So, let me get real with you people for a few lines. Maybe more than a few. I’m just not a holidays kind of guy. There, I said it. I haven’t been a fan of the holidays for quite awhile now. It takes me longer and longer each year to get into the spirit of the holidays. I guess I became jaded years ago when I figured out there was no Santa Claus or flying reindeer. Add to that the insane commercialism of a holiday that, for most folks, has lost its meaning. I still put up a Christmas tree and I buy gifts for the kids and grandkids. I like seeing my family and friends. I like the eating and drinking and being merry part, too. Those things do mean something to me. Doing something for someone else without a thought as to the return on the investment also makes me smile.
The whole fiasco that has become the holiday season just loses a little luster for me each year it seems. Commercialization. Long gone friends and family. Everyone scattered to the winds. I don’t know. Maybe I’m simply no longer that wide eyed kid, full of wonder and innocence. There is one thing though that begins to brighten my holiday spirit each year. It’s a sign that Christmas and the holidays are here. It happens, like most holiday advertising and promotion just before Thanksgiving. It’s a simple thing but it makes me smile. Once I see it hit the shelves I know…I know… that God is Heaven and all is right with the world. That one thing that signals my head to turn on the happy is has little redeeming quality and is probably not good for me. But, it puts a smile on my face. My joy and happiness within the holiday season is sent through the roof when I see Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cakes hit the shelves.
LDCTC’s are nutritionally wrong. They just are. White cake with a cream filling surrounded by thick white icing with red stripes and green sprinkles. No redeeming qualities whatsoever. In their defense, they are quite delicious. And they’re not around for very long, just a short few weeks each year. Much like the McRib, they are a guilty pleasure that makes me smile at the thought of sucking the lard-laden icing between my teeth to get every last drop of holiday joy. There’s no connection to a childhood memory. Just a predictable short-term addiction that brightens my holidays each year. Not that family and friends and that whole taking care of the less fortunate thing aren’t important, but, let’s face it. That stuff just doesn’t taste as good.
Besides LDCTC’s, this time of year also affords me some opportunity to get out and hear live music. It’s always nice to hunker down in a corner of warm, dimly lit venue with a performer or two on the stage. It’s easy to get lost in a drink and a nice groove when you settle in at that local watering hole. Let the troubles of the world and the worries of the day slip off like an old shirt, sit back, smile and enjoy.
There’ve been a lot of great musicians pass through the Spa City recently. Most recently I was able to catch the phenomenal Buddy Flett a couple times. For those of you who don’t know, we nearly lost Buddy a few years ago. His career had taken an upward trajectory after hooking up with Shreveport homey, Kenny Wayne Shepherd for a spot on the Ten Days Out CD/DVD project. Prior to that Buddy had had a successful career with A Train and The Bluebirds as well as a budding solo gig. He became ill and nearly lost his life. When he came back to playing, Buddy had to relearn all of his music. He had to relearn to play the guitar. Fast forward several years and he is back to playing solo, vocals are strong as ever and his guitar playing is back with a vengeance. I had the opportunity to catch him at the Ohio Club’s Wednesday Blues Night and a couple weeks later at the Spa City Blues Society’s Hump Night Blues Jam at The Big Chill. Both times it was obvious that with Buddy on stage, it stepped up the other musician’s playing. Larry Womack and Buddy traded licks at the Ohio Club, backed up by Chuck Dodson on keyboard, Rooster Meeks on bass and Steve Painter on drums. At The Big Chill, Danny Smith hosted the jam backed by Shannon Sabbatini on bass and Darrin Williams on drums. It was obvious Buddy was having fun, based on the big wide grin he wore through the evening. The coolest thing about the jam at The Big Chill was the number of musicians who came out to play the night Buddy was in town, including Dave Almond. A couple of magical evenings for certain.
The Ohio Club also hosted 2015 International Blues Challenge runner-up, Brian Keith Wallen. Wallen finished second behind Randy McQuay, another frequent visitor to the city. Wallen is an old soul at 24 years, mixing some cool electric covers with his own original acoustic playing. Wallen uses a stomp box that his father designed for him. He tells the story of needing something to accompany his guitar playing so his dad took it as a challenge and set off to build something unique, functional and cool for said son. The most recent result is a very nice piece of wood with a microphone inserted in the bottom of a salad bowl flipped upside down and attached to the board, thus providing a unique drum beat to go with the rest of the music. Pretty cool, actually. His dad is taking orders, by the way, for more of these if you’re interested.
Speaking of the International Blues Challenge, that is happening at the end of January. Coming pretty fast. Lots of blues societies have been having local competitions to determine who will represent them in Memphis. I got to judge the Buffalo River Blues Society’s (Leslie/Clinton) local competition not long ago. There were two bands and two solo acts competing. I got turned on to Nathan Brice and the Loaded Dice out of Springfield, MO, and the Matthew Ritchie Band out of Kansas City. Both were outstanding bands with two different styles and interpretations of the blues. Brice’s crew was a little more polished and it was obvious they had spent some time as a unit. Channeling Albert King, Brice pulled off some excellent leads without overplaying and the inclusion of a saxophone added a layer to the band’s music. Ritchie’s crew was a little more bare bones, a three piece with a cigar box guitar and a second custom guitar along with a bass made from an old ammunition box created an old, Delta-style vibe only electrified. Both acts were outstanding and hard to judge. Brice’s band took top honors for this competition as did Greg ‘Big Papa’ Binns in the solo category. Binns solo set is much improved over years past. His slide playing is gritty and real. His vocals have more depth. The overall experience is one that is becoming polished and comfortable, professional in its presentation to the audience. Binns should make this year’s IBC competition interesting.
The Spa City Blues Society will be sending Jelly Brown and Don Foshee to the IBC as the solo/duo reps along with Hoodoo Blues Revue from Little Rock going on the band side. Brown and Foshee are raw and gritty, with an several Brown originals in their arsenal. HBR is full of veteran players that have come together to create a blues sound that is both traditional and new school at the same time. The SCBS will also be sending its Blues In The Schools performance band to Memphis to be a part of the Youth Showcase, held on Friday afternoon of the competition week.
Larry Womack and Jackie Beaumont (Jackie B & Me) will be representing the Blues Society of the Ozarks in the national competition. The duo placed first in the BSO’s local competition in Fayetteville. For full details on the IBC including acts, schedule and tickets got to www.blues.org.
