In 1990, I had my first opportunity to interview and catch live bluesman Charlie Musselwhite. The Mississippi-born, Sonoma County-based harmonica star was on the road in support of a new album, “Ace of Harps,” and his Alligator Records publicist duly sent along a press copy (on cassette in those days). The lead track, “The Blues Overtook Me,” begins: “The blues overtook me when I was a little child/You know, blues overtook me when I was a little child/You know, fast women and whisky made this poor boy wild.”
The incongruity between those lyrics and my own life could scarcely have been greater as the song poured from the speakers while I maneuvered through the third-tier California beach towns I called home. Mid-20s, married, one son, another on the way, nascent career: “Domesticity Overtook Me” would be more like it.
And yet, by that time, the blues had indeed overtook me, captured me, thanks in large part to the very fact my life – in those beach days and before – bore not the slightest resemblance to the African-American culture that spawned the music. Having never lived the blues, I hungered for them all the more, for their raw, irony-free authenticity and opened-throated emotional expression.
Blues remains a huge part of my life: witness my whining over the lack of blues artists on the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Saturday afternoon lineup. And no artist has more shaped my blues tastes like the King, B.B. King.
You can catch him and Lucille in Northern California this weekend – Saturday at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, Sunday at the 35thannual Jazz and Blues Festival in Guerneville and Monday at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium. Another legend, Buddy Guy, shares the bill.
Blues came my way through my brother Kevin. Though 19 months my junior, he was the musical adventurer among the McCoy siblings, constantly bringing new tunes into the house in an effort to smash the Kiss-Styx-Foreigner axis. In that context, the arrival of “Chicago/The Blues/Today” – borrowed but never returned, if memory serves, from the Munster, Ind., Public Library – was of a piece with the appearance of Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother” or T. Rex’s “Electric Warrior” in his book- and album-strewn room.
That context is significant: Blues was just part of our expanding musical universe, a genre on equal footing with any other that challenged us emotionally and/or intellectually. As such, those first blues discs – “Blues Deluxe,” a multi-artist live album produced by Chicago’s WXRT; B.B.’s magisterial “Live at the Regal”; the Paul Butterfield Band’s debut – served to spice our collective collection. But just spice – although we lived in a Chicago suburb just a few miles from the world’s Blues Mecca, it’s unlikely any of us could have picked Muddy Waters out of a police lineup.
It took a move to Northern California at age 19 for me to launch my own blues project. In retrospect, I can see why it happened then: I can identify the confluence of factors ranging from my first real encounters with the vagaries of adult life to the emergence of an exciting young Texas guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan. (Every generation should be blessed with a musician whose sound and profile create the bridge rock ‘n’ roll kids need to cross over to blues.)
Beyond that, there was a budding personal quest for authenticity in the culture I consumed. As I aged out of my teens and into my 20s – became my own person, if you will – I increasingly turned to the arts not solely for entertainment but also as a means for tapping emotions, for expressing feelings and concepts I had within me but was incapable of accessing.
More than 30 years later, I know what blues does for me – what it touches – but also realize those sensations remain beyond the power of words to express fully. To hear King’s anguished guitar work on “How Blue Can You Get” or Waters wailing “She’s been gone 24 hours/And that’s 23 hours too long” is to me to feel – really feel – the very nature of love and loss. To hear Howlin’ Wolf invite everyone to pitch a “Wang Dang Doodle” or the triumvirate of Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland and Robert Cray hail the redemptive powers of a “T-Bone Shuffle” is for me to tap into the very nature of human celebration.
So my blues collection began to grow in the mid-‘80s, first incorporating some of the discs Kevin brought home but quickly becoming wholly my own. White-dominated acts initially (Butterfield, Musselwhite, Canned Heat, John Mayall) but then black artists (Muddy, Buddy, Albert, James Cotton, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, Son Seals). When my college girlfriend bought Wham’s “Make It Big” in 1985, I felt karma required I simultaneously pick up Muddy’s “King Bee.”
Through it all, King has been the lodestar. He was the first blues artist I saw live – with Kevin, fittingly enough – and that initial concert had led to eight or nine more. The most memorable was a December 1988 show at the Ventura Theatre – brothers were in attendance and I had interviewed B.B. (which I recorded and still possess) the week before. The King of the Blues and I discussed the difficulties the music perpetually faces in finding a young audience.
To increase radio – and video – exposure … King says blues needs to move further toward the mainstream. Blues purists for years have criticized him for trying to do just that with his experiments in jazz and country. Some will never forgive him for dressing the blues in a tux and taking it to Las Vegas.
“The blues purists have never really admired my work for being pure blues,” he says. “I have been enough blues to be considered the blues singer or the blues musician, which I’m proud of but (at the same time) I have not been contemporary to the point of a Stevie Ray Vaughan or a Robert Cray.
”I think that their generation has more to work with and I believe that if they live as long as I have the music will go further, further, further, further.
”But don’t misunderstand me: The house doesn’t stand if there’s no foundation. I don’t want blues to change to the point where it won’t be blues but I want it accepted like any other kind of music. That’s, in a way of speaking, my prayer.”
Two things strike me about that passage, the first being how sad it is to realize Stevie Ray would be dead but 20 months later. The other is that King is fairly prescient about blues’ expansion, as the genre’s boundaries today reach from the near-pop-rock of Keb’ Mo’ to the jam-band ethos of North Mississippi All Stars. Hell, some people even figure John Mayer a bluesman.
As someone who desires the blues’ perpetuation, I’m all for that. On a purely personal level, however, I must say that very little that’s new within blues’ flexible boundaries appeals to me. Maybe I’m getting old or – far more likely – that attitude is a function of having sat through too many self-billed “blues” bands that owe more to Aerosmith than Albert King and attended too many blues festivals without a single African-American on the bill. When it comes to much in 21st century blues – apropos of B.B.’s house – the foundation is intact but no family’s moved in, let alone lived there generations, trafficking in the simple but essential transactions of human life.
My own blues journey continues, of course, but – even as I keep an ear on the present – it’s more about mining the deep blues of the past. Like B.B. tells that rabid Chicago crowd on “Live at the Regal,” I’m going “way down in the alley.”
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