Thursday, 30 May 2013

Q&A Feature - James Cotton

Published as part of the Sun Records Cover Feature in the May issue of Rhythms.

Cotton Mouth Man
Harmonica legend James Cotton, whose career is still as strong as ever, looks back at his years with Sun Records.

Harmonica legend James Cotton, perhaps the last surviving blues player who recorded with Sun Records, was born in Mississippi in 1934. He grew up on a cotton plantation, working the fields, but soon became all consumed by the blues he heard on the radio. He took his harp and was soon making money as a busker, before leaving home and joining Sonny Boy Williamson’s band, taking over as leader when Williamson left.

This was short-lived, and soon Cotton was driving a dump truck. It wasn’t long before he got back into music though, moving to West Memphis and hooking up with the likes of Little Junior Parker, BB King and Howlin’ Wolf, with whom he recorded his first Sun session. From there, his career began in earnest, he played in Muddy Waters’ band for a decade or so, and is still making records today. Cotton himself takes over the story, filling in the gaps:

Your mother gave you a harmonica for your sixth birthday, which you began to play, but it wasn’t until you heard King Biscuit Time on the radio that you realised the instrument could be played a completely different way – the way of the blues. Do you remember how you felt when you first heard that music? How did it make you feel? What was the connection like?
It put something inside of me, something I can’t name, and it made me feel really, really good. I’d never heard anything like that. I’ve never forgotten that moment. I realise now it connected me to the outside world, got me off the plantation and connected me to people all over the world. I never even dreamed that could be possible. My whole world then was the Bonnie Blue plantation, and the field work we all had to do. My mother took me to the field and showed me how to pick cotton when I was about four years old.

Your first recorded session was with Howlin’ Wolf in 1952, not long after you’d moved to West Memphis – how did you hook up with The Wolf? What was he like to play with? What are your memories of that session?
Howlin’ Wolf heard me play with Sonny Boy Williamson’s (Rice Miller) band. Since we both played harp, Sonny Boy and I never played at the same time with his band. In the middle of his set he’d call me up to play. I’d play a few songs, leave the stage, and he’d come back and finish his set. Wolf was a very nice guy to play with. He was a warm, decent man but I didn’t want to mess up his music or he’d let me know I did!

I remember he’d say, “Man, I want my music right. If you don’t play my music right, I’m gonna have t’let ya go.”  He never had to. My memory of my first session at Sun Records with The Wolf, is I had never really ever heard my music played back. I always heard it out of an amp when I was playing it [but] I never heard it recorded before. It scared me! I was 13 years old and very, very country. I heard everything I was playing. Heard all the mistakes – and all the good parts I played, I heard that, too. I played harp for The Wolf on ‘Moanin’ At Midnight’. He played harp on ‘How Many More Years’.  Those songs were released back to back on one single record. Both songs became hits.

It was that session that brought you to the attention of a young Sam Phillips, who then contacted you about making some records – tell me about your first meeting with Sam.
When I walked into Sun Records, Sam Phillips shook my hand and asked me if I had any of my own songs. At this time I had ‘Cotton Crop Blues’, ‘Hold Me In Your Arms’, ‘My Baby’, and ‘Straighten Up Baby’. He said he wanted to hear them. He recorded them straight away. Here’s how it came down – my drummer, John Bowers, didn’t show up, so I ended up playing drums. I looked around the studio. There was one bass drum and a 10-inch cymbal. I needed a snare, so I grabbed a 51 Goldcrest beer box made out of cardboard, turned it upside down and went to work. That’s why there’s no harp on any of the four sides. Pat Hare was on guitar. That was the original recording. Later, Sam Phillips added piano, bass, and horns. He might have added a drummer, too.

After your first session for Sun, recording with Willie Nix, you began cutting your own records with Sam Phillips – what was he like to work with? He’s got quite a reputation for letting the artist play what they want to play, for keeping it real, for keeping the blues pure – was that the case?
Working with Sam Phillips was all right because he let me play like I wanted to. I remember him asking me to do just two things differently. One time he asked me to make a song longer, which I did. I wasn’t a drummer and here I was playing a session for the first time and I dropped time. Sam heard that and asked me to do that again. Other than that, he didn’t say much. We were both so new at what we were doing, it was still strange to us, we were both feeling our way – we’re talking about recording these songs 63 years ago. We both had different dreams about this music, the blues, and, looking back on it, both our dreams came true.

