Category Archives: Books

The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones, by Rich Kienzle

Title: The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones

Author: Rich Kienzle

Publisher: Dey Street

Publication Date: April 12, 2016

Jones book

A terrific new biography does the country legend right. It’s a great excuse to dust off his old albums or to start stacking up on his catalog.

BY JASON GROSS

When most people think of ‘country music,’ they center on the huge pop crossover successes of the last few decades from the likes of Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Dixie Chicks, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Shania Twain and Miranda Lambert. But even before that, a handful of stars also made the leap into pop cultural consciousness- Willie, Dolly, Mr. Cash. And then there’s the artists who are legends in the field of country itself but not household names otherwise, such as Hank, Merle (RIP), Lefty and the man that Frank Sinatra called the 2nd greatest American singer (after himself of course) – a Texas boy whose legacy includes a decades-long trail of broken marriages, drug use, rehab visits, business flops, violent incidents, police incidents, vehicular mishaps, abandoned concerts and label leaping. Still, anyone who knows more about country than what you can read in the tabloids can tell you that at his best, George Jones, a/k/a Possum, epitomized the best things that style of music has ever had to offer.

With a career that spanned about 60 years (roughly the mid-50’s up until his death in 2013) and a lifestyle that would make most rock stars blush, author Rich Kienzle (editor at Country Music Magazine) had his work cut out for him. Surprisingly, for a legendary figure like Jones, his life has only been covered thoroughly in an 1996 autobiography (I Lived To Tell It All), Bob Allen’s clinical, somewhat moist 1994 bio George Jones: The Life and Times of a Honky Tonk Legend and 2014’s useful The Legend of George Jones, written by a pair of old friends. Because of his rough and tumble life, any Jones bio could easily become a sex & drugs & country tome. Because of his massive discography (dozens of albums, over 100 singles), being comprehensive about his music would take a door-stopper book worthy of Roberto Belano or David Foster Wallace. But with The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones (Dey Street Books), and in a mere 262 pages, Kienzle wrangles the seemingly impossible- he defies Jones in places but doesn’t hide his disgust of his crappy recordings or crappy behavior and takes in some granular detail of his most famous songs.

Starting with Possum’s early years with a drunken abusive dad and a supportive religious mom and a military stint, Kienzle details how Jones pays his dues in small honky-tonk joints, side man gigs and local radio shows before hooking up with producer/label-man Pappy Daily to start recording in 1954 (the same year Elvis started). Originally a Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell discipline, Jones soon developed his own full throated style, starting with rambunctious hits like “The Race Is On” and “White Lightnin'” and soon moving to tear-in-your-beer ballads like “She Thinks I Still Care” and “Walk Through This World With Me.” Jones also evolved from being an impressive singer-songwriter to becoming an even more impressive interpreter, again like that Elvis character, with songs coming from some of Nashville’s finest songwriters (i.e. Dallas Frazier, Harlan Howard). Because Daily saw Jones more as a manufacturing line than an artist, the producer had him crank out several albums a year (sometimes recorded within a single day) and led Jones through a series of novelties, ill-advised rock moves and syrupy ballads, which means that his catalog is kind of spotty and best heard through compilations – Fantastic Voyage’s 3-CD set Ragged But Right, Bear Family’s Heartbreak Hotel and Rhino Record’s The Best of George Jones are great places to start.

Though Kienzle’s narrative barely touches on the social and musical upheavals of the 50’s and 60’s (except for one funny run-in with the Rolling Stones), he does draw a good, detailed portrait of the sessions and label maneuvers that Daily did during that time, all the while as Jones’ self-destructive behavior would sometimes get the best of him, but not derail his career as it would later. By the late 60’s, a new direction made itself felt as country itself was going through changes, with smoothed down ‘countrypolitan’ sound coming into its own. Jones left Daily (and a few wives by then) to hook up with producer Billy Sherrill, who led him through a more managed and seemingly mannered background for his music. But one where he could let his voice sail too. Sherrill would help to guide him to new artistic highs, which unfortunately were accompanied by managers and ‘friends’ who got him to other kind of highs, with a coke habit.

On the plus side, the early 70’s also meant that Jones’ next marriage partner would throw him into high profile. Tammy Wynette was already a country star by the time she hooked up with Jones in ’69 and their union did produce a string of impressive hits (especially 1973’s “We’re Gonna Hold On”) and tours together. But Possum’s old destructive habits plus Wynette’s own pill addiction meant that the long term prospects for the couple weren’t a given, leading to a D-I-V-O-R-C-E, as Tammy once sang about, in ’75. This part of Jones’ life might be the only part of Kienzle’s book that leans a little too much towards tabloid sensationalism, though in fairness, the couple did give celeb watchers plenty of fodder back then.

For the rest of 70’s and through a good part of the ’80’s, Jones fell into a downward spiral of drink n’ drugs but to his credit, Kienzle doesn’t indulge as much in Jones’ indulgences here, maybe because by then, Possum’s seppuku-like behavior was more private. Luckily, Sherrill hadn’t given up on him, assembling an all-star duets album in ’79 (My Very Special Guest) with Tammy, Willie, Waylon, plus Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Costello, James Taylor and the Staple Singers- but even then, Jones’ voice/body/spirit were barely there, requiring two years of work to finish the album. Even his best-known song, 1980’s gorgeous, heart-breaking “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” took another two years to complete, not only because Jones thought it was too dreary but also because he was in no shape to sing it most of the time. After a disastrous Country Music Association Awards appearance in ’81 (detailed at the start of the book), Jones stumbled into his salvation with his fourth (!) wife Nancy Sepulvado, whose saint-like patience helped to get him finally on the wagon with his drinking.

(As a side note, I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in ’95 and picked up a Jones-related curio from the gift shop- a cute little Jones teaspoon with his photo at the top, his name engraved on the inside bowl, a tiny guitar medallion in the middle, a Confederate Flag style background on the box and a “Made in Taiwan” sticker on the back. Turns out it was a souvenir coke spoon)

Unfortunately, by the time Jones was straightening out his life, the country hit parade has passed him by as the dawn of the megastar crossovers happened in the early 90’s. Though he was seen a living legend and some of the New Traditionalist pack (Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Clint Black) helped to boost his rep (especially on 1992’s all-star collaboration “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair”), Jones’ recording career slowed down as his hits disappeared and labels dropped his contract, forcing him to go the indie DIY route of putting out his own albums. By the turn of the millennium, his album output had crawled to a stall, with years of hard living finally catching up to him. By then at least, he was happy to play the role of respected elder statesman, not to mention actually showing up and finishing concerts, though that also became a chore as his health kept declining towards the end. But even just before he died three years ago, he was still tentatively planning a series of farewell shows to cap his career and maybe make amends for his years of dodgy concerts.

In the end, Kienzle’s take on Jones’ life is such a page-turner that you’d wish he would provide more detail, which there was plenty of in Jones’ life. And again, an encyclopedia-sized book would do the job but until that time, this will more than suffice. Country fans, Jones fans and just plain music fans would find this a good read and it provides a great excuse to dust off his old albums or to start stacking up on his catalog. Just make sure it’s the ‘greatest hits’ collections though.

