When a Music Maker Partner artist passes away, folks always ask me, how many artists do we still have with us and is this the end of Music Maker? This is exactly why I started the Music Maker Relief Foundation in 1994. Blues fieldworkers in the 1970s and 1980s such as Peter B. Lowery, George Mitchell, Axel Kustner and Bill Ferris all did incredible work finding wonderful artists. However, these artists they found still remained in total obscurity. The ones that lived until the late 1990s found some great recognition, such as Son Thomas, R.L. Burnside, Othar Turner and Precious Bryant. Most passed away with very few knowing of their incredible talent. There is this thought that when the old generation passes, it is gone for good. This is very much the case with the blues. Many ardent blues enthusiasts thought that when Son House and Mississippi John Hurt passed that it was all gone – no one had told them about the many authentic blues talents that still existed but were shadowed by poverty and geography.
Years ago, Adolphus Bell, the Worlds Greatest One Man Band, drove up from Birmingham, Alabama to do a recording session with us. While here he delivered a cassette and promo photo of Dr. GB Burt, a fellow that had helped him fix his broken down van. Listening to the cassette later that week, I was blown away. It was the worst sounding demo I had heard in my life, recorded on the cheapest cassette, which had been recorded on over and over, the guitar was blaring and distorted, the vocals we muted and clear as a bell at the same time. The incredible purity and talent somehow transcended the medium. I had to meet this guy.
The next month Adolphus drove Dr. Burt up to Music Maker to record. My first question was how did he get his incredible raunchy guitar sound. He smiled and showed me his beautiful electric 12-string guitar. I asked what amps he used and he smiled again, I used two Marshall Stacks (these are the most powerful amps that were designed by Pete Townshend of The Who). I asked him where did you do that? He smiled, and said “In my kitchen.”
We tried to recreate that sound on his first record; we got close but not all the way.
Over the weekend, Music Maker artist Cary Morin visited us at the Music Maker Grotto to have Aaron and I do a Tin Type session with him. We were fortunate to have interns Swathi and Thomas on hand to help!
Cary is of the Crow Nation of Wyoming. He has toured since he was in his early 20s with different bands. With his last kid off to college, Cary and his wife got rid of most of their possessions, bought a small Winnebago, rented out their house and have hit the road, touring throughout the States going town to town, state to state, show to show.
Last month T-Bone Burnett called up Rhiannon Giddens and asked her to be part of a special concert at The Town Hall in NYC to be filmed by Joel and Ethan Cohen that will be aired on Showtime in December. This concert special is in support of their incredible film “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I had the privilege to go a preview of this film earlier in the year at the GRAMMYs. It is a remarkable film on the often underlooked era of the folk music movement before Bob Dylan came around. Justin Timberlake, who plays Jim Berkey in the film, looks like Paul Clayton, one of my favorite performers of this era. Paul was the man that first recorded Etta Baker, so I have always been intrigued by this man. I could talk on and on about this film.
Rhiannon had just finished months of touring and was back in Ireland with her husband where her daughter has just started school. She flew back to NYC specifically for the show. The rehearsals were amazing, with such incredible talent hanging around. Sitting around with Joan Baez, Elvis Costello, the Punch Brothers, Gillian Welsh and so many others.
Aaron Greenhood and I have been working hard on photo shoots of Music Maker artists for the last couple of years. Lately, we have been learning and practicing the art of wet plate photography. We’ve written about this before, but it is most often recognized by the photographs taken in the time of the Civil War. Modern master photographer Sally Mann has used this process extensively. Aaron went to school with one of Sally’s kids, and her work has had a profound effect on me. As a young photo student we were drilled in the works of Ansel Adams: all about clarity, symphonic previsualization of the photograph. Sally prays for the beautiful mistake when she does wet plate. She is such a master photographer, so at times I wonder if this is just a sales pitch, as I think she is complete control as an artist. Leaving that aside, getting into wet plate, Aaron and I are attempting to master the art, so we are making lots of mistakes constantly. In every step of the process there are 100s of mistakes that can be made, and we seem to find new ones to make with every plate.