The Spa City Blues Society will host a couple of IBC fundraiser in December and January with all proceeds from the events going to help the acts with travel expenses to Memphis. December 18, the SCBS will sponsor a fundraiser with The Big Chill in Hot Springs. Don Foshee & Jelly Brown and Hoodoo Blues Revue will be the opening acts for the evening. The Steepwater Band will be the headline act for the night. Tickets to the event ar $15 and can be purchased online at www.spacityblues.org. The second fundraiser date is January 15, also at The Big Chill. Times and other details will be announced on the society’s web page.
If you didn’t know it by now, I host a radio show on Hot Springs’ solar powered community radio station KUHS. I’m on Mondays from 5 pm until 7 pm CST. You can stream the show, called The Mojo Box, at www.kuhsradio.org. I play blues primarily but also venture off into jazz, R&B, rockabilly, roots and who knows what else. I love having guests on the show, performing live or just stopping by to shoot the shit for awhile. Recently I had Colorado transplant Tommy Phillips come on for a show. Tommy didn’t play (he’s an outstanding guitarist) but he did bring some music to play and we spent the two hours talking about music in general, who he had played with over the years and sharing stories about our sordid pasts. Tommy is a fount of music knowledge and it’s always fund to visit with him.
Lightnin’ Lee Langdon stopped by the station recently to leave a list of names for me. When he had been on the show, we had discussed Arkansas based musicians and their notoriety, or lack of. We discussed how to bring some recognition to these folks. There is an Arkansas Blues Hall of Fame that has been pretty good at recognizing contemporary Arkansas musicians. Lee compiled a list of musicians who were born in Arkansas and it’s a pretty distinguished list: Luther Allison, Willie Cobbs, CeDell Davis, Forest City Joe, Frank Frost, Louis Jordan, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Larry McCray, Robert Nighthawk, Son Seals, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, Roosevelt Sykes, Tail Dragger, Little Johnny Taylor, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimmy Witherspoon and the late Michael Burks. The unique thing about this list…most all of these musicians are not recognized in the Arkansas Blues Hall of Fame. Might be time to start including a class of old-timers every time there is an induction. I’d also like to officially go on record and say that I think Lee Langdon and Scott Meeks (Lightnin’ Lee and The Upright Rooster) should be inducted in the Arkansas Blues Hall of Fame. These guys WON the IBC about a decade ago. While I’m at it, where are Salt and Pepper (Tony Nardi and Eddie Mobley)? They made the final of the IBC not long ago. How about Ft. Smith’s Chris Cameron? He was one of the first, if not the first, Arkansas act to win an IBC. My point is, there are a lot of great Arkansas blues players that are deserving of this recognition. Who wants to help make that happen? It’s all about keepin’ the blues alive!
As I put the bow on this holiday column, as always I want to encourage you readers to get out of the house and go find some live music. Doesn’t matter if it’s the local pub or an arena show, a house concert or a hoe down, go hear some music. Go be a part of the experience that is a live music show. Have some fun and count your blessings that you are able to have this kind of nirvana in your life. Take someone with you and introduce them to something new. You’ll make a friend for life if you do.
And don’t forget to remember what the holidays are really about…love and compassion, time with family and friends, sharing our bounty with those who have none. And Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cakes. Thank you Little Debbie, wherever you are! Happy Holidays everyone! I’ll see ya backstage.
"Nightflying down Hamburger Alley..."
I have the unique privilege of being able to travel around the country on occasion. I’m usually traveling for a conference or meeting related to my work which is education. I’m very involved in my professional life and I strive to find new ways to do things, ways to make things better, ways to motivate the people I work with, ways to motivate myself. Going to conferences and meetings provides me the opportunity to network with other professionals in my field, hear about new ideas and techniques, stay up to date on technology and so many other perks.
An unintended consequence, or maybe it’s quite entirely intended, is that when the conferences and meetings end each day, usually around 5 or 6 in the evening, is that I find myself with an open dance card. That opportunity has led me to visit some very cool places, try some different things and meet some incredible people. I've been able to spend time in Louisville, Las Vegas, Tampa, Cape Cod, Phoenix, New Orleans, Seattle and many, many other places.
Ultimately, I gravitate toward music, preferably something local. I've found that searching out the local music scene on these trips is worth the experience. I love the local music scenes we have in Arkansas…Hot Springs, Little Rock, Fort Smith, Fayetteville…so it's always great to see what happens in these other scenes. I like to hear what is being played by other musicians and to see how venues operate. Is it the same everywhere? What are the differences? How are things alike? The answer is: It's all the same. And, it's all different.
I've gone to music jams in New Orleans and Louisville. I’ve attended shows in Tampa, Seattle and Austin. The music is almost always fantastic and the people tend to be the same, always willing to talk about their livelihood and always excited to share their music with new people. Some of my favorite people in music are folks I've met traveling. Take, for example, Smoky Greenwell. He has a booth in the French Market in New Orleans, selling Louisiana music and harmonicas. He also hosts a jam session every Monday night on the corner of Decatur and Esplanade. I met Smoky while wandering through the market one afternoon, years ago. We struck up a conversation and he invited me to the jam. I found out later that Smoky was Lee Oskar’s replacement as the harmonica player in the band WAR.
Then there was the time in Louisville a group of us attended the Tuesday night jam at Stevie Ray’s Blues Bar. I walked in to find three of my musician friends jamming on stage…Jason Lockwood, Steve Parrish and Tim Dennison of the Stella Vees. Long-time friends from the IBC in Memphis and frequent visitors to Hot Springs, the Stella Vees, as a collective, and the guys as individuals, have remained friends through the years.
Speaking of Lee Oskar, on a visit to the Seattle area a few years back, I got have dinner with him. We were very privileged to be able to hear the great piano player Mose Allison. I still hear from Lee on occasion. I made Oskar’s acquaintance at the IBC in Memphis a year or so earlier. Oskar donates a set of his harmonicas to the Outstanding Harmonica Player in the competition each year. This particular year he was also displaying some of his art work. Through that meeting at a brunch sponsored by the Blues Foundation, I made a friend that I would eventually bring to Hot Springs to play in a festival. Not only did Oskar play the festival, he put on a harmonica workshops and donated a piece of his art. In addition to Oskar, I met a guy who he brought with him who plays saxophone and bass, Scotty Harris. Harris has become one of those friends I can call when I’m in town and have a place to land if need be.