Back in the ‘50s, when segregation was is full swing, Phillips didn’t seem fazed by that – it seems that to him, colour didn’t matter, it was all about the music and the people who played it, whether they were black or white. What was it like, as an African American artist, to have a place to record where race played no part, and you were free to do what you were made to do?
It was a really good feeling. Sam Phillips’ Sun Records was my very first studio. It was good to be free, respected, and accepted, both me and my music, by a white man. But I knew the second I walked out the studio door, I knew it would be the same racist world that I lived in, that was just the way it was, what I was born into. I’m thankful the world has changed, I’ve seen so much change for the better. Better for the music and better for me, too, and that’s the truth. Now it makes me feel that all the bumps and bruises was worth it.

Of course, after you cut those tracks with Sun, you hooked up with Muddy Waters and played in his band for over a decade, which is a whole other story! Focusing on Sun though, looking back, how important was what Sam Phillips was doing? How important for the blues was his work, was Sun Records?
It was very important, not only to me, but what Sam did for music history. The four songs I recorded got me out of the cotton fields and made me known to the people as a real musician, even though I just a kid. Real musicians make records. I recorded at Sun Records before Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. We all know the Sam Phillips story and what he did with that little record company and his big dream. Sam started with the blues. Willie Dixon nailed it, “The blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.” That’s what Sam did.

You’re one of the (if not the) last remaining blues artists who recorded on Sun – you must be immensely proud of not only what the label was able to achieve, but what you were able to achieve during those years (not to mention the years until now).
Of course, I feel good to still be around. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of my career. I started out a little boy wearing overalls, walking barefoot down a dirt road, blowing my harp. I’ve traveled the world with my harp over and over and I’m so thankful for that. Life has been good to me. My fans are part of my family, I mean that. I have played many countries, but one I have not played is Australia. I know this is an Australian magazine, I’d like to play for the people of Australia.

Just lastly, you’re about to release a new album on Alligator Records, which is fantastic – as Bruce Iglauer (Alligator) says, how many Sun artists from 1954 are still recording? Tell me briefly about this new release – how does an artist like yourself, who’s been making blues records for over fifty years, go about doing so in 2013? And for the sake of comparison, what’s it like making a record today, compared to back in 1954 at Sun?
Well, the first thing is there wasn’t a 51 Goldcrest beer box turned upside down for a snare drum on my new CD, Cotton Mouth Man! Nowadays, recording is technically much easier, but that doesn’t change my feeling for the music. That’s what it is all about, feeling. If I don’t feel it, I can’t play it. I’m serious about that.

Cotton Mouth Man is very different from any other record I’ve ever made, it’s got lots of new songs we wrote about my life. I even wrote one about Bonnie Blue, the plantation I grew up on in Mississippi. All the songs are originals except for one. I think people will learn a lot about my life when they listen to the words. I wrote liner notes for it too, telling people how we came about making it and thanking everyone who helped me put it together.

My producer is Tom Hambridge, who also played drums. Some of my favorite musicians and singers are the guests: Gregg Allman, Joe Bonamassa, Ruthie Foster, Warren Haynes, Delbert McClinton and Keb’ Mo’. We’ve got Chuck Leavell on keyboards and Colin Linden on Resonator. We also had Rob McNelley on guitar, Glenn Worf on upright bass, and Tommy McDonald on bass. My band members, who’ve been with me for many years now –  singer Darrell Nulisch, Tom Holland on guitar, Noel Neal on bass, and Jerry Porter on drums –  are on the record too. I was fortunate to have all these good people who are great musicians, come together to make this record with me. I hope everyone who listens to it feels it. I know I sure did!
By Samuel J. Fell

Cotton Mouth Man is available from May 7 through AlligatorRecords.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Live Review - Bluesfest, 2013

Published in the May issue of Rhythms.

Byron Bay Bluesfest
March 28 – April 1, 2013

This year was my tenth Bluesfest, the culmination of a decade of magnificent musical memories all melding into one, each year adding to and expanding the canon, Bluesfest’s 24th incarnation certainly being no exception to that rule – truly an exceptional way to celebrate a tin anniversary.