This past weekend, Aaron and I got together and practiced our wet plate and got some fascinating images. Our plan is that by the end of the summer we will have gotten better, and be able to really get more control of what we are doing. We were jumping up and down this weekend as we got an image on every plate, and that was fun. Here are the results from our weekend testing:
One hot summer day, I was on the porch of Ezelle’s drink house with Captain Luke listening to his wild stories about Guitar Gabriel. He trailed off of one particularly interesting tale, despite my pleas to continue. Then, to my surprise, he picked up my guitar and started to strum a strong country beat and sang a wonderful ode to his old mule.
I had heard Luke sing dozens of old blues and sentimental songs. He always had great interpretations of classics and a unique sense of timing. Until that point, I had never heard him perform a song that he had written. Luke had grown up on the farm, and his tune brought me back to the furrows of that South Carolina farm, walking barefoot behind his Uncle Jessie as they toiled in the brutally hot Southern summers. The song was joyful and it demonstrated a mastery of the folk song idiom. I always sensed the Captain was a great artist, and if he had only one song to write, he could not have done better.
In 1999 we had moved to an old tobacco farm in the nearby town of Pinnacle. We helped guitarist Cool John Ferguson relocate to a house down the street from us and we spent a couple years recording and rehearsing with many artists. Our first project was to make a record for Captain Luke. Upon my urging, Luke agreed to sing “Old Black Buck.” As Luke sang, Cool composed an intricate, lovely country guitar piece on the spot. I could not believe it! These two blues musicians created a tune as beautiful and timeless as any classic Southern folk melody.
Country musical traditions run deep in African-American culture. It is often ignored that before the advent of the blues, slaves played violins and banjos, and many of staples in a country fiddler’s repertoire are old minstrel tunes. Both Captain Luke and Cool John had enjoyed and performed country music their whole lives, so it should be no surprise that they have mastery of the folk idiom.
Since that session, Captain Luke has performed “Old Black Buck” every time he has taken the stage. Audiences are instantly enamored by his voice and the story of his old mule. He has received tremendous applause after each performance, ranging from venues like Lincoln Center in New York to stages throughout France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain.
Luke will often comment that his favorite people on this side of the pond were his fans in Argentina: in 2005 he was invited by the legendary guitar maestro Botafoga to tour this country. Luke performed on national radio, television and at concerts at soccer stadiums, schools and clubs through out the country. On the last nights we performed in the theatre district of Buenos Aires. These shows were sold out, and Botafoga’s band had charted arrangements to Luke’s idiosyncratic timing. When the band followed his voice with all its delays and turnarounds, Luke just smiled, chuckled and his deep baritone mined even greater depths. Luke had reached back to that summer day in Winston-Salem, when he had created a song that would be heard around the world. He considered himself lucky to join that song on its journey, meeting new friends and seeing places he never dreamed he would ever go.
Traveling with artists to shows is an essential, especially when your goal is to bring Roots music to audiences around the country and the world. Along the way I have often faced challenges similar to those most travelers deal with, except I’m traveling with elderly musicians who sometimes have never left their home state. While traveling with B.B. King when he was recording his “Duets Wild” album, he gave me this advice: “Always leave very early, give yourself time, there is no need to add stress to yourself, if something goes wrong you have time to work this out.”
This advice has proved very valuable many times. Once while John Dee Holeman and I were off to Switzerland, he discovered at the security check that he had packed an expired passport. Luckily we had time to drive back to his home, get his current passport, and still make our flight.
Guitar Gabriel and I travelled so much in the early 1990s that we knew all the skycaps by name. One day we arrived at the airport en route to Belgium. The skycap cheerfully greeted Gabe, got him a wheelchair and whisked him away, yelling back at me to meet them at the gate. I checked our bags, got our tickets and headed to our gate, but Gabe was nowhere in sight. I looked at all the gates near ours, to no avail. I went to the security desk to have him paged, but still no Gabe. Sitting looking out at the runway, I noticed a plane, in line to take off, turn around and come back to the gate. In a few minutes, a very aggravated stewardess wheeled Gabe out from the jetway and hastily returned back to the plane.
Gabe told me the skycap put him on the plane to Nashville, TN, since he was a musician. He said, “I was on the plane waiting for you and you did not come. When I realized I was on the wrong plane, they told me I would have to go to Nashville and then come back. I sprung from my seat and started beating my cane on the baggage compartments trying to get to that pilot and give him a piece of my mind, when they decided to bring me back.” Luckily we still made our flight.
