Get The Blues!

Bing Futch - "Unresolved Blues" - $15.00

R.L. Burnside at the House Of Blues Orlando 9/15/97

R.L. Burnside at the House Of Blues Orlando 9/15/97

Truth be told, I've loved the blues for a long time, but didn't actually start playing the blues until 1999.  That's when I got off tour, wrote "Interstate 10 Blues" and began performing it with my band Mohave.  Two years earlier, during my stint as a journalist for Florida publications such as The Orlando Weekly, Ink-19 Magazine and Jam, I had been invited to become part of the working press corps at the brand-new House of Blues at Walt Disney World.  Opening night was September 15th, 1997 and sported an awesome lineup including The Kinsey Report, T-Model Ford, R.L. Burnside and Tab Benoit.  Suffice it to say that things got real up in there that night.

Back then, though, I didn't feel like I had any ownership of the blues.  Up till that point, my biggest blues cred was going to see "The Blues Brothers" on opening day during the summer of 1980 and a lot of people will tell you that it was a great movie, but real blues wasn't the star.  It wasn't until I met my wife, Jae, who is a huge blues fan, that I really began to listen to blues on a regular basis yet still without that ownership.

T-Model Ford at the House of Blues Orlando 9/15/97

T-Model Ford at the House of Blues Orlando 9/15/97

And when I say "ownership", I mean authenticity.  I hadn't spent a long time soaking in the music, hadn't lived enough to want to cry out to the sky and bleed my soul through my fingers, didn't have the skills to pay the bills and lacked the focus necessary to study the musical language.  As time went on, however, I began to pick up bits and pieces and found the burning desire to dig down deep and communicate my soul in the primal way that blues music does. I didn't want to be a pretender.  I wanted to come by it in a real way.

So, I listened, attended shows, went way back in history and grew a little older.  I talked with blues players, tried to match what they were doing on the guitar with what I was trying to do on the mountain dulcimer as an un-schooled, ear-playing upstart and couldn't really make any headway until Steve Eulberg came to our house to stay one winter and played a riff while I was cooking breakfast.  I stopped in my tracks and said, "do that again" while watching his fingers.  He had played a minor pentatonic scale, what I'd come to learn as a major cornerstone for blues music.  I tell him still to this day how much of a breakthrough that breakfast revelation was.

The Kinsey Report at opening night of The House Of Blues Orlando 9/15/97

The Kinsey Report at opening night of The House Of Blues Orlando 9/15/97

Flash forward a bit to a dulcimer festival where I was a featured artist and instructor. Right before the evening concert, one of the local solo acts was sporting a pork pie hat and vest and when I asked him what he was going to play that night on the mountain dulcimer, he responded with "the blues." Well, I thought, I'm going to pay close attention to what he does since I'm on this journey to bring the blues alive on the mountain dulcimer. Now, I'm not one to pooh-pooh anyone's efforts on any instrument and I'm quick to encourage folks as they find their way through the brambled forests of music, but I'm just gonna say that what this individual was presenting proudly as "the blues" quite simply wasn't.  He was a good player, no flies on him.  But, it was a misinterpreting of the very soul of the blues and he laid it out there as the real deal. 

If this guy was going around teaching people that his facsimile of the blues was authentic, then I had some work to do in setting the record straight in the community of mountain dulcimer players.  It was decided right then and there that I was going to make teaching authentic Delta blues on the mountain dulcimer a number one priority. That's not a cocky thing.  That's a preservation-of-the-musical-culture thing.

Over the next few years, I taught my "Mountain Dulcimer Blues" workshop all across the country, wrote articles for Mel Bay's Dulcimer Sessions and Dulcimer Players News and published the book "Blues Method For Mountain Dulcimer 101."  Hands-down, those workshops were my most widely attended classes and the book remains a best-seller as of this writing.  From California to Connecticut, I discovered that people from all walks of life shared  a passion for this music and really wanted to connect with it, often wondering, as I did, if you could even use the mountain dulcimer to feel the blues. I'm happy to say that there are a lot more blues mountain dulcimer players in the world now.

