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Side II – Interviews  …….

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This month we spotlight two noted blues figures. The first is nationally respected and veteran blues and rock writer Rev. Keith A. Gordon. The second is equally acclaimed blues musician and also longtime music journalist Ted Drozdowski, better known as the creative force behind the Scissormen. Both have been personal friends as well as colleagues for many years, and I am glad to welcome them to the column for Blues Appreciation Month.
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ZZ4799619AThe Rev. Keith A. Gordon has written or co-authored 10 books on music, and had articles, reviews, and features published in more than 100 publications over his 40-plus year career.  He is quite outspoken and articulate on a number of subjects, and unafraid to tackle pretty much any issue.
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(1) What got you started as a music critic?
“When I was 12 or 13 years old, I was nuts about music and was a regular reader of zines like Creem, Crawdaddy, and the tabloid Rock magazine. As I began recognizing writers like Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, and Greg Shaw, I became fans of specific critics. Figuring that it might get me some free music, I began scratching out reviews on an old typewriter and sending them to every music publication I could find in the Writer’s Digest annual guide book, garnering a wall full of rejection slips delivered in the self-addressed, stamped envelopes I enclosed. A “Friend of Lester,” Rick Johnson, took pity and sent me some records to review for Sunrise, the White Panther Party’s “Journal of Music & Liberation” that he was music editor for…and from those first published reviews when I was 15 years old, it was off to the races…
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(2) What was it about the blues that has always fascinated you?
“Initially I knew little about blues music beyond the names thrown around by favorite musicians like Eric Clapton and Rory Gallagher that I read in music magazines. In 1972, though, I won a copy of Don Nix’s Alabama State Troupers Road Show album from Nashville radio station WKDA-FM (now WKDF). One entire side of the LP was given to Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis, and his performance just knocked me out. There was something about his world-weary optimism and hard-fought experience that nevertheless appealed to me as a white, working class teen. As I explored more blues music — specifically Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters’ “London” albums, which featured a bunch of my favorite British rockers — I became hooked on the genre.”
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(3) Are you also a musician?
“Not by any recognized definition of the term! I’ve played guitar on and off since I was a teenager, but the instant self-gratification of writing beat out hours of practicing with any instrument. Some 45 years later, I recognize that I’m just completely lacking in musical talent, so the trusty Epiphone sits in the corner collecting dust.”
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(4) You have done several books of music criticism. Have you ever done or considered doing a biography of a favorite musician?
My Scorched Earth: A Jason & the Scorchers Scrapbook, which I did with graphic artist Paul Needham, is about as close as I’ve come to a bona fide band biography. I’ve considered writing a dedicated biography, but I have a couple of strikes against me from the beginning — a) a full-time job, which creates certain time constraints, and b) I’m pretty low on the music journalist food chain. There are a lot of great writers that I’m friends with like Martin Popoff, Mary Lou Sullivan, and Dave Thompson that have written a bunch of fantastic books, and I admire writers like Robert Gordon (no relation) and Peter Guralnick, whose books I find essential to my musical education. An artist bio isn’t beyond the realm of possibility, but it’s not in the cards at this moment.”
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(5) Who are your favorite blues musicians?
“Howlin’ Wolf remains my all-time fave — his primal vocals and pure emotional energy are hard to beat — but Muddy Waters is a close second. The aforementioned Furry Lewis remains a favorite, and folks like Koko Taylor, Junior Wells, Etta James, Hound Dog Taylor, and John Lee Hooker spend a lot of time on my turntable. Of the “younger” generation of blues artists, Walter Trout is a giant, and I listen to a lot of Joe Bonamassa, Janiva Magness, and Tommy Castro. Nashville’s Mark Robinson and Ted Drozdowski are both also making a lot of exciting, entertaining music.” 
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(6) There are blues fans who don’t like jazz and vice versa. Do you also consider yourself a jazz fan, and if so, what styles do you enjoy?
“I’m not a big jazz fan…I recognize the talents of artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but it just doesn’t speak to me. I’m more a fan of ’70s-era jazz-rock fusion and artists like Return To Forever, Billy Cobham, Weather Report, Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, and Mahavishnu Orchestra.”
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(7) A big area of debate in some circles concerns whether some vocal acts deemed “Southern Soul” are being inaccurately classified as blues. Where do you come down in this debate, and as far as stylistic debates go, there are also some equally dismissive of “blues-rock.” Do you also consider that a valid area?