 

BIG BLACK SUN KING: John Doe

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Did the world really need one more book about Punk Rock? Particularly by someone who stood at Ground Zero? Yes. Yes, it did. Below, check out some choice videos.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

There are bookshelves crammed with tomes about Punk Rock and plenty of those deal with the L.A. punk scene of the late ‘70s. But few are as refreshingly personal as John Doe’s Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk (Da Capo Press).

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Though X founder and one of the godfathers of the L.A. punk scene, John Doe, pulled together the focus of this book, there are plenty of personal essays from his friends and fellow band and scene mates to help fill out this book, which he co-wrote with journalist/archivist Tom DeSavia. (The jacket credit reads “with Tom DeSavia and friends.” Meanwhile, Billie Joe Armstrong penned the foreword.)

Before the hardcore kids from Orange County took over the scene in the early ‘80s and turned it into an agro excuse to pummel other kids, punk rock in Los Angeles was a refuge for oddballs of every ilk that had trouble fitting in with their peers. It was a patchwork of Glam kids/Bowie acolytes, Rockabilly refugees, upstart fashion designers, East Coast immigrants, wayward military brats from port cities and Mexican kids who dug loud guitars. This disparate collection bonded over a common need to find solace in likeminded folks, as described again and again in personal essays throughout the book.

XTheBand_083115B

Along with Doe’s moving recollections of first emigrating to L.A. from Baltimore and finding Exene Cervenka (his bandmate and one-time wife) within days and starting the wildly influential band X, there are hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking memories from The Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey, Mike Watt, Henry Rollins and many more. The book also includes dozens of stunning black and white photographs from many of the journalists who documented the scene from its infancy.

Did the world really need one more book about Punk Rock? If you’re asking about this one, then yes. Yes, it did.

Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’, by Reverend Keith A. Gordon

Title: Rollin' 'n' Tumblin'

Author: Reverend Keith A. Gordon

Publisher: Excitable Press

Publication Date: March 11, 2016

 

www.excitablepress.com

Keith Gordon book

The Upshot: Latest installment in the blues expert’s compendiums of reviews is, at 338 pages, a cover-to-cover essential read for enthusiasts and novices alike.

BY BILL KOPP

I don’t claim to know whether Reverend Keith A. Gordon’s title is an honorific, or if he’s truly a man of the cloth. But what I do know is that he’s here to spread the good news. And that news takes the form of a new book crammed full of album reviews (with some book reviews thrown in for good measure).

Gordon has seen his blues (and related genre) reviews published in print and online in a variety of outlets, most notably Blues Revue, Blues Magazine, and here at BLURT. What he’s done now is put together well over 100 of those reviews into printed book form.

Gordon knows his stuff, so a review won’t simply review the music, but place it into its proper context. The Rev offers the context a reader needs – the artist’s previous works, other influential artists etc. – and bakes it into every review. Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’ focuses on reviews of albums that have been released (or reissued) in the last decade or so. What that means is that those interested in newer/contemporary blues acts have a fine guide in this volume, but those who are interested in picking up a good reissue, compilation or archival release have plenty of advice from Gordon.

The book is laid out well, if a bit idiosyncratically. For reasons known only to himself, Gordon organizes the artists reviewed in Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’ alphabetically…by first name. And since there’s no index, that means that if you’re looking for info on something from a particular artist, you’ll have to scan the entire Table of contents. Happily, that’s only four pages of information – set in type and size that older folks will appreciate – so it won’t take long to find whether or not he’s reviewed, say, Real Gone Music’s reissue of Don Nix’s Living By the Days.

Gordon has chosen well for this volume; there’s focus on both well-known and relatively obscure artists from today and the past. And he digs deep into the reviews, often providing a song-by-song rundown of an entire album. The black-and-white reproductions of the album covers are faint, but then that’s not why most reader will dig into a book such as this. More of a reference work than a tome designed to be read cover to cover, Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’ is a useful consumer guide to the world of currently-available blues (and blues-informed) music.

The book’s subtitle is The Reverend’s Archives, Volume 2, so if this is your kind of thing, there’s more where it came from.

Go HERE to read an interview with Gordon about his book, along with tips for, ahem, aspiring music reviewers.

THE GRAND TOUR: George Jones

George 1

A terrific new biography does the country legend right. It’s a great excuse to dust off his old albums or to start stacking up on his catalog.  

BY JASON GROSS

When most people think of ‘country music,’ they center on the huge pop crossover successes of the last few decades from the likes of Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Dixie Chicks, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Shania Twain and Miranda Lambert.  But even before that, a handful of stars also made the leap into pop cultural consciousness- Willie, Dolly, Mr. Cash.  And then there’s the artists who are legends in the field of country itself but not household names otherwise, such as Hank, Merle (RIP), Lefty and the man that Frank Sinatra called the 2nd greatest American singer (after himself of course) – a Texas boy whose legacy includes a decades-long trail of broken marriages, drug use, rehab visits, business flops, violent incidents, police incidents, vehicular mishaps, abandoned concerts and label leaping. Still, anyone who knows more about country than what you can read in the tabloids can tell you that at his best, George Jones, a/k/a Possum, epitomized the best things that style of music has ever had to offer.

With a career that spanned about 60 years (roughly the mid-50’s up until his death in 2013) and a lifestyle that would make most rock stars blush, author Rich Kienzle (editor at Country Music Magazine) had his work cut out for him.  Surprisingly, for a legendary figure like Jones, his life has only been covered thoroughly in an 1996 autobiography (I Lived To Tell It All), Bob Allen’s clinical, somewhat moist 1994 bio George Jones: The Life and Times of a Honky Tonk Legend and 2014’s useful The Legend of George Jones, written by a pair of old friends. Because of his rough and tumble life, any Jones bio could easily become a sex & drugs & country tome.  Because of his massive discography (dozens of albums, over 100 singles), being comprehensive about his music would take a door-stopper book worthy of Roberto Belano or David Foster Wallace.  But with The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones (Dey Street Books), and in a mere 262 pages, Kienzle wrangles the seemingly impossible- he defies Jones in places but doesn’t hide his disgust of his crappy recordings or crappy behavior and takes in some granular detail of his most famous songs.

Jones book

Starting with Possum’s early years with a drunken abusive dad and a supportive religious mom and a military stint, Kienzle details how Jones pays his dues in small honky-tonk joints, side man gigs and local radio shows before hooking up with producer/label-man Pappy Daily to start recording in 1954 (the same year Elvis started).  Originally a Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell discipline, Jones soon developed his own full throated style, starting with  rambunctious hits like “The Race Is On” and “White Lightnin'” and soon moving to tear-in-your-beer ballads like “She Thinks I Still Care” and “Walk Through This World With Me.” Jones also evolved from being an impressive singer-songwriter to becoming an even more impressive interpreter, again like that Elvis character, with songs coming from some of Nashville’s finest songwriters (i.e. Dallas Frazier, Harlan Howard).  Because Daily saw Jones more as a manufacturing line than an artist, the producer had him crank out several albums a year (sometimes recorded within a single day) and led Jones through a series of novelties, ill-advised rock moves and syrupy ballads, which means that his catalog is kind of spotty and best heard through compilations – Fantastic Voyage’s 3-CD set Ragged But Right, Bear Family’s Heartbreak Hotel and Rhino Record’s The Best of George Jones are great places to start.

