Friday, August 21, 2015

Blues Down Under (Part 1) - Ten Questions With.......Sugarcane Collins

People may not be aware of it, but there is a big blues fan base in Australia.  That's because there are some excellent blues musicians there, and have been for many years.  I've had the pleasure of reviewing CDs from several Australian artists over the past 15 years with Blues Bytes, and there's a pretty diverse group, playing different styles of blues.....keeping one foot in the traditional styles of the blues, but also mixing in some new and fresh sounds from their home country to spice things up.

For the next few weeks, Friday Blues Fix will be focusing on a different blues artists from the land down under.  This week's featured artist is Sugarcane Collins, who is a 35-year vet of the Australian music scene.  Last year, he was selected Australian Male Blues Singer of the Year.  I reviewed Collins' Way Down The River CD back in 2009.  If I hadn't known better while listening to it, I would have thought he was a native Mississippian.

For Collins' latest release, Going Back To Clarksdale, the singer/guitarist traveled from Queensland to New Orleans to Clarksdale, mixing musical influences from all three places, not to mention musicians from all three places.  A lot of these songs are familiar ones for blues fans, but Collins' does a lot of "out of the box" explorations with the instrumentation and melodies of these tunes, transforming them into something fresh and new.

We hope you enjoy this Ten Questions.  There's more music from Down Under on the way in the coming weeks.  We thank Mr. Collins for his time and patience.

Ten Questions With........Sugarcane Collins

Friday Blues Fix:  Can you describe the blues scene in Australia? There’s obviously a considerable amount of interest in the blues there. How long has this been going on and how do you explain the appeal of the music to fans down under?

Sugarcane Collins:  There has been interest in Blues music in Australia for a long time; even if the initial interest was through it's connection to Jazz, which was after all, the western world's popular music of the 1920's and 1930's. Just like most white folks in the USA, we too in Australia missed the Country Blues boom of the late 1920's early 30's and the Chicago Blues boom of the 1940's and 50's. Apart from the black audience is was aimed at, it was only a handful of white US musicians who showed much interest in Blues, and then when black tastes changed, the Blues was barely hanging on till the British Rock invasion of the 1960's changed the western world of music. 

And here the Rolling Stones must take a lot of the credit for reintroducing the Blues back to the USA and the world in general. They could not believe that Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and B.B.King etc etc were not American musical icons and they set about rectifying the situation and demanding their Blues heroes be seen and heard. So just like in the USA, we in Australia also got turned on to the Blues in the 1960's, and once the black genie was finally let out of the bottle there would be no turning back. Music lovers in the USA and the world over were now exposed to the Blues universe and started to see just how important the Blues had been in the development of modern western music. Jazz, Gospel, Soul, Rock & Roll etc - all had their beginnings in the Blues. When Willie Dixon said "the blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits" he was right on. And Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee were telling no lies when they sang " the blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll". 

We mirror the USA in many ways as far as the current 'Blues scene' goes. Just like in the USA, Blues represents around 1% of the music market and just like the USA, most Blues fans are in the 50 years plus bracket. Just like the USA, we have Blues festivals and Blues friendly venues and just like in the USA, we aussie Blues musicians also struggle to make a living playing Blues. I guess the only thing we have over the USA in our Blues history would be that an aussie Blues band called Chain had a song called "Black & Blue" go to Number 1 on our Top Forty Hit Parade on commercial radio back in 1971. No Blues band in the USA can lay claim such an achievement.  

FBF:  What kinds of music did you grow up listening to?

SC:  Like most people I was brought up on a diet of popular culture via TV and Radio. I always had a voice and was always singing along to anything l heard. I sang in a church choir and did Gilbert & Sullivan/ Paint Your Wagon/ Oliver/ My Fair Lady etc when I was at school so I was aware of the diversity in music and revelled in it. My father loved to sing Al Jolson, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett et al at parties and as we were driving along so there was always music happening in one form or another. Being born in 1955 l guess l was fully aware of Elvis/ Buddy Holly/Little Richard/Jerry Lee Lewis/Johnny Cash/The Beatles/Rolling Stones/Animals/Cat Stevens/Neil Young/ Creedence/Zepplein/Beach Boys/Pink Floyd etc etc etc.

FBF:  Can you describe how you discovered the blues? When you became a fan, who were some of the artists that you listened to?