One trip to the Destin area landed me in the Funky Little Blues Shack, a tight fitting restaurant and bar that plays host to a lot of great blues acts. This particular night the band was the Damon Fowler Band. I met Damon for the first time that evening, bought some CD’s and have been friends since.
So, what’s the point in sharing all these "I got to meet so and so" stories? Well, that’s just it. I got to meet people. I was in the right place at the right time and I met some wonderful people who I connected with and still remain connected to. Had I not taken the opportunity to travel, had I not sought out the music in the places I went to, I’d have never had these experiences. My point is, take a chance. Don’t be afraid to travel this fine country. Don’t be afraid to travel this great world we live in. Isolating ourselves from the experience that life has to offer insulates us. Both culturally and personally.
In a world full of fear and hate, it’s a time to reach out and extend a hand to someone new. Did you ever stop to think that other person may be just as afraid of you? Don’t be stifled by the fear the media plants in our minds. Turn off the television and take a walk outside. Greeting the world and experiencing new things doesn’t have to happen on a trip to Las Vegas or Miami. It can happen on the block where you live. Go to a show. Invite your neighbors over. Have a house concert and open the doors wide for everyone to hear. If the police get called, well, invite them in. You probably need to know them, too.
So, don’t be afraid. Get out and explore your world. Meet some new people. Re-connect with some old friends. Listen to some music. Enjoy the ride folks. It’s not going to last forever. Wouldn’t you rather leave this world knowing you lived to the fullest, without fear, with a compassionate heart and inquisitive mind, than to simply spend your time hiding behind the curtains with your face buried in the internet? Do it.
I’ll catch you backstage. Peace y’all.
"Nightflying down Hamburger Alley..."
I write to you, dear readers, on the eve of the 20th Hot Springs Blues Festival. For at least a decade, I’ve had the privilege to produce this fine festival. I’ve watched it grow from a one day affair in a dusty parking lot with performers on the back of a flatbed trailer to an almost week-long event that had international notoriety and then back to a stripped down weekend event. Lots of bittersweet moments. Lots of tense moments. Lots of awesome moments.
The scenario is the same every year. Worrying about having enough money to cover the nut. Will all the performers show up? On time? What about the vendors? Why won’t the power work? What about our security? Do we have enough volunteers? Holy shit! Is that a storm cloud? The anxiety over pulling off an event with so many moving parts is ALWAYS there. Anyone who has ever been the overlord of such an event can testify to these and similar issues. The payoff for me is when the last act takes the stage on the last night of the festival. I can finally relax and enjoy the production. At some point I will find a vantage that allows me to look out across the crowd and eventually say to myself ‘Not a bad festival. Not bad at all.’
Over my time with the HSBF I’ve had a lot of great memories. Some I helped to create, others that just happened because of the magic of the blues. Since this is the 20th anniversary of this fine little festival, I thought I’d share some of my favorite memories from the many artists, volunteers and blues lovers that have graced the Spa City at the end of the summer.
I first attended the HSBF in 2000, the year I moved to Hot Springs. I seem to recall the festival was held later in the year, October maybe, that year. I had my young daughters with me that particular Saturday evening and we were all excited to get to go hear the music. When we arrived at the festival it was dark and cold. Not a little cold. COLD! We stayed for maybe thirty minutes and left. The blues had turned us blue!
Not to be discouraged, my lovely bride and I eventually became members of the Spa City Blues Society and volunteers for the blues festival. We met the cast of characters that made up the blues society at that time and fell right in. It wasn’t long before I began to help book the acts for the festival and eventually started handling the production.
There have been a lot of fine artists grace the stage of the HSBF. One of my favorite memories was seeing St. Thomas Jenkins on stage with Joe Colvis, Heather Crosse and Chad Carter. I didn’t realize who I was seeing at the time but I can now look back on that day and appreciate the history that was on the stage.
EG Kight at The Big Chill
One year, I talked our SCBS board into booking a singer/songwriter who was relatively unknown in blues circles at the time. I had read a review about the lady and purchased her latest CD. The board bit and we booked her. This was the same year that we brought in Hubert Sumlin and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith as the headliners. EG Kight opened her set and within a few songs put out a rendition of “At Last” that brought the house down. After her set, Kight was still selling CD’s and signing autographs half way through the headliner’s set. Since then, EG Kight fills the house every time she plays the Spa City.
For a couple of years the SCBS joined forces with the Arkansas River Blues Society and offered up a second stage of music. The first time I heard Ben ‘Swamp Donkey’ Brenner was at one of these festivals. I remember the uniqueness of his sound and delivery and I loved his songwriting. I recall he spoke of ‘being bored and broke and getting house drunk’. Good times.
The last time the late Michael Burks played the HSBF will forever stick in my memory. This was one of the year’s when we would start at noon and end at midnight. Burks was the headline that year and was set to play a 75 or 90 minute set. Two and a half hours later there were about 200 people crowded to the front of the stage and Burks was still kickin’ ass! We had to tell him to quit or he would have played all night. One of the best performances I had ever seen from him.
Early Afternoon Crowd at the Hot Springs Blues Festival in Hill Wheatley Plaza
The first year we moved the festival to Hill Wheatley Plaza saw Bernard Allison and Shemekia Copeland as our headliners. This was also the first year we attempted a two day festival. Allison put on a great show and the SCBS had stumbled onto a new festival formula. We were still working long hours, they just weren’t all on the same day!
The year Brandon Santini and all-star roots & blues band Southern Hospitality played proved to be a great festival. Santini had recently recorded his CD This Time Another Year. The disc featured a song that included a duet with piano man Victor Wainwright. Wainwright was in Southern Hospitality who would headline later that evening. During Santini’s set, he brought Wainwright to the stage to sing the swamp-drenched tune Baby What You Doing To Me? It was one of those perfect moments when everything lined up. Later that evening, Wainwright, JP Soars and Damon Fowler lit things up with their Southern Hospitality set.
The year that Diunna Greanleaf appeared at the festival with Jon Del Toro Richardson on guitar was yet another moment. Greenleaf managed to get in the middle of the festival crowd and hold court, singing without a microphone. An amazing performance!