Though Kienzle’s narrative barely touches on the social and musical upheavals of the 50’s and 60’s (except for one funny run-in with the Rolling Stones), he does draw a good, detailed portrait of the sessions and label maneuvers that Daily did during that time, all the while as Jones’ self-destructive behavior would sometimes get the best of him, but not derail his career as it would later.  By the late 60’s, a new direction made itself felt as country itself was going through changes, with smoothed down ‘countrypolitan’ sound coming into its own.  Jones left Daily (and a few wives by then) to hook up with producer Billy Sherrill, who led him through a more managed and seemingly mannered background for his music. But one where he could let his voice sail too. Sherrill would help to guide him to new artistic highs, which unfortunately were accompanied by managers and ‘friends’ who got him to other kind of highs, with a coke habit.

On the plus side, the early 70’s also meant that Jones’ next marriage partner would throw him into high profile.  Tammy Wynette was already a country star by the time she hooked up with Jones in ’69 and their union did produce a string of impressive hits (especially 1973’s “We’re Gonna Hold On”) and tours together. But Possum’s old destructive habits plus Wynette’s own pill addiction meant that the long term prospects for the couple weren’t a given, leading to a D-I-V-O-R-C-E, as Tammy once sang about, in ’75.  This part of Jones’ life might be the only part of Kienzle’s book that leans a little too much towards tabloid sensationalism, though in fairness, the couple did give celeb watchers plenty of fodder back then.

For the rest of 70’s and through a good part of the ’80’s, Jones fell into a downward spiral of drink n’ drugs but to his credit, Kienzle doesn’t indulge as much in Jones’ indulgences here, maybe because by then, Possum’s seppuku-like behavior was more private.  Luckily, Sherrill hadn’t given up on him, assembling an all-star duets album in ’79 (My Very Special Guest) with Tammy, Willie, Waylon, plus Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Costello, James Taylor and the Staple Singers- but even then, Jones’ voice/body/spirit were barely there, requiring two years of work to finish the album.  Even his best-known song, 1980’s gorgeous, heart-breaking “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” took another two years to complete, not only because Jones thought it was too dreary but also because he was in no shape to sing it most of the time. After a disastrous Country Music Association Awards appearance in ’81 (detailed at the start of the book), Jones stumbled into his salvation with his fourth (!) wife Nancy Sepulvado, whose saint-like patience helped to get him finally on the wagon with his drinking.

(As a side note, I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in ’95 and picked up a Jones-related curio from the gift shop- a cute little Jones teaspoon with his photo at the top, his name engraved on the inside bowl, a tiny guitar medallion in the middle, a Confederate Flag style background on the box and a “Made in Taiwan” sticker on the back.  Turns out it was a souvenir coke spoon)

Unfortunately, by the time Jones was straightening out his life, the country hit parade has passed him by as the dawn of the megastar crossovers happened in the early 90’s. Though he was seen a living legend and some of the New Traditionalist pack (Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Clint Black) helped to boost his rep (especially on 1992’s all-star collaboration “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair”), Jones’ recording career slowed down as his hits disappeared and labels dropped his contract, forcing him to go the indie DIY route of putting out his own albums. By the turn of the millennium, his album output had crawled to a stall, with years of hard living finally catching up to him.  By then at least, he was happy to play the role of respected elder statesman, not to mention actually showing up and finishing concerts, though that also became a chore as his health kept declining towards the end.  But even just before he died three years ago, he was still tentatively planning a series of farewell shows to cap his career and maybe make amends for his years of dodgy concerts.

In the end, Kienzle’s take on Jones’ life is such a page-turner that you’d wish he would provide more detail, which there was plenty of in Jones’ life. And again, an encyclopedia-sized book would do the job but until that time, this will more than suffice.  Country fans, Jones fans and just plain music fans would find this a good read and it provides a great excuse to dust off his old albums or to start stacking up on his catalog.  Just make sure it’s the ‘greatest hits’ collections though.

 

Popkiss – The Life and Afterlife of Sarah Records, by Michael White

Title: Popkiss

Author: Michael White

Publisher: Bloomsbury Press

Publication Date: November 20, 2015

www.bloomsbury.com

Popkiss 11-19

The Upshot: Finally bringing some clarity to the mysterious late ‘80s/early ‘90s indie label from the UK. Twee alert! These were seriously great bands.

BY TIM HINELY

The Sarah Records bus ride lasted from 1987-1995, and due to that relatively short timeframe a lot of potential supporters here in the United States obviously missed the bus, including yours truly. Oh sure, I liked Heavenly, East River Pipe and a few others at the time, but during most of the label’s existence, I was far too immersed in noisier sounds of the day. But upon belatedly discovering the first Trembling Blue Stars record in 1996 (thank you Geoff Leamon), I was sent on an obsessive path backwards to find all things Sarah, at least for a few years. (Worth noting: TBS included Bobby Wratten, leader of Sarah Records’ stars the Field Mice).

Canadian writer Michael White’s book has all of the bases covered as each chapter selects one or a few of the bands on Sarah. White himself even stated (and rightly so) that doing a chronological rendering would be way too much of an undertaking due to too many side roads in the label’s history. Some bands had many records, even careers on Sarah, including Heavenly, Field Mice, The Orchids, and Australia’s Even As We Speak; while other dropped by, released one or maybe two singles, and that was it, among them The Springfields, Eternal, Christines Cat, and The Rosaries.

The label, founded and run by Matt Haynes and Clare Wadd, meant so much to many folks who were tired of all the hype—Brit Pop, grunge, whatever—and loved the personal, handwritten notes the Haynes and Wadd would include in mailorder packages. So little has been written about Sarah over the years that White’s book is a much needed document, because before the internet, or in its early days, it was nearly impossible to find out any info on the label, at least here in America.

One of the things that seems to be a theme in the book is how reviled (unfairly) this label/bands were by the UK music press. Most of the writers for the British papers seemed to absolutely hate “this twee crap” (as a few of ‘em put it). There were some bright spots, like St. Etienne’s Bob Stanley who championed many of the bands in his writings (as on his own label, Caff Records). The thing was, Matt and Clare didn’t care; they stayed holed up in their little home in Bristol and continued to release whatever it was they loved. The way it should be.

For me, Popkiss brought some clarity to a mysterious label that I had many unanswered questions about. It’s indispensable for me. Maybe for you, too.

 

DOG EAT DOG, by Michael Browning

Title: Dog Eat Dog

Author: Michael Browning

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Publication Date: October 17, 2014

www.allenandunwin.com

 ACDC book

The Upshot: You know who writes great rock bios? Apparently not band managers.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

I’m assuming Michael Browning is a pretty big deal in the Australian music world – how else would you explain the fact that someone published his memoir, Dog Eat Dog. Even after finishing the book, I can’t imagine what exactly he did to justify 300-plus pages in tribute, even if it was all written by him.

