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Elvin Bishop: Rollin' Forward


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The blues have few better shepherds than Elvin Bishop, who's been exploring the myriad permutations available inside a genre that many others have tried to standardize since the early '60s. He was the guitar foil to one of that era's great guitarist, Mike Bloomfield, in the landmark Butterfield Blues Band, and a regular sparring partner for both veteran bluesmen being rediscovered in the '60s and young, emerging blues rock future-giants like the Allman Brothers Band. His instinct for music with a lil' mess on it is nigh infallible, and his guitar chops are just plain tasty, if a little wild, like a pile of yummy ingredients you might not think to assemble yourself but wolf down immediately when placed before you.

Despite some mainstream commercial success, notably '70s uber-hit “Fooled Around And Fell In Love," Bishop has charted a course that's largely honored and advanced the blues. His new album, The Blues Rolls On (released September 23 on Delta Groove Music), accentuates his long standing goal of sharing the blues with future generations while honoring those who've picked and moaned before him. It's a heck of a record, not too pretty in a time of mostly gussied up blues, and features strong guest turns from Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, George Thorogood, Kim Wilson (The Fabulous Thunderbirds), James Cotton, Tommy Castro, Angela Strehli and some less established names well worth pricking up one's ears about. But perhaps the most striking tune in this set is “Oklahoma," a blessedly rough one-man history lesson of the blues as lived through Bishop's own life, including recounting how “Charlie Daniels had the nerve to call me ugly right on his record/ He was too big to fight so I just had to accept it/ He said, 'I always knew that your music was funky but where did you get that little touch of country?'/ I said, 'I come all the way from Oklahoma.'"

We got Elvin to pull up a chair and share a bit of his hard earned wisdom, and we're mighty happy he did.

JamBase: Part of my love of the blues - and not a few others, too - can be credited to you. That first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album from 1965, which my pot smokin' uncle turned me onto, was the spark for many of us to dig into this music.

Elvin Bishop: Thank God for stoner uncles!

JamBase: You've always had a knack for creating new blues that resonate with the same weight, authority and even playfulness of vintage blues. “Drunken Hearted Boy," particularly The Fillmore East rendition with the Allman Brothers, immediately springs to mind.

Lovin' the vintage look

Elvin Bishop: Especially the older you get, the job seems to be to contribute something of your own. I don't think the world needs another “Got My Mojo Working" or “Stormy Monday." We need something that connects up blues with real life.

A recent great example of that is your own “What The Hell Is Going On" [a heartbreaking song inspired by the murder of his daughter from 2005's Gettin' My Groove Back]. Tradition is great but I don't think at heart the blues want to remain static.

That's a great point of view. It's been easier for me [to break out of tradition] because of two faults or lacks of mine. One is I was never able to effectively imitate anybody else, and number two is I don't have a great voice that's just a pleasure to listen to by itself, no matter what it's talking about. I have to have a strong story to get over with people. To capture people's imaginations I have to come up with something unique they can't get from everybody else.

I dig that you do this in different ways. You have a number of animal themed songs that always make me giggle, but you also have a lot of heavier stuff, too. One of the marks of the best blues is that range of laughter and tears.

One of my favorite old guys is Lightnin' Hopkins, and he would write a song about anything. His girlfriend gets a job in a candy factory and he writes a song called “Candy Kitchen." There's a dog howling in his backyard, so he writes a song about that. His thing was Chicago blues guys can't write a song until a woman does something wrong. He said all their songs were about women.

So, it's really about the ability to write about anything?

There's a couple of times in my life that I just thanked God that the blues was there and available to me. The blues was invented by people in an impossible position in the Mississippi Delta, and it just wasn't gonna get right and there was a lot of suffering built into it. But the blues is the kind of music that if you play it and sing it good enough somehow it makes you feel better about things, even though nothing has really changed.

Have you always thought of yourself as a blues musician, even with the success and notoriety you've had in the rock world?

Basically at the bottom I've always been a blues guy. I've also always had an irrational desire to support my family as well [laughs]. But there's only been very few times that there's been a pigeonhole they could stuff me into that worked with what the media had going.

