Friday, December 26, 2014

Ten Questions With........George Taylor

George Taylor

Growing up in the south, one is exposed to a variety of music.....I listened to what my parents listened to on the radio (anything from Top 40 to country to easy listening), my uncle's old 8-Track tapes (anything from the Beatles to Sly & the Family Stone to Three Dog Night), and later listening to my own radio in my bedroom late at night (Top 40, R&B/Soul, etc..).  In my neck of the woods in Far East Mississippi, radio stations in the 70's were more diverse than they are would get rock, pop, R&B, soul, and the occasional country track on a given day, especially later in the evening.  There was even a station that played album tracks from several different genres, so there was plenty of different types of music to be heard.

Even though I might not have liked all the music I listened to, it did influence my tastes in music.  One thing I did figure out as time passed was that there was little difference in most genres other than instrumentation and presentation.  The songs covered a lot of the same subject matter, though one genre might lean toward music from Hammond B3 and horns, and the other used steel guitar, and another used harmonica, piano, and electric guitar.

For several summers when I was in college, I worked in a local grocery store.  For the first few years, the store played the typical background elevator music over the P.A.  The summer after I started listening to the blues, the store manager started playing country music over the P.A.  Whether I liked or not, I got a steady diet of country music that summer, and I realized over those three months that there wasn't much difference between country music and the blues.....just instrumentation and presentation....which led me to a greater appreciation of country music.  Heck, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard are as much blues men as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.  Just listen to the words that they write and sing.

Which brings me to George Taylor.  The Virginia native uses acoustic, lap, electric, and pedal steel guitar, fiddle, and Dobro in his brand of music, which blurs the line between country and the blues to the point that you can barely make it out.  He grew up listening to the popular music of the 80's, but discovered bluegrass and Americana during his college years in Tennessee.  From that point, he transitioned to the blues while traveling through the south, and now all of those genres influence his music.  He's a top notch songwriter, an excellent storyteller whose lyrics will really hit home for most listeners, whether you lean toward country or the blues.

Taylor's latest release, Rain or Shine, is Americana with a heavy base in the blues.  If you grew up exposed to all of these various genres, you will have no problem with George Taylor's brand of blues, his wonderful songwriting and musicianship and his honest, heartfelt vocals.  Taylor was nice enough to sit down with Friday Blues Fix for Ten Questions (give or take a few) and we appreciate him taking the time to do so.  When you're done reading, visit his website for more information and do yourself a favor and check out his music.  You'll be glad that you did.

Ten Questions With......George Taylor

Friday Blues Fix:  Do you come from a musical background?

George Taylor:  I may or may not have some distant relatives that had a significant impact on American music. But I haven’t wanted to know bad enough to pay Ancestry yet. My Dad was a mechanic by trade, built and drove drag cars and has an auto repair business in my hometown.  My Mom is a hair dresser.  My grandfather on my Mom’s side used to play guitar and harp when he was young. He was starting to talk to me about some stuff like that just before he died. He would tell me stories about barn dances in Richmond, Virginia and some of the performers he’d seen. He was a good man, my Grandpa. He served his God, Family and Country, gave the most beautiful prayer you’d ever heard, a real salt-of-the-earth kind of man.

FBF:  Growing up, what kind of music did you listen to?

GT:  Man, I’ve listened to most of it, I feel like, but I guess everyone feels that way. My first albums were Thriller, Born in the USA, and Huey Lewis' Sports. Shortly after that, I was dubbing my cousin’s Run DMC tape with “Walk This Way” on it.  My Dad listened to some great stuff and so I was exposed to it early on. He would always be listening to Elvis, Motown, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and CCR to name a few.  He has pretty fantastic taste in music and it had a huge influence on me.
We had to do a report during Black History Month in elementary school and I chose Marvin Gaye.  I read my report and decided to bring in a tape for them to hear and I performed lip syncing to “I’ll be Doggone.” Weird, who does that? I guess I should’ve known early on I had another calling than class clown.  

FBF:  Who are some of your musical influences as a musician, singer, and songwriter?

