Ted Drozdowski  [As befitting someone who’s also been a section editor, Ted wrote his own intro. So I will include it as he wrote it.  – RW]
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Ted Drozdowski has been neck-deep in the blues for decades. He’s a well-respected guitar player and songwriter from the South Side … of Nashville … who fronts his own band, Scissormen, as well as a music journalist who’s won the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive award. He’s also written songs and produced other artists—mostly notably an album for guitarist Peter Parcek, The Mathematics of Love, that was nominated as Best Debut Album in the annual Blues Music Awards in 2012. Ted is the subject of esteemed music documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge’s BIG SHOES: Walking and Talking the Blues, which debuted at the Denver Film Festival, and has spent decades in the live music trenches. He was a consultant for the PBS TV series Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues, and his writing has appeared in many publications—all while playing up to 100 dates a year.

He released his latest album with Scissormen, Love & Life, in 2015, expanding on the band’s Mississippi hill country and Delta foundation with his broad grasp of psychedelic music, sonic experimentalism, and slide guitar prowess. Guitar Player magazine praised the album: “The band’s new record has three things current blues records often lack: great songs, a sense of mystery and the concept of a record as a work of art in and of itself—and not just a recorded bar performance.”

Ted continues to play gigs and is in the early pre-production stages of a new album, but tours less after accepting a job as a senior editor at Premier Guitar magazine in late 2015. That made him easy to catch at his home. You can hear his music, see videos and learn about his upcoming local and road dates at Scissormen.com
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(1) What initially got you interested in the blues?
“I was always passionate about music—mostly thanks to my mom, who played country radio constantly when I was a little boy, in the ’60s. Back then country radio was good, playing current artists who were strong songwriters and performers backed by great musicians, as well as its historic back catalog. It was a great time for country. My first serious musical hero was Johnny Cash. But TV brought different music into my life. Via The Smothers Brothers Show I saw Ike & Tina Turner, and I also saw Ray Charles. I loved them both. That pointed me in the direction of blues, although I didn’t know it at the time. Then, in the early ’70s, The Midnight Special came on, and I’d sit up late by myself every weekend watching. There I saw Albert King, Aretha, Al Green, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, and a lot of the great Philly and Motown soul groups of that day. That opened the doors to African-American music, and then it all started sliding in. Although, like a lot of ’60s kids, it was ultimately albums by Cream and Led Zeppelin that led me to follow the road to Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and the other foundational blues artists. But thanks to what I’d already seen and heard on TV, my ears and brain were ready. And the first real blues album I bought was a Chess sampler that had a lot of the original recordings of the songs those bands performed.”
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(2) Did you start on guitar or switch from another instrument?
“I started playing guitar but gave up almost as fast, when I was around 13. I really wanted a guitar, so my folks used S&H Green Stamps—remember those?—to get me a nylon string. Unfortunately, those strings were at least an inch off the neck. I didn’t know any better, so figured I couldn’t play. I’d never really seen anybody play a guitar up close at that point, so I didn’t know the difference between a good and bad guitar. As a high school junior, a friend let me babysit his Yamaha six-string while he was on vacation with his folks. Suddenly, I could make all of those impossible chords. In college, when I met my wife-to-be, Laurie Hoffma, she let me use her guitar and I slowly started to get wind under my wings. But the only instrument I ever wanted to play was guitar. It spoke to me from day one, and continues to do so. I think my first guitar hero was Luther Perkins.”
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(3)  When did you begin writing songs?
“I started writing songs when I got my first good electric guitar, in about 1983. It was a Stratocaster, and I figured that if I had spent so much money on a good guitar, I should do something good and useful with it. I still have that guitar. It’s seen me through every band I’ve been in, most of my recordings and all my sideman stints, and it sings!”
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(4)  What was the inspiration for the Scissormen?
