Over the years, there have been some excellent documentaries on the blues, but one of the best ever just came out in the past couple of years. M for Mississippi is a comprehensive look (well, as comprehensive as you can get in a week's time) at today's blues scene in the Mississippi delta. At times humorous, at times poignant, always entertaining, I find myself watching it at least once a month. The two hosts for the weeklong journey are Jeff Konkel and Roger Stolle. Konkel owns and operates Broke & Hungry Records out of St. Louis, which specializes in recording hard-to-find and rarely recorded Mississippi bluesmen. Stolle owns and operates Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc. and Cat Head Records. Over the past few months, I've subjected them both to the dreaded Ten Questions With....process and they both graciously agreed to subject themselves to it. Over the coming weeks, we'll be presenting these Q&A sessions for both, beginning with Roger Stolle.....but first, check out the first trailer to the M for Mississippi documentary.
Roger Stolle founded Cat Head about ten years ago. The store sells many blues-related items, including art from locals and even sells blues recordings, some that are hard to find anywhere else. Stolle has also ventured into the record label business, launching Cat Head Records and releasing three well-received discs and a DVD from Big George Brock. In 2008, Stolle teamed up with Broke and Hungry Records (Jeff Konkel) and Mudpuppy Productions (Kari Jones) to release M for Mississippi, the critically acclaimed documentary of the current Mississippi Delta blues scene.
Everyone has a story about how they were first drawn to the blues. What’s your story?
Until the age of ten, I didn’t know a thing about music – let alone blues. My Dad listened to Talk Radio and my Mom owned a few old albums but never really listened to them. Then, I woke up on August 17, 1977, to find our morning newspaper staring at me from the floor of our family room. The headline read, “The King is Dead at 42.” Elvis Presley had died in Memphis. Suddenly, Elvis music, stories and movies were everywhere. I started spending my allowance on Elvis 45s and LPs – slowly becoming a fan of his bluesier, rootsier material. Eventually, I moved forward in history buying other blues-inflected recordings by the British Invasion folks and starting to read about the early American blues influence on them. Musicians like Clapton were always good about mentioning the Freddy Kings, Buddy Guys and Robert Johnsons in interviews.
The first blues recording I bought was Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer (on cassette!). I followed that with some Son House and Robert Johnson recordings. I was hooked. The first electric blues I bought was a cassette of Freddy King’s instrumentals followed by an Elmore James greatest hits package.
In the mid-1980s, I finally saw some blues, live and in-person. It was a pre-comeback Buddy Guy show. I followed that with an RL Burnside show. I should mention that I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, so it was like seeing aliens perform some long lost music. Everything else was so 1980s pop/rock/disco in nature around there. I came to appreciate the musicians and their stories and background as much as the music itself. In other words, I realized that unlike white popular music, blues is more than just another dance song. Blues is a culture. It came from a very unique, isolated landscape and environment. When the music is separated from that culture and background, it is still great to listen to… but it’s the rich, deep nature of what it is, who it is and where it comes from that keeps me so fascinated and engaged with it… as well as the personalities and juke joints behind it! (I hope that makes sense.)
What inspired you to open Cat Head?
Cat Head is the store I always wanted to walk into but never found. It is founded on a mission to “promote from within.” My Cat Head store (like my recording projects, radio shows, magazine columns, etc.) exists first and foremost to wake up a wider world to the beauty and intensity of the blues and history that came from Mississippi – and still lives here. Whether we are talking a visiting tourist-customer into staying over another night to see a particularly real-deal blues act at a juke joint in Clarksdale, or inspiring a first-time visitor to America to come to the Delta because they heard a blues dinosaur performing on one of our CDs, that’s our mission – our true intention. Look, blues will never die, but the musicians (and even some of the physical locations/buildings, etc.) with the direct living connection to the amazing past that spawned the blues genre WILL die. A person doesn’t have to have lived on a plantation, picked cotton and learned to play in at rural house parties… but if they did, then they play a distinctly different blues than someone who grew up in middle class America and learned their blues repertoire off of MP3s. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just a different music and experience; that’s all.)