As he details in the memoir, he started as little more than a dude who dug music who lucked into booking bands at music venues. Early on in his career he and a friend started a Hard Rock Café in Australia. They apparently asked the owners of the already established, soon to be globally famous restaurant if they could franchise the name; the owners said no, but they went ahead and nicked the name for their own venue, ultimately earning a cease and desist… That’s the story! The rest of the book unfolds in similar fashion; you keep expecting some kind of big payoff from each story after the buildup, but it never comes.

He ran his own booking agency as well as his own record label (no interesting stories there wither) and was one of the early champions of AC/DC, setting out to break them globally after signing on as their manager.  So what great secrets were revealed? Malcolm Young was often surly and Angus was a brat. No shit! I’m pretty sure that’s written into their press releases at this point.  Also, original singer Bon Scott drank and took drugs to excess. [Who knew! –Oz Music Ed.]

Browning was fired by the band in 1979 (though not confirmed in the book, but maybe because he couldn’t tell a decent story), around the release of Highway to Hell, so he wasn’t even involved with AC/DC when the band started to really come to the attention of the rest of the world. The last few chapters of the book pivot to another famous Australian band, INXS. But, of course, Browning stopped working with the band years before they would become famous.

 

 

Ken Sharp’s Cheap Trick Biography to Get Reprinted

RIAFT front

By Blurt Staff

Written by Mike Hayes with Ken Sharp, Reputation Is A Fragile Thing: The Story of Cheap Trick was published two decades ago, notched plenty of great reviews, and promptly went out of print. Now longtime journalist Sharp has announced he’s republishing the book in a limited run.

The details:

With such classic songs as “Surrender,” “I Want You To Want Me” and “Dream Police,” Cheap Trick captured the ears of the world with their apocalyptic brand of super-charged melodic rock and electrifying lie performances. chronicles the colorful, topsy-turvy career of rock’s hardest working band. Featuring a foreword by Roy Wood of the Move, the book is illustrated with over 175 photos—many never-before-seen—and rare memorabilia, the book contains a comprehensive band history, charting their evolution through such pre-Trick outfits as Fuse, Sick Man of Europe and The Paegans. A Complete U.S. discography and core set list spanning 1973 to 1997 round out this definitive portrait of a rock and roll cartoon come to life.

 

 

BOOKING THE REPLACEMENTS: Bob Mehr, ‘Mats Biographer

Replacments 2

With the eagerly-anticipated Trouble Boys finally in stores and earning reams of critical acclaim, we sit down with the Memphis-based journalist, who holds forth on what turned eight years of hard research into a genuine labor of love.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Music journalist Bob Mehr was about four years into his labor of love – writing the definitive biography on The Replacements, one of the most wildly underrated and misunderstood American rock bands of the past four decades – when the group surprised Mehr and just about everyone who knew them by offering up a proper ending to his book.

Twenty-two years after the Minneapolis band left the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park—a show that ended with them putting their instruments in the hands of roadies, who finished playing the last song as the members walked off—singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson took the stages at Riot Fest in Toronto, Denver and Chicago, along with hired guns Dave Minehan and Josh Freese. The sets were a little sloppy, but for those who had written off ever seeing their favorite band play live, it was worth the wait.

Energized, The Replacements went on a spring tour, playing sets across the U.S. that got better and better with each stop. They toured for the first time in Spain and Portugal, and as soon as it started, in typical Replacement fashion, it fell apart on stage one night at a show in Porto, Portugal, where Westerberg announced to the audience that this show would be the band’s last.

In the lead up to the latest split, Westerberg took to wearing different t-shirts on stage each night. When pieced together, the shirts spelled out the phrase:  “I have always loved you. Now I must whore my past.” And for anyone who followed the band starting with their scrappy, punk rock beginnings in the early ‘80s and up to their uncomfortable tenure on a major label’s roster years later, it was actually a perfect ending to a very non-perfect musical career.

Mats book

Mehr, who works as a music critic for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, lays out The Replacement’s story brilliantly in his new book Trouble Boys (Da Capo Press). Mehr was able to get just about every living member of the band (drummer Chris Mars was the only one to decline), former managers, producers, friends and family members to talk about the enigmatic cult music heroes. The result is one of the strongest music bios to come out in years, honest and surprisingly in depth. Mehr tells the story of one of the most influential American rock bands out there, that managed to serve as their own worst enemy, both craving and fighting widespread acceptance the entire way.

On a recent afternoon, Mehr spoke with BLURT—it should go without saying that the ‘Mats will always be close to this publication’s collective heart; we’ve written about them a number of times in the past, including this remembrance by our editor of the Let it Be tour, and this interview with filmmaker Gorman Bechard—about the genesis of the book, what he learned about the band, and whether he thinks the last one was really the last.

BLURT: How did this project first come about? Did a publisher approach you or did you bring this idea to the band first?

BOB MEHR: Yeah, I had some existing relationships with people in The Replacements and their camp and management and I’d done interviews with Paul and Tommy over the years. I’d met Paul in ’04 doing an interview for a defunct magazine called Harp [Ed. note: Harp was BLURT’s immediate processor, shutting down in 2008.], so I met him, and knew Tommy through Peter Jesperson, their longtime manager. And I had also done liner notes for the Rhino Records reissues, so I knew the band a little bit. But I first pitched the idea to Paul in a letter and I had dinner with Tommy and pitched it to him. He said, “Okay, I’ll do it if Paul does it.”

He might have been thinking that was his way out. But I sat with Paul in early 2008 for a Spin feature on the band and we had a long chat about what the book would entail, my approach and what I wanted to do with the book, and after that was over, a couple of days later I got the call that said he was in and thus began what would be a seven-and-half year journey. I sold the book in 2009 and have been working on it in earnest since then and finished at just the end of last year. It was a six-and-a-half year process.

I assumed Paul would be the most difficult to agree to this. How hard was it to get other people to talk to you for this book?

Well, Chris [Mars] didn’t participate and he was the only one in terms of member of the band who wasn’t involved. I had done some interviews with him in 2008 for the Spin story… I obviously wanted him involved, but because of reasons of his own he didn’t want to and had basically drawn a line in the sand between his past life in music and his current life as a very successful artist. But that just made it a challenge for me to represent him and make him a character in the book. It was a little harder, but you don’t always have the advantage of having direct access to the people you are writing about. I certainly didn’t in the case of Bob [Stinson]; he passed away some 20 years before. So it was just about making sure the story was told through as many perspectives, through as many sets of eyes as possible. Working on that is partially why it took so long. I didn’t want to put something out there that was half-assed or not the complete picture. That was really where the effort lay.

Was there anyone else that was hesitant to talk to you?

No, I think once it was clear that I had Paul and Tommy’s approval, the approval of “The Replacements,” everyone was pretty much in line. And I had done the liner notes for them and had been a music journalist for more than 20 years, so the people I needed to reach out to I already knew or they knew me… I talked to family, I talked to friends, former managers, producers, fellow musicians all along the way going from their childhoods up to the reunion these past few years.