“It was traveling to North Mississippi in 1993, after seeing a screening of the epic documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge’s movie Deep Blues and meeting its narrator, the great musicologist and musician Robert Palmer. That film chronicled most of the finest then-living urban and country blues artists from Memphis to Bentonia. Shortly after I saw it I met Palmer, who was producing artists like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough for Fat Possum Records. He and I hit if off instantly, over everything from Kimbrough and Magic Sam to Ornette Coleman—who he’d recorded with—and Sonny Sharrock. We both loved rooted, weird, transcendent music. He volunteered to connect me with Matthew Johnson, who was then co-owner of Fat Possum, to take me around Mississippi. I’d been before, to the area around Clarksdale, but it wasn’t until Laurie Hoffma and me made our first trip to North Mississippi that the veil was truly lifted.”
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“It was a first stage of enlightenment, where—hearing Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside play live in Junior’s Place for the first time—all the threads between Captain Beefhart, Robert Johnson, Pink Floyd, John Coltrane, and everything else I loved about music become utterly clear. And that was before I had my first drink of real moonshine.”
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“When I got there, the world of juke joints and rural players, whose sound mesmerized me from a distance and whose very existence was something I thought had passed by, hit me like a cyclone. Although I was playing in rock bands for years at that point, I was always, in my heart, a “secret” blues player, and the music of the older musicians I met in North Mississippi spoke to me in a way no other blues had. Really, no other music. It was like the Zen koan about seeing the world in a blade of grass: all things were revealed.”
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“It took another decade for me to form Scissormen. I didn’t jump into playing the music directly inspired by R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Jessie Mae Hemphill lightly. I waited until I felt I had something of my own to bring to the table, as they all did and as real artists do. It also took time to improve my slide playing and fingerpicking, until I thought I could serve my own conception of that sound as a foundation blended with the other aspects of my musical personality.”
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“Much to my surprise after that first visit, R.L., Junior, and Jessie Mae accepted me and my wife as friends, which was a great and unanticipated honor. Because of them I play the music I play and moved from Boston to the South a decade ago. They changed our lives. And the many hours we spent with them are diamonds.”
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(5)  Did your love for playing naturally lead into doing music criticism?
“I got bitten hard by the music bug as a kid, and would spend all of my allowance on new singles at Woolworth’s every Friday night, or albums, which cost less than $3 back then. When kids at school wanted a mix tape with all the cool stuff on it, they’d pay me to make the tape. Which I guess makes me a bootlegger—at least back then. When I was 20, I got my first internship at a newspaper, and the paper’s longtime music columnist had just quit. So I stepped in. I don’t really think I became serious about being a musician until I was in my mid-20s, so I was an old fart when I started playing, by rock ‘n’ roll standards. By blues standards, I’m still a pup today.”
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(6)  Do you view yourself as more a critic than an advocate, or do you feel those two roles are quite similar?
“Today, I think of myself as an advocate, and I prefer that to critic. Only rarely do I actually review concerts or albums—far less than once a year. As an editor at Premier Guitar, a gig I’ve held for the last 18 months and accepted after 18 years as a hard-touring indie musician, I have the good luck to be able to write about music and musicians who fascinate me, or, in a few cases, have been friends or mentors.. It’s a great place to work, and I get to keep my nose buried in guitar 24/7, which is an absolute gas. Plus, I feel that I learn something new about musicians, music and guitar every day, so I remain a student. But I know I’ve contributed a lot of positive energy to the lives and careers of artists over the decades—doing everything from exposing them to the world as a personal mission—I swore an oath to myself to help inform the world about the first wave of Fat Possum artists, and lived up to it—to directly raising money for medication, housing and other necessities. I’ve helped artists get signed, quietly helped guide the direction of their music when asked, and stepped in as producer a time or two. All, in my view, in service of human beings I love for their art and their character.”
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(7)  Who are your favorite blues artists among contemporary acts?
“Well, Otis Taylor rises head and shoulders above just about anybody in blues today—for his sonic intellect and his beautiful poetic vision. He is a true, courageous, original voice in a genre short on original voices and long on imitation, whether cloaked as homage or not. I still love Buddy Guy and always will, and think the Tedeshi Trucks Band is really top notch. While I don’t find myself often drawn by passion to his music, I respect Joe Bonamassa, and every time I hear him I’d impressed with his playing and abilities. He’s often a whipping boy for people in the blues scene, and that disgusts me. He’s worked extremely hard for what he’s attained, and continues to do so. He’s also a better guitar player than 99 percent of us.