GT:  They’re changing over time. Just a few top of mind are Otis Rush, Jimmie Rodgers, Tom Petty, Howlin’ Wolf, Dylan, Townes, Sonny Boy, The Stones, Ryan Adams, Sam Cooke, Cash, Elvis, Dwight Yoakam, Radiohead, Uncle Tupelo, Scott Miller. I try to soak up as much as I can. It’s pretty amazing how your taste and appreciation changes over time.  I mean some stuff is timeless but not all of it. 

Taylor with legendary DJ Sonny Payne

FBF:  Can you tell us a little bit about your thought process when writing songs?  Do you do it in a structured way… many hours a day writing songs, or do things sort of happen spontaneously?

GT:  When I got serious about writing I had a lot of time on my hands. It’s good to set goals for how often you’d like to complete a song. I tried to write a song a week for a year a while back and got pretty close. I think time and freedom have a huge impact on being able to write effectively. Also, reading and putting stuff in your brain so you can get stuff back out. It takes a special combination of emotion and rationality to build a strong song, as well as the ability to remain creative and abstract at the same time.  You can’t force that type of thing.  You just have to feel it, submit to it when it’s happening and nurture it as well.  You have to make yourself available to it. It’s a gift, I believe. Usually, I start with a feeling and give that feeling a sound on a guitar or keyboard and then after I’ve got a melody, I’ll start the lyrics. Then once you've had that inspiration you just have to force yourself through all the lyric writing and editing.  It’s a balance of inspiration and perspiration.

FBF:  Do you write your songs based on personal experience, or from listening to other people and the world around you?

GT:  Both for sure.  Most of it comes from personal experience or stories I’m familiar with. I’ve done a bit of living. It helps to have those stories to draw from. I mean, I’ve never been a hobo, which I don’t really find particularly enticing, but I’ve been around a few places and met some characters. Also, it’s good to stay open to creating characters and stories as well, that’s fun to do. Just to let your mind run and go sometimes and then pull it all together. I’ve got a few more stories to tell.

FBF:  How did you fall under the sway of the Blues?  What is it about the music that draws you to it?

GT:  The honesty and raw emotion of the music and the lyrics hooked me when I first heard SRV as a kid. I noticed when I started writing that I was always writing songs that were mostly about hard times and hard luck anyway.  So when I got into vinyl records several years back and found a Lightnin’ Hopkins record in my Dad’s stack, it was over. It just seemed to fit me, I really relate to blues music. It takes a certain venue and audience to make you want to play your songwriter music.  The blues genre gives all the feeling but tells the stories in a simpler way most times. It doesn’t have to be so wordy and I can appreciate the economies of language of the genre.

FBF:  You moved to Austin, TX several years ago.  How did your time out there influence your musical style?

GT:  It’s like being a kid and growing a couple inches and not ever really noticing. Texas gave me the time, places, people and room to grow as an artist. There are so many creative people there. It’s a great place to be and to be yourself. You gotta buy into the mantra “keep Austin weird,” and be whatever you are.  I’d like to think I had as much or more influence on my style as Austin, TX did though.  I didn’t really fall into a crowd or scene there, so to speak. I made a few good friends, played a few gigs, paid some dues and really soaked up the culture of it all. I’d hear what other guys were doing but I still did my own thing. Not a whole lot moved me to want to do anything different. I picked up a few licks and probably talk a bit more southern. “Fixin’” is now in my lexicon, for instance. Texas reinforced my independence as an artist. They’re an independent and proud bunch down there, and I love it.  I think its badass and they should feel that way, it’s a special place.

FBF:  Why did you decide to return to Virginia last year?  What has changed with you and your audiences during your absence?

GT:  I didn’t want to leave Austin.  It’s my favorite town I’ve been to.  Money gets funny and you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to get along. I’m still working hard and waiting on that break. My audience hasn’t changed much other than it’s growing a bit, I’m grateful for that. Some of the best advice about music I’ve ever heard was “the guys that make it, are the guys that never quit.”

FBF:  Can you tell us about some of the songs on your new album, Rain or Shine?  I really like how you show with words and music that the line between country music and the blues is a blurry one.  Did you achieve what you set out to do with this release?

