Reflections of a Rock Critic Turning 70


Over a recent dinner, I asked a therapist friend how her patients reacted to celebrating their 70th birthday. I wasn’t asking for a friend. She said that the milestone prompts many to take pause to both assess their past and consider their hopes for what suddenly seems like a finite future. Everybody brings their own perspective to this rite of passage, and for me that included looking back on a professional life that revolved around popular culture. And since I didn’t die before I got old, this rock critic at seventy can be akin to a crotchety old man with tinnitus telling kids to stay away from his stereo.

Being born in 1952 might have helped to steer me into this dubious career choice. On the day before I turned twelve, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and I remember commenting to my sixth-grade peers that the group was “pretty catchy.”  A few years later, I wrote a review of Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company for my high school newspaper. By then friends and I were travelling from the suburbs into Manhattan to see shows at the Fillmore East, including the Who performing Tommy and the East Coast debut of The Band. On one trip, we observed Janis Joplin making out with some guy on the subway. Janis and her friend also got off at Astor Place and went their own way while we went to see Traffic. The Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park kept us busy in the summer with shows by Van Morrison, the Allman Brothers Band (flutist Herbie Mann dropped by to jam), and B.B. King opening for Led Zeppelin. I bought tickets for day two and three of the Woodstock Festival, but by the time we got stuck in traffic some 15 miles from Yasgur’s Farm, my buddy decided that he couldn’t risk abandoning his parents’ car at the side of the road, so we drove home. I later joked that this was the moment I decided to become a rock critic and have access to free concert tickets if not free parking.

At Northwestern University in the early-1970s, I was a deejay at WNUR and one of the hosts of an evening program called (with undergraduate irony) “God’s Own Jukebox.” My friend Harry and I would compete to see who could end their show with the most depressing song (“I’ll see your Townes Van Zant’s ‘Waitin’ Around to Die’ and raise you Van Morrison’s ‘Slim Slow Slider.’”). I also became a regular at Laurie’s Records in Evanston buying $2 copies of new releases that had stickers on them that said, “Not for Sale. Promotional Use Only.” It wouldn’t be long before I discovered where these bargains came from. By now, rock criticism, which didn’t much exist at the time of the Beatles arrival, had flowered in magazines (Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Creem), “underground” papers like the Village Voice, and eventually in mainstream daily papers. My first music reviews appeared in the Chicago Reader, the city’s alternative weekly; eighteen months later I was hired by the Chicago Daily News, one of the city’s three major newspapers, each of which had a designated rock critic. On my second day at the paper, I wrote my first story: an obituary of Elvis Presley. Reflecting on the twelve years between the birth of Beatlemania and the death of Elvis, it’s clear that I’d grown up during an especially sweet spot of popular music and at the perfect time to become a rock critic.

When the Chicago Daily News folded in 1977-- it was the first of many afternoon papers to close as people turned to television news for their evening update—I freelanced for numerous outlets, including Rolling Stone. But after an editor from Penthouse asked if I’d like to go to Los Angeles to do a profile of Marvin Gaye, I moved back to my native New York where over the years I freelanced for The New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, and many others. In 1994, after moving to Bearsville, New York, I covered Woodstock ’94 for Rolling Stone. The late Michael Lang, the curly-haired promoter famous for the ’69 festival, jokingly offered to refund my tickets to the original fest. Unlike my bummer trip in 1969, for Woodstock ’94, I could sleep in my own bed, watch Al Roker giving the weather from the festival site in Saugerties, and drive to the big to-do.

Since 1976, the job of the rock critic had changed in many ways. Back in the day, over-night concert reviews were a newspaper staple, which meant frenzied dashes back to the office to flesh out one’s scribbled notes. A decade later, while working at USA Today, I’d file a review of, say, the first night of a Cyndi Lauper tour in Portland, Maine, and the next morning it was seen from coast to coast. It was in the late-‘80s, phoning in a review to the Philadelphia Inquirer of the local stop of Alice Cooper’s “Raise Your Fist and Yell” tour, that my job began to feel a tad ridiculous. During those years, I was  often lucky enough to sell the same music feature to the Inquirer, Newsday, and the Chicago Tribune. But those days waned as budgets tightened, the internet exploded, and freelance writers were increasingly looked upon as “content providers.” Today, concert reviews are rare beyond coverage of the occasional superstar, and jazz and classical music are accorded far less space in the paper. In another revealing change on the arts pages, television critics now review new programs alongside episode recaps of particularly buzz-worthy programs. In the culture biz, coverage is increasingly about what people are talking about at the expense of criticism.