I think one of the most interesting parts of the book was when they go down to Memphis in the mid-‘80s to work on Pleased to Meet Me and their connection to Alex Chilton. You live and work in Memphis now: do you think that gave you any more insight into that scenario?

To be honest, I’ve been in Memphis almost 10 years, but when I really started proposing the book I’d only been here a year, a year-and-a-half maybe, so I’m not a lifelong Memphis guy. I don’t know how much that helped. I know it may have for Tommy who had a really strong relationship with [Memphis producer] Jim Dickinson and then with his sons. I don’t think it hurt, but quite honestly I don’t think it helped much either.

The Replacements

The Replacements

During these interviews and your research, was there anything that really surprised you? Obviously not much about Tommy and Bob’s childhood has been written about before now.

There’s a million things from little funny factoids to really bigger picture stuff that was interesting. I think I found the perception that many had of Paul as being self-sabotaging or unambitious in terms of his career was partly true, what really struck me was that in the years before he found The Replacements how really ambitious he was and what a drive he had to first be the lead guitarist and then he wanted to be a singer. And to find a band that had the right energy and desperation and he, of course, found that in the Stinson brothers and Chris Mars. There was a lot of years for Paul leading up to The Replacements trying to figure out who and what he wanted to be and he was pretty relentless in pursuing that in his own way. The fact that he had a drive early on to find this special band that he had in his mind was a surprise.

Certainly understanding how The Replacements were viewed by the music industry in the mid-‘80s by the top A&R guys and the process by which they got signed was always presented as a moment of revelation; Seymour Stein saw them and signed them and that was it. But there was obviously a lot leading up to that and to understand how that process played out for a band that probably scared a few A&R people off early on.

And the third thing was what they were really like in the studio and the making of the records individually. Certainly the major label years were interesting because the record making process was more involved and there was more riding on the records and who they were going to work with; some of the producers that were thrown out there over the years, people like Glyn Johns and even Ry Cooder and all these names. It was interesting to hear the “what if” scenarios. Those are the kinds of things I found out that were most surprising to me.

The last couple of Replacements albums have always been polarizing, labeled by many as Westerberg solo records. In researching and talking to others about how each album was made, did you go back and listen to the records again? Did you change your opinion about any of them?

Yeah, I like all of The Replacement’s albums for different reasons. When you have a band that’s been together for 12 years that goes through as many stages and changes as The Replacements did… I don’t think they ever made two records that sounded the same. It doesn’t surprise me that they gained and lost some fans along the way, particular the last couple of records where the sound was a little different and the last record, All Shook Down, was more of a singer-songwriter record. I re-visited them as records and some of the recording sessions, listening to outtakes to get a gist of everything. I don’t know if it changed my opinion of any of those records, it just gave me a deeper appreciation of the songs. There’s just more love there when you know the stories behind the songs or what was going on with the band at the time the record was being made.

I’m assuming you saw Paul and Tommy last year when The Replacements reunited to tour?

Yeah, I saw the first couple of shows and four or five total which was interesting, because at that point I was kind of still in the middle of finishing the book. I hadn’t written the epilogue yet, but had been living and breathing Replacements for the last four years and at that point they were an entity again… They gave me a great ending to the book which I really didn’t have, coming full circle as they did with the reunion. They did a real favor for me.

Based on the final show last summer it seems like they are officially over, with Paul saying they will never play together again and Tommy mentioning they scrapped the songs they had been recording. Do you think this is finally it for the band?

You know, I like to answer that in an open-ended way and that’s my honest answer: I feel like the reunion went on longer than either of them had planned for or expected and it was obviously a tremendous, tremendous success on every level and I think naturally they have been doing their own things these past 20 years when they weren’t in The Replacements. I think it’s hard to resume a band like that full time. It’s never going to be the same as when you were 19, 20 or 21.

I wouldn’t entirely—and this is totally just my opinion, not based on anything else— discount the fact that they might do something together again in one form or another whether its records or a show or whatever. I just feel like what they have is so special and unique between the two of them and obviously people love and appreciate what they have together and the demand is there.

It’s hard for me to think you can walk away from something like that. But, then again, they did once for 20-something years. In my heart I hope they’re not done.

Below: author Mehr. Go HERE to read our review of Trouble Boys.

mehr

 

Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, by Bob Mehr

Title: Trouble Boys

Author: Bob Mehr

Publisher: Da Capo Press

Publication Date: March 01, 2016

Mats book

www.dacapopress.com

The Upshot: ‘Mats bio is also a requiem for rock and roll 

BY DENISE SULLIVAN

Five or so years into the deeply troubled history of the Replacements, the band was set to make its fifth album and second for Sire Records at Ardent Studios in Memphis. On the eve of production, songwriter and frontman Paul Westerberg told producer Jim Dickinson, “I’m not going to give you one hundred percent, ’cause you don’t deserve it.” Dickinson, who died in 2009, was a Memphis music legend, a confidante of Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, and Alex Chilton with an arm’s length of credits dating back to Bo Diddley. He knew better than to sweat a remark by a smart ass kid from Minneapolis.

“When you’re making a punk record, you can’t do it without punks. I pretty much let ’em do what they wanted to do,” remembered Dickinson in Trouble Boys. The new and definitive authorized biography of the band by Commercial Appeal music critic Bob Mehr was written with the cooperation of Westerberg, bassist Tommy Stinson, and pretty much all the people of note (and then some), who worked with, slept with, or fell in love with the band, despite its best efforts to alienate everyone with whom it ever came into contact.

Faultily wired from the womb, like all true rockers from Little Richard to Johnny Thunders, the things that were wrong with the Replacements were precisely what was so right about them. Forming in the late ’70s, a time before rock became the domain of the pasty and privileged college set, problem child Stinson slapped a bass on his baby brother Tommy in an effort to save him from a similar juvenile delinquent fate. A girl, and there were always girls around, introduced them to drummer Chris Mars. Eventually, Westerberg, the child of an alcoholic with his own disobedience disorder, heard the din coming from the practice house, and the games would commence.

“It was the four of us.  It was an attitude that made those songs,” says Westerberg in the book.

And what songs they were: The stories of “I’m in Trouble” and “Take Me Down to the Hospital,” are just a couple of examples spelled out in the book; there are plenty more. Whether the bitter tears of “Little Mascara,” the sweet romance of “Kiss Me on the Bus” and “I Will Dare,” the desperation of “Answering Machine,” the prescient vision of “Androgynous” or the documentary-like “Bastards of Young,” the Replacements gave a ton more to rock than it took. If they’d only ever made Let It Be, that would’ve been more than a merely average band contributes in a lifespan. Westerberg knew how to transmit the flavors and familial feelings of his bandmates, his love of girls, and his near-death, drunk, and o.d. experiences into part of the act and its lore, as well as into a repertoire.