Ronnie Earl translates “soul” to guitar with rare eloquence. I love Duke Robillard for the breadth of his mastery. Paul Rishell and Annie Rains play tradition-based music with originality and depth, even when covering classics. Kim Wilson’s harp notes go straight to my heart. Colin Linden is an understated master. Luther Dickinson keeps the spirit of the music that changed my life alive and growing, beautifully. Scott Bomar burns the Memphis torch with his Bo-Keys. There’s Mark “Porkchop” Holder, who’s a slide badass. David Gilmour—his tone speaks the dialect of blues beautifully. I also consider Tom Waits a brilliant bluesman, among other things. So is Jack White—especially on his solo albums. And the list goes on and on. For me, true artists sound like themselves. That’s what I look for and what excites me in music—distinct character and a vision, whatever it might be.”
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(8)  Who are you favorite blues artist in terms of traditional blues musicians?
“Well, there’s R.L., Junior and Jessie Mae for their inspiration and dear friendship. Son House, who I consider my absolute foundation. Charley Patton, Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf (with whom I share my birthday), Fred McDowell, the great soul singer Mighty Sam McClain (another departed friend and personal inspiration), Otis Rush, Buddy, Jimi Hendrix—who I consider a deeply traditional blues player. Anyone with open ears and eyes knows tradition evolves. Sonny Boy Williamson, for his clever writing. Ike Turner, B.B., Albert and Freddie King. Memphis Minnie, Big Mama Thornton… I mean, I have thousands of traditional blues albums, and love the music on all of them.”
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(9)  There has long been a question regarding authenticity in blues circles and both white writers and critics. How did you deal with this issue and do you still see it as a problem today?
“It’s more an absurdity than a problem. It’s only a problem because boneheads keep bringing it up, and it’s used to question the validity of some artists and to bar them from certain festivals, airwaves, areas of recognition. America is a melting pot, regardless of what Donald Trump might believe, and everything gets stirred around in it to produce our unique culture. The blues is no exception. It is distinctly American music, with beautiful and undeniable African roots. Rather than an island, it is a bridge that welcomes anyone to come across. I think people who are caught up in the idea of authenticity, regardless of their “credentials,” don’t really know what they’re talking about. They don’t understand the essence of this inclusive, diverse music. Sure, this is, foundationally, black music, but so is rock ‘n’ roll and jazz—genres in which concerns about authenticity don’t churn the waters anymore.  And people who pursue the notion of racially based authenticity in music are going down an ugly path. Does that mean people of African ancestry can’t be opera singers or classical musicians? Many year ago, talented artists of all shades and ethnicities kicked the barn door for all of this off its hinges. It’s a big bucket of horseshit, and I prefer to leave that kind of thinking to boneheads.”
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(10)  How important do you think radio is in terms of exposure for blues artists?
“Today, not terribly, unfortunately. The major blues outlet is Sirius/XM’s Bluesville, with a million listeners, and beyond that it’s mostly internet radio and public or college radio specialty shows where DJ still carry CDs into the station in old milk crates. Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of that, and I think those DJs are fighting a good fight. But anybody who is going to break out at a level that even scrapes up against the belly of the mainstream today needs to get exposure outside of radio. New artists like C.W. Stoneking, who is a blues artist a lot of people in the, let’s say, usual blues circles don’t even know about but can play large auditoriums and theaters like the Ryman in Nashville, broke out through YouTube and by hitting the road. Others got airplay on radio outside the blues world, like the Record Company.”
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“Even Sirius/XM has less impact now. In 2009, after I put out the Luck in a Hurry album, I’d go to a new market and there would be a good crowd of people at the club waiting and excited to hear the band, all telling me they heard us on “Bluesville.” By the time Love & Life, which got wonderful play on “B.B. King’s Bluesville,” hit the streets in 2015, the channel didn’t have the same impact when I visited new markets. Social media and word of mouth were more effective—even than print coverage, in many cases.”