SC:  A year or two after leaving school l was driving around in my car, probably 1974, and surfing the radio when I chanced upon Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee that sweet sound of harmonica and guitar playing the country blues. I don’t remember which song it was, but I do remember that it changed my life! I had always felt culturally connected to the Irish based bush ballads and folk songs that had been sung around the camp fires of Australia, after all it was my heritage and I grew up in the bush, but when I heard black American men and women playing and singing their folk music, I knew I had found something that went much deeper. That acoustic guitar and harmonica sounded so alive and raw and real, not to mention those rich expressive voices. I was nineteen years old and all of a sudden acoustic blues became my passion. I got my hands on records by many many old blues guys like - Blind Lemon Jefferson/Blind Willie McTell/ Tommy Johnson/Charlie Patton/Willie Brown/Leroy Carr/Crying Sam Collins/ Memphis Jug Band/ Honeyboy Edwards/Robert Johnson/Funny Papa Smith/Robert Nighthawk/Blind Boy Fuller etc etc etc - and l love them all but l guess the ones who influenced me most were Leadbelly, Blind Blake, Son House and Lightning Hopkins. And I was also discovering King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt, Bob Wills, Moon Mullican, Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe, and the list goes on and on and on.

FBF:  In making your latest album, Going Back To Clarksdale, you journeyed to the Deep South to record part of it. What were you able to get from this experience that was different than if you had remained in Australia to do it?

SC:  Well l guess the obvious answer is that l would not have got all those fabulous African-American musicians on my record!

If you want New Orleans rhythm and brass sections then you gotta go to N'awlins, baby. If you want a lazy old Mississippi back beat then best you head for the Delta! Sure, some Australian musicians have a handle on all that, but if you are looking for a splash of authenticity and a dash of adventure, then why wouldn't you do some recording whilst you are in the States. And besides, believe it or not, it's a lot cheaper ( it was back in 2012! ) to record when you are in the USA than in Australia.

FBF:  What was it like for you when you made your first trip to the land where the blues began?

SC:  I first came to the USA in 1980 and bought a car and spent six months driving and free wheeling and bouncing around North America. I went as far north as Banff in Canada and as far south as Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, swinging over to the Yucatan via Palenque and also down into Belize. It was a gas. I was riding with a cat who thought he was the reincarnation of Jack Kerouac! Man, did we get into and out of some situations including being robbed at gunpoint in Acapulco!! 

I turned 25 in San Marcos California but it took twenty five more years before l got back to the USA for the second visit in 2005. By then I had raised the family, bought the house, had the music career up in far north Queensland and decided it was time for my Blues Odyssey. So in 2004 l sent out applications to Blues festivals all over the States and managed to snag a spot at the 2005 Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival up in Washington state alongside Coco Montoya, WC Clark, The Mannish Boys etc etc. Beauty! I now had something to aim for so l flew into wonderful wonderful New Orleans in early June 2005, spent three weeks celebrating my 50th birthday to the max, then flew up to Seattle and hooked up with US singer/songwriter Alice Stuart for a week then rode a Greyhound bus to Spokane to do my first gig in the USA. I had just missed the cut at another festival in the area called The Rock Cut Blues Festival (l have subsequently appeared there in 06/08/010/12/15) and Bill the festival boss offered to put me up and find me a few gigs in the week before Winthrop. So he and his son Danny picked me up at Amtrak/Greyhound in Spokane and took me to the Bronco Inn where the gig was at. I walked in and there is a poster of me right next to a wanted poster (see picture at left) for some dude called "Hush" offering a $2500 reward. Things were looking good for an interesting night. In fact, it was a downright hoot. Bill's P.A. was absolute crap, the crowd were a motley crew of old drunks and big blonde floozies asking all the usual questions about which way does the water swill down the toilet and do all Aussies drink Fosters, etc. and l just cranked it up and went hell for leather and the motley crew loved it and the big blondes wanted photos with me and l won't be forgetting my debut gig in the US of A. 

Next night and next gig things got even more interesting when Bill and a local DJ had a blue!(Australian for a fist fight) It was starting to feel like back home in far north Queensland!! Anyway, the adventures only got better and by the time l took a Greyhound Bus from Spokane to Chicago - that's a 40 hour ride - and another on down to Memphis and another further on down the road to Clarksdale, Mississippi and then back to New Orleans and just getting out two days before Hurricane Katrina hit - I had been crowned the new Sugarcane by piano tickler Leon Blue at Winthrop/ jammed with Pinetop Perkins in Bloomington, Illinois/ met Honeyboy Edwards in Clarksdale and performed in the street at the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival and be told by some older African American peoples that " Sugarcane, you got something going on!" - my blues odyssey had become my Blues Initiation and l am currently on my sixth tour of the USA in the last ten years.

With Pinetop Perkins

FBF:  Can you describe your brand of blues? Do you blend other musical styles with the blues?

SC:  I'm an old time story telling solo acoustic bluesman who plays a whole range of acoustic styles, i.e. Piedmont /Ragtime/ Delta etc on an acoustic guitar. A decade ago Mark Hoffman, who wrote the Howlin' Wolf biography said, and l quote, "Sugarcane’s guitar playing and vocals are stellar, and so authentic that you'd think he grew up picking cotton by day and belly-fiddle by night near Tutwiler, Mississippi". He hasn't been the only US music critic to say that sort of thing, and I've always been more than glad to accept that kind of evaluation as to where my blues is at. In the studio as a songwriter and record producer l have always been prepared to push the boundaries and blend all kinds of instruments and tinker with styles and feels and mold them into what l consider to be a cohesive and hopefully interesting blues sound that helps to tell the story. For me, the lyrics of the song come first. 