It's such a crappy soundbite culture, where they want to stuff lifetimes into a few simple words.

People don't like to think. They can't rest until they find a pigeonhole to put you in and then move onto the next thing. It's just file footage.

When I think of your music the two words that most often come up for me are “boogie" and “strut." There's some hips to your music, even the sad stuff.

John Lee Hooker & Elvin Bishop

I like my syncopation. I like things to swing like that. I think boogie means something different to everybody. I was born in 1942, which means for the first 12 or 13 years of my life the best that a white person, who wasn't totally into country music, could do was say Frank Sinatra and “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?" There was no rock 'n' roll. People are born with rock now. I think for most people boogie came in with John Lee Hooker and became codified. When I first heard of boogie woogie it was Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, the original piano boogie woogie stuff.

Lots of really nasty songs if you break through the language. Anytime you hear about food in those old boogies it's usually filthy. Wynonie Harris' “Keep On Churnin'" ain't a salute to the dairy industry!

Double entendre! I grew up on a farm in an old fashioned place that didn't get electricity. So, I was maybe 11 or 12 [when that song came out] and if you've ever done churning by hand it's a physical, grinding thing.

There's a lot of “life lived on the ground" in the blues. These are the people who make the sandwiches for sure.

All the classic blues guys started out on farms and plantations in the South. B.B. was a tractor driver. You talk to Hubert [Sumlin, legendary guitarist with Howlin' Wolf] and Pinetop [Perkins, longtime pianist with Muddy Waters] and they started drinkin' corn liquor when they were nine-years-old. They picked corn and cotton and they know what it's all about. The reason they're musicians is the same reason I'm a musician - that red guitar is so much lighter than the tools I used in the oil fields and the steel mills and tearing up the streets with a jackhammer. You get up every morning and thank God you're a musician!

Did you find you were accepted fairly readily by black musicians simply because of your enthusiasm for the blues?

Elvin Bishop

I really was; it was amazing. That's actually what got me started on The Blues Rolls On.

This album is a great stand-alone piece, a nutshell encapsulation of the blues as filtered through you.

Remembering how miraculously and surprisingly kind people were to me, when they absolutely didn't have to be, got me thinking. As they say in Chicago, I was square as a pool table and twice as green. They took me under their wing and took care of me, and that got me onto the concept of The Blues Rolls On, just how it gets passed from one generation to another. Then, I got thinking about the young guys coming up now, guys who aren't recognized as much as they should be. So, I thought, “Maybe it's time to do something that shows off the whole continuous thing."

Do you find that people want to come sit at your heel the same way you did with established players in your early days?

There are a lot of guys that give me a lot of props and respect for having influenced them. It just gives me a warm feeling.

Do you feel some responsibility to pass on what you know to some of them, to offer your own wing?

It's kinda like that. I like to do what I can. I see a lot of guys standing at the crossroads that have good blues backgrounds and really love the blues but they're so torn by pressures to do other stuff. I like to encourage the ones that really have what it takes to stick with the blues. I want them to do what they wanna do but I just offer them some appreciation.

Who do you like these days?

Albert Collins & Elvin Bishop

A lot of the guys I like are actually on [The Blues Rolls On]. John Nemeth is just a tre-men-dous up & coming talent, and if there's any justice he'll be a big star. And I love Ronnie Baker Brooks. I've known him for quite a while, and I've known his dad, Lonnie Brooks, since 1961 or 2.

You want to hear people carrying the blues to new places rather than being pure recreationists. I really love Otis Taylor from Colorado these days; very African rooted but also utterly fearless in mixing things up. He writes about some of the heaviest things ever, but like a lot of Bessie Smith recordings, it's weirdly uplifting despite the subject matter.

As far as young guys go, there's quite a few of them I like. And there's guys I wouldn't say are young guys but more underexposed - they need to be checked out. One guy, Kid Andersen, is from Norway and he does the Smokey Robinson tune on the CD called “Who's The Fool." He's a real cool player. Another guy is Lurrie Bell from Chicago. He's just a monster! And another guy is Rusty Zinn. These are guys it would not be a waste of anybody's time to check out.

