My Old Friend the Blues
Growing up in Boise, ID as an only child to older parents from the Silent Generation, I was surprised when I first really connected with blues music. It seemed to come out of nowhere, yet, felt like it had been there for ages. I had been given a little blue AM radio as a 6-year old to help entertain me and to help block out the strange world around me. 1970 was a confusing and volatile time, even in Boise. I was well-versed in pop music from my constant listening.
Fast forward a few years later and we had moved from downtown (across the street from a Civil War graveyard) to the country. We now had an acre of land on a hill that I got to mow weekly from age 11. I had been gifted an AM/FM stereo. FM was just coming into it's own in Boise at that time, circa 1975. The local college radio station, KBSU, was an incredibly eclectic source of musical education for me. The decidedly leftist DJs would play 30 minute sets that included Mannheim Steamroller, J.J. Cale, Stravinsky, Nick Drake, Kraftwerk, Savoy Brown, Rory Block, Valerie Carter & Phillip Glass. All over the place. This helped form my love of blues, classical and minimalist music.
One Saturday morning around age 13 I heard Lightnin' Hopkins for the first time. That was it. I believe it was a slow solo blues piece called Viet Nam War. I totally got it. I felt it in my bones, heart, mind and soul. That low-down blues feeling was in me and that song vibrated at a frequency that woke me up to it.
I began becoming a regular at local record stores, that lawn-mowing money came in handy, and purchased albums by Lightnin' Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf, the Yardbirds, and Sonny Boy Williamson while my friends were buying Styx, Bay City Rollers and Carpenters records. I found some blues aficionados at the record stores and learned a bit here and there. I got a guitar a year or so later and found that the A minor chord seemed to resonate with my own inner tones. I could pretty much play blues from the beginning. I had to learn the major scale, rock songs, folk chords and pop riffs. I never needed to learn the blues. It is my native musical language.
Fast forward to college, at Boise State (pre-Smurf turf) and I am thrilled to go see John Lee Hooker with Robert Cray at a small bar. Who gets there first, about an hour before the doors open? That would be me. I couldn't contain my excitement to see a blues legend and this smooth-singing up-and-coming artist. KBSU had been playing Cray's tune Bad Influence and I loved it. I even had his first album. Once the doors opened, I went to the bar where none other that Robert Cray was sitting by himself. I sat by him, but, didn't say a word. He smiled at me and said “Hi, I'm Robert.” I told him that I was a fan, had his record, and was pulling for him to become the next big act to break from the Pacific NW. He was very personable and generous. I asked him if ever got to play with John Lee and he said he'd sit in on a couple songs toward the end of every show. My mind was blown, but, there was more coming. Robert asked me if I'd like to meet John Lee. Um…..excuse me? YES!!!!! He takes me down to the basement of the club where John Lee is in his trademark suit and fedora at a small table with wine and grapes. The white backing musicians are sitting on the floor playing cards.
Robert introduces me and John Lee looks at my Jimi Hendrix t-shirt and asks “Do you like Jimi Hendrix?” I felt like it might have been a trick question, but, I decided to answer honestly. “Yes, I said.” John Lee gruffly retorts “Jimi Hendrix was the greatest @$#%& blues guitarist that ever lived. I made an album with him in France. It never came out.” He then looked at Robert, and I was politely, if not apologetically, escorted out.
The John Lee Hooker show was a bit sloppy, but, Robert Cray and his band were sharp and polished. It was an unforgettable night for me, obviously.
Fast forward a couple of years later. I'm still in college and I am now the host of the Blues Deluxe show every Sunday night for 4 hours. I got to spin the latest and greatest blues that our library had and help keep the blues alive in Boise, ID.
A few years later, I moved to Austin, TX on Stevie Ray Vaughan's birthday. I played some blues on my own, but, had never really played blues with a true artist of the form. My band and I had been invited to an all-day live music event at KUT radio around 1992. I remember bringing my Taylor guitar into the hallway and seeing Charlie & Will Sexton, David Grissom, Jesse Taylor, and David Holt. These were some guitar-slingin' heroes of blues, rock and roots music. They were several leagues ahead of me at that time. There was a blind blues musician, Snuff Johnson, warming-up to go on next. Upon hearing his authentic Texas, acoustic blues, I started playing some licks from across the crowded room. There were other guitarists noodling, but, I was trying to noodle with Snuff. Suddenly, he says “Who's that guitar player?” Of course, every one looks at Charlie Sexton, who just shakes his head. Snuff says “play that lick again.” I seize the moment and play a Lightnin' Hopkins lick in E. Snuff says, “yeah that's the one. Come play with me now.” I'm not going to lie, that was a huge thrill for me on many levels. Snuff told me afterwards that I could play with him anytime and that I was a fine blues player. That meant the world to me, still does. Snuff's health was in decline and he wasn't around much longer. It wasn't until decades later, on ukulele, that I began exploring the blues again.
Ukulele is a surprisingly great instrument for playing the blues. If you feel an affinity for this music, please consider joining me on a year-long blues journey in my upcoming monthly class Ukulele Blues Club. More info is below.
Once More with Feeling,