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.)
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.
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!’”