By underground rock standards, signing to a local label like Twin/Tone was the equivalent of the big time. An embrace by college radio and an endorsement by Pete Buck of R.E.M. were bonuses (among the book’s revelations is acknowledgment of a fierce competition between the two bands, as well as with Hüsker Dü). Certainly the ‘Mats were the biggest thing out of Minneapolis since Prince, and they encouraged others, like Soul Asylum, to follow in their path. But five years in, around the time of a disastrous Saturday Night Live appearance and the period in which Tommy Ramone was booked to produce Tim, their major label debut, the wheels were falling off the wagon. Stinson the elder failed to show up for the recording sessions and officially got the sack in 1986 due to alcoholism and other challenges. The band never really got over the loss psychically, though his “Chinese guitar” was ably replaced by Bob “Slim” Dunlap, a guy everyone knew from the scene as an experienced sideman as well as the janitor at First Avenue nightclub (Stinson also found work there in his post-‘Mats years).

“Part of all our behavior was an act. But when Bob was gone, we were scared,” admits Westerberg.

It’s no spoiler alert to assert that rather than an auspicious career move, the Replacements’ major label years amounted to one hella hot mess. From debauched parties and torn-up tour buses, never before or since has indie rock had a band with so many tales of bad behavior circulating out of school. But on the printed page, the roll call of horrors is nearly too much: More is never enough and Trouble Boys comes perilously close to excessive. And yet, every last detail would appear to be necessary in Mehr’s ballad of a band so entirely unequipped for life that their story rightfully teeters on the ledge. Through the lenses of mental illness and shifting power dynamics, we follow the proverbial rebels without a clue from home, on to the road, and into adult life. It ain’t pretty.

While it’s difficult to ascertain a general audience’s metabolism for industry jargon and label personnel details, Trouble Boys is a time trip back to the heady days when bands definitely mattered and record labels kinda sorta did: The infrastructure for distributing, producing, and promoting music, for better and for worse, was still intact and the system generally was in service to its favorite players (when it wasn’t lifting the bar of financial return so high that nobody could win).  Of course the rearview has a way of distorting the picture; nevertheless, the Replacements’ own story and its resonances qualify as American tragedy by any standards. Troubled behavior patterns emerge as members mature (or don’t, as the case may be); remaining and new players become alternately at odds and at risk on the accelerated track to riches, and in conflict with parental label figures, while most everyone save for a couple of truth tellers are trauma-bound to the past. Trouble Boys makes a very good case, without judgment, that there are no real villains here: We all and sundry are complicit in life’s drama, its dashed desires and crashed dreams be it of band, family, or career path; it happens to the best of us. And yet, if there is a sadder tale in rock ‘n’ roll, after reading Trouble Boys, I could not call it to mind.

“We were just kids,” Westerberg whispers to Carleen Krietler, Bob Stinson’s ex-wife, as the book opens at his 1995 funeral. “We didn’t know shit.  We were…just kids.”  For some of us, there is hardly any more that need be said.  But for those in search of an authentic slice of ’80s music and music business history, this is the legit, horse’s mouth version.  Soaking in a generation’s desperation for two decades, the Replacements wayward impulses, songs, ethos, and wild, romantic longing for something more is finally laid bare. The fact Westerberg and Co. were monumentally unimpressed with his gift for swoon-worthy words and high-powered melodies was all the more reason to love them: That they would more happily throw their talent into the rock and roll toilet than do anything with it was for some of us, the main attraction. Was that any kind of way to conduct a career?  Probably not. But by all accounts they had no other choice in the matter.  Absolution is pretty much out of the question.

***

Denise Sullivan recently reviewed Girl in Band by Kim Gordon for BLURT; her latest book is Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors.

 

ROLLIN’ ‘N’ TUMBLIN’ with Reverend Keith A. Gordon

Keith Gordon book

Making the connection: blues reviews you can use—and fuggin’ better not lose—in an essential new book by a veteran music journalist. In our interview he also offers sage advice to fellow writers pondering going the self-publishing route.

BY FRED MILLS

In a sense, reviews of blues recordings and concerts are kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of the music criticism universe. Compared to the hyperventilating world of mainstream pop reviews, the more-earnest-than-thou style of writing favored by indie-rock and singer-songwriter reviewers, the blatantly apologist approach that informs most hip-hop “experts,” and the fawning, deferential manner into which (frequently older) reviewers typically lapse into when writing about this or that “heritage” or classic rock act… well, blues reviewers probably operate with permanent chips on their shoulders because they have to assume that (a) no one’s reading their stuff in the first place, given all the other white noise in the music world; or, (b) if someone does read a blues review, they probably ain’t gonna give a shit because the aforementioned white noise is too deafening in the first place.

I mean, hell, these writers are lucky if they can even get a blues review published, and when they do it’s usually some 50-word capsule blurb published in a city’s crummy little alternative weekly newspaper in advance of a blues musician’s upcoming appearance in a club—which means that both (a) and (b) are still operative, and that the only people who’ll actually see the review are the club owner, the artist’s publicist, and maybe a handful of local blues fans… whew. As an occasional blues reviewer myself, I’m exhausted just writing this paragraph.

Memo: veteran roccrit and longtime BLURT contributor Reverend Keith Gordon is here to do his part to get a little respect for his—our—blues-scribing brethren.

Rev. Gordon’s just-published Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’ (Excitable Press), a compendium of over 100 long-form (e.g., 400+ words, with many clocking in at over 1,000) blues reviews that he wrote from 2008 to 2014 for such venues as Blues Music here in the States and The Blues in the U.K., plus All Music Guide, BLURT, and About.com where Gordon authored that site’s “Blues Guide” section, doing reviews, interviews and features. These are actual, genuine, honest-to-Wolf, get-your-mojo-workin’ blues reviews, the kind that display an abiding passion for the artform, an appreciation for and deep knowledge of its history, and most important, the kind of descriptive, illuminating and no holds barred style of writing that serves to make its subject come alive.

If one key standard by which to judge a review is whether or not it makes you want to jump up and head immediately to the record store to get a copy of the record being reviewed, then Gordon passes that litmus test in spades. The opposite holds true, too: his reviews can serve as stellar argument starters if the reader decides to take issue with the relative merits of some artist/recording. Blues fans are nothing if not passionate. And combative. I’d hate to match wits with the Rev in a bar if he and I were taking opposite sides. Plus, he’s about 8 feet taller and 90 pounds bigger than moi, and I have seen enough photos of him over the years to know that he ain’t the backing-down kinda guy. (Below: Gordon of recent, possibly mellow, vintage.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Anyhow… the nearly 400 page book’s reviews are presented alphabetically by artist first name, rather than chronologically by original release date of the album; this allows artists that Gordon wrote about on more than one occasion to have their reviews grouped side-by-side. Apparently Gordon holds Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Watermelon Slim and Jimi Hendrix in pretty high regard, as each of them rate three reviews apiece, but this doesn’t mean that just because, say, Gary Clark Jr., Etta James and Hound Dog Taylor only have one album from each reviewed, Gordon skimps on the praise or information. “Context” is particularly important when discussing the blues, because as a musical form it is perhaps the pre-eminent one for which lineages can be traced and deep influences discerned; Gordon offers plenty of musical description when talking about the records and individual songs, but he never forgets to give the reader the relevant background and a sense of who this artist actually is and what he or she’s all about.