Still, I was teaching basic form and using snippets of classic tunes to help people get the feel for the style as well as the lifestyle.  Besides penning "Red-Headed Lover" for Jae as a Valentine's Day present one year, I still hadn't done a lot of my own writing and the focus in my music continued to be a wide one; anything and everything under the sun was inspiration for my songwriting. Though I knew some players, they were all pretty rock-solid and I didn't feel skilled enough to jam with them in order to pick up some experience.  There was one blues open mic where I performed with a pickup band and it went well enough, but I still left the stage feeling like I was out of my league. Then,  in 2007, we went to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge to support The Smokin' Torpedoes, who had won the Central Florida Blues Challenge, (put together by the Orange Blossom Blues Society, an organization that Jae had been a founding board member of and, for a while, served as its president) and were competing in the IBC.  By now, I was starting to feel like I was ready to kick it up a notch and really start firing up my blues experience (this all took place before that fateful festival, which was kinda the final straw.)  IBC is amazing.  Beale Street is jumping every night with each club showcasing the very best blues bands and solo/duo performers from all around the world.  It's a huge party with the most amazing music in one of blues music's high holy places.  We went around to every venue, enjoying the bands, supporting the Torps, really getting into the rootsy rawness of the solo and duo performers. Even after Jae called it a night, I was out there prowling up and down the street, popping into every venue and letting the music wash over me in waves of indigo.

As tends to be the case with artists who aren't actually there to be seen and heard, I had a nagging need to whip out the dulcimer and pick a little.  So, Saturday night, I parked myself on a little portable stool outside the Orpheum Theater and began picking as people arrived for the finals of the competition.  A few people stopped, gazed curiously at the instrument, smiled and moved on.  Good enough, keep it up.  Some walked by with a sidelong glance and kept moving. Okay, just keep playing.

Presently, along comes a grizzled old guy in a trenchcoat and hat.  Looked like he had been sleeping on a bus for four days and stumbled his way onto Beale.  I was concentrating on the fretboard and was trying not to make eye contact when he says to me in a whiskey-soaked voice, "hey, can I sit in, man?"  A jam?  On Beale?  Well, how cool is that?  And something about the guy told me, "dude, he's somebody, you'd better not suck."  So I began playing "Interstate 10 Blues" as he whipped out a harmonica and began wailing.  And I mean wailing.  Suddenly, I felt out of my element again, and sort of lost my place a bit.  He stopped playing briefly as I struggled to find my place, brought the harp down just a tad and said to me, "you alright, you alright, keep goin'" and then put the harmonica back to his lips and played, looking at me peacefully out of the corner of his eye.

About that time, a crowd began to form and they created a semi-circle around us.  People clapping, stomping their feet, groovin' and movin', smiling and nodding their heads.  I kept playing, thinking to myself "who is this guy?" and realized that my stock approach to the song was about to reach the end .  But I didn't want to stop, not with the crowd packed in so thick.  It was starting to reach out to the curb now.  So, I improvised, went at it with something that I'd never done before and I looked up at the man and said, "how's this?" and he nodded his head with approval and continued to rock the harp with everything he had.  A chill skated up my back and I closed my eyes, soaking in it all.  This is what I'd been missing.  That sense that the blues unites us all, no matter how young or old, regardless of how skilled or how green.  The level ground that is blues music kisses the souls of the shoes of everyone who opens their hearts to it.  This guy didn't care if I wasn't the best.  He just seemed to care that I was playing the blues.  Period.

At some point, I felt the moment was right to take it home and I mumbled something like "here we go" and we wrapped it up.  The crowd applauded mightily and the old bluesman in the trench coat leaned over, shook my hand strongly and said, "you done good, man, that's alright" before thanking me for letting him sit in and then disappearing around the corner into the Orpheum. The crowd dispersed slowly, leaving only one man standing there with a smile on his face, shaking his head in disbelief.  I cocked my head and looked at him closely.  "What?" I asked.

He looked at me and said, "wow, man - you jammed with Watermelon Slim."

Watermelon Slim; keeping it real.

Watermelon Slim; keeping it real.

I did a really great job of pretending that I knew who this was, smiled and nodded my head.  After the man left, I whipped out my phone, quickly looked up the guy and just about shit a kitten.  