The biggest change, however, is that popular music was no longer at the center of the cultural zeitgeist. The baby boom grew up with AM Top 40 radio that culled hits from the Beatles to Motown, and from the Rolling Stones to James Brown. When FM stations found success catering to the counter-culture rock audience, it confirmed that music was a common denominator among the younger generation. That was pretty much over by the 1980s, with listeners increasingly balkanized between genres, and with rap and hip-hop eventually dominating the pop charts alongside slick dance and pop hits created by multiple writers and producers. Artists that appealed to older rock fans, from Steve Earle and Wilco to Lucinda Williams and the Jayhawks, were dubbed alt-country, which soon evolved in Americana. The rise of Sirius with its many genre-specific stations codified this trend. I originally thought it silly when music business executives complained about losing customers to the lure of video games. But then the digital revolution took center stage, with Napster not only cannibalizing record sales but lending credence to the fact that smart phones, the internet, and social media had become our new common denominator. Meanwhile, many critics migrated to digital platforms like Substack.

As I tip-toed into middle age in the ‘90s, my friend Tom and I would note what we called our “midrock crisis,” which was an increasing inability to appreciate or give-a-hoot about popular hits. It’s not that I couldn’t find new music that appealed to me, but that it was no longer at the top of the pops. That’s why my work increasingly focused on roots music for publications like No Depression.  At the same time, I began playing guitar and singing in my living room with musician friends and eventually formed a blues-rock band called the Comfy Chair. When our harmonica player invited a fiddler friend to join the ensemble, I met Larry Packer, whom I had apparently seen three decades earlier when he was member of Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys and they opened for The Band at the Fillmore East. At our fourth gig, Larry invited a guitarist buddy to sit in and we met Steve Burgh, who looked like Burl Ives and played with the intensity of Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. The next morning, I rifled through my record collection researching the Chair’s new lead guitarist. Turned out that Burgh had played and toured with David Bromberg, written a song with Steve Goodman, and had recorded with Billy Joel, Phoebe Snow, and Willie Nelson. Burgh also produced and played guitar on Steve Forbert’s highly acclaimed debut, Alive on Arrival. In a sense, my two worlds, that of the veteran critic and the fledgling musician, had merged.

The last ten years of my life have been professionally consumed with writing two books about American roots music: Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues) and Americanaland: Where Country & Western Met Rock ‘n’ Roll. The books reflected the music I was playing with the Comfy Chair and my current combo, the Sunburst Brothers. No longer getting free records, I borrowed discs from a critic friend still on promo lists and built a library of classical LPs from a used book store that got a new stock every month. While my listening largely revolved around the subjects of my books, two passions of the past decade made for an odd couple: Taylor Swift and Drive-By Truckers. The Truckers became my midrock touchstone after seeing them in 2003 (while Jason Isbell was still in the band) and recognizing that the hard-rocking group would have been huge in 1975 but, like rock in general, now played to a minority audience. I started to buy tickets for multiple shows whenever the Truckers were in the area.  On my 65th birthday, I drove through a snowstorm to see the band on Long Island and saw them the next night in Manhattan. My first live show as the pandemic eased was a pair of performances by the Truckers at the Brooklyn Bowl. Only the band, it seemed, was happier to be there than their fans.

Taylor Swift was a whole different experience for the aging critic. From her first single, “Tim McGraw,” it was clear that she had a gift for a melodic hook. The old guy in me thought, “By her fifth album, she’ll be doing her version of Joni Mitchell’s Blue.” But Taylor existed in another world, and while I consistently found songs to like on her albums, only a couple (1989 and Lover) rang my album-oriented bell. It was during the pandemic that Swift hit her mature stride with two outstanding collections, Folklore and Evermore. Coincidentally, I’ve also become especially fond of contemporary female artists like Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz, Phoebe Bridgers, and Kasey Musgraves. But it’s not like I only like girls; I’m digging the new Spoon album and, cancelled or not, still like Ryan Adams, who recorded his own full-length tribute to Taylor’s 1989. I dutifully check new releases each week on Spotify where I recognize increasingly fewer artists that I know and hardly any collections that draw me back for repeated visits. Last night, I listened to Wet Leg while reading a review of its debut in the New Yorker. Yeah, I get it, brittle new wave ennui, but at this point of my life, having lived through the actual birth of punk and new wave, I don’t anticipate returning for too many streams. Color me too old to care about even pretending to be hip.

If I turned 70 and played golf instead of tennis, I’d already be in the middle of the back nine. After a life immersed in the pop hits of the day and then the roots of that music, there’s no point in living just in the here and now.  Been there, done that, and time is tight. I recently read a lacerating sentence about culture brokers in Dawn Powell’s The Locusts Have No King. “Frederick listened,” wrote Powell, “meditating on the curious way newspaper men, despite their apprenticeship in realities, end up convinced by their own romantic inventions, respectful of the celebrities their own lies created, teary over sob-stories they had made up themselves, doffing their plumes reverently to whatever powers had kept them down.” I’ve been out of the rock critic game for a while now, but music still pulses through my life; my band’s got a gig next week, I’m presenting a paper at the Bob Dylan Institute in Tulsa in June and just bought tickets to see the Truckers (not that I had to run to the box office) in August.    

