Category: Music

Featured Musician: Hank Williams Sr.

If you read one of my early posts about my new-found discovery of my enjoyment of country music, then you know that my love of this genre is relatively new to me. 

Like the blues, my passion started with a more contemporary bluesman (Lightnin’ Hopkins), but as I get deeper into the music, I uncover the artists behind them. In this case, I started with Townes Van Zandt and saw Hank Williams behind him.

Hank Williams died at the age of 29, but because of his more contemporary existence, we have MANY high quality recordings, photographs, and videos of him. This accessibility humanizes him in a way the old bluesmen were not, and so he becomes relatable.

Over the years, hundreds of artists have covered his songs and you can hear his music in movies and television shows as well. Hank Williams was a legend, and his influence is still felt today. 

Some of my favorite covers were by Ray Charles; two of the best were his covers of Your Cheating Heart and Take These Chains from my Heart and Set Me Free (which we luckily also have videos of!):

Here are a few curated selections of Hank Williams performing in the 1950s: 

Hank Williams also had a son, also named Hank Williams, who grew up to be a major country and country rock player. He filmed an interesting music video in the 1980s which featured special effects allowing him to play with his deceased father:

I hope you enjoy listening to Hank Williams as much as I do. If you listen to his lyrics you will uncover a truth and beauty not present in a lot of his contemporaries.

He was a real poet in a cowboy hat.  

 

Featured Musician: Big Bill Broonzy

A myriad of individual contributors created a fabric and vocabulary we group together and call the “blues.” In truth, the blues are just a group of regional African American popular folk musics that were marketed under the same genre.

What if there was an individual that stepped outside these regional bounds? That transcended the genre, only to return to it?

That man is Big Bill Broonzy.

Big Bill was a masterful guitar player who played in almost of the popular styles of the day. His earlier songs feature a raggy undertone, but by the end of his life, he played in a more rural style.

Although his guitar playing is masterful and distinct, his voice is often times the real star of the show. Listen to his version of Trouble in Mind which features very minimalistic guitar accompaniment:

The focus on guitar in modern acoustic blues music is one of the genre’s biggest misconceptions. Blues is a vocal music, and the guitar provides another voice to the chorus. Big Bill’s later material is a master class on how to build a compelling accompaniment behind strong vocals.

That being said, some of Big Bill’s most memorable songs were often played as instrumentals. A couple of the most notables are Hey Hey, which Clapton popularized in his MTV Unplugged performance:

Below if Eric Clapton’s version. Clapton was once quoted as saying that Big Bill was one of his greatest guitar influences:

Another great instrumental by Big Bill was his Shuffle Rag:

Aside from recording legendary blues tracks, Big Bill also recorded some racially charged political songs, often dressed in the guise of spirituals. One of his least tactful songs in this genre is his piece Get Back, take a listen:

Big Bill is a paradigmatic example of a forgotten giant of music history who had a lasting and tangible impact on the evolution of music. He was there during the birth of Chicago blues and mentored many of the greats such as Muddy Waters. In the 1950s, Big Bill toured around Europe and inspired a generation of musicians that later adapted the blues and created Rock and Roll. 

There is a popular conception of the invention of modern music starting in the mid-1950 by artists such as Elvis or Bill Haley.

To see the truth, we must look a layer below. If we do, we see men like Big Bill Broonzy waiting. 

Featured Musician: Lightnin’ Hopkins

If I hadn’t heard Lightnin’ Hopkins, I would not be playing guitar anymore. After two months of bumbling around on my girlfriend’s mini-sized acoustic guitar, trying to strum an A chord, I began to question what I was doing banging around on this stringed box.

We have all had that moment when we try to learn a new skill and we rapidly progress but then hit a wall. 

My wall derived from being uninterested in the songs I was trying to play. I never liked playing with a pick, preferring to play with my fingers.

To try and remedy my sudden plateau, I Googled “best music to play on acoustic guitar.” One insightful poster mentioned a learner should try learning blues because it’s the basis of modern music. 

I knew I wanted to stick with acoustic guitar with my fingers, and the blues sounded intriguing. Not knowing that acoustic finger style blues is synonymous with country blues, I typed in ‘acoustic blues player old.’ 