Every reader will have favorites among the artists and reviews here, and the book works nicely whether you read it straight through or by jumping around to your faves. My left-field pick? The review of Watermelon Slim’s No Paid Holiday, released in 2008, which contains this particularly, er, evocative passage by the Rev.:

“Slim’s half-slurred, half-growled vocal patois (equal parts Carolina Soul and Okie drawl) takes some getting used to hearing. But throw in Slim’s haunting National Steel slide guitarplay, which hangs across these songs like vines dripping down from the limbs of a Cypress tree, combine it with his shotgun harp work, include a band that knows when to be quiet and when to be loud, and you have a lethal chemistry.”

Lethal, indeed. Now I remember why I loved that album so much upon its initial release and why I still love it.

There’s also a small but meaty section devoted to some of his blues book reviews, such as Gregg Allman’s outstanding 2012 autobiography My Cross to Bear and a pair of quirky volumes that collect all of the album sleeves and popular blues, jazz and country artist trading cards created by underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. A lot of music fans tend to associate Crumb primarily with Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Company (because of his iconic Cheap Thrills LP art), but the artist’s passion for blues and jazz clearly runs the deepest, as Gordon rightly points out in highlighting some of Crumb’s portraits—which, he also suggests, have done a lot for bringing certain forgotten and even unknown musicians to the general public’s attention.

Rev. Keith kindly agreed to an email interview discussing the book, the blues, and also his adventures in the world of self-publishing—Excitable Press is his own imprint, and Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’ is also subtitled “The Reverend’s Archives, Volume 2”—along with some useful advice for those of you out there who (like moi) may be pondering your own self-publishing work. This isn’t the first time he and I have done this dance, incidentally; in 2014 I wrote a BLURT feature called “I Know It When I Read It” in which he talked about the book he’d recently published, That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014. And over the years we’ve often talked about music journalism and its milieu, seeing as how both of us have invested a lot of time and energy into it, going all the way back to the late ‘70s.

One thing he told me that I think remains absolutely relevant to now was also a timely tip for writers: “The best advice that I can give up-and-comers to this rock critic/music journalist thing is to listen to a lot of music from across the eras, and familiarize yourself with both better-known and obscure artists alike. The Internet is this amazing resource that allows you to explore a world of music, so why not do so? You can also find copies of old music zines and other publications online to read and educate yourself, so if you really care about the music, put in some time and effort to improve your knowledge and your skills.”

Amen, Rev. On to our interview, and to Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’

BLURT: For readers who only know you as a contributor to Blurt – which covers blues, but definitely is not a blues-specific publication or site – tell us your bonafides and background as a blues writer. Did anyone encourage you when you were younger to start writing about music?

No one ever encouraged me to write…my parents thought I was “wasting my time” well into their dotage. It was my exposure to writers like Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, and the almighty “Ranger” Rick Johnson, my first editor, which launched me on this path. I used to “borrow” copies of Creem, Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, and Rock magazine from a local bookstore and was inspired by their writing. I thought to myself, “People get paid to write about music? And they get free records? I’m in!” At the time, I didn’t know how little money you actually get paid to write about music…

As for blues music specifically, I was smitten by the blues after winning a copy of the Alabama State Troupers Road Show LP from a Nashville radio station. The double album documented a label-sponsored tour by Memphis music legend Don Nix that featured bluesman Furry Lewis. Furry was given the entire first side of the album, and I was enchanted by his performance. That experience opened the door to artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker that I’d read about in my music zines, starting a life-long love affair with the blues. The more I heard of the blues, the more I wanted to hear!

I began writing about blues albums for Thom King’s Take One magazine, a sort of underground Nashville rag with mainstream media aspirations, in 1976 and I’ve covered the blues one way or another for just about every publication I’ve been associated with since (well over 100 to date). I’ve contributed to the All Music Guide To The Blues book as well as the AMG website, and I’ve also written for Blues Revue, Blues Music magazine, and The Blues magazine in the U.K. Oh, and I was the Blues Expert for About.com for six and a half years.

 

What makes the blues a compelling genre and subject for you to listen to and write about? Give me the proverbial “elevator speech” you might make to someone (say, under 25) without any knowledge of the blues but whom you wanted to convince them to give the blues a listen.

The blues IS American music – jazz, country, bluegrass, rhythm & blues, and rock ‘n’ roll are all derived from early blues artists like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Charlie Patton, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Without the blues, all we’d have left to listen to is Justin Bieber, etc… the most soulless, commercial, life-sucking, horribly bland and uncreative music imaginable.

And for those who think that the blues is merely twelve bars of depressing “I woke up this morning” droning, I’d point out the incredible diversity to be found in the blues – explosive blues-rock guitarists like Walter Trout, Joe Bonamassa, and Gary Clark Jr; talented women like Janiva Magness, Shemekia Copeland, Marcia Ball, and Samantha Fish; traditionalists like Duke Robillard and Billy Branch; legends like Buddy Guy and John Mayall; outliers like Corey Harris and Seasick Steve; and even crossover acts like the Tedeschi Trucks Band. There’s a style of blues for almost every taste!

 

What is the current state of blues journalism, and how do you view that in the long-term perspective? What publications and websites are noteworthy? Which ones are no longer with us that are greatly missed? Can writers who specialize in the blues earn a living at it? This is related to an accompanying thought: My memory tells me that there was a ton of interest when Stevie Ray was peaking, maybe a decade later when John Lee was being rediscovered, and then periodically, say, each decade. So accompanying those moments would have been interest by the public in reading about the blues. But are there genuine blues scholars any more, and as the last members of the old school finally pass away, are there enough younger players to fill the void and keep enthusiasm regenerating?

Blues journalism and academic interest in the music is arguably stronger than with rock ‘n’ roll currently. Here in the states, there is the long-running Living Blues magazine, which does a fine job of mixing historical articles and interviews with coverage of new artists. Blues Music magazine (which I write for) rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the defunct Blues Revue zine and covers more contemporary artists than does Living Blues. Across the pond, there’s a thriving blues scene in the U.K. and several magazines to cover it, including The Blues (which I also contribute to) and Blues Matters.

For readers wanting a representative taste of today’s blues writing, Blues Blast is a free online publication (http://www.bluesblastmagazine.com/) that you can sign up for and get in your email box. American Blues Scene is a newish publication by some true believers (http://www.americanbluesscene.com/) that offers zealous coverage of the contemporary blues scene.

Mainstream interest in blues music does seem to rise and fall with whatever artist captures the audience’s imagination at the time – Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers Band in the 1970s, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray in the ‘80s, John Lee Hooker’s revival in the ‘90s, and the White Stripes and Black Keys in the 2000s. Today, the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Gary Clark Jr. are bringing the blues to young new fans. So yes, every decade or so the blues experiences a rise in popularity, and although it eventually ebbs, the music holds onto a certain number of those new fans and they help keep the spirit of the blues alive.