GT:  I was listening to a lot of Jimmie Rodgers and Howlin’ Wolf at the time. So that probably has quite a bit of influence on this record. I wrote “Goodnight” in about 30 minutes one Christmas holiday at home alone.  A few I already had like “Railroad Song,” it was the third song I ever wrote back in 04’-05’ when I started writing. When “Harvest Moon” happened I’d just convinced my girlfriend to buy me this old 1940’s Oahu student, square neck, lap guitar off craigslist for $100. I love old stuff with character and new gear has a way of inspiring you sometimes. So I figured out how to play it a little and that song just happened. I’d say it was a gift from God, but it’s about moonshining so I’m a bit leery of making that assertion. However, I do believe “Seat with Your Name” was a gift from above.  My inability to sing that song is what makes it special to me. I like to think you can hear and feel a sinner's suffering and contrition when listening to that one.

I appreciate the compliment there on balancing the country and blues line. These songs are all very organic and roots based.  That’s what we set out to do. I put together a list of songs I thought would work, of songs I’d been playing at gigs around town and stuff I was writing at the time. Then I brought it in the studio and played them on an acoustic guitar for Justin Douglas.  The ones he hadn’t heard or played with me already, and we decided what to cut.  We had a solid core of things we knew we wanted to record to start based on doing shows together. I’m real happy with how it turned out.  I mean it’s real songwriting, real vocals, real guitars and drums you know. No studio tricks or overproduction. That’s why I think it’s effective, it’s the real thing.

FBF:  Do you have any upcoming projects in the works? 

GT:  I’m getting settled back in Richmond, VA, making relationships and getting a roster together. I’m working on a plan for my next record. I’d really like to record again in 2015, we’ll see if I can sell enough copiers this year to get it done.  I can appreciate all the artists out there crowd funding and I might give that a go this time. But to this point I’ve felt kind of weird about it.       

FBF:  Musically speaking, what would you like to do that you haven’t had the chance to do yet?

GT:  I’d like to do a whole lot of things.  I’d like to get on some festivals, play some different venues, expand my fanbase and develop a support team for booking and management. But mostly I’d like to make more records, a full on blues record or two, a singer-songwriter acoustic record, I’d really like to do something more experimental as well. It’d be nice to catch a run of good luck and be able to afford to make these records for sure.  

FBF:  What kind of music do you listen to in your spare time?

GT:  Most the time it’s blues, country, or rock and roll.  I’ve been listening to Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Otis Spann and Curtis Mayfield the past couple days. I did listen to Pink Floyd, Coldplay and Death Cab the other day. It was one of those days at work that had me craving some calming music, or what I sometimes call hangover music.  I listen to most all of it and as often as I can. Mainly the blues though.  I just can’t quit the blues. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

New and Improved - Junior Wells' Southside Blues Jam

Way back in the early 90's, I picked up a copy of Junior Wells' 1970 Delmark album, Southside Blues Jam.  I first heard Wells on the Chicago album of the Atlantic Blues series (with his longtime musical partner, Buddy Guy), his appearance on the Chicago/The Blues/Today! series with Guy, and their Blind Pig live set, but I really became a fan after I saw him with his band on the old Lonesome Pine TV series that was broadcast on PBS in the 80's.  That was the first time I ever saw him in person, so to speak, and I was mesmerized by his electrifying performance and his "cool as a cucumber" persona.

After seeing that performance, I started trying to seek out more recordings and eventually tracked down a nice half live/half studio album from Vanguard (It's My Life, Baby!), and then what is considered the essential Junior Wells recording, Delmark's Hoodoo Man Blues.  When I first heard Southside Blues Jam a few months later, initially I thought, "not bad," but with subsequent listens I learned to really appreciate it for a number of reasons.

Like Hoodoo Man Blues, Southside Blues Jam sought to capture the feeling of Wells and his band playing his regular Monday night gig at Theresa's Blues Bar on Chicago's South Side.  Wells' regular band at Theresa's included Buddy Guy and Louis Myers on guitars, Earnest Johnson on bass, and Fred Below on drums, and they were here for this recording.