The most amazing thing about the encounter was how encouraging Slim was to this blues neophyte.  There was no ego, no "you're not worthy", no condescension or trying to show me up. The guy just wanted to sit in with a cat who was out there on the street trying to connect. Viewed in this new light, the encounter seemed like kind of a blues baptism, like a blessing from an experienced bluesman to a young greenstick.  The message was, "keep at it."  And I took it to heart.

Flash forward seven years and I've just been named "Solo Award Winner" at the 2014 Central Florida Blues Challenge.  After competing against four full-sized blues bands by myself, the judges (one of them, Jeff Willey of The Smokin' Torpedoes) had scored me high enough to the point where the Orange Blossom Blues Society decided, for the first time in their history, to send not only the winning band (The Pitbull Of Blues Band) to the IBC, but also send a representative in the solo/duo category.  I didn't enter the contest to win.  I entered at Jae's suggestion that I was "ready."  I went, prepared to do my best while introducing the audience to an instrument that they probably had never seen or heard before and that is my intention as I head to Memphis later this month.  The best players from all around the globe are going to be there and, this time, I've been studying my ass off, soaking up the history and dwelling within the music instead of looking at it from the outside.  Folks have been asking me for a blues album for quite some time now and I knew that I should probably have one by the time I arrived in Memphis.  So, shortly after my win in Orlando, I began working on "Unresolved Blues."

I believe it's the most honest album I've ever done, and I mean that not just from some kind of autobiographical well that you tap into when you want to mine the emotion out of a tune, but I'm talking about the performances.  When I listen to a lot of the older blues players like Tampa Red, Bukka White, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Blind Boy Fuller, Big Bill Broonzy and even more recent contemporaries like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, I hear real.  I hear heart and soul. I'm not picking up the impurities of barrelhouse recordings, the occasionally out-of-tune guitar or pitchy vocals; none of that shit matters.  What matters is the essence of spirit that pours out of each and every note on the fretboard, no matter how acrobatic or how simple.  A lot of the North Mississippi blues players I've listened to don't come close to throwing down the technical wizardry and sophistication of artists like Stevie Ray Vaughn or Buddy Guy, but that's not the point of their music.  Often times, a working man's reward for a long hard day of labor was to sit down with a bottle of liquor and a guitar and bleed all over the strings and cry all out of the mouth.  You don't pitch-correct it or clean it up, you just let it spill.

That's exactly what I did with this record.

And man, it's kind of scary as hell to just let yourself hang out like that but, always keeping Watermelon Slim's supportive visage in the back of my mind, the point of the thing is to do the thing and if people are going to reject your effort, then there are a whole lotta other musicians that they can turn to and a whole bunch more folks who will dig what you do.  I wanted to make a personal, spiritual, real record and that's what was released today.  Still, wanting it to be as good as it could've been, I pushed myself to the limit on each and every song, making my fingers do things that they had never done before and surfing out into the abyss with every track.  I even drew blood on myself with the song "Harperville", trying to coax as much rattle out of the resonator as I could.  I dug down deep into the soil of my soul and dredged up the combined feelings of years and years of this and that.  I told tales on myself, changed names on the tales I told on others and tapped into the root of my being in order to let those flood gates open up and, damn, it felt like being baptized all over again.  Shiny with water and sweat and spit, I wrote, arranged, recorded and mixed and mastered this thing in about two weeks and now, that orgasm of honesty is already being played hundreds of times on the internet and being flown and driven to the front doors of people around the world. They call it a "release" for a lot of reasons, I'm thinking.  It's a release to channel your essence into sound that others will partake of and it's a release when you let it go, stop messing with it in post-production (no time for that - get it out!) and realize that there's no pulling it back in now.

It's not yours solely anymore.  It belongs to blues fans, too.  Some will connect with it and some will pass it up but, most importantly, many will hear it.  The soul through a megaphone creates a cosmic feedback and I'm thinking that, next time, I'm gonna give it a little more dirt.

And I'll keep hearing Watermelon Slim's raspy voice in my ear saying "you alright, you alright, keep goin'."

P.S.  For a bit of a rewind, here's a link to an archive of my article about opening night at The House Of Blues Orlando.

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