Cat Head offers many interesting items, ranging from artwork from locals to blues recordings, but you’ve taken the career of journeyman bluesman Big George Brock to new heights in recent years, releasing three CD and a DVD. How did that relationship come about?
I was standing in Street Side Records – a store on Delmar Avenue in St. Louis – early one Saturday evening looking through the music event flyers on the wall when I was struck by a tingle in my spin. There was a homemade-looking flyer that advertised Big George Brock & the Houserockers at Climmie’s Western Inn. I called, and the person who answered the phone seemed a little taken aback by such a young, white-sounding caller, I think. I got directions and went. It turned out that it wasn’t an “inn,” and there was nothing “western” about it, but tough lady who owned it was indeed named Climmie. I sat down with a beer and waited for this Big George character to start playing. The band (Riley Coatie and family) was warming up and sounded incredible – like a true blue ‘50s band. The band stopped. Someone announced Big George’s name in the mic, and seemingly of nowhere a loud amplified harmonica came over the PA. The band kicked in but the harmonica player was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, a huge figure in a three-piece suit and had comes barreling out of the club’s basement (where the ladies’ room was!). After reaching the top of the steps and walking out into the crowd with his cordless mic, Big George sang his first words. Right then and there, I was sold. He honest-to-god sounded like a Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters in their prime. It was a huge, slightly overdriven yet nuanced voice. In-between verses, he delivered his patented, thick harp sound. It just blew me away.
So, after that, I saw him whenever I could. After moving from St. Louis to Clarksdale in early 2002, I learned that Big George was originally from there, so I booked him to play my Cat Head store’s grand opening and went from there. I help him book a couple shows, and one Sunday morning he called me at the house, saying, “I think I’ve got about two more good years in me, and I want to record an album. 25 songs. Nothin’ but the hits!”
Well, I looked at my bank account, decided I could afford to lose a little more money anyway, and called him back a week or so later to propose what became the Blues Music Award-nominated Club Caravan CD. It wasn’t 25 songs, but I still feel it’s full of great hits. That CD got him reviews or features in every major blues magazine, cool award nominations, tons of radio airplay and allowed me to take him overseas for festivals in the UK, France, Italy and Switzerland. It also led to the DVD documentary, Hard Times, and two more acclaimed CDs – Round Two and Live at Seventy Five. I’m hoping to do another record with him next year and then maybe a “Greatest Hits” type release. Big George is just the best. Crazy-interesting history as a plantation worker, boxer, bluesman and club owner with 42 kids. He’s shared stage or studio with everyone from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to Jimbo Mathus and Watermelon Slim… and is still booking shows at nearly 78 years old. Just too cool. Recently, he bought a ridiculous tour bus with his image painted huge all over the sides. He’s the real-deal.
Any standout moments during the recording process that you remember fondly?
Well, I suppose there are several, but two that come to mind:
First, the Club Caravan recording session at Jimbo Mathus’ studio (then located) in Clarksdale was unreal. Three and a half hours. From the first note to the last. That was it. Big George had the Riley Coatie family band backing him up, and it was intense. If you listen to that record, on most of the songs, it’s like the whole band is soloing at one on guitar/harmonica/drums/bass/keyboard – yet somehow it works. They took a very old-school approach. Then, I asked Big George to do an acoustic number with just guitar and another with just the drummer. He did it, and the results sounded like a great 1950s blues session, I think. The reviews were just amazing, and it’s still his best-selling release.