The fact that Wells was playing with his own band really lends a sense of warmth and intimacy.  Familiarity certainly played a major role in the performances on the album.  The key word for the session is L-O-O-S-E.  Wells takes a few of these songs and builds them from scratch, seemingly making lyrics up as they come to him, and there's a lot of give-and-take with the band during the songs.

"I Could Have Had Religion" starts out as a song about a woman and nearly becoming a preacher, but suddenly, out of nowhere, it moves to a lamentation about the tragedies that had befallen several of the area's stellar bluesmen (Magic Sam' death a couple of weeks earlier, Howlin' Wolf's recent heart attack, Muddy Waters' terrible car accident).  You can sort of tell that even the band was caught off guard by this transition, but everything works out perfectly.  Wells' performance is deep and heartfelt...very powerful.

"Blues for Mayor Daley" is similar in scope.  Wells begins by singing about his birth and upbringing, and his blues beginnings and influences, but he moves into discussing the things that make the blues so great......the power, the passion, the friendships and camaraderie, and the heart and soul that go into everything about the blues.  Soon, he's addressing the mayor, suggesting that he come to Theresa's on a Monday night and experience it first hand.

The other songs on the original album were covers of fairly familiar material.....a couple by Wells mentor Sonny Boy Williamson II ("Stop Breaking Down," "In My Younger Days"), Waters ("Just Make Love To Me," "Long Distance Call"), Memphis Slim ("Lend Me Your Love"), and Guitar Slim ("Trouble Don't Last").  The last song also included Guy taking a turn behind the mic.

A bit about the players......Here, Buddy Guy's guitar work is fierce and imaginative, barely controlled ferocity all the way....but always in the right place at the right time.  I've mentioned before here that Guy can be a bit frustrating to see in person....the force-of-nature guitar work is always there, but the show itself will occasionally meander a bit, with him breaking off songs midway and going off on tangents, focusing more on Hendrix and Clapton tunes than on his own contributions to the blues.  I think Junior Wells brought out the best in Buddy Guy, and this disc is no exception.  They worked so well together, complementing each other's strengths perfectly.

As for the other band members.....Louis Myers was the consummate sideman for years in Chicago, and with Wells, drummer Fred Below and his brother, guitarist David Myers, he formed the Four Aces, one of the premier bands of the Windy City's early 50's music scene.  When Wells left to replace Little Walter in Waters' band, The remaining aces began backing Little Walter and continued to do so for a long, productive period.  Myers had a pretty decent solo career in addition to his work as a sideman, releasing several fine albums on his own.

Fred Below was a blues drumming pioneer who played a big role in the development of Chicago blues rhythmic structure.  A Chicago native, Below got his start playing jazz, even playing with future jazz legend Lester Young while both were in the army.  When Below returned to Chicago after serving, he found out that blues had replaced jazz in popularity, so he turned to blues drumming, joining the Aces.  His jazz background helped him, and the Four Aces, to stand out from the normal Chicago blues bands, and helped introduce the blues shuffle beat to the music.

Stalwart bass player Earnest Johnson backed some of the Windy City's finest over his long career, including Waters, Guy, Earl Hooker, Memphis Slim, and Magic Sam (on Sam's masterful West Side Soul).  Johnson was also bass player at the recently issued Muddy Waters DVD at the Checkerboard Lounge from 1981 with the Rolling Stones, Guy, Wells, Lefty Dizz and others.  He died relatively young in 1982, only in his early 50's.

The final ingredient in the mix was blues piano legend Otis Spann, who Wells had seen the night before the session and invited to participate.  Spann was a major part of the Muddy Waters Band for two decades, recording with Waters from the early 50's until the late 60's, before finally striking out on his own as a solo artist in the mid 60's, when he released several very good recordings of his own on the Candid (two wonderful discs with Robert Lockwood, Jr. on guitar), Testament, Bluesway and Vanguard labels.  These sessions with Wells were Spann's final recordings.  He died in April of 1970 from liver cancer.  However, his distinctive style comes through as strong here as any of his recordings with Waters over the years (in fact, he played on some of the original versions of these songs).