 

 

Americanaland: The Uncomfortable Art of the Deal

Because of circumstances beyond my control, I stayed at home in Woodstock, New York instead of going to September’s Americanafest in Nashville to promote my new book, Americanaland: Where Country & Western Met Rock ‘n’ Roll. I’d certainly planned to attend, but the Delta variant and the many folks who refuse to be vaccinated left this old guy reluctant to navigate a Covid hot spot to spend days in conference rooms and nights in crowded clubs. Made me consider a title for a new tome: Americanaland: Where Stupidity Stumps Science. But enough about me; let’s talk about my book!

 

 

 

I spent nearly four years researching and writing Americanaland in an isolated bubble of reading, writing, combing through 40 years of my own journalism, reading some more, and forever editing and rewriting. Publishing a book with the University of Illinois Press required two different peer reviews, one by a pair of writers conversant with the subject matter, and another by a couple of opinionated academics. Questions were asked, answered, and resolved; the text then went to a conscientious copyeditor who pored over the nuts and bolts of the prose. I hired an old friend and ex-librarian to create the index and along the way he thankfully caught a few lingering mistakes. The manuscript finally went to print accompanied by 27 portraits (including Willie) created by Margie Greve using cloth and embroidery floss.

 

 

After the relative isolation of writing a book, promoting the product is played out in public. Preparing for publication, we sent advance copies to the usual suspects including contacts from my decades as a music critic. Out of the blue, LibraryJournal gave it a wonderful, starred review (https://www.libraryjournal.com/?reviewDetail=americanaland-where-country--western-met-rock-n-roll-2116029). This was significant because it prompted many libraries to buy the book, though particulars now gnaw at this author’s gut—like how come the book isn’t in the Los Angeles Public Library but ready to be borrowed in Santa Monica? San Francisco is in, but what's with Berkeley? If you think such google searches make me sound positively anal, you don’t want to know how many times an insecure author checks the Amazon sales ranking. Did you know that the sales of just a handful of books can result in climbing up above hundreds of thousands of other books?

The wait for reviews that might not come can be excruciating. As the weeks pass, one looks with decreasing hope at the weekly “10 New Books We Recommend” in The New York Times and the “In Brief” column in the New Yorker. I anticipated a review from No Depression, the self-proclaimed “Journal of Roots Music” that I wrote for when it was a print magazine, but it never happened. Ironically, a British publication named Americana UK came through with both a review (https://americana-uk.com/book-review-john-milward-americanaland-where-country-western-met-rock-n-roll) and interview (https://americana-uk.com/interview-john-milward-talks-about-his-new-book-americanaland-where-country-western-met-rock-n-roll). To keep my anxiety at bay, I busied myself creating Spotify playlists to go with each of the book’s seventeen chapters (plus the introduction) and launched a monthly podcast that mixed a taste of the text with great music. (Both can be found by searching my name or Americanaland on Spotify.) My spirits rallied when Tennessee’s Chapter Sixteen ran a to-die-for review by novelist David Wesley Williams that also ran in the Knoxville News Sentinel and the Memphis Commercial Appeal (https://chapter16.org/americanaland-the-beautiful/).

A new book calls for a splashy hometown event, and Woodstock’s Golden Notebook agreed to sell books at an event held in the lounge of the Bearsville Theater. Woodstock is the biggest small town in Americanaland, and was the one-time home of Bob Dylan, The Band, a string band of influential instrumentalists (including John Sebastian, Bill Keith, Happy Traum, John Herald, and Eric Weisberg), and the man who was a pioneer of music management, Albert Grossman, whose clients included Dylan, The Band, Paul Butterfield, and Janis Joplin.  Grossman, who died in 1986, also built the Bearsville Theater, located a stone’s throw from where Dylan had his famous motorcycle accident. The theater (and a surrounding constellation of restaurants) had fallen into disrepair in recent years, and was purchased by Lizzie Vann, who invested part of the multi-million-dollar fortune she’d made selling organic baby food to restoring the property. Lizzie wanted to charge a $10 admission for the event, which I argued would not be helpful in trying to sell a $30 book. When Lizzie kindly relented, Margie  gifted her the Dylan portrait from Americanaland. Meanwhile, I booked my band, the Sunburst Brothers and the Cousins, who played for free books.

 

 

On August 22, the day of the event, Hurricane Henri was bearing down on the east coast and promising to bring heavy rain and punishing winds to the Hudson Valley. Lizzie called in the morning, and we decided that Henri be damned, it was on with the show. I added the Everly Brother’s “Crying in the Rain” to the Sunburst Brothers’ set list and continued to polish the script for the reading. Beirne Lowry arrived at the theater with a collection of GoPro cameras to document the reading. Despite the stormy weather, the reading played to a full house, with a healthy showing of friends and competitors from the Woodstock Tennis Club. It’s a toss-up as to whether I sweat more performing music or playing tennis, and public speaking added another element of tension to my personal experience of the event. But in the end, the prose, the music, and an appreciative, book-buying audience made this author a happy citizen of Americanaland. Now excuse me while I check today’s ranking on Amazon.

