Following The Leader With Rico McFarland
Ever notice a common thread amongst the likes of: Little Milton, James Cotton, Al Green, Big Time Sarah, Lucky Peterson, and David Sanborn to name a few? They all know the importance of a highly competent backing band. At one time, all the above have benefited from, the esteemed guitarist/singer/songwriter Rico McFarland, playing and/or recording with them. In fact, when it comes to delivering contemporary blues guitar arrangements and licks, they don't come better than McFarland. I recently had the chance to find out what others have known for years about this gracious artist. After performing an exhilarating and explosive set with Lucky Peterson at the Cisco Systems Ottawa Bluesfest, we spoke about his acclaimed career and musical goals.
Thinking back to seeing 5 year-old Lucky on the Tonight Show, Rico recalls, "I saw him on the Johnny Carson show for the first time and my father said you gotta be like this guy, look at this little guy go. I didn't meet up with him until years later (because) I was always on the road." The two shared similar upbringings as blues boy-wonders. Unlike what your science and math teachers taught you, parallel lines can intersect. Rico explains, "Lucky had just got with the Little Milton band when I left (in the early eighties). He had heard about me through Milton. I was playing with a guy named Artie Blues Boy White. (Lucky) came to Chicago to look for me and that's when I met him and we just been friends ever since." Given the exhausting journey he and Lucky's other band members traveled to get to Ottawa, (the previous night they performed in Colorado Springs, CO), I wasn't sure what to expect. I found Rico to be incredibly accommodating and encouraging of his fellow musicians. "You know you get tired of it (traveling all night) but I love what I do. Playing with good guys you like to play with makes it all good especially when everybody vibe together." The ultra modest Rico explains why he has been such an in-demand session man. "I think they really just sit back and listen to stuff that I played on and think I need him on a track. It's pretty much word of mouth or what they hear on record." What kind of guitars are responsible for delivering that infamous McFarland finesse? "For soloing I usually use Telecasters and for my rhythm stuff I use Gibson 335s. That's what I grew up with -- always had a 335. Now it's hard to carry them around because the airports want you to check all your stuff. I like my old guitars so I don't bring them out anymore too much. The 335 is and always will be my favorite blues guitar."
Things began for McFarland in Chicago where his guitar playing father, James, had a band. Little Rico became attracted to music long before his age was in double digits. "Back then it was great. Growing up I had a lot of legends around like Otis Rush and Hubert Sumlin. My father would have these guys back at the house and there would be parties all night til 6 in the morning, everybody would come over and just jam. So that's where I pretty much learned to play the blues. It has changed a lot since I grew up. I grew up playing Howlin Wolf and Jimmy Rogers low down dirty blues. To sell records now you gotta put a little rock edge on it. But you know everything has to change, it can't stay the same." Rico is a multi-gifted musician who started out on drums. He explains how the transition to the six string occurred before he was even old enough to drive. "When I was in Kansas City Red's band, there was a guy named Big Red who played guitar. He now lives in Philadelphia. He really laid it out for me. Big Red used to play slide and he would go into some old stuff and just light it up. I thought I wanna play guitar too -- I'm tired of these drums. Big Red and a guy named Willie Hudson (from his father's band) were big influences on me." While still a young buck of 15, a life-changing event happened as the result of a friendly sibling bet. "My brother and I went down to the 1815 club which used to be owned by Eddie Shaw. He bet me that I couldn't sit in with Otis Rush and I won the bet because I got the house -- everyone pretty much stood up."
After many years as the blues' most sought after guitarist in the studio and on the stage, McFarland is breaking out as a solo act. His many years spent as a follower are now allowing him to flourish as a leader. This is documented on his invigorating initial release "Tired Of Being Alone" on Evidence Music. In talking about his 2001 dynamite debut disc, McFarland gratefully explained, "Jerry Gordon (the disc's executive producer) let me go in and do what I wanted to do. He put his trust in me. He could have said no I want somebody else to produce it because he knows I write a lot of hip-hop and R&B. He wanted a different sound for his label than the other producers he had been using so he mainly wanted me to go in and do it." About the guests that flood the disc, Rico says, "it was payback time. I called everybody and luckily at the time everybody was available to come in and do it for me." The disc contains standards, originals and covers such as a remake of the Joan Osborne hit "What If God Was One Of Us". "Prince did a cover of it and I liked his version a lot better. It was a different version. His was more rockish. I love that song and I always wanted to do it."
McFarland is part of a string of vital artists who are keeping blues alive by infusing new life to the genre. "Blues is taking a backstep right now. Its not on the radio like other stuff. Its only coming on one day a week on the radio. Back in the day you had 7 days of it. I would like it to go back like that where you can turn on the radio and just listen to blues." Critics and the general blues world alike are taking notice. The success of Tired Of Being Alone resulted in a 2002 W.C. Handy Award nomination for Best New Artist Of The Year. "It was great man but I went up against a lot of heavy weights. I didn't win but it was good to be nominated. Otis Taylor won and I can accept that .. he is an older guy as long as it wasn't no younger guys (laughter). It was a great feeling to just come out with the CD and get that nomination, it made my day." Rico McFarland's dedication to the blues will ensure it survives well into the 21st Century. "I'm going to put out some material .. I think people would like. I really want to put more of a hip-hop on the blues to get it out there and get the young kids interested -- that's where I really want to see it go so it could hit radio. I do the Blues In The Schools program with Billy Branch which is good. I love doing it. The kids come in and say 'I don't wanna play no blues' and then they see me play and they want to get into it. They get attracted to the music which is what you want so they will go out and buy records. Lets face it that's what you want." He hopes to have a new CD out next year. "I'm going to have people on it that I didn't have on the last one and I'm going to be doing a lot more singing."
You can find Rico McFarland's bewildering guitar solos on numerous CDs released by everyone from Jimmy Johnson to Carl Weathersby. He has 'gone to school every night' by performing with the likes of James Cotton. Now, as a solo artist, McFarland has everything it takes to soar to new heights and become the new giant of the blues.
This feature originally appeared in Southwest Blues www.southwestblues.com and has been re-printed here by kind permission of the publisher.
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