Go Jane Go
First up was Go Jane Go, Americana in its purest form – Kieran Kane on guitar and vocals, his son Lucas drumming, David Francey singing. Simple and effective, it held me captive on the Thursday afternoon, a perfect way to begin proceedings.

One of my absolute highlights was one I hadn’t banked on – Tav Falco & the Panther Burns. Man, grease up your hair, put on a sharp suit and get awn down to this country/blues-a-billy punk ‘n’ roll. I’d heard these guys had been a big influence on one of my favourite bands of all time, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, so I hot-footed it over and became enraptured. Despite the Friday rain, these guys ran red-hot, kicking and screaming their way into my heart – killer stuff.

Another of my favourites, who I saw snatches of three or four times, were the Music Maker Blues Revue cats, who I had the pleasure of meeting and also interviewing. Man, they may be ancient (in some cases), but they can rock and they damn well had the blues – and this wasn’t just blues by numbers either, but a hellstorm of pounding good times, an almost desperation being displayed, these guys loved this music so much. This was so real, the players themselves just real people, they really hit a chord and I hope they come back again and again.

Chris Smither
Another who I loved and also had the good fortune to interview (in fact, I’d rate it as one of my favourite interviews of all time), was Chris Smither. His blues-tinged folk is so simple, but this man has such a knack for drawing you in through song, and so I sat spellbound, just listening, letting it all wash over. ‘Love You Like A Man’ has got to be one of my favourite tunes ever.

Others who stood out included the legendary Tony Joe White, who turned the fuzz up to 25 and just stomped on it, his drummer backing him to the hilt. William Elliott Whitmore held crowds in the palm of his hand too, his music also simple, and yet so raw and real, field songs for The Now – there’s nothing fake about this man, make no mistake.

And then of course, there was Robert Plant. I’m a huge Zeppelin fan, so I wanted to see what he’d do to these songs that defined a lot of my childhood (indeed, a lot of my whole life) – I knew it wouldn’t just be a faithful recreation, and he didn’t disappoint. He took these old Zep songs, plus a few blues tunes, and rebuilt them from the ground up with his African-tinged band. This was a real music lovers set. Many wandered away, dispirited, but they lost out in my mind – this was one of the greatest sets I’ve ever seen at Bluesfest, easily.

I did duck away for twenty minutes or so to catch a bit of Iggy Pop. I’d lamented in the lead-up to the festival that it’d be impossible to tear myself away from one or the other, and while I dug what Iggy was throwing down (and I also appreciated getting more stoned, passively, than I have for years), it just wasn’t as captivating as Percy – perhaps if someone else had been playing at the same time, I’d have stayed with Iggy and loved it. In fact, I know I would have, but I got lured back to Plant, and man, am I glad I did. His version of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, with Willie Dixon’s ‘Who Do You Love’ woven into it, was a masterpiece, and one which for me, summed up Bluesfest this year.

So, a year of surprises, a year of discovery, a year of fantastic music that will be (as I say every year) damn hard to top come my eleventh festival. We await next year’s 25th anniversary with baited breath.

Samuel J. Fell

Monday, 27 May 2013

A River Somewhere - Part 2


Last year, four friends and myself went trout fishing. It was an arduous ordeal we thought we'd never return from - and we caught nothing to boot. You can read about it here.

This year, we returned - Part One of the epic adventure you can read here, Part Two, the conclusion, is below.

Day two begins much like its predecessor, early but sunlit, people in the next room stoking and talking, coffee boils and porridge bubbles, perhaps more of a subdued air today given what lies before us. Indeed, The Gorge, our foe, our sworn enemy, our bugbear to be sure, something we barely survived last year, and yet, this year sees us return. We are foolhardy indeed, stupid perhaps, but game to get amongst it once more, to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight and emerge victorious. Or at least alive.

Stocking up.
To be honest, I’m not feeling it today. What I am feeling, is last night’s beans, but I digress, for there is business at hand, serious business, battles to be won etc. I step outside and realise we’ll not be toiling under a cloudless blue sky, but one of the pregnant, grey variety, threatening and cold – the day looms before us like some sort of ugly spectre, one intent on doing us in, just as a matter of course. We don’t fall for such things though, we stock up, we stretch it out, we swagger and strut – a brave face if ever there was one. Into the car, and off, our destiny awaits.

