(This is part Two of an Interview with Watermelon Slim – part one of which was posted yesterday at Blogcritics.)
For a time after you returned from the war you worked as a musician. You had some success with people like Country Joe Macdonald recording some of your songs. What made you turn your back on music as a career at that time? Did you keep playing while you were working your other jobs, or did you stop completely?
When I came back I worked as a lot of things: grunt labourer, forklift operator, political investigator, musician, and small-time criminal among them. I was really learning my craft, and my gigging during the 1970s was sporadic, wherever I could catch on, and I probably played more solo than band gigs over those years. I was listening to all the live and recorded blues I could find, and did sit in with people like John Lee Hooker and Bonnie Raitt — teaser gigs, in retrospect — made my cult item, Merry Airbrakes, in
1973, and eventually produced another cult classic, Richard Phillips's folk record Endangered Species, in 1980.
In the 1980s, I gigged semi-regularly, especially in Oregon in 1984-87, with various groups and people, including the late Canned Heat guitarist, Henry (the Sunflower) Vestine. I tried to establish myself in Europe in 1987 but without any backing, flopped, and was literally smashed up in Amsterdam, both in a fight and a motorcycle-bicycle accident (I was on the bicycle), and returned to the US and started trucking, playing with my Boston/Cambridge group the Old Dogs, including Washtub Robbie, for several years, and sometimes working with my old friend and later producer of Big Shoes to Fill, Boston's top-gun guitarist and all-around bluesman, Chris Stovall Brown. Bruce Bears, "Sax Gordon" Beadle, and David Maxwell were three of the outstanding musicians I worked with in that period of the late 80s-early 90s.
I was mostly inactive from about 1993 to 1998, just woodshedding while trying to keep my little family together. But after quitting a scuffling trucking career for the first time in 1997 to go to graduate school in Oklahoma, I began making the long push towards getting truly on the musical radar screen. I'm a very late-blooming musician, and I'm a scads better guitarist, in particular, than when I was doing my first Fried Okra Jones gigs around Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 1998.
So I've never really given up the idea of making my living as a professional musician. Cursed myself for following a dream until I was battered and half-toothless, sometimes. But after three-plus decades I have achieved some degree of mastery over my own styles, and I think that and my age are why people are taking me seriously now. And, I've lived what I play and sing. Not everybody in the blues can really say that today.
While we're on the subject of music, you are credited with being involved with writing a majority of the songs and Michael Newbury with their arrangement. When you write a song for the group do you come up with the lyrics and then all of you contribute to the music in rehearsal, or do you and Michael hand out charts for each of the parts?
I do hand out some charts when we're first learning new songs, but we don't use 'em very long — the guys are quick studies. Michael Newberry often determines the beats and tempos, and is usually the lead man on putting together beginnings and endings. He also plays guitar, so he can pass on helpful input to Cliff Belcher, the bass player, and Ronnie Mac McMullen, on guitar. But everyone contributes creative input, both in arranging and song writing. Michael so far has been my main song-writing partner, and Ronnie Mac has a couple of numbers that may appear on our next studio release.
Would you say that there has been any one musician who has had a significant influence on your music? What was it about him, her, or them that inspired you?
No. too many to pin it down to one, or ten. But John Lee Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy, Howlin Wolf, Junior Wells, Charlie Musselwhite, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield, Chris Stovall Brown, my only real hero from my own generation (Musselwhite was born during WW II, not after), Ry Cooder, and my mentor, Earring George Mayweather — only Brown, Cotton, Cooder, and Musselwhite survive — hold some of the highest spots. I've gotten vocal influence from literally hundreds of people, including Oregon soul-singer/harp player Curtis Salgado. Some of these play guitar, some harp, but all have been an influence to me — I've watched and played with Brown and Mayweather more than any of the others — in overall showmanship. Robert Cray has been something of an influence in song writing; he's one of the best of the last 20 years. William Shakespeare might be my greatest overall influence as a poet.
Where does the music come from for you? Do you sit down with intent and write or do songs just come to you like bolts of lightning?
Remember, I'm a trained poet, journalist and all-around writer. I live, therefore I write. I am a trained observer and phenomenologist. My writing "axe" is well known to be much stronger than any instrument I play. I have no problem sitting down and writing songs, when the necessity hits me, in minutes. Sometimes, though, songs percolate within me for years, such as "Blue Freightliner", from my 2004 CD Up Close and Personal. I didn't record the song until 11 years after a couple of verses came out of me while I was driving a semi westbound through Memphis in 1993. Sometimes — more often in the last 4-5 years — the music, or just a riff, come to me first, but most of my songs were text before they became music.