Live on stage, it's one voice, one guitar, no pedals, no stomp box, no gizmos, no gadgets, just blues plain and simple that harks back to the days when blues had something more to say than just baby baby baby and one ponderous guitar solo after another. 

FBF:  Who are some of your influences as musicians, blues or other genres?

SC:  When l arrived in Cairns as a 23 year old musical novice back in 1978 l was very fortunate to connect with a bunch of older blues and folk musos who had had careers in Sydney/Melbourne etc in the 50's and 60's and were now retired and living in the bush. They sort of recognized l had some talent and took me under their collective wings and introduced me into their bohemian musical way of life. Old rascals by the name of Donny Andrews and Chuck Hutchins and another cat Geoff Munton certainly aren't household names back in Australia but they sure were important to me. They encouraged me and helped me to believe that l had something to offer and that a life in music was a life worth living.  

FBF:  Can you describe your songwriting process? Who are some of your influences as a composer?

SC:  Different songs are conceived in different ways. Sometimes it starts with a little chord change, sometimes a small lyric line and sometimes a song will almost appear out of nowhere and write itself; chords, verses, chorus, lyrics and all done in four or five hours. And don't you love those! On the other hand some song ideas will take years to complete. I will return to whatever l've got and fiddle about and finally get that middle eight and that extra verse and just keep coming back till l've got it. I've had songs that took ten years to finish. Another impetus for songwriting is when you are doing an album. There's nothing like a deadline to make you sit down and really concentrate, cause if you piss fart around in the studio it's going to cost you money. Re influences from other composers - l guess we are all building on what has come before us, no matter who we are, and that includes all the greats. Everyone borrows from everyone!!

Sugarcane with Frank "Rat" Ratliff & Charlie Musselwhite

FBF:  What has been your biggest moment as a blues artist?

SC:  Back in 2005 l was staying at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale Mississippi and on that first night l talked the talk and told Frank"Rat"Ratliff, the owner of the Riverside, that l was Sugarcane Collins, Bluesman from Australia. He said "OK Sugar, let's ride" and he took me around the bars and joints and introduced me to his buddies. I could see the love and respect these men had for Rat and as far as they were concerned if l was riding with him then l was alright. It just doesn't get any better than that on your first night in the Mississippi Delta. A few nights later back at the Riverside Hotel l figured it was time for me to walk the walk. Rat was there with his wife Joyce and two buddies Sam and Nate. Before l started singing my song "Way Down The River," l said " This song has some pretty close to the bone lyrics and l hope l don't offend you in any way" and then launched into my song -

way down the river where the blues began so much beauty came from a hostile brutal land etc.....
pick the cotton and pull the corn and live in slavery from the moment you were born etc.....
freedom comes but then it's old jim crow any way you can get there sweet home chicago etc... 
but the old mississippi don't say nothing but sure does understand bout the beauty and the terror 
deep down where the blues began........etc

Here was an Aussie boy singing back their culture to a group of older African American people. Well you could have heard a pin drop and they never said a word till l had finished and then it was like a window had opened and they took me into their confidence and started telling me stories about what it was like to be black and growing up and living in the Jim Crow south. WOW!

And to top it off they told me "Sugarcane, you got something going on!" That's high praise coming from African Americans and that kind of validation is gold. It was then l felt as if l might be a blues artist after all. 

FBF:  What would you like to do as a musician that you haven’t done yet?

SC:  Well l don't want to sound too crass but after 35 years in the business doing many styles of music as soloist, band leader, songwriter, recording artist, festival performer, national & international touring artist, multiple award winner blah blah blah there's not a lot left to do that l haven't already done; albeit on a small scale as an independent artist. I guess a number one hit record would be the cherry on top but l'm afraid that ain't going to happen.

FBF:  Can you tell us about any of your future projects?

SC:  Right now l'm out promoting my latest album Going Back To Clarksdale and don't have any new projects in the pipeline.

Maybe one of these days l might go back over the back catalogue of recordings l did back in the 1980's when l was doing Folk and Bluegrass and Western Swing and Cajun and Country & Western etc. They were grand times and l covered a lot of eclectic ground. 

FBF:  Who are some other Australian blues artists for us to look out for?

SC:  Good question. I live far from the mainstream of Melbourne/Sydney/Brisbane etc and only ever see other Australian blues artists when l do festivals. Puggsley Buzzard is a hoot, Andrea Marr is a sassy gal with a swinging band, Mojo Webb can do it all and there is a young band from up my way in Cairns, Queensland called The Montgomery Brothers who have a good understanding of electric blues and if they can commit to the music and stick together they could have a real bright future.

Want to hear more??  You can check out more of Sugarcane Collins' music at his website.  Be sure to come back next week as we continue our look at the Blues Down Under.

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