One Fine Picker Blues

       A year of sheltering in place has encouraged people to pursue everything from baking bread to sorting through the junk of a lifetime to binging on way too much TV. In search of sanity and new skills, I’ve spent a lot of my time learning how to play the mandolin. To that end, I bought Homespun Music tutorials from Chris Thile, host of the covid-cancelled Live From Here radio program, and David Grisman, the virtuoso best known for his work with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.

       While nothing replaces a hands-on teacher, taking lessons via DVDs (or YouTube) lets a student study with all sorts of gifted musicians. That’s how I learned the elements of fingerstyle guitar from Happy Traum, mainstays of my blues repertoire from Rory Bloch, and the feel of playing in DADGAD tuning with Richard Thompson. At the piano, I’ve studied the basics of playing blues with David Cohen of Country Joe and the Fish, and became all thumbs trying to get my fingers around the funky rhythm & blues of Dr. John.

       As any musician knows, countless hours of practice are required to learn to play any instrument, and along the way, one is apt to ask what’s the point? After all, these talented teachers are just the visible tip of a multitude of superior musicians who’ve mastered a cornucopia of styles. For instance, I’ll be working until the next pandemic to acquire the driving thumb that’s essential to replicating the propulsive fingerstyle blues of Big Bill Broonzy.

 

 

       But while the execution of “Hey Hey” is difficult, it at least employs a recognizable blues pattern and common chord inversions; none of that applies to a haunting song that continues to elude my fingers, Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues.”

 

 

 Most every fact there is to know about Wiley can be found in this article from the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/13/magazine/blues.html); the song itself was heard in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb, in which underground comic artist and vintage music fan Robert Crumb is seen listening to a rare 78 rpm recording of the tune. “If I get killed, if I get killed,” Geeshie sings as Crumb nods with appreciation, “please don’t bury my soul.” My personal quest to play the tune was helped by my discovery of a web site called 52weeksofblues.com, which offers guitar tablatures to dozens of country blues songs. The page devoted to each song also includes a bio of the artist, the song’s lyrics, and sometimes, a link to a contemporary YouTube performance of the song. That’s how I had the pleasure of discovering another great blues woman, Christine Pizzuti.

 

 

 

Be still my heart!  With such brilliantly rhythmic picking supporting a lovely, understated vocal, you can understand why her laundry can wait. An internet search revealed that these blues were nurtured in the fertile delta of New York’s Hudson Valley. And the 2012 recording date suggests that the clip was made while Ms. Pizzuti was getting her Master of Science in environmental policy at Bard College, the small liberal arts school that famously gave birth to Steely Dan (“My Old School”). It’s anybody’s guess whether this is a dorm room or an off-campus residence, but those walls sure heard a lot of fine country blues.

 

 

More of her music can be found on YouTube, where Ms. Pizutti goes by the somewhat disturbing name “IplayBanjoNow.” (Masterful guitar playing isn’t enough?) Pizutti has recorded a collection of original tunes, Dirty Home, and played her rendition of “Last Kind Word” for American Epic: The Collection, a soundtrack that accompanied a PBS documentary about the early history of recording American roots music. But playing country blues is hardly a promising path to a music career. Consider one of her gigs at a busy restaurant.

 

 

Makes that bedroom look awfully cozy. Christine Pizzuti currently does public relations for Camphill Village, a rural community run for adults with developmental disabilities. She’s also the co-founder of Olde Forge Farms, a sustainable operation that raises greens, fish, and poultry. Does she still have the time and inclination to play this intricate music? If I stopped by her farm stand for some good food, could I hear a little guitar? No matter. She already inspires another Hudson Valley picker. The household chores can wait. I’m going to practice.


Born in Chicago


     James Cotton was playing harmonica with Muddy Waters the first time he saw white faces at Smitty’s Corner. “Muddy thought they were the tax people,” said Cotton. “He owed some taxes, said, ‘Goddamn, they’ve come to get me. That’s got to be them.’ Muddy hid in the office between sets.” Turned out that one of the white guys was Paul Butterfield; before long, Michael Bloomfield also arrived at the clubs on the South Side of Chicago. “Muddy Waters, he was like a god to me,” said Bloomfield, the subject of a new 3-CD boxed set, From His Head To His Heart To His Hands. “Well, if he was a god, B.B. King was a deity where I couldn’t even imagine ever knowing someone of his magnitude and greatness. But Muddy was in Chicago.”

     Butterfield’s harmonica and Bloomfield’s guitar would soon be the instrumental catalysts of the highly influential Butterfield Blues Band, and in 1965, the group turned heads when it played the Newport Folk. Here’s a brief, tantalizing clip from an afternoon workshop that drew an unusually large crowd.

