We spoke to the very amiable guitarist ahead of the release of his excellent new album “My Blues Pathway”, dialling into what turned out to be his home in Switzerland. We kicked off with a hard-hitting, penetrating question:
You’re in Switzerland?
Yes, I am! Been living here for the last 3-4 years.
I saw you’d played the San Severino festival recently and wondered if you were in Switzerland for the festival; that must have been about the only live gig in the world?
I heard that (laughs), I played it on Saturday. It was a lot of fun to get out of the house.
I noticed you posted on your Facebook page about Peter Green (who had died a few days earlier); was he someone you admired?
Yes, I came to his music much later on and listened to him with different ears, as a writer, and as a fantastic guitar player and singer; he was the whole package.
This must be an exciting time for you with a new album coming out in September?
It is exciting – it’s mixed emotions in the current climate but it’s good to put your music out there.
You haven’t been the most prolific in terms of your album output over the years but you’ve put out two in the last two years, what’s going on?!
I know, I know (laughs)! What with playing sideman for different people, developing as an artist myself has been kind of a slow process. Now I have a bit more confidence in doing my own thing I feel that now’s the time to release more of my own stuff and prioritise writing songs and doing my own thing. It’s exciting!
I saw you earlier in the year at the 100 Club and liked the way you strolled through the crowd and just plugged in, no pedals, and played without any kind fuss.
Well, the UK has always been a legendary place for me, growing up knowing that Jimi Hendrix went there to become the Jimi Hendrix we know and love. The whole way the UK embraced me on my first tour; it’s always been a special place for me and I’ve always had a good time. Playing at the legendary 100 Club was special, it was a great atmosphere with great people and I hope to play there again after we get back to somewhat normal.
You come over as a very confident person, and have a very good voice, so it’s strange that you didn’t start singing on your albums until the third release in 2010?
That was the first time I sang on a couple of tunes and it was terrifying! I was playing with a bunch of friends, so it was a bit easier. I grew up wanting to be the best guitar player I could be and ride off into the sunset! Things change as you get older and you want to express yourself a little bit more than just through the guitar; you want to start writing and singing your own songs. It’s very difficult to find a singer that’s on the same wavelength as you are. It’s rare that you get a Jagger and Richards or a Page and Plant.
Talking about relationships, I notice that Richard Cousins (Robert Cray’s long-time bass player) has contributed to a couple of songs on the album and also played bass with you at the festival; is he a friend of yours?
I’ve known about Richard my whole life practically; he’s a neighbour of mine in Switzerland. I’d met him a few times over the years in passing but we’ve met more regularly over the last two years and I just asked him if he would help write with me; I knew he co-wrote some of Robert Cray’s songs so I thought, why not try something since we’re here, and it was easy!
I think you have a lot in common with Robert Cray, a more soulful, rhythmic approach to the blues; is that something you’re aware of?
I grew up thinking that Robert Cray was the mountain top – he can sing like a bird and plays with a wonderful vibrato. That’s my Mt Olympus, I thought, I’ll never get there! He inspired me the way he combined soul with the blues and married them with good, strong songs, so there are definitely things I gleaned from him.
Richard Cousins must have had some stories to tell?
He and Robert grew up together as kids and he’s got some fantastic stories about everything because he’s been there, done that, everything! It was great listening and looking up to him from my generation.
What pushed you towards playing the blues? Was that always going to happen?
Well it’s funny because from when I first started playing guitar it seemed like the blues was always there. My family’s from Arkansas and I can’t explain when and how it happened but all roads led to the blues, which I enjoyed pretty much from a child.
Did you have anyone that inspired you then?
My older brother was my way into music other than gospel music – I grew up in my father’s church; my brother had things like BB King’s Greatest Hits and lots of blues-influenced music like Jimi Hendrix. The Pentecostal church is so bluesy you know! That quartet music, the Dixie Hummingbirds seemed like common ground to me with Bobby Bland and BB King. Some of the other guitarists that lit the fire for me were people like Albert Collins, who I saw when I was 13, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hubert Sumlin, Albert King and Otis Rush. Listening to music on the radio at the weekends on KLON. I tend to go backwards to discover music in its original state.