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“Everybody in the blues business needs to set their sights higher, and not just settle for the same-old, same-old. I love my friends in the blues media world. They work hard and they do what they do from their hearts, rather than for a living. So I appreciate them and their hard work, and dug the nice reviews in all the blues magazines when Love & Life came out. And while I’m far from a household name as an artist, the ground I gained after putting out my last album through media partnerships, Sirius/XM—who have been a consistent champion, and exposure in mags outside of blues, like Guitar Player, was different and tangible. As blues artists and labels, we need to think outside the box and reach outside the box more.”
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(11) How do you feel about the divide in blues circles between fans of traditional styles and hybrids like blues-rock or soul-blues?
“My own experience is that if the vast majority of blues fans see or hear something good, they acknowledge and embrace it for what it is—regardless of what their favorite mode of blues might be, The divide is mostly a creation of the gate-keepers, who feel, from their uninformed and unshakeable perspective, that they know what the audience likes best. Blues fans like good music—period. Blues gatekeepers tend to keep a variety of good music from blues fans, largely because they don’t know how smart and welcoming their own consumers are. As convinced as I am of this—due to my experiences playing for all kinds of audiences here and in Europe… that’s how convinced the gatekeepers are that I am wrong.”
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(12) Why do you think there are blues fans who don’t like jazz and jazz fans who don’t like blues?
Honestly, I can’t imagine, because both genres share so many creative, narrative and foundational elements. I love both. They’re part of the web of life lived and considered deeply. The dislike has to be personal—perhaps the result of some cultural bias, a perception about economics or class? I’m baffled by it. Look at Olu Dara, a living intersection of blues and jazz. What’s not to love in both? I love hearing Junior Kimbrough as much as Coltrane, and I can hear real similarities in the way they build cathedrals out of chords and elaborate on melodic ideas.
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 (13) How much of a grind does touring become and is it still something you enjoy?
“Touring can become a huge grind—especially on an indie level, which means your ass is in a van all day—which can cause physical issues, you’re sleeping in crap hotels—if you’re sleeping, and eating cheap, unhealthy food far too often to save money, and at the end of a long tour, you can usually count your earnings in low quadruple digits if you’re lucky. Personal relationships become strained and hard to retain, and let’s not even talk about health care—which I see as a basic human right, even if our ugly-hearted president and Republican leadership don’t.”
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“What doesn’t become a grind is playing for people every night. That makes it all worth it. It’s a cliché, but it’s also stone truth. And while my day gig as an editor keeps me from touring as much as I once did—at about 100 dates a year—it also forces me to be more selective about my tour dates. So every “away game” I’ve played over the past two years has been beautiful for one reason or another. And I don’t have to stay in crap hotels anymore, which me and the band love. Better hotel equal better rest—fact. And usually complimentary hot breakfast.”
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“But nothing is better than sharing music with people. Performing with dedication and intent requires you to open your heart to people every night. What could be better? Along with loving my wife and my dog, it makes me a better human being.”
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(14) What kinds of things have you not done musically that you would like to do in the future?
“I’d like to keep expanding my music’s sonic, lyrical and emotional territory. I want to make an album with my friend Peter Parcek, who is a world-class guitarist and an artist of vision. I’d like to work with a producer who could bring his or her own original vision to my music and blow my mind by opening new doors for me. That would be beautiful! My own main reference point for producing is Jimi Hendrix, so I admit I am mired in the past, albeit the psychedelic past and one that still sounds fresh to me. But as a producer I would be happy to be led into the future—or at least the present!”
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(15) How do you characterize Nashville in terms of blues? Are things better or worse for the music now than when you first arrived?
“I wish there were more places to play and hear blues in Nashville, and that the tourist clubs in Printer’s Alley and along Second would take the music in all forms seriously and embrace it for the crowd-pleasing and original sound it can be when it’s unfiltered. Nashville, like anywhere else, is good and bad for blues”.
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“Let me share a story. A local agent got us a gig at B.B. King’s on Second. We played downstairs on a Friday—a space that’s typically overflow for upstairs, where they’re playing Grover Washington covers and “(Hey, Hey) The Blues is Allright”—real pabulum.”
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“We put on our typical high-energy live show, playing my originals that get played on radio with a mix of Fred McDowell, Muddy, Wolf, Son House, Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie, Otis Rush. I went out into the audience with my wireless—played on people’s tables, played slide with full dinner plates and cocktails … the whole delicious enchilada of entertainment that we serve.”