The second moment was during the second comeback album, Round Two. I managed to track down Howlin’ Wolf’s legendary guitarist Hubert Sumlin and hire him for two songs after Big George mentioned they were the same age and friends from way back. We recorded those two killer tracks in a basement studio in Oxford, Mississippi. The whole damn time Big George and Hubert were smiling and giggling like schoolgirls. It was actually pretty hilarious. They each wanted to make the other sound great and it shows. When they finished the seven-minute Big George original “So Long,” you can just hear everybody starting laughing and yelling. It was a moment I will never forget.
Any moments you’d just as soon forget?
How long can this article be??! The same session above (for Round Two) almost didn’t happen. Big George’s band called the night before to say they weren’t coming down for it! I already had everything booked an in place for the studio time, Hubert Sumlin and two gigs surrounding the session. Thankfully, I called up my buddy Bill Abel – a Duncan, Mississippi guitarist who sometimes backed Big George – and asked if he wanted to cut an album. He and his friend Levan really came through for me. Steve “Lightnin’” Malcolm also showed up at the end of the session to help out. I basically went from “I am so screwed” to “ohmygod, Hubert Sumlin just played on our record” in less than 24 hours!
Oh, and I almost forgot. The day of the session with Hubert, I had taken Big George over to Helena, Arkansas, to be on Sunshine Sonny Payne’s King Biscuit Time radio show. When we got back to his hotel in Clarksdale, the plan was to hop into his van with all the musical equipment and hightail it over to Oxford to set up for the recording session. But, when we arrived at the hotel, his van was gone! We opened up his hotel room door, and his female lead singer Miss Clarine Wagner was gone, and she had taken the van. For about 60 seconds, we stood in silence, and then Big George exclaimed, “I know where she is!” He had me drive him over to the local Wal-Mart. Sure enough. There was the van! We tracked her down, dragged her to the checkout and got the whole damn thing back on schedule. That incident lead to his “Mr. Wal-Mart” song which he came up with on the fly and recorded at the second day of the Round Two recording session.
The M For Mississippi documentary is one of the best at covering its subject, blues musicians…..not as a specimen under a microscope as many of these docs do, but as living, breathing human beings. Did you guys take inspiration from any other documentaries that you’d seen before or was it all spontaneous?
Our biggest inspiration for M for Mississippi: A Road Trip through the Birthplace of the Blues was the 15 or however many album series Living Country Blues from Germany. Basically, in 1980, a handful of Germans came to the US, bought a used station wagon and drove around for a couple months making field recordings of blues and gospel musicians in the American South. Jeff and I, in particular, started talking about doing something similar about 3 or 4 years ago. Over beers or moonshine at Delta juke joints and house parties, we’d see something crazy or amazing happen, and we’d lean over to each other and say, “That’s the Project, right there!” The code name for what became the movie and two soundtracks was “The Project.” Because we wanted to capture the Mississippi blues atmosphere and environment as much as just the music and musicians, we took the “Living Country Blues” concept and turned it into more of like a condensed film-type format. Our movie is a seven-day, ultimate road trip that captures as many authentic, quasi-legal blues experiences as possible! It was incredible.
As for what’s on film, it’s all spontaneous single-take stuff that was literally captured on the road in the course of a week. Our big rule was that if it didn’t happen in that week, then it wouldn’t make the film. We felt that forcing ourselves to do all of this in a week would give us a great narrative to work with and preserve the energy and authenticity of the overall musical and cultural experiences we captured. We also did all of the audio recordings from a portable studio, on location. Our recording engineer Bill Abel – as well as our cinematographer – did just an amazing job. As my buddy Jeff Konkel likes to say, these are “studio quality field recordings.” Besides Jeff, Bill and Damien, Kari Jones from Mudpuppy Recordings was one of our producers. It’s hard to believe, but just five of us made the movie. It took a week to film/record and another 5 months to edit. We filmed it the last week of March/first week of April, and premiered it at Delta Cinema for King Biscuit Blues Festival weekend that October – complete with a DVD and CD ready to buy. What an amazing and frightening experience!
There are a lot of memorable moments in the movie, sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious. Give us a few of your highlights from filming the documentary, some things that really stand out in your memory?