My daughter is 20-years-old and she listens to lots of people. Some of them I like, some not so much. I like Ben Harper. I love Derek Trucks. I honestly don't think people give Derek enough respect. Here's another case of that pigeonhole mentality, where they say, “He's the new Duane Allman." That's easy because of the Allman Brothers connection with his uncle and all that but it's just not true!

His style of slide is so different from Duane.

It's so different from anybody! Unless you play slide you don't know how difficult it is to do what he does. He doesn't play licks that fall easily into your hands. He searches out these licks, and he knows what he wants. He uses phrasing you only hear from mature gospel singers. The jazz part of his playing I don't know about - I'm no jazz expert - but the blues and gospel stuff I really love it. To play that fast, that tasty and in tune is almost beyond my understanding.

I always feel I'm witnessing something vaguely superhuman when I see him play.

Elvin Bishop

I know. He might “The One" in a generation. He's a sweet guy, and when he agrees with you he don't just say, “Yeah," he says, “Yeah, yeah!" He and Warren [Haynes] got me to sit in on one of the Beacon things, and just the three of us sat down and opened up a show. We did the tune “What The Hell Is Going On," and they were so great that I got to talking with them afterwards. They have SO much more sense than the guys of my generation. They don't fall into the traps that we did. I went to Derek's recent gig at The Fillmore and he's got his mom, his dad, his wife, his wife's mom, his brothers, his sisters, their kids and they're ALL great people [laughs]. I love 'em all! This guy has some sense; this is the way to do it. How many broken homes have you seen because musicians are separated from their families?

Warren got me up at a recent [Gov't Mule] gig and that was fun, too. The blues is just five-percent of what he does. That guy blows my mind. He tells me, “We know 200 tunes," and he makes up the setlist before each show and it's a total surprise to all the guys. They never play the same show twice, and I guess it's a good thing for them because if they play three nights in a town their hardcore fans have to go all three nights! These guys are not wasting time high on drugs and shit. They put an amazing amount of time into the music.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about Pigboy Crabshaw, which is one of the best blues pseudonyms ever. People don't often pick their alter-ego persona so well. What possessed you to choose this nickname?

Why don't you ask John Lee Hooker why he goes “how, how, how"? It was just something that popped into my head. This was in the hippy days, and I painted my guitar up and I made myself a t-shirt that had 'Pigboy Crabshaw' on it. Clapton saw it and said, “Isn't that rather romantic?" I think he meant it in the English literary sense.

Taking a new name is part and parcel of the blues.

Well, Lonesome Sundown was already taken, and Howlin' Wolf and all that.

I've always liked how you've championed and supported musicians that don't get the credit they deserve, particularly Hound Dog Taylor. He's a personal fave of mine but not real well known outside real blues nuts.

Elvin Bishop

I was lucky because I got to play with Hound Dog before I got together with Paul Butterfield. I was in his band for a while. What a guy! I tried to match up the old guys with the new guys on [The Blues Rolls On]. I figured Roy Milton would be right up B.B.'s alley. And actually he was. B.B. and I talked for two hours before tape started rolling and he told me about how he used to open up at the Negro League Baseball parks. Satchel Page would be pitching and B.B. and Roy would be playing. That would have made a hell of a date right there, wouldn't it?

I matched up Hound Dog with George Thorogood because there's a lot of Hound Dog in George, in the way he gets up there and just goes for it. He's just up there grinning and hitting the musically wrong notes and making people love it.

It's true! It's kind of a glorious mess from both guys.

He's over there playing the one-note over the four-chord and five-chord and everything while grinning his ass off. And the people go, “Yeah!!!" I didn't want this to be one of those CDs you see a bunch of names on the front of and then take it home and go, “Oh well." Everybody was so nice and put their heart and soul into it and brought their A-Game.

The whole concept of the blues rolling on through people maybe made them aware of their own part in this tradition and fueled their contributions a bit.

I think the best thing I did on this CD was just pickin' the people.

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