During my 6 1/2 years as the “Blues Expert” for About.com, I sadly discovered that many blues ‘purists’ don’t consider much that was recorded after 1967 or ’68 to be ‘real blues’ in their eyes, and I got a lot of negative comments whenever I’d cover contemporary artists. Although I see the technically-incorrect aspects of Southern Soul singers like Johnny Rawls, for instance, being classified as “blues artists,” I don’t have a problem with it. Blues is already a genre that is largely marginalized by the mainstream music world, so why not include Southern Soul in the big tent that is the blues? Muddy Waters didn’t sound like Charley Patton, and Duke Robillard doesn’t sound like Son House, but it’s all blues to me. As for blues-rock, I consider it a legitimate offshoot of traditional blues music. Blues-rock artists like Clapton, John Mayall, Rory Gallagher, and Savoy Brown were a gateway for myself and many other young ’70s-era blues fans to artists like Albert King and Buddy Guy; I listen to all of it! “
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(8) The issue of race frequently becomes a thorny one, whether we are talking about players or critics. Have you ever encountered any hostility as a white critic evaluating a predominantly black art form? A few years ago there were also a number of folks upset when all the nominees for the Blues Grammy were white. How much in your view does politics impose itself in these discussions?
“In almost 45 years of writing about blues music, I can’t remember receiving any hostility from black readers or artists, who have largely been appreciative of my efforts in bringing their music to my meager audience. In my interviews with white blues musicians, they’ve always been reverent and respectful towards the African-American artists that inspired them, and I’ve always tried to promote this perspective, that white artists are paying tribute to the creators of the blues with their music. Politically, I’m to the left of most of America, and I try to keep politics out of my music writing, often fruitlessly. With the abundance of African-American blues artists making great music, it seems absurd that the Academy could only find white nominees for their award. When they cut the Grammy blues categories from two to one, they removed a lot of traditional-based African-American artists from consideration, but I fear that the reality is that they don’t know squat about the blues and award the music out of a sense of obligation rather than true appreciation.”
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(9) Do you attend blues festivals, and if you do, what are your favorites?
“My job and budget doesn’t allow me to travel much, but we used to attend the Rochester Blues ‘n’ Bar-B-Que Festival every year until it was discontinued after the death of the founder’s son and co-promoter. I’ve been wanting to check out the Pennsylvania Blues Festival for some time, and have corresponded with the promoter, Michael Cloeren, who’s a great guy and blues fan.”
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(10) What blues shows, if any, on either satellite, Internet or terrestrial radio are your favorites, and have you done radio yourself?
“I listen to the Bluesville channel on Sirius XM radio every now and then, but as I have a large collection of blues on vinyl and CD (as well as digital), I usually program my own music. I’ve done some radio in the past, and would love to do some more, and I’ve been considering recording a blues podcast of some sort.”
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(11) You are also a big rock fan and have written about all types of rock over your extensive career. What do you see as the connection between the blues and rock, at least as it has evolved over decades?
“Blues music directly inspired early bands like the Rolling Stones and the Animals, so there is definitely a connection between the genres based on the blues’ influence on white rockers. Even bands like Deep Purple, where you’d be hard-pressed to identify the blues influence in their music, were big fans. I had the occasion to meet Deep Purple’s Roger Glover last summer after a show — not a formal interview — and he was largely uninterested in the conversation until I brought up blues music. He started talking a blue streak! He was a big fan of British blues pioneers like Alexis Korner and John Mayall, and he related a hilarious story about how awful the Rolling Stones were initially until they went off and learned to play some proper blues. I don’t hear as much blues influence in a lot of modern rock music, which is a shame, but at my age these young bands aren’t exactly playing for me.”
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(12) Do you enjoy contemporary blues as much as older styles?
“I like a lot of contemporary blues and blues-rock, but I usually find myself returning to the Wolf, Muddy, and John Lee. Still, new albums from artists like Shemekia Copeland, Joe Louis Walker, and Tommy Castro always get me excited, and I listen to a lot of Walter Trout, Joe Bonamassa, and Nick Moss. Selwyn Birchwood is an up-and-coming younger artist with some real chops, and the late Michael Burks made some great records before leaving us far too soon.”
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(13) What is your favorite label among contemporary blues companies?
“Sadly, there are a lot fewer blues labels now than there used to be. Alligator Records is my longtime favorite, as they’ve always enjoyed the singular vision of label founder Bruce Iglauer. I haven’t always liked everything that Alligator has released, but their albums by Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, Burks, Birchwood, and Castro, among others, get a lot of airplay in our house. I used to like Blind Pig Records a lot, and they released a lot of great music before they were bought out.”
SelwynBirchwood200