     “To me, the Butterfield Blues Band was the most important thing to happen at Newport in 1965,” said Geoff Muldaur, who performed at the festival as a member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. “Not Dylan going electric, which people have milked for so many years (Bloomfield also performed at Newport with Dylan, after having played on his Highway 61 Revisited). The thing that happened that changed the world map of music was that an integrated band came in from Chicago and played real Chicago blues. Sure, that model was based on guys like Muddy Waters, but the fact was that this white guy was so good, and had a band that could pull it off and hold their own among the kings, which they did. In the blink of an eye, there would be two hundred thousand blues bands in the world based on that model.”

     Influential songs by the Butterfield Band featuring Bloomfield are included in this chronicle of the career of one of the rock era’s original guitar heroes. One of them is the epic, raga-inspired title tune of the bands second album, East-West. “The future of rock guitar was in ‘East-West,’” said [Blasters guitarist] Dave Alvin. “At one point or another you’re hearing what would become the Grateful Dead, Santana, the Allman Brothers, Crazy Horse, Television, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band.” Dig this live version of “Work Song,” another East-West instrumental that’s not included in the new set.

     Bloomfield soon left the Butterfield and formed the Electric Flag, which made its high-profile debut at 1967’s Monterey International Pop Festival. The original band released just one album, and broke up soon thereafter, and while Bloomfield himself panned the Monterey appearance, it’s easy to see the excitement he could create when curled around his sunburst Les Paul.

     The last truly memorable music of Bloomfield’s career was when he spent a day recording half of 1968’s Super Session with keyboardist-singer Al Kooper, who produced the new collection, and is rightly proud that he captured some of the best-sounding playing of Bloomfield’s career on tracks like “Albert’s Shuffle” and “His Holy Modal Majesty.” More albums (mostly live) would follow, but sadly, the rest of Bloomfield’s career was less than super. He was brought down by show-biz angst, insomnia, heroin, booze, and insecurities rooted in the disapproval of a wealthy businessman father who never approved of his son's musical pursuits, let alone its roots on the black side of town.

     Once, in the 1970s, Bloomfield’s mother approached B.B. King after a Chicago performance and asked him to reach out to her troubled son. King, who like many other bluesmen had received a valuable career boost when Bloomfield encouraged Bill Graham to book them at the two Fillmores, wrote a letter to the guitarist encouraging him to keep those hands in shape. On “Carmelita’s Skiffle,” my favorite unreleased jam from the set’s third disc, Last Licks, it’s clear that while Bloomfield could channel the sound of a variety of players, his style was most intimately inspired by King. Bloomfield’s blues ultimately ended on a February morning in 1981 when he was found dead from a drug overdose in the front seat of a locked, banged-up Mercury.

     Perhaps there’s a clue to Bloomfield’s troubled relationship to his art in the very title From His Head To His Heart To His Hands. Bloomfield’s music-loving heart was in the right place, and his hands rarely failed him. Demons, though, lived in his head, keeping him up all night, and ultimately, putting him in a premature grave. The new collection, which includes a DVD documentary light on music and heavy on talking heads, is a fitting, albeit expensive tribute to an extraordinary musician. For about 20-bucks less, one could buy the four essential albums of Bloomfield’s career: The Butterfield Blues Band, East-West, A Long Time Comin’ by the Electric Flag, and Super Session. The portrait of Bloomfield that tops this post is by Margie Greve, and is from our book, Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues)

The Best Band You've Never Heard Of

     “This is one of the best bands I’ve ever seen,” I whispered to Margie as we watched the Time Jumpers, an 11-piece ensemble that you’ve probably never heard. Much of the crowd at the concert in Kingston, New York, were attracted to the show by the top-line billing of one of the band’s two lead guitarists-- country star Vince Gill-- but the real attraction was hearing the cream of Nashville session players who for years have spent their Monday nights playing a repertoire of western swing and country chestnuts at a club in their hometown, Third and Lindsley.

     Listening to the band’s multiple singers and murderer’s row of soloists make such successful Americana acts as Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers sound like relative amateurs, strummers instead of pickers. Decades of seasoning informs this most accomplished ensemble, who signal musical cues with a glance of an eye, and can make new songs sound like vintage hits.  At the heart of the group is a three-man string section led by the band’s amiable emcee, Kenny Sears; the trio are all accomplished soloists, but also cohere for sublime ensemble work. Pianist Jeff Taylor also flavors the music with accordion, while Gill and Andy Reiss played guitar solos that touch upon country, blues, and jazz. Paul Franklin’s virtuosic steel guitar provides the icing on the cake. Gill and Franklin (plus other Time Jumpers) recently collaborated on Bakersfield, a celebration of the West Coast country sound personified by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. The Kingston show featured one of the collection’s highlights, Owens’s “Together Again.”