Oh geez, there were so many memorable moments, I don’t know where to start. From an ill-fated moonshine run (got the ‘shine but couldn’t film it) to having to film a guy who you can’t show (Mississippi Marvel), from finding a guy who just got evicted (T-Model Ford) to setting up a session with a notorious no-show (Bilbo Walker)… it’s truly unbelievable that it all came together.
I can’t say enough about our crew of Jeff, Kari, Bill and Damien. We all survived the week still friends and with a film that will outlive all of us.
I will also add this: Tonight (March 25th), Kari and I are going to a special screening of M for Mississippi at a theater in Tupelo, Mississippi. I can tell you right now that the scene that will choke me up is the sequence with the late, great Mr. Wesley “Junebug” Jefferson. He was a sweet, sweet man who barely got to record. I am so thankful that we were able to include an interview and performance with him in the movie. He often would announce between songs at local jukes that, “We ain’t no movie stars…,” meaning that he knew he wasn’t famous but wanted to perform like he was. Well, now he IS a movie star, at least in my book.
When you started up Cat Head and jumped into the music business, did you have any previous experience in either field? Did that help you or hurt you? Is there anything that you would have done differently if you had the chance?
I came from a marketing/advertising background. I’m a closet musician and huge, obsessive fan, but I had very little previous experience in the music business. That said, I think my organizational and promotional skills transferred well. I think being a friend and fan to all the blues musicians I know helps a lot. The truth is, if folks get into the music racket just to make money, they are INSANE! There is very little money in it and boatloads of competition. For folks who get involved with subgenres like Mississippi Blues, you have to love it and feel it first; then, you can figure out how to get in where you fit in.
To answer the second part of your question, I think there are always things you learn along the way. I have zero regrets. I just try to do things better and better as I go along. I’ve learned a lot about the music industry, blues culture and (even better) how to promote and produce.
Do you plan to release any more CDs from Big George Brock or from anyone else in the future?
Absolutely. Right now, I’m waiting for the economy to turnaround a bit more, but I have plans to record Big George and others. I’m also continuing my wonderful partnership with Jeff Konkel of Broke & Hungry Records and Kari Jones of Mudpuppy Recordings. We all help each other with every project we do.
What are your top ten indispensable recordings?
An impossible question!!! Buy the classics (from Charley Patton to Howlin’ Wolf) as well as the best of the blues releases on Vanguard (1960s era recordings – country bluesmen and Chicago stuff – especially the Chicago The Blues Today” 3-CD set), Delmark (1960s), Alligator (1970s – Hound Dog Taylor, Fenton Robinson, etc.), Fat Possum Records (1990s – especially RL, Junior, Paul Jones and T-Model) and Broke & Hungry Records (it’s all truly great). I’d also recommend compilations like the Rough Guide to Delta Blues and Chess Blues Classics. Of course, I honestly think the Cat Head and Mudpuppy recordings so far are worthy of collecting, and for fans in search of a fresh overview of today’s Mississippi Delta blues, I suggest they check out M for Mississippi – the DVD and the two CDs. (You can buy the legal downloads affordably on iTunes or Cdbaby and even rent the film at Netflix if you’re on a budget!)
Thanks, Roger. Be sure and visit the Cat Head site.
If you're in the area during the year, keep in mind that Cat Head sponsors at least three mini festivals in Clarksdale per year. A regular at these festivals is the aforementioned Big George Brock. Check out Brock with Bill Abel in this clip recorded in London back in 2007. One of the more interesting performances you'll see, for sure.
One more thing......in honor of the season, here's the one and only Sam Cooke, during his days with the Soul Stirrers. For all the impact that Cooke made on soul music, he made even more of an impact during his time on the gospel circuit, influencing countless gospel singers even today. This is "Were You There?"
More blues next week. Have a wonderful and safe Easter holiday!