So many great performances by so many amazing acts…Joe Vicino and The Smokedaddys, The Stella Vees, Barbara Blue, Grady Champion, Shakura S’aida, Keb Mo, Los Lonely Boys, Eric Hughes, Ray Bonneville, Randy McQuay, Lightnin’ Lee & Rooster, Zac Harmon and the list could go on and on.
Of course, there have been a couple of years when things didn’t go so well. One year in particular was the year Hurricane Ike made his appearance. We were geared up to have one of the best festivals to date with the Fabulous Thunderbirds headlining. The storms began to blow in Friday and didn’t let up until Sunday. We managed to get four out of our ten acts on the stage that weekend and we lost our asses! One major positive came from that festival. The SCBS and the HSBF were shown the true support they had. Locals, individuals and businesses, stepped up to help fundraise to pay off the debts of the rained out festival. Local musicians who were paid even though they didn’t play gave their money back to the blues society. The SCBS managed to pay off all debts before the end of that year. It was an amazing show of support.
The volunteers through the years have been the backbone of this festival, as they are at any undertaking like this. I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to work beside and lead some of the finest people out there. Our volunteers show up, work hard and play hard and it is truly appreciated. From the folks like Leadra Orr, Dave Reagan, and Steve & Nancy Harnar that were there from the beginning to people like John Vaught, Bill MacSorley, Mary Melton and so, so many others that have kept it moving forward, our volunteers ROCK! I’ve met so many people through their volunteer efforts at the festival who I now call personal friends. It has certainly been a reward for me. To all the volunteers over the years…thank you for your hard work and thank you for your friendship. It has been an honor to work beside you and to serve you.
This year’s Hot Springs Blues Festival is set for Saturday and Sunday, September 3-4, in Hill Wheatley Plaza, downtown Hot Springs. It’s a bit Spartan compared to years past but it will be good. And it will continue to grow and continue to be known as one of the best ‘biggest little festivals’ in the country. Check out all the details at www.spacityblues.org. Come say hello to me if you make it. I’ll be checking things out from backstage. Peace, y’all.
"Nightflying down Hamburger Alley..."
I firmly believe that music is the one thing that can bring people together from all walks of life. No preconceived notion of a race or religion, no media fed hysteria about someone from somewhere who is to be shunned because he is different from you. Just music. And the feeling of community that it weaves though an intently listening crowd. Like a wispy fog snaking through a forest, the music envelopes the people who listen and it triggers the same emotions in all. We sway together. We sing the words together. For that moment in time, we are one.
I believe in the simple notion that a song on the radio can change a person's outlook on their world. That familiar melody, those lyrics that defined those moments in time, they make us remember Music takes us home. It fills a hole in us that we sometimes don't realize is there.
In my recent travels I've met a lot of new folks who gave me the gift of music. I've caught up with some old friends who reminded me why we became friends. And, something I myself had forgotten, I was reminded of my love for banjo music. That last sentence seems kind of random, but it's all part of the musical tapestry that makes up my soundtrack.
I was in Oklahoma City for a meeting and found the American Banjo Museum, complete with the American Banjo Hall of Fame. The ABM is located right at the edge of the Bricktown area in OKC and is a fascinating review of the history of the banjo, the music and the people. Did you know that musically, the banjo has not been improved on in over 100 years? True story. The banjo that we hear today has been producing the same quality of sound for over a century. The changes in banjo music came from the craftsmen who made them and began placing the ornamental designs on the necks and bodies of the instrument. Of course, the people who play them have also made a difference in how they sound.
The museum has an entire exhibit dedicated to Steve Martin. Martin is a comedian, actor, playwright, magician and, of course, musician. he has used the banjo in his comedy acts. He has brought the banjo front and center again, performing on Grammy winning albums with the Steep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell. I always likd Martin because of his comedy. I'd be in stitches and sometimes had not said a word. During one of his sketches, Martin is playing the banjo and he makes a statement about being sad.
"Ya know, it's just hard to feel sad when there's banjo music going on." Going into reporter guy voice he continues, "Here's some news on the most recent world disaster but first, how 'bout a little Foggy Mountain Breakdown" at which time he launched into said tune. It's happy music and I have happy memories and experiences tied to banjo music.
In Eureka Springs around Father's Day, I was helping out with the blues weekend once again. This year the event was held at Turpentine Creek Animal Refuge. As always, the festival is a fundraiser for the big cats and other sued animals that make up Turpentine Creek. The lineup was its usual great mix of multiple blues genres. I saw Alvin Youngblood Hart perform for the first time with his band. I'd seen him once before with the South Memphis String Band (Jimbo Mathus, Luther Dickinson). I've been a fan of Hart since hearing his album Big Momma's Door, a great disc full of acoustic blues. His set was all over the place... some blues, some country, some psychedelic influences... but masterfully done.
Hart is a roots music guy, having worked with Otis Taylor on a number of projects that harken back to the days of the minstrels. Hart plays banjo with the South Memphis Jug Band and on other projects. As a multi-instrumentalist, Hart has played a vital role in helping bring the old time stringed music to forefront of the music world. This style of music, like any other genre, is certainly subject to your personal tastes. However, the true music aficionado can listen and know what this music represents in terms of history, quality and musicianship.
The winners of the 2016 International Blues Challenge, The Delgado Brothers, performed at the ESBW, playing what was, in my opinion, one of the best sets of the festival. The Delgado's, led by middle brother and guitarist/vocalist Joey Delgado, delivered a set that mixed rock, blues and Latin music into a Baja-style music burrito that was dripping with the kind goo that runs through your fingers, down your arms and drips off your elbows.
To give you an idea of the Delgado's outlook on life, the night before their performance they made it to their room at The Matterhorn Towers in Eureka Springs. The morning of their performance, fire trucks were called to the hotel. Smoke was coming from their room. It turns out they were cooking bacon and set the fire alarm off! Now, I was staying in the same hotel and had no idea this had happened until later at the festival grounds. As the event unfolded during our discussions we all began to laugh and make jokes about it. Joey Delgado quipped "See, that's what happens when you let the Mexicans come to town."
The brothers got to tour the refuge after their set, compliments of festival producer and Turpentine Creek supporter, Charles Ragsdell. As the guys took off toward the refuge I made the comment that they should be careful because it was feeding time for the big cats. One of the brothers shot back "I sure hope they enjoy Mexican food."