     The Time Jumpers don’t pretend to be trendy; instead, they’re keepers of a tradition. “I think there’s a way to do something new that feels timeless,” Gill told the Washington Post. “Put on a Beatles record and it sounds fricking great today. A Ray Charles record? Sounds amazing. The things that really last are the things that aren’t completely stamped with all of the trappings of a fad. To me, that’s how you move forward. Create new music that feels old.”      

     Gill’s presence in the Time Jumpers is problematic when the group strays from its home base in Nashville; in Kingston, some customers grumbled that Gill sang no more or less than the other vocalists in the ensemble (including Dawn Sears, whose harmonies have long accompanied the country star). Dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a flannel shirt over a Time Jumpers T-shirt, Gill could have been mistaken for the guy next door, if your neighbor happens to be a world-class singer and guitarist. The truth is that despite all the awards and records sold, Gill saw the writing on the wall when he wrote 2003’s “Young Man’s Town,” and brought his friend Emmylou Harris into the studio to add a harmony. When he sang the song on the annual CMA awards, Gill was joined by his daughter Jenny.

     Gill hardly hung up his guitar, and in 2006 released These Days, an ambitious 4-CD set that collected original songs that ranged from honky-tonk to ballads, rock, and bluegrass and featured duets with artists ranging from Bonnie Raitt and Diana Krall to Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark. Gill also maintained his status as a working musician quick to play and sing on another artist’s recording session (he recently produced Like a Rose by Ashley Monroe, who is also a member of the Pistol Annies), and is quick to pay heartfelt tribute to the giants of country music (Gill’s most viewed YouTube clip captures him breaking down during a nonetheless stirring performance at the recent memorial for George Jones).

     Truth be told, I didn’t get hip to Gill until his 1998 album, The Key, as I favored edgier country-oriented artists like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. By then, Gill’s mainstream popularity was beginning to wane, and The Key was his virtuosic tribute to the classic country styles that had been his original inspiration. The reason why he’s now happy to strap on his Gibson and play with the best-unknown band in America was captured in that album’s closing number, “The Key to Life.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvhfASfAC-c  

Long Live the King

        

        It takes a mighty, mighty man to blow out 88 candles on a birthday cake. That’s as many candles as there are keys on a piano, and 82 more than the strings on a Gibson ES355 electric guitar. But you can be sure that sometime on September 16, 2013, B.B. King will take a deep breath and extinguish the candles that represent a monumental life during which he’s reigned as the King of the Blues.

         Over the years I’ve spent writing and researching Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues), I couldn’t help but wonder if B.B. King would be alive upon its publication (Margie Greve’s portrait of B. is one of 19 in the book). The life of B.B. King is virtually the only through-line in the book’s narrative, which runs from the Mississippi Delta of King’s youth through the blues revival of the 1960s and the last four decades that has seen the influential singer-guitarist recognized as a cultural icon.

         Arriving in Memphis in 1946, King bunked with his musician cousin, Bukka White, and found work hosting a radio show on WDIA, the exposure helping to promote his live performances. He recalls his first gig at the 16th Street Grill in Memphis: “That night I couldn’t sleep for the pictures running through my head. I saw them [women] dressed and undressed, bending over and stretching, grinding and grinning and showing me stuff I ain’t ever seen before.” B. likes women almost as much as music.

         King recorded his breakthrough hit, “Three O’Clock Blues,” in 1951, and spent the rest of the decade traveling the chitilin’ circuit of black clubs and theaters; in 1956, he played an unbelievable 342 one-nighters. One can only imagine the music that went down during those days, but this extended performance from the 1960s showcases a superior bandleader who’d found the perfect balance between his full-bodied vocals and supple lead guitar.

         It was during the 1960s that King began made his presence felt beyond the black community. White blues-rock guitarists like Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield sang his praises in rock magazines like Rolling Stone, prompting rock hounds like me to seek out the King album regarded as a style-defining classic, Live at the Regal. Such exposure was vital for King, who like such blues peers as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, were losing much of their black audience to the contemporary stars of soul and rhythm & blues.

         In February of 1967, King arrived to play on a bill with the Steve Miller Band and Moby Grape at San Francisco’s Fillmore Ballroom. King was unnerved to play for a crowd of hippies, but was touched by promoter Bill Graham’s introduction: “Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the Chairman of the Board, B. B. King.” Bringing his blues to a new audience-- Carlos Santana was just one of the soon-to-be rock stars in attendance-- turned out to be a life-changing experience. “They didn’t seem to look at me as B.B. King, the blues singer,” he said. “It was B.B. King, the musician.” King was welcomed as a VIP at after-hours jam sessions. YouTube has a number of recordings of King playing with Jimi Hendrix, though he’s all but lost amidst Hendrix’s high-volume assault. More characteristic of King’s style is a jam that also features Paul Butterfield on harmonica.

         If King’s career was transformed by playing rock ballrooms, it also set the table for bigger-budgeted studio sessions that paid off with the 1970 release of “The Thrill Is Gone,” a career-defining performance that cemented King’s reputation as a true giant of American musical culture. Here he’s performing the song at a 1974 all-star concert in Zaire, Africa, produced in conjunction with “The Rumble in the Jungle” between George Foreman and the Muhammad Ali.

