Sunday, January 29, 2012

The 2012 International Blues Challenge: Donkey Thoughts

In three days I put the nose of my big blue truck in the wind and head east for Memphis, Tennessee.  This will be the second time that I’ve represented the Spa City Blues Society of Hot Springs, Arkansas, in the solo/duo category at the International Blues Challenge.

I willingly concede that the IBC manages to capture everything that I love and hate about modern blues.  On the one hand, you have hundreds and hundreds of bluesmen and women, most of them kind, interesting, good folks, immensely talented, playing the music that I grew up with and love.  One of the truly beautiful things about the IBC is that the musicians are not competing against each other, and that, of course, makes it much easier to lean into everyone else’s performances and just DIG.  And, lets not forget, that there will be approximately one beautiful National resonator guitar for every ten acts…as I will explain below, that’s a lot of fine, fine guitars.

On the other hand, the IBC is an intensely commercial venue and that captures much of what I think is wrong with postmodern blues.  That, indeed, is the very point – to serve as a catalyst for commercializing its participants, and the blues, into greater common awareness and popular success.  Nothing in particular wrong with any of that, though it creates a strong tension between the art, the craft, and good songwriting and . . . well, and what sells beer and makes the (white) girls shake it.

Then there are the rules.  Rules!  Not rules like, “Don’t drink unsealed whiskey” or “Don’t mess with the club owner’s daughter.”  Rules like: You lose a point if your digital picture is the wrong size; if your bio has too many characters; if you play too long; if you don’t check on time.  Rules!

I came to terms with this in two ways.  First, the IBC is, at its heart, a genuinely good event.  It does good for its community and its musicians.  As a practicing lawyer, I believe in the modern jury system and believe that juries get it right most of the time.  I feel the same way about the IBC.  Take, for example, Michael “Ironman” Burks, a past IBC winner.  Burks is the real deal…actually did work on the auto line in Detroit, did grow up in the Arkansas countryside, and is fiery guitar player in the tradition of Son Seals and Albert King.  I have also met him and shared a stage with him a various blues jams – yes, local jams – and I can verify that he is a bona fide prince, if not a king.  Burks deserves to be able to make a living in blues, and I fully credit the IBC for helping to elevate him to a stage where I believe he is doing exactly that.

Second, “competition” in blues is a time-honored tradition.  I am reminded of tales from Muddy Waters’ early days in Chicago, circa 1954, when, Muddy and Little Walter and Jimmie Rogers (imagine!) would call themselves the “Headhunters” and go from club to club looking to cut heads:

“We used to just do it for kicks,” said Jimmie Rogers, “to keep from sitting around at home.  As soon as we would get in a place, somebody would want us to play.  We would go to the car and maybe get an amp and quick bring it there and set up and jam a few numbers.  We could take the gig if we wanted it, but it wasn’t paying nothing, so we just drink and have some fun. . . . And other bands, they would be glad for us to come around, because they were trying to get into the beat that we had.”  

To put the whole thing in perspective, consider that the IBC consists of:

748 musicians from 40 states and 16 countries (which also means about 70 Nationals!)
575 performances
226 acts
20 venues on Beale Street
108 judges
Over 200 volunteers

So there it is.  Headed east.  Get donkey, stay donkey!

(Department of Credit Where Credit is Due: The Jimmie Rogers quote is from the excellent Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, by Robert Gordon)

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Six-Fingered Hound Dog

The third thing missing from the Oxford American’s 2012 Southern Music issue?  The six fingers of Hound Dog Taylor.

Hound Dog is the rare Chicago bluesman to hail from Natchez, Mississippi.  His hard, electrified slide ride falls somewhere between Elmore James and George Thorogood, a massive wall of good-time, house rockin’ music in the key of open-E.  There is a rumor that Freddy King stole “Hideaway” from Hound Dog.  This tale alone, tall or not, would be sufficient to cement Hound Dog’s place in the bluescape. 

But I’m not here to write a biography.  The blues turns men into freaks – or maybe it takes the freakish to find the blues.  Hard drinking, fast living, prone to perversion, creatures of the wild American night.  Mean, sly, and lo-fi.  I first saw this freakishly enchanting picture on the cover of Guitar Player magazine when I was about eight years old, and I’ve never forgotten it.