I tell you those stories to tell you this. The Delgados are of Mexican descent. Or Hispanic. Or Latin. Or whatever you want to call it. I've no doubt they've seen their share of struggles with race and socio-economics as they've grown up. But, it was the disarming attitude, the humor, the ability to not take themselves so seriously, that made me feel like 'hey, these guys get it.' They are here to make music to make you and me feel good. And I know that when they make you and me feel good with the music, it makes them feel good. And isn't that the way it is with any real musician who has that need to get their music out? I don't know many performing musicians who don't enjoy seeing the crowd they are performing for having a good time.
There was a tragedy during the ESBW, something that could have potentially put a damper on the weekend and kept people from coming back. Kudos to Matt Isbell and the boys from Ghost Town Blues Band for reaching into the crowd and bringing them back from the brink of a sad situation. As soon as the incident had been handled it was time for GTBB to do their set. Isbell was worried about being up next after the incident. In typical Memphis style he led the band's second line parade though the crowd and onto the stage and into a heart felt version of When the Saints Go Marching In. The band couldn't have performed any better and the crowd responded, setting the festival back on track. The power of music, y'all. The power of music.
I was in Louisville, Kentucky, a little bit ago. Every time I go to Louisville, if it's on a Tuesday night, I try to make it to the weekly blues jam at Stevie Ray's. Not just because I'm a blues guy, but I usually run into a few friends there. This particular Tuesday was no different as I met up with Stella Vee's guitarist/vocalist Jason Lockwood. I've been friends with Lockwood, Steve Parrish and Tim Dennison for over a dozen years now and they've become like family. Lockwood is one of the smoothest guitar players and vocalists I've heard. He knows when to step up and lead and when to sit back and fill. Lockwood is a consummate pro.
I got to hear him perform along with Eric Lindell's touring guitarist. Forgive me not remembering his name as there was much bourbon whiskey being consumed that night. I also made some new friends with another local group led by a hulking black man named Phillip Phillips. Phillips made me feel right at home as we discussed music and music history and the history of the music scene in Louisville. We became acquainted and exchanged contact information to remain in touch. Why? Because of the music. He and I had zero common ground, had never met before that night, but music led us to that encounter, to that common ground and to what, I hope, will be a lasting friendship.
The power of music. It doesn't matter whether it's a banjo, the blues, rock and roll, a guitar, a song. It unites us all. In a world that we are being programmed to believe is full of violence and hatred, the music still exists. I believe music is the place where our nation and our world can begin to heal. It's still out there. It's still inside you. And me. We just have to be still and let the music that is in us find its way to the surface. Bob Marley knew what he was saying when he sang "The thing about the music, once it hits you, you feel no pain."
So, turn of the TV, put away the Facebook feed, stop texting... and listen. Listen to the people who are around you, listen to the people you meet. Make a friend through the music and make this ever-shrinking world a better place. Maybe listen to some banjo music and have some Mexican food while you're at it.
"Nightflying down Hamburger Alley..."
I recently read an article in a local magazine about a local band. It was a familiar story. Some local guys who had been playing around for several years in different combinations had come together and started playing. They eventually began to mesh and put together a tight little band that begins to see some success locally. The story is still being written in terms of where this band will go and what they might do. Still a familiar story. The band has a young, hot shot guitar player, more talented than most and eager to learn. The thing that struck me was a statement about being content to sit right here at home and play locally. I thought about that for awhile and thought ‘Why?’. Why would you want to stay? With talent like this, what could you possibly gain by sitting here at home? Why not go spread your wings and see what the world has to offer?
I get it that some people are content to stay right where they are. No gumption to set out in the world or they’re just happy to be living life where they were raised. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. My own parents have lived their lives in the same small town where they were born and raised. By choice. They could have set off for anywhere to make a life but they chose to lay down roots where they grew up. I get that. I know that my parents did get out and see a piece of the world before they decided to settle in their home town. At least they had something to compare it to before making their decision. It’s the folks who never leave the nest who puzzle me. How do you know what’s out there if you never go? I lived in north central Arkansas for a number of years and worked with high school kids who had never been outside the county they lived in. They never knew what was beyond the county sale barn on Saturday mornings.
Don’t get me wrong. I completely get the notion of finding the place of your dreams, the contentment and comfort of familiarity. I get it. What puzzles me about people, especially people with a gift or a talent, are the ones who never give it a shot. The ones who are obviously a notch above the rest who choose to stay right here at home, never seeing what’s beyond the horizon. I almost feel sorry for those folks. They’ll never know. They’ll never know what it feels like to chase a dream, to win the prize, to take a chance and make something happen. They’ll never know what it’s like to fail, to grow as a person and performer because they failed. To pick themselves back up and keep going.
Buddy Flett was in Hot Springs recently to be the featured artist at the Hump Night Blues Jam, sponsored by the Spa City Blues Society and hosted by The Big Chill (1st and 3rd Wednesdays of each month). Flett grew up in the Shreveport area and saw some success in the bands A Train and the Bluebirds. He played guitar with the late Hubert Sumlin (Howlin’ Wolf) and spent time recording and touring with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, winning a grammy as a result. In the middle of all this success Flett nearly died, stricken with a disease that forced him to re-learn how to play guitar and sing. After he began playing again, Flett would tell his audience from time to time that “…if you hear me play the same chords over and over for a little bit it’s because I’m trying to remember the words to my song…” He had lost his memory, fine motor skills and coordination. He didn’t let that hold him back. Flett re-learned to play guitar. Re-learned songs he had written. And he began to perform again. Today, Buddy Flett is back to performing and enjoying some success. He could have just as easily taken his lumps and chosen to stay at home, a place filled with familiarity and safety. No one would have faulted him for it. No one would’ve been upset. He did the opposite. Flett took his re-learned talents and began to travel and perform again.