         B.B. King has been blessed to live half his life as a celebrated ambassador of the blues, touring the world, performing on television, opening blues clubs, and recording with everybody from U2 (“When Love Comes to Town”) to Eric Clapton (Riding With the King). As a popular artist who's been comfortable growing old on the public stage, he's also served as a role model for musicians who grew up in a culture defined by youth. Nobody cares that he now mostly performs while seated. Indeed, whenever Eric Clapton periodically organizes one of his Crossroads festival, devotees of the King are happy to pull up chairs and trade licks with the man who's taught them valuable lessons in both life and the blues.



 

Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac

          My book Crossroads is filled with sad stories, ranging from drug overdoses to a literal castration, but for me, the most heartbreaking is the tale of Peter Green, the subtly brilliant guitarist who created Fleetwood Mac. Green’s first big break was to replace Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and he surprised everybody by proving himself to be an equally masterful guitarist. His girlfriend at the time attributed his emotional touch to the childhood taunts he’d endured for being Jewish. “Quite obviously the scars were still there,” said Sandra Elsdon-Vigon. “The blues to him are Jewish blues.”

          When Green left Mayall’s band in 1967, his original plan was to move to Chicago and play in a blues band. Instead, he stayed in London and formed a Chicago blues band with the rock solid rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood on drums and John McVie on bass. Naming his new band after its rhythm section wasn’t Green’s only act of modesty; he also enlisted singer-guitarist Jeremy Spencer to avoid what he considered the self-indulgent virtuosity of Eric Clapton’s power trio, Cream. Green and Spencer represented two sides of Fleetwood Mac, with Green fiercely disciplined and Spencer defined by his curly locks and rowdy, Elmore James-styled slide guitar. Here’s Fleetwood Mac on French television, with Green singing an Otis Rush song, “Homework.”


         Fleetwood Mac became hugely successful in Britain and topped the charts with a wistful instrumental called “Albatross.” The band’s first two albums (released in the U.S. as Fleetwood Mac and English Rose) are among the best of all British blues albums. The early Mac song that everybody knows is “Black Magic Woman,” famously covered by Santana, and it’s easy to see the influence Green’s laid-back style had on Carlos Santana. By the band’s third album, Then Play On, rockier tunes began to infiltrate the repertoire. One of the best was the percussive guitar jam, “Oh Well.” 


          Do you think Hugh Hefner got the wink-wink, nudge-nudge joke when the band played “Rattlesnake Shake” on his television program, Playboy After Hours

          The original Fleetwood Mac would implode by 1970. Green felt guilty for the monetary success that music brought him, and became restless when his band mates rejected the idea of giving most of their money away to charity. Finally, after taking a particularly bad acid trip in Munich, Germany, Green announced that he was going to quit the group. Green’s mental state deteriorated during the 1970s, and he was eventually committed to a mental institution where he was subjected to electroshock therapy. Meanwhile, Fleetwood Mac, who by now included Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, and Christine McVie, was becoming one of the biggest bands in the world. In the late-1990s, friends helped Green establish and record with a band called Splinter Group. But his gift was gone, and it was his life, and not his music, that had become Peter Green’s most vivid expression of the blues. Here’s one last example of what was lost:  

  



The Fingerstyle Wisdom of Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt was the sweet soul of the blues revival of the 1960s, and the first of a trio of bluesmen who walked straight from Mississippi Delta obscurity onto the stage of the Newport Folk Festival. Hurt recorded for Okeh in the late-1920s, and was best known for a pair of tunes that appeared on Harry Smith’s influential 1952 collection, Anthology of American Folk Music. A select few, however, hunted for Hurt ‘78s and traded tapes of his recorded repertoire. The interest of Tom Hoskins was particularly piqued by a little-known tune called “Avalon Blues” in which Hurt sang,  “Avalon is my hometown, always on my mind.”

 After consulting a vintage map of Mississippi, Hoskins found a speck of a town called Avalon, and on a whim and a prayer, set out on a journey to past. Pulling into town, he stopped at Stinsons, a combination general store, gas station, and post office that constituted downtown Avalon. Inquiring if John Hurt was still alive, Hoskins was told, “If he ain’t died since he went that way with two sacks of groceries at eleven o’clock this morning.” At Hoskins’ urging, Hurt moved to Washington, D.C. and embarked on a most remarkable second act. The discovery of John Hurt encouraged other gumshoes to search for old bluesman, and soon Hurt was joined on the contemporary stage by two other Delta legends, Son House and Skip James.

But Hurt was hardly your typical blues musician. “When you think of Mississippi Delta blues,” said Stefan Grossman, “you think of a type of music that has nothing to do with John Hurt. He’s playing as if the guitar is a piano with a boom-chick in the bass imitating the left hand of the piano player and melody on the treble strings like that played by the right hand. There are no extra notes in his music, there is just the sound, and the sound is rooted in his thumb.”