Selwyn Birchwood

AlligatorRecords200

 

(14) Who are some current blues acts that deserve wider recognition?

“The aforementioned Selwyn Birchwood would be one, Samantha Fish would be another. Fish is an extraordinary singer and guitarist with a number of strong albums to her name, but they seem to want to push her sexuality more than her creative talents. I’m always entertained and surprised by Seasick Steve, and Britain’s Ian Siegel, who is virtually unknown stateside, has made several strong good-to-great albums with American musicians like Alvin Youngblood Hart, Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars), and Jimbo Mathus, who I also like a lot as a roots ‘n’ blues artist. The British outfit King King isn’t well-known in the U.S. either but have made some truly innovative blues-rock music.”

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(15) Do you think there’s still a bright future for the blues?
“Just a few years ago, when I first started the About.com “Blues Expert” gig, it felt like blues was primed to make a push into the mainstream…and it’s felt like that every year since. There seems to be enough of a U.S. fan base for the blues to support a handful of festivals across the country as well as scattered local and regional scenes, but it’s a hard life even for the genre’s “stars.” For everybody else, it’s the same difficult slog as rock ‘n’ roll — nobody starts playing the blues because they think they’re going to get rich, they do so because they love it. Blues music may be too gritty and authentic for our homogenized contemporary pop culture, and it seems to be held in higher esteem in the U.K. I think that the blues will continue to struggle, but will carry on.”
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(16) Like jazz, gospel and pretty much anything other than a narrow slice of pop, blues coverage in mainstream magazines and newspapers is virtually nil at this point. Do you think there is anything that can be done about this, or is that just a part of changing history that must be accepted?
“With print publications continuing to struggle and looking for a “winning” formula that will sell copies, marginal music genres like blues, jazz, gospel, and Americana will continue to be ignored. I chide people at Rolling Stone magazine regularly about their lack of blues music coverage, and have even offered to write a regular review column for the publication, to no avail. Why put the lovely and talented Shemekia Copeland on the cover when you can print yet another issue with Katy Perry’s face up front and sell out on the newsstand? Sadly, in-depth and critical music coverage that is inclusive of genres like the blues, jazz, and reggae — all once staples of ’70s music zines — does seem to be a part of the past, and I feel that a younger generation of music fans is losing out on the experience that I enjoyed so much as a teen of reading about new music.”
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(17) What do you consider some definitive or authoritative blues books that those seeking more information about the art form should read if they haven’t?
“My recent books Boogie Chillun and Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’ offer up a lot of album and book reviews for the blues and blues-rock fan! Blues For Dummies, written by bluesman Lonnie Brooks and ’70s rocker (and blues authority) Cub Koda is essential, followed by Robert Santelli’s Big Book of Blues, which provides a ‘who’s who’ of blues artist bios and recommended records. Armed with that knowledge, a reader can delve into the late critic Robert Palmer’s Blues & Chaos and Deep Blues books to get a sense of the history of the blues before jumping into individual artist bios like Robert Gordon’s Can’t Be Satisfied (Muddy Waters) or James Segrest’s Moanin’ At Midnight (Howlin’ Wolf).”
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(18) What do you consider the best blues publications?
“There aren’t many blues publications around, and Rolling Stone sure isn’t covering the genre. Luckily, niche publications like Blues Music magazine and Living Bluescontinue to carry the torch for the genre and provide solid coverage. In the U.K. Blues Matters magazine is pretty good, and you can usually find copies stateside at Barnes & Noble bookstores. Online, the free email publication Blues Blast magazine offers a lot of insightful artist interviews and book and album reviews and they publish prolifically.”
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(19) Are you a voter or participant in the Blues Awards, and do you consider them valid parameters of Blues achievement?
“I let my membership in The Blues Foundation lapse this year, mostly due to financial considerations, but I have voted for their Blues Music Awards nominees in the past. Any sort of awards show by its nature overlooks some great music, but they do a pretty good job of trying to be inclusive. The annual reader’s awards sponsored by Living Blues magazine are equally as important and informative, and the reader’s voting in Blues Blast magazine’s annual poll picks up any slack left behind by the other two.”
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(20) Should blues, jazz, gospel and other roots music genres break away from the Grammys and hold their own awards shows?
“The Blues Foundation holds its annual awards show every May in Memphis, and a few apparent biases aside (why did it take them so long to recognize Joe Bonamassa’s talent and popularity?), I use their nominations as a yardstick for the state of the blues each year. The Americana Music Association holds its annual awards show in Nashville every September, and although I’m not as fond of the genre, you can get a good idea of what’s going on with Americana music from their nominations. I don’t know about jazz, but if they don’t have their own awards show, they probably should, and ditto for gospel music. The Grammy Awards are useless from my perspective, and they ignore of a lot of great music that inspires the world.”
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(P.S. – Gospel does already have both the Dove and Stellar awards shows. Unfortunately, the Handys as of now are not televised. Both Dove and Stellars get decent coverage all things considered. There has long been talk about a jazz awards program, but as of now, talk is all it remains.)
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