Not long ago I was in Memphis for the Blues Music Awards. These awards recognize the best of the best in the blues music world. In conjunction with the BMA’s is the annual induction of artists and their works into the Blues Hall of Fame. This year’s class of inductees included Elvin Bishop. Bishop has had his share of ups and downs in his career. He had left Oklahoma for Chicago and found his way into the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, playing with Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield, leaving his mark as a guitarist. Years would go by and not much notoriety came his way. Bishop continued to play blues and rock and roll, never really out of the scene but certainly not leading the charge. He experienced a nice bump in his career in the 70’s when Mickey Thomas sang ‘Fooled Around and Fell in Love” on one of Bishop’s albums. The song was a hit and Bishop was back on top. It would be years before Bishop saw notoriety again. He began releasing blues albums and would eventually earn Album of the Year honors at the BMA’s. His career, though far from over, would reach its zenith over the last couple of years as Bishop was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as part of the Butterfield Blues Band) and the Blues Hall of Fame. He took a chance years ago when he left Oklahoma to find his way in the music world. Though a trying journey at times, Bishop chased a dream that lead him around the world.
I ran into a horn player named Al Basile backstage at the BMA’s. Basile was up for Instrumentalist of the Year, a category that is a catch all for horn players, harmonica players and folks who don’t play guitar, drums or bass. I’d met Basile several years ago at the BMA’s when he was nominated for the same award. Basile records his own music and he also does time with the Duke Robillard Band. Speaking with him I told him congratulations on his nomination and good luck. His reply was something to the effect of “I don’t expect to win, not with this talent (he was facing some stiff competition). But, man it’s sure nice to be recognized.” Basile has been blowing horn for years, carving a niche in the music world. He continues to press his talent and grow. He took a shot years ago and because of it has become an in demand horn player and talented performer.
There are lots of stories like these out there. These are the ones you hear about because these guys took a chance at something they wanted. They didn’t let fear or complacency set in and hold them in place. Did they fail as they went? Likely. Several times probably. Will they fail again? Probably. Does it keep them from trying? Not a bit. They chose to reach out beyond their comfort zones and chase a dream. What would have happened if they had not? What would our view of music be if these people had not been a part of it? Would they have been content to be playing gigs in their home town, knowing they didn’t take a chance? I don’t know.
I felt a little sorry for the band in the article when I had finished reading it. I’ve no doubt they’ll find success locally. They might even play a few gigs outside of town. They’ll make some money and be content to do so. People will come see them. It’s a familiar story. I predict that eventually this band will do one of two things. Either they will find a weekly gig that will pay a little bit and they’ll have a good time, settling in to the every fill-in-the-day gig each week or they will slowly fall into dissatisfaction with the lack of notoriety and playing time and will go separate ways only to be reincarnated in the form of another local band, content to remain just that. Local.
There’s nothing wrong with local bands, local music. Hell, I live for the local music scenes around Arkansas and in other cities where I travel. It’s part of the fabric of any travel experience for me. My point to all this is why not take the shot? If you’ve got the talent, take the shot. Go to Nashville or Austin or Los Angeles or New York. Put yourself out there and see how you stack up against the rest of the world. What is the saying going around on facebook? It’s an old saying but still holds true…You always miss 100% of the shots you never take. You’ll always regret 100% of the things you never tried. Something like that. You get the point. Take the shot. Who gives a shit if you miss? At least you took the shot. To me it seems to be a lot easier to be at home knowing I took a chance at something bigger than me. I know, at least for me, I can look in the mirror every day and know that I gave it a try. I’m still taking shots at hopes and dreams and I’m an old, hateful bastard. What have you got to lose? Maybe you hit the big time. Maybe you come back home. Either way, you know you gave it a try. And isn’t that better than sitting back later on, regretting the opportunity that you didn’t miss rather than the chance you didn’t take?
See ya backstage.
"Nightflying down Hamburger Alley..."
At least twice a year I make a musical pilgrimage to Memphis. Well, really, it’s a blues music pilgrimage. I attend the International Blues Challenge in late January and the Blues Music Awards in early May. To say I attend these events is a bit misleading. I’m there, but, I’m usually working my ass off at both events.
I’ve been volunteering at these events for a number of years now. I’m sure I could count them if I concentrated hard enough. But, who wants to do that? I’ve been hosting a venue during the International Blues Challenge for close to a decade now, maybe longer. I’ve had the opportunity to host in the historic Daisy Theater, aka the Old Daisy, a term that pisses off the owners of the place. For the past few years I’ve hosted at Flynn’s, right in the middle of all the action of Beale Street.
Hosting a venue at the IBC is a job that I have come to enjoy and look forward to each year. Some of the old time volunteers and a few of my friends think I’m nuts for wanting to do this. I can’t help it. I love being a part of the event and I love hosting the venues. Being the host, or venue coordinator, involves working with the Blues Foundation, the venue and the artists; overseeing a team that helps run the venue with me; and getting to meet the fans.
I like being a part of an event like the IBC. The work doesn’t bother me. In fact, for me, it’s a lot of fun. The big piece, though, is getting to meet the people. Getting to meet the performers and the fans. I’ve been privileged to meet some of the finest people I’ve ever known because of working this event. I have forged friendships that are still in place today. Because of the relationships I’ve made through this event there are few places in this country I can travel and not find an acquaintance. In fact, that is a running joke with my co-workers and my family. It’s not uncommon for me to travel on business and run into people I’ve met in Memphis.
This year’s IBC was no different. I met people from Maine, California, Germany, the Phillipines and Nebraska, to name just a few. One of my favorite stories from this year’s event comes from the leader of the band Lampano Alley from the Phillipines. The lead singer is a fellow that goes by Mr. Lampano. Prior to introducing them for their set, I asked him a few questions about the band…where are you from in the Phillipines? The reply was ‘All over. Just tell them we’re from Manila. They’ve probably heard of that.’ After a chuckle, I asked if they were all from Manila. Mr. Lampano replied a smile, ‘They are (nodding toward the band). Me, I’m from LA. Hey, nobody’s perfect.’ To which I replied ‘Is that eastern LA?’ I don’t know if that pissed him off or made him laugh. I thought it was funny.
Working several years in the same venue I’ve come to know a few of the staff. Flynn’s is a cool place with a good crew. Chris Gales, who performs regularly himself, is my sound man, assisted by Kwan. Yep, Kwan. Just one name. Both of these cats are aces in my book. They work hard to make the acts sound good and they do a great job. I always look forward to seeing them at the IBC and I make it a point to stop in if I’m there for other events.