Did you learn quickly?
I learnt young and picked it up pretty fast. The blues came really naturally.
Your playing has that classic blues sound, played through an old mono player it could almost come from the 50s
Thank you, I really appreciate that! I embrace the way that a lot of guitar players wear their influences on their sleeve and I like to talk about my influences. I’m trying to pay homage to my influences, be it BB King or Larry Carlton.
You’ve played with a lot of people, one of whom was Charlie Musselwhite. You’ve talked about his impact on you, what in particular?
Before I played with Charlie I was playing really traditional blues music, which I love, playing with tube amps and reverb tanks, playing slightly distorted guitar backing up harps. Charlie was from Memphis and lived in Chicago and he saw all these great people; the ones I was copying off of records, he’d seen them in clubs, like Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and the James Cotton Band, not to mention the people he’d had in his band like Jack Myers. So, with Charlie you had to come up with your thing and play! I learnt quickly that if I was going to swim in these waters I was going to have to put my own stamp on the guitar. I loved that guy – he gave me the stage to really start to hone my own style. It was a great education to have that link to the past.
It’s incredible to think that, Buddy Guy aside, Robert Cray is now the elder statesman of the blues.
I was having a conversation with friends recently and we were saying that ours is the last generation that played with the old guys. I played with the Muddy waters band for instance, with Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin. It hit me how many had passed away. It’s been important to me through social media to put these guys names out there and I literally see the effect of passing on that legacy through me with 20-year olds talking to me about finding a Little Walter record cool. It get’s me through quarantine and lockdown!
Going back to your early days, on your first record “I’m Here and I’m Gone”, which I think is great, you appear to me as a fully-fledged artist, with no rough edges.
I had been playing for quite a little while before I made that record. I started playing around the age of 9 and had been playing in church all that time as well as in clubs for 5-6 years. As I said, blues music just came naturally. I kind of got lessons from Junior Watson and Al’ Blake and I was playing a lot on the bandstand and studying what was going on, so the combination of those two things helped me.
I hadn’t realised that you played for a couple of years with one of my favourite bands, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, as well as playing with Kim Wilson separately. Tell me about that period.
I first started playing with Kim Wilson in 2000, wow, that was 20 years ago. I’d known that Kim Wilson had a solo band and I knew guitarists that had played with him; I knew that he was going to be my Muddy Waters and that he was going to be the guy, so I worked really hard at being ready to play with him in his band because if you could play with Kim you could play with anybody! It really was a goal of mine to learn his style and what he wanted from a guitarist. I submerged myself in records. The first time I sat in with him I wasn’t quite ready and he told me! A few months later I sat in again and he told me “Ok, you’re ready!”.
How was it that you got the chance to sit in with him in the first place?
I was introduced to him by junior Watson and Al’ Blake. They told him, here’s this young black guy that likes the blues, which is pretty rare you know (laughs)! My family’s from the south and I played in church and I’m kind of like a modern version of those old blues guys if you can be from California! There’s a connection with the songs they sang and the life they led, which my parents told me about, the lifestyle and the different things that go along with that; Friday night parties and gatherings and the blues being celebration music more than just sad music.
It must have been intimidating – he’s a great harmonica player and vocalist; did you learn from his vocal styling?
I leant a lot from his vocal styling! I love the way he sings and he has real class, a soulful, assertive thing. You don’t feel that he’s trying to copy anybody. He’s just smooth and cool! Add the harmonica and he’s dynamite! I can’t sing like them but I’ve been influenced by Kim and Bobby Bland, he’s the mountain-top!
Going back to your initial reluctance to sing, did you have any vocal coaching?
I did have some vocal lessons but the thing was that I played with so many fantastic singers from when I was young that I thought I’d stick to playing accompaniment and playing my little solos. I’m only now starting to think that I can sing, I can do this. Now, if I didn’t sing it would feel weird; it’s a kind of freeing thing to be able to lead your own band and sing your own songs that you wrote. It’s not about the ego side of that but it’s about being able to express yourself. Being in my mid-forties I have a lot that I’ve witnessed, a lot of stories to tell and observations that I’ve not been able to express because I’ve just played guitar.