Southside Blues Jam is a great picture of the Chicago blues scene of the late 60's, featuring one of the finest bands of its time in a comfortable, relaxed session.  These musicians complement each other so well.  They're almost telepathic in their playing.  Hours, days, weeks, and years of playing together will do that.  An internet friend who was a part of the Chicago blues scene in the late 70's actually played for Wells and says that period was one of the most enjoyable that he had during his time in the Windy City.  That comes through on these recordings.

Delmark recently reissued Southside Blues Jam, adding an alternate take of "I Could Have Had Religion," a couple more Waters-influenced tunes, a nice cover of an old Little Walter tune ("It's Too Late Brother"), some amusing studio banter between Wells and Myers, a short warm-up jam with Guy and Spann, and a closing improvised jam that finds Wells quoting and sometimes imitating Howlin' Wolf, Albert King, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, and Tampa Red.  These tracks bring out the relaxed atmosphere even more.  It would have been a blast to have been a fly on the wall during these sessions just to take in the surroundings and the conversations and the interplay first hand.  Thanks to Delmark's superlative work on this reissue, it makes a previously enjoyable listening experience even better.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue #14

Time to revisit one of FBF's most popular topics.  For those new to the blog, Something Old represents a blues artist from the Old School of blues.....could be from the 1920's through the 1980's.  Something New represents either a relative newcomer to the blues or a new album that you might enjoy.  Something Borrowed can be either a blues artists covering a song from a different genre (rock, country, jazz, etc....) or an artist from another genre covering a blues song.  Something Blue is an artist who is considered the epitome of the blues.  Let's get started, shall we......

For Something Old, we turn to James Edward "Snooky" Pryor.  The Lambert, Mississippi native moved to Chicago in the early 40's, and claimed to have pioneered the now-common method of playing harmonica amplified by holding a microphone in his hands along with the harmonica.  When Pryor was in World War II, he would blow a bugle through the P.A. system in his camp, and this inspired him to try playing the harmonica in the same manner.  He recorded some of the earliest Chicago blues records after the war, usually with either guitarist Floyd Jones or his brother Moody Jones, two largely unsung early Chicago blues pioneers.  In 1948, Pryor and Moody Jones recorded "Smoky & Moody's Boogie" for Planet Records.  In later years, Pryor would claim that Little Walter copied the prominent riff from this song for his own monster instrumental hit, "Juke," in 1952.  As you give Pryor's version a listen below, it's hard to argue with his logic.  Pryor dropped off the music scene briefly in the late 60's, becoming a carpenter, but soon resurfaced and continued to perform and record into his eighties, passing away in 2006 at 85.  He never really lost his edge or enthusiasm......his later recordings were as strong as his late 40's recordings, and he earned lots of new fans with his live performances.

photo by Marilyn Stringer

For Something New, here's more from Mississippi's own Jarekus Singleton.  Singleton's Refuse To Lose album, on Alligator Records, is still one of the hottest albums and he is one of the hottest acts on the blues circuit.  He really has a way with a blues lyric that's definitely not your standard fare, though his songs do touch on familiar blues topics.  He's also a strong vocalist and has guitar skills a cut above the norm.  For sure, the NBA's loss is the Blues World's gain and we will have him around for many years to come, long after he would have hung up his sneakers for good.  Below, check out one of Refuse to Lose's stronger tracks, which is really saying something, "Crime Scene."

For Something Borrowed, let's check out Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.  I always heard that the best way to tick Brown off was to call him a blues man.  He insisted that the music he played was American music, not just blues.  His musical style encompassed various styles native to Louisiana and Texas.  His dad played country, Cajun, and bluegrass when Gate was growing up, and the youngster himself was taken by big bands like Count Basie and Duke Ellington.  Brown made some recordings for Peacock Records, beginning in the late 40's that influenced numerous Texas guitarists like Albert Collins, Johnny Clyde Copeland, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and others.  He recorded albums with blues, jazz, Cajun/Zydeco, big band, and even country (including a duet album with Roy Clark, plus an appearance on Hee Haw).  In addition to being an incredible guitarist, Brown also excelled at fiddle and he usually included at least one fiddle song on each album.  One of his finest fiddle tracks is the traditional "Up Jumped The Devil," and this appearance was taken from one of his appearances on Austin City Limits.  This was one of my favorite tracks on his early 90's CD, The Man.  I got to see Brown at Jazz Fest in the early 90's and it was an amazingly diverse performance, just like most of his albums.  If you never got a chance to hear him perform (he passed away in 2005), you missed a treat.  Check out his music when you get a chance.  You'll be glad you did.