In my review I compared you to Woody Guthrie because of your ability to sing about and depict the life of people who do the type of work you used to do; working in a sawmill, hauling industrial waste, etc. Is that something you've strove to do – giving voice to the lives of people who nobody ever really thinks about?
Yes, that's a valid way of looking at my musical development. I have a song called "Winners of Us All" that I will release on one CD or another soon that deals with exactly that issue. One verse reads:
"And I'm sitting in this dirty old dumpster rig
writing/Knowing the chance you'll ever hear me is
small,/But I'm doing it for everybody who don't draw
that bottom line/And I'm hoping one day to make winners
of us all."
I know the Guthries, by the way. I played for Arlo's sister Nora at my appearance, with Pete Seeger, Barbara Dane, and other peace-activist musicians, in the teeth of the Iraq invasion of 2003, at the Vietnam Songbook, in New York City's Joe's Pub, on March 1. I hung around Alice's Restaurant a few times as a schoolboy in 1968. And I have lectured on Woody Guthrie in an Oklahoma History class in which I was a teaching assistant in 1999. My best friend in high school, Josh Bauman, was a neighbour and best friend with the Guthries in Stockbridge.
Arlo and I are, indeed, two musicians who were making protest music during the Vietnam War, and now speak truth to power during our even more disastrous misadventure in Iraq. If you run across him, give him "dap" and solidarity from me!
In your bio it says that it took a near fatal heart attack to get you to return to the music business. How did one lead to the other? Most people have a heart attack and settle down to a more sedate life but you went the opposite route and chose to start working at one of the most demanding jobs, a touring musician. Doesn't that ever strike you as perhaps a little odd?
I had already released my 2001 self-release, Fried Okra Jones, and my first (2002) Southern Records release, Big Shoes to Fill, by the time I had my heart attack in November of 2002. I was a full-time trucker, and continued to do that into 2004, but I was already working on my current phase of career development. So I would say, rather than changing my path, it just made me focus. It's not a bit odd, for a person who, though well educated, has always used his extraordinary physical endurance as a main calling card.
We must all die, and I just finally got the idea that it might be any time now. My songs "Immortal", on Big Shoes to Fill, and "The Last Blues" and "Got My Will Made
Out" from Up Close And Personal, most directly reflect this development in my consciousness.
I actually asked this question to Arlo Guthrie, but both of you are in the unique position of having been singers during the Vietnam war and now during the occupation of Iraq. What are the major differences that you see between the United States then and now? For example what have been reactions like to the line about spending a son on a war you don't see a reason for?
As I tell people, when I came back from Vietnam, it became my hope that what I had done as a soldier, and afterwards as one of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW; I'm a proud Life Member, and Oklahoma VVAW contact person), would save some others from subsequent generations from fighting and dying in other useless and misdirected foreign wars.
It didn't work out that way. My generation — some of us, anyway — wanted to "..change the world, rearrange the world," as CSNY sang. But America mostly didn't listen.
We are making the same shortsighted, provincial, naive mistakes we made then. America cannot be the world's policeman, even if we are the only nation that can project overwhelming military force anywhere on the globe.
As the historian and social critic George Santayana said in 1919, those who refuse to learn from the mistakes of history are committed to relive them.
Oh yeah the obligatory stupid final question to ask a musician – what are your upcoming plans – swimming the English Channel or playing some Blues?
I am a strong swimmer, but I shall not be swimming anything like that anytime soon, he he. I have a friend, fellow VVAW Billy X. Curmano, who swam the entire Mississippi River, Minnesota to New Orleans!
We just made a live Workers DVD 4 nights ago in Clarksdale, with guest stars Big George Brock, Charlie Musselwhite, and Jimbo Mathus. Jimbo has become a semi-regular guest in Watermelon Slim and the Workers' gigs. I will be recording a country-blues CD with Mississippi Blues man Robert "Nighthawk", "the Gearshifter", Belfour this year. And the Workers will make another studio CD this year also, which may include Ry Cooder or Willie Nelson. Add 135-150 gigs this year, and we are busy as hell!
I can't remember who it was, but there was some musician that used to call himself the hardest working musician in music. Well it's a damn good thing he never said anything like that around Slim and the Workers. They play a gig every third night, spend weeks in the studio, and do stuff like exchange emails with guys like me answering questions they must be getting sick of.
We left out some of the more oft repeated questions (so if you want to find out why the name Watermelon Slim, go to his website. But if you really want to get to know the man, buy his music. What you hear is truly what you get.