You mentioned collaborating with Richard, had you done much songwriting on previous albums?
Yes, I wrote most of the songs for “Hold On”, which was my first gateway into songwriting as I had never thought my songs were good enough to do before. With Robert Cray the songs are the important thing so I thought it would be fun to work with Richard and that he’d be the perfect guy. You know, gospel, soul and blues, even early country music, those genres are so relevant to now, they’re so heartfelt and passionate and that’s what I like, and that’s the reason why I attempt to sing and write songs, for the passion of it and telling the story! A lot of people I know make it seem like writing a song is so complicated but I like the simplicity of those old country songs; they tell you exactly what’s going on! I think of songwriters like Johnny Paycheck, Merle Haggard and Conway Twitty; they tell you exactly what the problem is, what they’ve done wrong, what they tried to improve (laughs), all those things! The blues makes the most sense to me, especially right now.
It must have been an interesting experience to tour with Joe Bonamassa on his Three Kings tour, playing rhythm. Did that feel a little like a step back just as your solo career was taking off?
I get asked that question quite often (laughs). It may sound weird but to be honest I really don’t care about the solos. If he hadn’t had given me any solos it wouldn’t have mattered. It was fun trying to see how I could make him feel comfortable and react in a certain way in his solos and launch him maybe into doing something that he wouldn’t necessarily think about. To me that’s just as gratifying as playing a guitar solo. Joe’s my buddy, he called me in because he’s my friend and maybe there’s something about my rhythm playing that makes him feel comfortable so he can go on and do something else. That’s really been my role in my life up to the last 4-5 years or so. I would call Joe Bonamassa’s projects a vacation (laughs) – I tell him that all the time. I’m really connected to his band, the crew, the singers, we’re all like family and they’re very supportive of me and I’m, of course, very supportive of them! We’re always thinking of making music, whether it’s just playing together, hanging out, talking music, whatever.
He must be inspirational in the sense of him being so prolific, album after album.
He is very inspirational; his whole approach, his volume of output, his business sense, the words he uses to help me; I appreciate his friendship a lot.
I saw you play with Joe at Hampton Court a couple of years back and you did a spectacular job of trading solos with him.
I remember that gig was a lot of fun; something really magical happened, which wasn’t planned or anything; he just started doing this thing and it just happened!
What kind of music are you listening to right now?
I don’t want to say too much as my girlfriend is right here (laughs) but I’ve been collecting a lot of records, revisiting a lot of old blues, everything from Earl Hooker to Robert Nighthawk, as well as a lot of west coast singer songwriters and guitar players from the 1970s. I really embrace that Californian thing, Larry Carlton, Joni Mitchell, Robben Ford, Steely Dan, all that kind of thing. So, I have that slick west coast interest, because that’s where I’m from, and I have that Chicago country blues thing. I’ve really been hitting that heavily during the lockdown period.
Who has influenced you the most out of all the many artists you’ve listened to over the years?
The one who really moves me most when I hear him sing is Bobby Blue Bland, there’s something about his phrasing, his relaxed style, everything about him is always so real and beautiful. Then there’s BB King; he probably forgot more things about playing guitar than most guitar players know. He went through so many periods when he played like T Bone Walker and threw some Lonnie Johnson in there, he kept on going on his journey and developed a more streamlined approach with a lot of beautiful vibrato. I’ve really tried to hone in on those different periods of BB King. He influenced so many people from Buddy Guy to Larry Carlton. He set the bar so high. His vocals are great obviously too. Those two guys are really heavy! I like Otis Rush a lot too, and a lot of Chicago blues
We chatted some more before ending the call, including my noting that his guitar playing clip postings on Facebook were, as well as being very entertaining, the complete opposite of many other guitarists who did similar postings, where their emphasis seemed to be on grand staging and showing how fast they could play (and being actually quite boring). His response, which says a lot about his personality, was that his mother had told him that he shouldn’t follow the herd and shouldn’t be afraid to do his own thing. His parting comment being “if everybody is going one way, I go in the other direction!”.