John Sebastian found a name for his group in the lyric to Hurt’s “Coffee Blues”—the “Lovin’ Spoonful.” “What I heard in the music of John Hurt,” said Sebastian, “was that it was more swinging than a lot of the finger picking that I had heard up to that time. His groove was just deeper, and yet when he’d talk about his playing, he’d made it sound so simply. ‘Well, you get your thumb doing this,’ he’d tall me, ‘and then you got these fingers left over so you can kinda get a little melody going on that.” Here’s another example of his sublime style:

“Some of the rediscovered bluesmen were exploited,” said Geoff Muldaur, “and very few of them made sense of the rediscovery. John Hurt is an example of somebody who did. They rediscovered him, he smiled, and started to play until he died. A lot of those guys were bitter and sad and a lot of them were drunks. But John Hurt was really the quintessential wonderful guy.”  In the early 1960, Muldaur was friends with Phil Spiro, a Cambridge disc jockey who was among the trio that found Son House living in Rochester, New York; Spiro also shared an apartment with Al Wilson, who would later form Canned Heat, and who sometimes played with both House and Hurt. On this tape from October 1964, Spiro invites Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James into his studio for a live performance during the heyday of the blues revival.

The portrait of John Hurt is by Margie Greve, one of 19 original illustrations in our new book, Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock 'n' Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues).


Fishing Blues

         Determining who wrote a vintage blues song can be akin to casting a fishing line into very muddy waters. That’s because in the early decades of the last century, blues was an oral tradition, with songs and lyrics and guitar licks passed from one musician to the next. Such a transformation mirrors the musical story chronicled in my new book, Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues). As Dave Van Ronk, a master of the folk-blues, once said, “Theft is the first law of art, and like any group of intelligent musicians, we all lived with our hands in each other’s pockets.” Added folklorist and song collector Paul Clayton: “If you can’t write, rewrite. If you can’t rewrite, copyright.”

          A vintage 78 rpm disc might give writer’s credit to a particular blues singer, but unless the song was copyrighted, he was unlikely to ever see publishing royalties. Talent recruited for so-called “race records” rarely thought in such terms, and typically took a one-time cash payment (Lightnin’ Hopkins did this throughout his long career). Skip James was paid $40 for the 18 sides he recorded for Paramount in 1931, and his songs weren’t copyrighted until his rediscovery in the early-‘60s. (James came into a late-life windfall when Cream covered his “I’m So Glad” on Fresh Cream; his heirs got serious scratch when “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” was included on the soundtrack to 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

          Robert Petway recorded “Catfish Blues” in 1941; he was cited as the writer but blues researchers say the song had circulated around the Mississippi Delta and was in the repertoire (and perhaps composed by) a singer of his acquaintance, Tommy McClennan. Whoever wrote it, however, borrowed a lyrical motif found in a 1928 hit called “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues Part 3” by a medicine-show entertainer named Jim Jackson (“I wished I was a catfish, swimming down in the sea; I’d have some good woman, fishing after me”). 

         “Catfish Blues” barely caused a ripple commercially, but it was no doubt familiar to one of Petway’s Delta neighbors, Muddy Waters, whom Alan Lomax recorded that same year for the Library of Congress. Muddy brought the song with him to Chicago, and cut it for Chess in 1950 with his ringing electric guitar representing a clear bridge from the country blues to the sound of the city. Muddy moved the “catfish” lyric to the top, added some new words, and put his name on a song whose title he changed to “Rollin’ Stone.” Here’s Waters playing the tune about a decade later, and not long before a British rhythm & blues quintet who idolized Muddy decided to call themselves the Rolling Stones.

         Many others have covered “Catfish Blues,” with B.B. King giving Petway writing credit, John Lee Hooker taking it for himself, and Jimi Hendrix citing the song as a traditional. Hendrix undoubtedly learned the song via the Waters recording. “When I was a little kid,” Hendrix told Sharon Lawrence, “I heard a record playing at a neighbor’s house turned way up. That song called to me, and I left my yard, went down the street, and when the song was over, I knocked on the door and said, ‘Who was that playing?’ ‘Muddy Waters,’ the guy said. I didn’t quite understand. He repeated it and spelled it out—‘M-u-d-d-y.’”  For Hendrix, "Catfish Blues" was also a launching pad for "Voodoo Chile" and "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)." Here's a live version of the later (from London's Royal Albert Hall) synched to footage from the Woodstock festival:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhyL4lUn-DI

At a recent reading/concert to celebrate the publication of Crossroads, which includes 19 original portraits by Margie Greve (including the Muddy Waters on this page), I performed the song with guitarist Josh Roy Brown, who was confused when I introduced the tune as “Rollin’ Stone.” “I thought we were playing ‘Catfish Blues?’" said Josh. And so we did.