Here’s what came up:

Immediately I thought that this is how a guitar should sound. From that point on, I knew I had to make my guitar sound like that-— I’ve been on the journey ever since.

The player in the video is Lightnin’ Hopkins, perhaps the most widely recorded country bluesman that ever lived. Hopkins was a Texan through and through. Music giants from the area like Stevie Ray Vaughan cite Lightnin’ Hopkins as a major influence in their sound. Some musicians like BB King are as bold as to claim without Lightnin’, there would be no rock and roll. 

Lightnin’ was brought into the main stream in 1959, and thanks to his prodigious output and charisma, we have several COLOR videos of him playing.

A lot of bluesmen had their standard guitar licks, and Lightnin’ was no exception. The aphorism ‘it’s not what you play, its how you play it,’ rings true with Lightnin’ Hopkins. He played in a free flowing, improvisational manner; paired with his powerful singing, he had an unrivaled presence and immediacy about him. 

Although Lightnin’ typically played in the keys of E and A, he would sometimes play old pop songs like Baby Take Me Back:

If there is one video that characterizes what I think of when I hear Lightnin’ Hopkins, it’s the video below. His poetic, improvisational, effortless style is very evident:

If you are interested in learning more about Lightnin, check out this documentary that was made in the 1970s. Watching him live his life is very interesting, and at times humorous. 

Featured Musician: Skip James

When I started listening to the blues, I was fortunate to live in the world of YouTube and blogs. All of the living old blues men and women had already been tracked down, rare sides found, and historical performance footage uploaded to the internet.

One of my favorite stories to read about are when old performers were rediscovered by a small group of dedicated record collectors and amateur historians.

The legendary blues man Skip James was rediscovered in 1964. Check out this amazing performance he recorded that same year:

Skip James recorded some incredible sides in 1931, but his success was marred by the Great Depression. He did not record again for over 30 years. 

In 1964, after rediscovery, James preformed for the first time at the Newport Blues Festival. For the next five years, James enjoyed the career as a musician he never had. He passed away in 1969. 

Aside from Blind Lemon Jefferson, it’s hard to find a more idiosyncratic musician from the pre-war blues era than Skip James.

In many of his 1931 recordings, James played in a strange minor tuning he called “cross-note tuning.” This gave his music a somber, dark, moody quality. He also sang in an eerie falsetto that he was able to replicate even after his rediscovery. 

James’ contribution to music are unknown to many, but are significant. Hard Times Killing Floor Blues was famously covered in the Cohen Brother’s film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Additionally, Skip James’ recording Devil Got My Woman heavily influenced Robert Johnson’s 1937 Hellhound on my Trail, which is considered to be one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. 

Many people think of blues men as nomadic, soulful, troubled men that traveled the open road expressing themselves through their guitar. In reality, many great country blues artists we’re not like this, but were seasoned performers, playing pop songs of the day.

When you listen to Skip James’ music, you don’t hear a 1930s pop performer. You hear a man channeling something deep through his voice, piano, and guitar.

Skip James is a true country blues legend– there will never be another.

Featured Musician: Paul Geremia

I used to frequent the forums of Weenie Campbell to expand my oeuvre of music beyond traditional country blues.

In my earlier days, I used to judge contemporary country blues artist by how they played songs I was familiar with.

My mindset used to limit me!

As I matured as a musician and as a listener, I became much more interested in artists that would play in the style, not just play slavish copies of source material. After all, all the country blues greats played regional and popular songs in their own style which led them to producing great music.

Paul Geremia is a player that really stands out to me as a living country blues artist. Using 12 strings, 6 strings, harmonica, and his voice, Paul always paints a picture through his work.

From crosses between Blind Boy Fuller’s Walking My Blues Away (part 2) and Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk, to a cover of Robert Johnson’s Come In My Kitchen with Skip James-esque falsetto, Geremia was never afraid to experiment to push the genre.

Also, it’s important to note that Paul is one of the greatest exponents of playing the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson. A video of his version of Shuckin’ Sugar Blues is shown below.