As with any group you spend time with, you get to know them personally and you come to appreciate who they are in the bigger scheme of life. This year I noticed the regular door man at Flynn’s, a big, quiet guy named Malone, was conspicuously missing. When I asked about him I was told he had passed away suddenly over the summer. While I wasn’t close with him, I knew Malone and I knew I could count him as a friend. He rarely smiled and didn’t say much but he was a good man. A few years ago during the IBC, I was thanking people from the stage in Flynn’s. I always try to shout out to the staff to give them recognition for their work. When I had finished, I took a break and walked outside to see what was shaking on Beale Street. As I came back in Malone stopped me and said ‘You forgot about me.’ What do you mean, I asked back. ‘You thanked everyone else in here but you forgot about me.’ Talk about feeling bad! From then on for that IBC and for every one since, I made damned sure I recognized my door man, Malone. I was truly saddened to learn of his passing. Whether he knew it or not, Malone was a part of my extended blues family and his death took a little piece of me.
For this year’s IBC, I had the opportunity to work backstage at the finals in the Orpehum Theater. I go to watch all sixteen finals acts perform from the best seat in the house. I also got to speak to most of the acts that competed. The Mighty Orq, Bobby Blackhat and his band, Norman Jackson and Rick Shortt from the Norman Jackson Band, the Delgado Brothers and all the rest. I got to hear stories about how these acts got to Memphis, the work they put in playing and raising the money to make the trip and, in many cases, their surprise at making it to the finals. Of course, I also got to cut up with a couple friends from Little Rock, Jason Willmon and Trey Johnson. Always a lot of fun.
The best part of all of it was making new friends. It may be in passing or it may be lifelong. Either way, it was a chance to meet people from somewhere else, talk to them, share life with them. Share their experience with them. I saw the thrill and surprise of winning and I witnessed the disappointment of losing. The thing about the acts who didn’t win or place was they weren’t all that upset. They found the silver lining in the event and the fact they were one of the last eight standing in their category (solo/duo or band). The spirit of the competition was that everyone who made it to Memphis had already won. And certainly making it to the finals validated that.
But, you know folks, those are the things that make working an event like the IBC meaningful to me. It’s not about who wins or loses. It’s not about meeting the big names. It’s not about ego. It’s about relationships. Finding them, cultivating them, maintaining them. Appreciating the moment, savoring it, and knowing you have connections that may last a few days but will more than likely endure a lifetime. That’s why I like being there, why I like working the event.
We don’t get along in this life by ourselves, regardless of how independent we may think we are. As Bob Margolin once told me, ‘We’re all in this shit together.’ Indeed we are, Bob. Indeed we are.
For information on the International Blues Challenge and to find out who won go to www.blues.org.
"Nightflying down Hamburger Alley..."
35 Years of Tellling You Where to Go!
As the year begins to wind to a close, it’s this time that we all tend to reflect on the past. The past year and beyond, things we’ve accomplished or not, people we’ve said goodbye to or those who have more recently found us. Lots of things happen along in our mind during this portion of the year. Reminders of the milestones we have passed, either for the first time or yet again.
One milestone that is happening this orbit is Nightflying’s 35th Anniversary. Thirty-five years. I’ve got t-shirts and underwear as old as this magazine! That’s scary but I digress. Thirty-five years of doing anything is remarkable, let alone doing something related to the music industry for. But, Peter Read and Nightflying have made sure that everyone within range knew that when the eagle took flight, Arkansas rocked. And where Arkansas rocked.
I’ve lived in Arkansas for some 30 years now. I’ve been invested in the Arkansas music scene for at least half that time in some form or another. There have been two essential influences that turned me on to Arkansas, the state and its music.
One of those influences is Tommy Smith, presently co-hosting the Show With No Name on 103.7 The Buzz. At the time, Smith was going by ‘The Outlaw’, an honor hard earned and well deserved and was blustering across the airwaves on Magic 105. I was immediately attracted to his no holds barred, take no prisoners, nothing is off limits style of radio. Smith’s delivery is what kept me locked into Magic 105 and that is where I listened for my concert information.
Through listening to Tommy Smith I learned about Arkansas. Where to visit, where to eat, what band was playing where, some of the history of Arkansas music and sports. For someone new to the state, this proved to be a great introduction to the locals. I would never have known about The Whitewater Tavern were it not for listening to Smith and Magic 105. What a tragedy that would’ve been!
I still enjoy listening to Smith these days and am an avid follower of The Show With No Name and its entire cast of characters. I still learn about places to go, where to eat, and things to do when I listen.
The second influence is, of course, Nightflying. My introduction to Nightflying was almost thirty years ago at the old Peaches Records & Tapes on University Avenue. I happened to be in Little Rock, one of my first trips to the capitol city, for a conference. I was already a music nut and was thrilled to find a Peaches store. I don’t remember what I was shopping for that day or what I purchased. What I do remember is that when I left the store, I picked up a copy of the local music and events rag that was sitting near the check out. It was my first copy of Nightflying. That would have been around 1987 or 88, maybe. Somewhere, deep in a box in a storage unit, I still have that copy, and many others, of Nightflying.
When I sat and glanced through it, I was amazed at the number of live music venues in Little Rock and across the state. I loved reading the articles about the musicians and bands from the area. Seeing pictures of the players and the venues and maybe even catching a glance of someone I knew. Because I lived a couple hours away from Little Rock and in an area that was exceedingly dry in terms of liquor and its consumption, there were not many venues nearby that carried Nightflying. I would have to make a special trip to Fort Smith or try to stop on the occasional Little Rock trip to find a copy. Ah, but when I did lay my hands on a copy of Nightflying, I would pore over it until I had literally read every word.
Fast forward to the 2000’s. I’m living in Hot Springs with a lot more access to live music. Nightflying was in most of the venues. I looked forward to the new issues as they became available. This was my guide to who was playing around the state and it afforded me the chance to see a lot of fine musicians through the years. At the time I had no idea I would eventually be writing for Nightflying, telling folks about the concerts I was going to and interviewing the performers I was seeing.
A few years after moving to Hot Springs I had a meeting with the Editor-In-Chief himself, Peter Read. In fact, on my way to my parking spot in the old Docker’s parking lot in Hot Springs that summer’s evening, I nearly ran over him! I had no idea at the time that was who I almost made a hood ornament of. I would later write a Letter to Ed regarding the dilemma of having a hood on your Peter or a Peter on your hood. As it turned out, no one was harmed, physically, and a new friendship was born.