The Flyfisherman has decided to change things up this year, and so there’ll be no descent via The Vertical Cliff Face Of Doom, a slight relief, and so we start off across yet more cow paddocks, startling the livestock along the way, warming as we go, spirits lightening, once more looking forward to the sport at hand, visions of our bounty large in our minds, buoyed by yesterday’s catch, men on a mission, that sort of thing.

After a while, across paddocks and down a steep farm track, we hear the river down below, getting louder as we get lower until we can see it through the trees, the only thing between us and it one last, steep, slope, covered in brambles which we navigate on our arses, a controlled slide which has us on the bank in no time. The other four, using fly rods, move downstream a little way to haunt the fast-moving narrow area of the river, while I move upstream, towards our eventual destination, where there are a few deep pools, perfect for a man with a spinner and a jar of live worms.

The Pool
Except I forgot the worms today. No matter, for we’re a resourceful lot, and so I hook up a spinning lure and the day begins in earnest. It’s a tranquil spot – I’m on my own, and if I didn’t know the other four were just around the bend, I could be the only person for miles and miles around. The cliffs, the hills, the trees tower high above me on both sides, the sun seems to have broken through the cloud, but it’s not yet reached a point high enough to penetrate this crevice in which I find myself, and so despite the fact I’m soaked in sweat from the climb down, it’s cold and I put on my rain jacket over my jumper and turn my attention to my quarry.

I sit and cast, hitting all three of the deep pools I’m near, trawling, spinning, crouching so I can’t be seen, over and over again. Not a nibble. I get snagged, and so lose my lure, retie another one, cast and repeat. It seems spinning lures are a poor substitute for live worms, but I persevere. I snag again and so lose my second lure. I’ve only been here for an hour. I have a packet in my bag with two more, but it’s one of those plastic packets you can only open with scissors. I have no scissors.

It’s times like these, when a man is tested, that one must make do with what one has – necessity is, as they say, the mother of invention, so I wander a bit further upstream, wondering what I can do here, thinking that perhaps if I keep wandering, I’ll get to the waterfall and then not have to do any fishing at all. No, a boring option – I also have with me a packet of hooks, so I tie one on. What to use for bait? I think to myself, looking around for something, anything. Nothing.

Another Pool.
Inspiration hits, and I open my pack and rip off a bit of The Editor’s homemade sourdough, ‘bait’ my hook with that, and cast once more. It floats. Not winning here. I reel it in, re-bait with a smaller piece, recast, and it sinks. Not much happens after that. I throw caution to the wind and eventually rip open the plastic packet with my remaining lures – the dance continues.

The Flyfisherman appears, imparts the news that The Waterman has struck – suddenly, the day looks good, he’s snagged a monster too, ended up on his arse in the water, but the Trout has been caught, and once more the thought of The Dinner reemerges, and what a dinner it will surely be.

The rest of them catch up and once more we’re moving ahead of one another, crisscrossing the stream, wet up to our knees, casting and snagging, tangling and cursing, but all to a man intent on the task at hand, which is better than last year, needless to say, and the thought of the ascent come day’s end is on no one’s mind.

We get to a point, after a few hours, that The Flyfisherman says is impassable, and so we must climb out a way, make our way around, before coming back to the river. Grim news, but four of us sit and eat chocolate while The Flyfisherman fishes one last pool, just around the bend from us, before we have to backtrack a little way, climb out a little way, walk around a little way, climb back in. We sit for about 20 minutes – fishing must be good in that pool, one of us remarks, and then there’s a shout. The Flyfisherman, he’s already climbed out, he’s up there, right up there. We have no choice but to follow, and so we do.

The Hill - a very small part.
About 20 minutes later, the five of us sit, high above where we were, not talking, breathing heavily, having just struggled and trudged, grasped and slipped, slid down, heavy feet one after the other, slowly but surely moving upward. We sit and pant, and the clouds have come back and it starts to rain. The Waterman lies on his back with his rain jacket on his face, entertains the idea of climbing out, given we’re already halfway there. I agree. We think about it, but then it’s time to move on, time to find a spot where we can get back to the river, and so off we go – the going looks tough, we’re daunted. The Waterman and I, bringing up the rear, have a quick business meeting… we’re done, we’re leaving, we’ve had enough, we’re climbing out.