While it’s true that the best among the first generation “blues scholars” are getting older, nobody’s going to replace the erudition and knowledge of, say, a Bill Dahl or Robert Gordon (no relation) anytime soon. Considering that well-researched, substantially scholarly (and often entertaining) books on Skip James, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, and Johnny Winter, among others, have been published in the last five to eight years, I have faith that a new generation of blues fans will pick up the gauntlet and continue to document the blues in print.

As for “earning a living” writing about the blues, there are precious few job openings for that position! Most blues artists themselves barely eke out a living playing the blues, and they work hard at it. Although some publications pay for articles and reviews, everybody I know that writes about the blues does so mostly as a labor of love with a little money on the side. Like other forms of music writing, there’s lots of opportunity for “exposure” and very little paid work…

 

Tell us your three favorite blues artists interviews you’ve done, and of course what made them special to you or unique.

Elvin Bishop – a 2016 Blues Hall of Fame inductee – is a blast to speak with because he has such great stories of both coming up in the Chicago blues scene of the early 1960s but also of the San Francisco scene of the 1970s and ‘80s that he helped shape. Joe Bonamassa is a reserved, subdued guy to talk with, but is a passionate, knowledgeable fan of the blues who made his bones opening for B.B. King as a teenager. Bruce Iglauer, founder of esteemed blues label Alligator Records, is not an artist but has made records with everybody from Hound Dog Taylor and Koko Taylor to Michael “Ironman” Burks and Tommy Castro, and he continues to find amazing new artists like Selwyn Birchwood…and he has funny, insightful stories about every one of the hundreds of artists he’s worked with and classic albums he’s produced.

 

What are your Top Ten (as of Feb. 2016) blues records of all time?

It’s hard to narrow it down to a mere ten, and my list excludes albums by worthy artists like John Lee Hooker, Koko Taylor, Sonny Boy Williamson, Son Seals, Tommy Castro, Sean Costello, and others that I listen to frequently. Still, these are the ten platters that I play constantly, many of them for decades now (in alphabetical order by artist):

Paul Butterfield Blues Band – Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Etta James – At Last!

Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan – In Session

B.B. King – Live At The Regal

Savoy Brown – Hellbound Train

Walter Trout – The Blues Came Callin’

Muddy Waters – Hard Again

Junior Wells (w/Buddy Guy) – Hoodoo Man Blues

Johnny Winter – Second Winter

Howlin’ Wolf – The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions

 

Similarly, what are your Top Five (as of Feb. 2016) books about the blues?

There are a lot of great books available on blues music and artists, but if you read just these five – Sam Charter’s The Country Blues; Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues; Willie Dixon’s I Am The Blues; Peter Guralnick’s Searching For Robert Johnson; and Robert Gordon’s Can’t Be Satisfied (Muddy Waters bio) – you’ll have earned a solid fundamental education in blues music.

Muddy

You’ve self-published several books now. What are some of the notable pros and cons in self-publishing, as well as those that might not be immediately obvious? Why did you start publishing?

Self-publishing is a sucker’s game for fools like myself who fell in love with the written word at an early age. I published my first zine at twelve years old, was first published in someone else’s music zine at age fifteen, and I’ve been publishing steadily more or less since the early 1980s. After a couple of feeble attempts, I launched Anthem Publishing in 2003 when print-on-demand technology made it feasible to publish a book without emptying your bank account.

Thirteen years and ten titles later, we’re still struggling to be heard. For every book like my Frank Zappa Buying Guide or my collaboration with writer Tommy Hash, Prog2010, that sells reasonably well and makes a profit, there’s one like our title That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 where we spent more than usual and sold very few copies. There are over 300,000 new book titles published each year, and unless you have a large budget to advertise and market your book, it’s hard to compete.

The most notable con in self-publishing is obscurity. So, why do I do it? I love music, especially classic rock and blues, and I like writing about it, dissecting it, sharing good music with readers that may not have heard it. That’s why I keep a music blog (www.thatdevilmusic.com), contribute to a couple of publications, and publish books. But I also have worked the same day job for 23 years. Mainstream publishers are only interested in celebrity books, and I don’t work well with authority figures, anyway, so these days I write about whatever the hell I want to, and don’t worry about who’s “hot” or “hip” at the moment. The freedom to jawbone about whatever record or artist you want to is, perhaps, self-publishing’s biggest ‘pro,’ even if you’re preaching to a small audience.

 

Relatedly, give us the Rev’s quickie guide to starting one’s own book company – what are the most important nuts-and-bolts things that any novice should know before embarking upon the independent route?

First, take any delusions you may have about getting rich and retiring to Aruba with your self-publishing profits. Odds are, you’re not going to make much money at all, much less a fortune – especially if you’re publishing books about music! Don’t quit your day job unless you have a trust fund, because independent book publishing, much like indie music-making, will cost you money without much return… it’s definitely a part-time job until you get tired and quit or somehow strike gold. Success can be found – I know of one small-time fringe publisher that struggled for years until a well-researched and thoughtful book he’d done on Islam sold by the truckload in the wake of September 11th. But that’s definitely an anomaly.

Your first project as a publisher should be your own book, so that you’re invested in the final results. You’re going to have to “wear” a lot of hats – writer, editor, graphic artist, publisher – which means that you’ll have to develop rudimentary skills in grammar, proofreading, bookkeeping, business, PhotoShop, book design, sales & marketing, etc. If you’re not willing to put in the time to teach yourself this stuff, or suffer through a lengthy learning curve (much as I have), maybe you should find another way to express your creativity.

If this sounds daunting, it can be, but there’s an easier way if you want to just dip your toe in the water with your first book – Amazon.com! The online retailer offers some solid choices for writers looking to self-publish, and if you’re looking to get a book out on the cheap, that’s the way to go. You can follow their online guides to lay-out your book in a word processing program like Microsoft Word and publish it through Amazon as an eBook, also making it available as a print book through their CreateSpace program. The cost is minimal, and if you get encouraging results from your first publishing effort, you can always expand your company by using a print-on-demand service like IngramSpark (http://www.ingramspark.com/) to handle your print book and use Amazon.com for your eBook.

That’s the route I’ve taken for Rollin’ ‘n’ Tumblin’, and initial sales are encouraging. I used print-on-demand for print copies, which are distributed through Ingram to bookstores and online retailers, and Amazon for an eBook version. Digital printing and eBooks have thankfully lowered the bar for writers wanting to publish their own work, and once you get a couple of titles under your belt, if you want you can expand your publishing empire to include work by other writers. Be forewarned, though – as mentioned above, indie publishing is a tough road, and once you start working with other writers, you’ll have to deal with their neuroses as well as your own…

Bonus Beats: Finish this sentence: “A college student comes up to you after you’ve given a short talk to his journalism class and says, ‘I have always wanted to write about music for a living.’ You think about it for a moment, then reply…”

“‘Kid, you’d be better off learning to be a plumber or else develop a taste for canned meats and microwave burritos ‘cause writing about music will only leave you broke and hungry…but you’ll have a lot of great tunes to listen to!’”