In some ways, I think Geremia’s voice prepped me for later country music I listened to. He definitely had a great twang to his voice when he wanted.

Paul also hung out with Howling Wolf and Hubert Sumlin in his apartment! Check out the story here!

Unfortunately, Paul had a stroke in 2014, and his career is on hold. You can support him and his family at through this Paypal link. 

Featured Musician: Jessie Mae Hemphill

I has seen a copy of Jesse Mae Hemphill’s self titled record sitting in my local record shop for 3 months before I decided to buy it.

I’m definitely glad I did— she’s a gem of the Mississippi Hill style of blues.

Jesse’s first recording wasn’t released until age 58, but what she put out was top-notch blues.

Featured Musician: Townes Van Zandt

If I were to picture the ideal archetype for country music, the answer would always be Townes Van Zandt. 

The first song I heard him play was Waiting Around To Die. Once I heard him, I knew he represented something I always was looking for.

You can read about my journey here.  

As Townes’ released more material, he never really diverged from the simple and understated sound he had perfected. Even as his hard living took a toll on his voice, he never lost his charm.

His recordings from the 1960s-70s are unparalleled art.

Featured Musician: Sam Chatmon

A big misconception about bluesman is that they were old men playing their guitar and singing with weathered voices.

When most of these legendary players recorded, they were in their 20s. 

Luckily renewed interest in this music in the 1960s relaunched some of their careers. By the time these musicians careers relaunched, they were old. 

Sam Chatmon is an example of a great guitarist who was rediscovered and recorded in the 1960s. He was able to tour around for 20 more years until his death. Fortunately, we got a lot of great video recordings of him during this period.

Sam, along with his famous brother Bo Carter, were part of the popular group the Mississippi Sheiks during the 1930s.

When I used to study with John Miller, I found out he had spent quite a bit of time with Sam. I learned a couple of Sam’s tunes from John, and he showed me how Sam fingered some unconventional chord shapes.

Below is a video of Sam playing That’s Alright at age 81. If you want to learn how to play this, check out my free lesson.

If you’re interested in the history of this music, there are a couple interviews of Sam that are publicly available on Alan Lomax’s channel.

Featured Musician: Sonny Boy Nelson

Sonny Boy Nelson (real name Eugene Powell) recorded in the 1930s, and played along side legendary country blues musician Hacksaw Harney. I first discovered Nelson a few years into playing blues music.

It was a revelatory experience. 

Nelson’s intricate and sorrowful playing made me see the possibility of what my guitar playing could turn into.

When I studied with John Miller, I asked him to help me figure out some of Nelson’s playing because it was so unconventional, but so familiar. Only a master of this style like John could unravel this playing.

Watching and learning Nelson’s playing gave me a new outlook and perspective in what’s possible in country blues playing. It also helped me figure out the playing of blues-great Sam Chatmon who was undoubtedly in contact with Sonny Boy Nelson in his lifetime.

Here are some examples of Nelson’s incredible blues picking:

Nelson definitely has a unique style, but also has some clear influences. I can hear riffs from Tommy Johnson’s Lonesome Home Blues and a lot of stylistic borrowings from Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Matchbox Blues was a cover of a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, but Nelson’s version is a great example of making something your own.

For the same reasons as I love Scrapper Blackwell’s playing, I love Sonny Boy Nelson’s. They both have a clear way of playing in a key, and they constantly improvise, but their style is a recognizable trademark of their craft.

Featured Musician: Belton Sutherland

Awhile ago I stumbled upon a series of videos recorded by Alan Lomax in 1978. One of my favorites is from unknown guitar player Belton Sutherland.

Belton was probably a teenager in the hay-day of this music’s popularity in the south. Maybe he the opportunity to learn from one of the masters. Eugene Powell, also known as Sonny Boy Nelson was at this recording session. Maybe he taught Belton a thing or two.

Blues #1, just like Blues #2 is a droning Mississippi Hill Country type of song. I talk about how to play this type of song in my lesson on Catfish Blues.

This type of music seems so raw and emotionally loaded. A lifetime of experience and guitar playing allowed Belton to tap into such a raw channel of expression