FROM THe DELTA TO MUSCLE SHOALS
John Lee Hooker once said that the blues “tells a story.”
“Every line of the blues has a meaning,” explained Hooker, who had escaped his fate as a sharecropper in the harsh Mississippi Delta by electrifying the blues and telling his own story.
I can relate to Hooker. I, too, was born in the Mississippi Delta, at a hospital in B.B. King’s hometown of Indianola to be exact. My mother tells me that the hospital nurses rocked me to sleep by singing the blues. I don’t know if that’s true, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The Delta was full of blues, and while growing up there, I became painfully aware that the source of that mournful, soulful-but-sad music, still lived in the soil, moved in the air and rose in the heat of that flatland.
I never wanted to stay in the Delta. As a young man, I wrote songs about leaving. I was always waiting for someone or something to take me away. In hindsight, I was, in fact, living through the Delta blues.
The closest I came to escaping the Delta to sing my songs for a living was when I met Norbert Putnam. I was probably 16, and I had five original songs and a lot of bad habits. Norbert, a producer of platinum records from the likes of Joan Baez, Jimmy Buffett and Dan Folgelberg, had landed in the Delta on his own musical journey, and our worlds collided. He recorded those songs of mine, and for a few years I thought he was that “someone” who would take me away. Ironically, Norbert actually became the man who brought me back.
I left the Delta at 21 years old. But I didn’t escape to sing my songs. I ran away … from everything, including my songs. I wound up in the mountains of Colorado, a landscape stark in contrast to anything I’d ever known. I must have needed the mountains, which rose and fell like pulses from my beating heart, to feel as if I was extricating myself from a life I was leaving behind. I quit writing songs, and got lost inside of mountains. Colorado was wild, with wild girls and wild places. I fell in love, maybe for the first time, and then lost that love when my wild girl left me behind for an even wilder place called Alaska. I became a climber, spending as much time as I could with air beneath me, letting the thrill of exposure replace the bad habits of my past. And eventually I started writing again …
For the first four years of my writing career, I didn’t write songs. I penned pieces about climbing while working full-time as an editor and journalist for a climbing magazine. But I was telling stories and it wasn’t long before those stories became songs again.
Once the floodgates were open, there was nothing I could do. The stories practically told themselves and I was a slave to their inexorable presence. So I began sending the songs to the first person that took the time to listen years before.
Norbert’s journey had led him back to where it all began, at the place of his birth in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. When he suggested that we capture my new stories in the soul capital of the world, it felt right. So for the first time in nearly a decade, I packed my guitar and traveled south.
We spent two days in a studio aptly named the Nutthouse, and Norbert brought together a group of players that had all started their journeys in that southern music mecca fed by the Tennessee River, known as the Shoals. There was Randy McCormick on keys, a player you may not have heard of but someone you’ve definitely heard. I mean, who hasn’t rocked to the piano-riff intro on Bob Seager’s Old Time Rock ‘n Roll? A drummer by the name of Milton Sledge kept us in time, just like he has for Garth Brooks during the past 15 years. The bottom end was held down by three of the most influential bass players in American music, including Bob Wray (who made three records with Ray Charles and toured with the Highwaymen), David Hood (known as the bass player for the Swampers—the renowned Muscle Shoals rhythm section) and Norbert Putnam (Elvis Presley’s bassist and half of the rhythm section of more hit records than you can count).
Pat Buchanan, a Nashville guitar slinger originally from Tom Petty’s home town of Gainesville, Florida, finally had his chance to see the humble beginnings of where his idol, Duane Allman, began playing the slide guitar that forever changed the world. Pat often lost himself during his slide solos on this record, apologizing afterwards with a simple explanation: “I saw a picture of Duane this morning. I’m sorry.”
Billy Gibson, a Mississippi boy turned Memphis bluesman, steps out on this record with his harmonica, leaving his stamp with solos that call back to the Delta, and bridge the past of the “Mississippi saxophone” with the modern virtuosity of a true master.
What we captured during those two days recording live in the Nutthouse are my stories, brought to life by Norbert Putnam and the musical souls of Muscle Shoals. And like Hooker said, every line has a meaning.
When people ask me what my music sounds like, I often struggle to find an answer, and embark on a long-winded explanation about what it’s not. But now, I have these stories, captured on this record. So maybe what I should tell them is what my music is … Delta Blues.