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“Usually that’s a chew-and-screw space, but we held the crowd and people were taking photos, laughing, dancing. It was awesome. The room staff told us how much they loved us, how great it was to hear a real blues band, and how much they were looking forward to having us back to entertain. The guitarist from the band upstairs came downstairs on a break and told me how much he loved hearing somebody play slide the way I do. And we had a blast.”
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“Here’s the punchline: I passed all that along to the agent who booked the gig. The next day the agent told me that when he called the club’s booker to set up another show, he was told that B.B. King’s would not have us back because we were “too blues.” I shit you not. Thank God B.B. King was still alive, because he would have spun in his grave. To me, that somehow summarizes the Nashville blues scene.”
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(16) What do you consider the best local venues for blues?
“When City Winery, 3rd & Lindsley, the Family Wash, the 5 Spot or the Basement host a blues act, those are the best places to hear the music. Sure, you can catch good blues at Bourbon Street and B.B. King’s some nights, but with their static, unimaginative programming, it’s hard to consider those places serous listening rooms or real destinations for creative artists or discerning listeners.”
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(17) In your view has WMOT’s switch to Americana provided any new opportunities for blues artists?
“So far, not really, but it’s too early to know what the station’s impact will have on the genre. I do know that Jessie Scott, who is the program director, is a blues lover. So there’s potential!”
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(18)  Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of blues acts and blues music in both Nashville and the country as a whole?
“Well, I don’t see much improvement in opportunities for blues musicians and listeners in Nashville unless there’s another wave of increased national popularity. But I’m generally an optimist—albeit a realist—so I’m hoping for the best”.
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(19)  Would you consider Alligator to be as important a label for contemporary blues as Chess was for Chicago blues, and what are some others that you consider important?
“Alligator was once an very important cultural presence. Certainly not as important as Chess, which captured innovative artists at a fundamental point of creativity an opportunity, but it did help bring the music to the world at large in the ’80s. That was a time when being a music fan required engagement—seeking out radio shows, reading, hitting record stores. The digital information age has eliminated much of the excitement of that engagement by making it too easy to find new music. So easy that music and the artists who make it tend to be taken for granted, and music is seen as a less important and less valuable commodity, overall.”
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“Also, in the’80s everybody in blues was riding on the shoulders of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was a powerful artistic presence that crossed over to the rock audience. That wasn’t just my perception. Authorities like B.B. King and Etta James told me that. We haven’t really had a focal artist emerge from the blues world like that again—although Jack White is a brilliant blues artist, and if you listen to his last solo album, Lazaretto, there isn’t a single song that doesn’t sound like blues to me. And he’s turning more young listeners on to historic blues than anybody—period.”
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“I had high hopes for Gary Clark, Jr., but to me, his recordings are inconsistent. He also is African-American and, if nothing else, the last few years have reeducated me to how racist America is. That can’t help him—a black man playing what’s perceived as an unhip musical format in today’s America.”
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“Anyway, it’s hard to call any blues label significant today, when sales of blues albums are less than 1-percent of the overall album market. But in the world of the insignificant, Alligator remains the most significant label, and I really respect Bruce Iglauer and know he works hard for his artists and loves this music. His and my understanding of what blues is and can be differs in significant ways. One way: I believe his potential audience is more amendable to music with a broader scope than he does. But Bruce is a good man, and I love that he’s still signing and supporting artists, and I treasure many, many of my Alligator titles. If not for him, I’d likely never met Albert Collins, Roy Buchanan, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks.”
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(20) Is the Blues in the Schools program proving helpful to keeping the music alive among youngsters?
“Certainly more than if it didn’t exist, and in regions where the blues in an important part of the historic cultural fabric, in particular, the program tends to produce young players dedicated to the genre. I love showing this music to kids. I do occasional songwriting workshops and basic slide workshops that are geared to kids or adults, and I’m especially happy to have conducted a few diddley bow building workshops for kids where they get to leave with a basic, playable instrument. To put something in kids’ hands that they can take home and play? Even if it’s a string and a stick attached to a coffee can? That’s a privilege.”

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