As time progressed, I began to submit a number of articles to Peter Read and his magazine. Everything from festival and event announcements to show reviews to interviews. Eventually, Peter found his way to allow me to write this column and share with you readers my love for music and for Arkansas.
Because of knowing Peter Read and following Nightflying, I’ve had the opportunity to interview the likes of Bobby Rush, Cody Canada, Gordon Lightfoot, Ray Manzarek, Wes Jeans and so many more. I’ve been able to write short bios on a great number of Arkansas musicians. I’ve had the pleasure of representing Nightflying at SXSW, French Quarter Festival and numerous other events, being able to tell people about the music that comes out of Arkansas and being able to tell Arkansas about the music that is outside its borders.
Through beginnings with Nightflying I’ve been able to operate a successful talent agency, co-create a non-profit for Arkansas musicians, step into the world of radio and meet some fine, talented people along the way. When I look back, I have Peter Read and Nightflying to thank for more than a few milestones.
Thirty-five years is a long time. For anything. It ain’t always been burritos and strippers for Peter Read, his wife Diane or Nightflying. But, he and the magazine have persevered and have continued to bring information on the Arkansas music scene and its colorful cast of characters and ne’er do wells to the general public.
Peter, thanks for thirty-five years of Nightflying and telling me and everyone else where to go. And thanks for the opportunity to write about something I love. Here’s to as many more years as you can stand and here’s to Nightflying forever. Congratulations on this anniversary. Never forget…there are people like us out there and, we are the people our parents warned us about!
"Nightflying down Hamburger Alley..."
Loss. We've all experienced it to some degree. Whether it's money, a favorite article of clothing, glasses or worse, a loved one. Regardless of what we lose, it sucks to lose it. Some things we get over quickly. Others take a while to get over.
The Arkansas music community, and particularly the Hot Springs music community, recently lost two fine musicians, Greg Batterton and Robert 'Chicago Bob' Lowther. Batterton was known far and wide as one of the finest harmonica players around this region, often asked to sit in with musicians traveling through the area. He was also a great auctioneer and all around good guy. Chicago Bob Lowther played piano and was a member of several local bands through the years, including the John Calvin Brewer Band. A likable man, quick with a smile and a story, Lowther was a class act.
I had the privilege of getting to speak at Greg Batterton's funeral. Rather than wax poetically about the virtues of having known Greg Batterton or preaching on a piece of scripture, I chose to tell a story that involved Greg and I. I wasn't sure I could get through it. My wife, Sherree, spoke before me and read a poem she had written for Greg about the disease that overtook him, a disease that she shared with him. While she was reading the poem, I couldn't stop from crying. My collar was wet from the tears by the time she had finished!
When it came my time to speak I uttered a few words about Greg. Everyone who knew Greg Batterton has a story about him, an experience they had or a song they loved. Something. I told a story about a time I was mistaken for the harmonica totin' man. Here's the paraphrased version I'd like to share with you dear readers…
Sherree and I like to listen to live music, wherever we go, be it Hot Springs, Little Rock or outside the borders of Arkansas. Many times when we'd walk in somewhere, someone would ask me if I was going to sit in with the band or did I bring my harps. It took me a while to figure out that these folks thought I was Greg. Mainly because we wore the same style of hat and had glasses, I'm guessing. It was always interesting and I always had to explain that it wasn't Greg they thought they were talking too.
One evening as we entered a venue, a very nice lady approached me and asked me those same questions. Are you playing tonight? Will you be sitting in with the band? I'd held my tongue long enough. I told the lady that no, I wasn't playing tonight because I had sustained an injury the last time I played. I told her I had sprained my tongue. Bless her heart, she was so concerned about that. I tried to feel bad about lying to this kind lady but just couldn't. It was too much fun to see her expression when I told her my tongue would just hang loosely on one side when I tried to play harmonica.
Now, Greg and I spent quite a bit of time at his home telling stories and talking music. I'd go visit and stay for a few hours shooting the breeze. One afternoon, some months after I had told the story about my wayward tongue to the nice lady, as we were discussing safety matters, Greg looks at me and said 'You'll never believe what some lady asked me the other night at a gig. She asked me how my tongue was doing." He began to explain their exchange while I started to laugh. And kept laughing the longer he went. Of course, he had no idea what she was talking about and I had all but forgotten the chance meeting. He continued to tell me that he had no idea what she was talking about and had never heard of having a sprained tongue. He also told me the lady had a really puzzled look on her face when he told her nothing was wrong with his harp playing or his tongue.
At that point I came clean and told him what I had done. He got a kick out of that and we laughed about it many times later on. Bottom line, he'd have done the same thing to me given the chance. That's who Greg Batteron was. Always quick with a smile, a hug or a joke. And a masterful musician. I know two things about the man that I can say with complete certainty. He loved his family and he loved to play music.
Sadly, I don't have a Chicago Bob story like the one I just told. Although, I believe Robert Lowther would've appreciated something like that. I have a lot of great memories of Bob from when he lived in Hot Springs. We'd talk over beers and he'd tell me stories of the people he had played with in the past, places he had played, people he had met. My memories of Bob area those of a man who helped people, was a great musician and always had a smile for you. I know he impacted a great many people in Hot Springs area and beyond.
My last memory of Chicago Bob was at the 2015 Hot Springs Blues & BBQ Festival this past September. The John Calvin Brewer Band was set to play the festival stage. As I was backstage doing what I do, I saw a familiar figure grinning at me. It was one of those moments out of time when you see someone you know but they aren't supposed to be there kind of moments. Bob had come in for the weekend to play with the band and there he stood with that big ol' grin. It was great to see him that last time and to catch up with him. I can say he was happy and doing well that day. That's the memory I'll keep.
I say these words every time I close my radio shows…Hold your people close to you, take every chance to tell them you love them and what they mean to you. Because, you never know when the last time will be the last time. Take those words to heart good, fine readers. Our lives are but a moment in time and they can be dashed in the blink of an eye. Take the time to call an old friend or relative, your parents, your kids, it doesn't matter. Call them and tell them you love them. Bury old grudges and make amends. This life is too short to carry that shit around with you. Make time to do the things you've wanted to do. Don't look back tomorrow or next year and say 'I wish I had…'
"Nightflying down Hamburger Alley..."