On a layover in the Detroit airport returning from Australia with Macavine Hayes, he disappeared. I looked everywhere for him, then I heard my name called out on the PA. I learned that Macavine had stepped outside to smoke, but, not being able to read so well, he went through a door to the tarmac where the planes were being fueled. Homeland Security found him sitting on a baggage carrier smoking a cigarette. Their protocol demanded that they check him out thoroughly. In the meantime, they insisted I go aboard my plane assuring me that Macavine would be there to board in plenty of time for take off. I waited anxiously, but they suddenly closed the plane door, with no Macavine. I asked about my friend, and they said he would not make the flight after all, but told me not to worry because they would put him up at an airport hotel and send him to Raleigh the next morning. I just did not have the nerve to act as my old partner Gabe (and I had no cane to bang on the baggage compartments) so I flew on without Macavine. He did make his flight the next day, and made it home just fine.
I could go on and on about flight stories, they are always eventful and took new twists and turns, often unexpected, most always frustrating and unnerving. Over the years I have learned to relax and do my best knowing it is a rare and beautiful thing when all goes well.
Ironing Board Sam has bad luck with cars – but somehow always manages to coax out every mile they can give him. The day he moved to North Carolina a few years ago, his old van broke down just a few miles from the Music Maker office. When Sam rolled it into the service station, the mechanic could not believe how Sam had driven a car with a cracked engine block even an inch. Fortunately, with help from loyal supporters, Music Maker was able to find and purchase Sam another car to ensure he had transportation to gigs.
A couple weeks ago, Sam called the office from the side of interstate 40, having run out of gas. Our French intern Raphaël and I jumped in my van, filled up a gas container at the station, picked up my daughter and jumped on the highway in the middle of rush hour.
We pulled up behind Sam as the sea of cars sped by. Raphaël and Sam tried to pour the gas in but it just went down the side of the car – the funnel on the container was broken, and the safety cap would not come off. After trying several MacGyver-style ideas, we ended up with an old paper cup standing in for the funnel and we found some success.
By this time a state patrolman was checking on us. He and Sam talked, the cop smiled, Raphaël gave him one of Sam’s albums, and everything seemed to be going our way. The car started, the patrolman made way for us to rejoin the highway and we were off.
Just as soon as we started, Sam slowed way down, drifted into the safety lane, then back into the highway. From the van, Raphaël and I saw an enormous flame and backfire come out the tailpipes of Sam’s car, so once again we all ended up on the side of the highway
Raphaël and I then noticed the undercarriage of Sam’s car was glowing hot red. He jumped out and sprinted towards Sam’s car, knocking on the window to get Sam’s attention. Sam rolled down the window and asked “What’s up?” as smoke poured out of the car. Raphaël, taking the situation a bit more seriously than Sam, yelled “Your car is on fire get out!” Sam replied “Oh, well, we should probably get my keyboard out then.” They opened the trunk to unload Sam’s gear. From the van I was wondering why they were not running, convinced the car would explode – like the action movies tell you.
Fortunately that did not happen – another patrolman arrived on the scene, and helped Sam check under the car for any flames. There were none, but Raphaël and I began loading Sam’s gear into my van while chatting with the patrolman about towing the car. While weighing our options we turned around to see Sam driving off in his car that had just been on fire. We all looked at each other in amazement. The patrolman smiled and said “He truly is something isn’t he?!”
The next morning at 7:30am, Sam called to say his car wouldn’t start. I was not surprised – but I went over to try to help him jumpstart it anyway, as he has to head to Orange County Charter School to teach the kids about Blues. Of course, we had no luck, so MM staff members took turns getting Sam to gigs and home.
This morning I am at work, and my goal today is conjuring up another car for Sam. Bluesmen can’t earn income if they can’t get to their gigs, and there are only so many rides MM staff can provide. Sam’s Caddy lasted two and a half years, transported him to gigs all over the region, and only cost $1000 – we think that’s pretty good. I’ll continue to make calls and peruse used-car websites in order to get our man Ironing Board Sam back on the road, so he can continue to captivate audiences with his music.