working Without a Net, at a free show Saturday at the Blue Monkey.

Delta Joe Sanders CD release party

9 p.m. Saturday, the Blue Monkey-Midtown, 2012 Madison, with special guests John Kilzer and Kait Lawson. No cover. Information: 901-272-2583 or

Whether it has registered or not, you've seen the name Delta Joe Sanders in area music listings and on local marquees countless times. Sanders has been picking his brand of literate country blues in Memphis venues for more three decades, so long that the man and his music have settled into the landscape.

"I'm kind of an obscure guy around town, I guess," Sanders says from his home in the High Point area. "I know everybody. I grew up here. I'm just another guy at the bar."

His days of obscurity may be coming to an end with the new release of Working Without a Net, Sanders' first record for local roots music purveyor Madjack Records. Sanders will mark the release of the album Saturday with a free show at the Blue Monkey in Midtown, with special guests John Kilzer and Kait Lawson, label mates who have also released records in the past few weeks.

"This is probably my best. Everybody's been telling me that," says Sanders, comparing the new Jeff Powell-produced effort favorably to his previous personal best, the autobiographical Always Go With Your Heart. "I got a wider audience maybe on this album."

Befitting his nickname, Sanders was raised on a cotton plantation in Glover near Walls in DeSoto County, Miss., and his earliest musical experiences involved the blues as practiced by the workers there. When he was a teenager, his father died, and the family sold the plantation and moved to Memphis. At Memphis University School, Delta Joe, as he became known, fell in for the first time with other musicians. At the same time, his horizons were being broadened, thanks in large part to a teacher named William Hatchett.

"He was a great English teacher, and he turned me on to all kinds of literature," Sanders says of the development of his personal style, which combines the sophisticated wordplay you would expect from the Texas singer-songwriter school with an undeniably Delta groove. "When I wrote my own songs all these writing skills came out, so it was like Robert Frost singing a Furry Lewis song."

Sanders went to Mississippi State University, where he channeled his years on the plantation into a horticulture degree. Returning to Memphis, he began his career as a landscaper, a gig he continues today. But music was never far away.

In the early '80s, Sanders was part of the scene at the University of Memphis area club London Transport, where he hung around fellow tunesmiths like Keith Sykes and his onetime roommate Kilzer. In the '90s, he teamed with keyboardist and harmonica player Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms in The Memphis Sheiks, a Delta-style duo that made three records.

It wasn't until the dawn of the 21st century that Sanders began recording under his own name, first with 2001's Always Go With Your Heart, whose fans included super producer Chips Moman, and then in 2009 with Another Saturday Night.

Sanders' latest recording effort happened by chance. He was playing Sykes' annual songwriters weekend in Little Rock last year when at a postshow song swap, Powell came up and said he wanted to make a record with him.

Powell had to cull some of Sanders' hundreds of compositions, some dating back more than a decade, to come up with the 12 tracks on Working Without A Net. Sanders was pleased with the selections, which included several songs he didn't perform often live.

To preserve Sanders' live vibe, Powell cut the record at Sun Studio — a good omen for Sanders, whose first dog was named Elvis — with a cast that included Matt Ross-Spang, Luka Petersons, Sam Shoup, Rick Steff, Tommy Burroughs, Harry Peel, Susan Marshall and Reba Russell.

"I was the weakest link in that chain by far," laughs Sanders. "Fortunately, I wrote the songs."

Sanders, who of late has played more out of town than in, plans to hit the road in the next few months to support the new record, and he hopes to make more of them.

"I've got tons of songs," he says, recalling 19 new songs that he cut just the other day with Russell and engineer Dawn Hopkins. "I don't know if I'll do something with them, but I'd love to do another record. We'll just see what happens."

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