photo by Bret Littlehales

For Something Blue, we pay tribute to the late, great Junior Wells, who would have been 80 years old this week (December 9th).  I first heard Wells perform with his longtime partner, Buddy Guy, and eventually I became a big fan of his, mostly because I witnessed a particularly charismatic performance on the old PBS series, The Lonesome Pine Special, from the late 80's.  I got to see Wells and Guy at Jazz Fest soon after that and then I started trying to find old Junior Wells recordings (there were no NEW ones at that time).  Feisty and fierce, Junior Wells was the epitome of a blues man, which is what Something Blue is all about.  Happy Birthday to Junior Wells, who's surely rocking the house in Blues Heaven.  FBF will have more on Junior Wells in the coming weeks.

Friday, December 5, 2014

New Blues For You - Fall, 2014 Edition (Part 3)

This week, Friday Blues Fix continues our look at some of the new releases that are coming your way during the fall months.  This week's offering features a wide range of blues styles and at least one of these albums should fit your musical palate, whatever style of blues you dig.

(Sorry, having some difficulties adding audio files on some of these albums)

To begin, let's see what's happening in Memphis.....

Daddy Mack Blues Band - Blues Central (Inside Sounds):  Longtime readers know that Mack Orr is a favorite of FBF, and this new disc does nothing to change that.  Orr's sixth release finds him and his band still laying down that relentlessly nasty, greasy, funky Memphis blues, but what I really like is how the folks behind the scenes don't just give you more of the same with each release.....they have gradually added to Orr's sound with each release by adding harmonica, horns, keyboards, backing singers, etc...but they never stray far from the band's original sound.  Orr's robust vocals and guitar are still front and center, but the band's airtight rhythm attack is the key to the whole thing.  Over the years, I've discovered a lot of great Memphis blues acts, such as the Fieldstones, the Bluesbusters, and the Hollywood All Stars, and the Daddy Mack Blues Band follows closely in their footsteps and actually may end up being the best of them all.

Georgie Bonds - Stepping Into Time (BGB Music):  Singer Bonds started out as a blacksmith, singing R&B as a pastime, but a friend's cassette tape of Robert Johnson steered him to the blues and after attracting the attention of blues man Sonny Rhodes at an open mic night, he's focused on singing the blues.  After a couple of stumbles and setbacks, he's returned with this amazing set of ten originals and two covers that touch on a wide range of blues styles mixed with soul, funk, traditional and country blues.  Bonds opens up with a chilling reading of the blues classic, "St. James Infirmary," that lets you know he means business and he just rips through this amazing album loaded for bear.  He's well on his way to becoming one of the most compelling blues voices in a long time.

Howard Glazer - Looking in the Mirror (Lazy Brothers Records):  FBF friend Glazer is a veteran of the Detroit blues scene, and his versatile guitar skills allowed him to be selected as Outstanding Blues/R&B Instrumentalist at the Detroit Blues Awards earlier this year.  He was also inducted into the Michigan Blues Hall of Fame last year.  His latest album proves that his recent accolades are well-deserved.  In addition to his guitar prowess, he's also shows that he's a talented tune smith as well, penning all twelve tracks, and a strong vocalist.  He ably moves from traditional urban blues to country blues to psychedelic blues rock, paying tribute to the late Johnny Winter on one tune and even channeling Jethro Tull(!) on one track which features an electric flute.  More than anything, you can really feel the love that Glazer has for this music with every note played and sung.  This guy is a blues lifer and to me, this is his best release yet.