We justify it to one another as we begin the trek – yesterday was a full day fishing, today has been a few hours, we’ve both caught a LARGE Trout, fuck it, we’re going home. The rain comes down harder. The other three trudge off, we head upward. It’s not as steep as last year’s ascent, it’s relatively easy going by comparison, but it’s still tough. The undergrowth is thick as shit, rocks and logs and holes underneath, you climb a ridge and then look up, only to see another. We need to head up, but to veer right, so as to avoid a vertical cliff near the top. We tramp through the undergrowth, sweat stinging my eyes, rain running off my face, we’re not sure where we’re going, not really, and we don’t have the emergency beacon – the others have that. Treading carefully.

Three or four ridges, we can see the cliff off to our left. Towering. We need to veer right, away from where we’re going. Hard to see a path. We stop and consider. Then, a sign from heaven, oh joyousness – a wallaby bounding through the trees. We figure if a wallaby can get through there, then we can too. We follow the path, easier going, slowly rising. Another impasse. Another stop to think. Then, again, the wallaby – we slog towards where he was, another path. I see a fence, says The Waterman. And we’ve made it.

We walk along the fenceline, climb over at one point, back across the paddock to the waiting car. Home. We’re done. No more strenuousness. And we caught fish to boot. Almost too good to be true. Pub lunch? suggests The Waterman. Given we’re so wet – it’s raining in earnest now – I suggest we head for HQ, fire up the pig, fry up some bacon and eggs and drink Guinness. The Waterman beams. Who need an emergency beacon?

We return a few hours later, warm and dry, full and sated, to pick up the other three, who we can see (from the comfort of the lookout), far below, tackling The Vertical Cliff Face Of Doom. They’re not long in getting to the top though, and relief abounds as we’re all united, no one has died, things are good. The Flyfisherman has struck again, a good mid-sized number, and so our tally is five, which is three more than last year, and two of them were basically sharks, so a solid haul with which we’re more than happy. The Curse has indeed been broken, we are men, we now own these woods. They are ours.

The Bounty
The evening sees fatigue matter little as beer and whiskey is consumed in perhaps larger quantities than the two nights past, and fish is gutted and stuffed with herbs and put in the fire, potatoes roasting, guitars playing, stories are told and retold, laughter bounces off all four walls as the fish get bigger, the hill gets steeper, the river wider and colder, the wild beasts more numerous, as the whiskey flows, mixing with wine and fresh fish, our bounty and The Dinner.

We pack up the next morning and head home, bright sunshine once more, through small towns, winding roads down through the hills, out the bottom onto the flat, booming down the highway toward home with tales – not tall, all true – of battles and adventures the likes of which will hold any and all in suspense and excitement. Indeed. This year, it was hard. This year, it was tough. This year, we wondered if it was worth it. But this year, we broke The Curse and fished like champions, we proved it could be done, as much to ourselves as anyone else, and we found that river somewhere, a far nicer place than that other river, that river nowhere.

Samuel J. Fell

Friday, 24 May 2013

Record Review - Carrie & The Cut Snakes

Published in the Shortlist section of the Sydney Morning Herald, May 24.

Carrie & The Cut Snakes
Carrie & The Cut Snakes


The most important thing about the debut release from Brisbane country-billy blues band Carrie & The Cut Snakes, is frontwoman Carrie Henschell’s voice. It’s been a while since I’ve heard such a straight forward, honest, Australian vocal – think The Waifs, that accent is unmistakable and here, it lends a solid strain of authenticity to what Henschell is singing about – you really believe her stories, there’s no doubt involved.

And it’s the stories which are the second most important aspect to this album. Drawing on her love of Cash, Parton and Presley, Henschell also brings in some Guthrie in that her songs are so simple, which makes them all the more powerful. Add to this the subtle-yet-strong country/blues instrumentation the Cut Snakes bring, and you’ve got a cracker of a debut record from a real up and comer. Destined for bigger things indeed.

Samuel J. Fell