"An Intimate Evening With Rory Block"
I had the good fortune to see Rory Block at several different venues this year. Each performance was more than just a typical concert event, it was a deeply profound experience. She takes you on an acoustic journey through the Mississippi Delta, authenticating the sound of original country blues with irrepressible tenacity. At every venue, Rory performed traditional blues with soulful exuberance and her own material with emotional purity. Displaying her proficiency as a master blues guitarist, sent many jaws hitting the floor, while consistently giving the audience an evening to remember. I believe her greatest and most moving performance by far, took place Saturday night at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington, Ma., an evening I will never forget. Rory has this special gift, an ability to touch her audience on a very personal level. It feels as though your sharing a private connection together, like she's performing just for you. Rory definitely connected with this standing room only, sell-out crowd of dedicated fans and newcomers, all buzzing with heightened anticipation for her arrival. Suddenly a thunderous applause erupted as she entered the room. Everyone jumped to their feet clapping and cheering as Rory made her way towards the stage. The crowd was totally captivated by her stunning appearance, all dressed in black from her leather boots, jeans and silk blouse, beautifully accented by a shimmering turquoise and blue oval belt buckle with matching bracelets. Her stage presence, like a warm glow seemed to radiate throughout the entire venue.
After thanking the crowd, she sat down and reached for her guitar. Complete silence covered the room like a blanket, then she ripped into her opening number, a powerful performance of "Preachin' Blues". Her passionate vocals and blazing fretwork, grabbed everyones attention, leaving them totally spellbound. She spoke about Son House and her sincere love and admiration for this legendary bluesmaster. Rory continued her tribute with "Country Farm Blues", giving another fiery performance with a sizzling slide attack, as if possessed by the master himself. She also gave a major nod to Robert Johnson, performing, "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day", "Terraplane Blues" and my personal favorite, "Come On In My Kitchen". The physical intensity of Rory's blazing slide technique and distinctive fingerpicking precision on these Johnson classics was palpable. Her leg in constant motion with her foot stomping a steady beat. She rocked back and forth, her eyes closed and her head tilted back, completely enthralled in the music that was flowing from a place deep within. Her vocal range would settle into a low, soft tone, then soar straight up into a cumulus octave. She played several selections off her latest release, Last Fair Deal. Just before performing "Amazing Grace", she explained how it was recorded, while changing the tuning on her guitar. Rory played a beautiful version, articulating the many layers of tone and depth, sounding slightly unique, yet very similar to the original recording. Re-tuning her guitar, she talked about the song "Declare", inspired by the book of Job and how it still applies today. She performed this gospel tune with such infectious enthusiasm, it energized the audience to started singing the chorus right along with her. Rory was genuinely taken back by the rousing applause, as everyone remained standing, hoping she'd sing it one more time. Changing direction, Rory presented several of her original songs, starting with "Lovin' Whiskey", "Gypsy Boy", "Like A Shotgun", and "Spider Boy". I've heard these songs many times, but nothing in comparison to the way she played them tonight, with such heartfelt emotion, my eyes filled with tears. After a quick glance around the room, it appeared I wasn't the only one reaching for some Kleenex. There was a determination, a purpose being expressed here with an introspective sensitivity I've never witnessed before. The sentiment behind each song touched the human condition from tenderness to heartache. Everyone in attendance was clearly affected by the music and the meaning of the lyrics.
She wrapped up the evening with some traditional blues favorites, performing "Joliet Bound" and "Canned Heat", before saying goodnight. For an encore, Rory performed "Mama's Blues" then took a request from the crowd. It was a beautiful performance of, "The Water is Wide", a dedication to her Mother. Rory received a boisterous standing ovation which seemed to last indefinitely. A major outpouring of love and affection was given to this legendary blueswoman, who clearly wanted to continue, but was limited by time restraints. This was truly an up close and personal evening with a national treasure, one of the greatest acoustic country blues artists of our time. An opportunity to witness the pure genius of Rory Block is something I highly recommend. Rory Block is one artist who won't disappoint, in fact, you might just find yourself returning to see her again and again.
The Heart And Soul Of Acoustic Country Blues
The Rory Block Interview
When it comes to traditional acoustic country blues, Rory Block is truly a national treasure, the most quintessential artist of our time. With the exception of the masters themselves, she's become a leading authority of the genre itself, and has earned the title of legendary blueswoman. Rory Block is an artist of integrity, a loving, gentle soul, who's down to earth with everyone she meets. She's highly respected amongst her peers and throughtout the music industry for her steadfast dedication in representing traditional delta blues and it's rich history. Her personal dedication to the human spirit and genuine desire to make a difference, is widely admired with sincere affection by a multitude of blues enthusiasts worldwide. Rory took time from her tour to talk with me about her creative process, acoustic country blues, and her new CD, Last Fair Deal. It was a great honor for me, being the very first time Rory ever played her guitar during an interview. My sincere thanks to Rory, for such a memorable gift. We talked together like two old friends catching up with one another. Neither of us concerned with the time, our conversation lasted close to three hours. After initially discussing the mutual love we share for our dogs, we finally got down to business.
PD: "Last Fair Deal, is an impressive CD, a brilliant recording. Can you tell me a little about the process when starting a recording like this?"
RB: "I'm a person who loves having a project, I love my live shows, cause they're a project unto themselves. I love having a recording date, having something that someone has asked me to write for them, it really gets me all excited, you know, I get inspired. So, when I realized I was gonna be making a record for Telarc, or even when making one of my many albums in the past for Rounder, I get all focused on it. I begin getting a sort of heightened level of creative energy. Now that recording is all done on computers, it's very easy to have your home studio. I've had that situation for years, but you know, it sort of seems like everybody else has that situation too, everyone understands, laptops can make great records. So, we have our studio in the house and in the tour bus as well, it's portable and it's small so I just begin writing. Rob my engineer has everything set up, anytime the desire comes to me, say to record a riff, or a creative concept, he's right there to record it, that's really how it all begins. What we've done now, since there's been such a enthusiastic feeling about this new record, is we've decided we're not even gonna stop. We're gonna continue right on through till there's an entirely new record created, we're gonna stay on that heightened level of creativity as if there's this endless project. What I sometimes do is, I'll record a snippet of an idea that comes to me, now that I practice. I said in my liner notes on the CD and on my web site, and when anybody asks, that I had a real practice issue in the past. Where I just didn't play the guitar whatsoever when I'm not on the road. But, I'm really changing that, I feel a greater responsibility to be a better guitar player. It's not like anyone ever said to me you really need to practice or your not really sounding good."
PD: "I can't imagine anyone telling you that."
RB: "That's not so much the issue, what I really feel is that I needed to go further, I wanted to go further. I knew Michael Hedges on a tour before he passed away, he gave me tremendous confidence as did a number of others. But specifically, he did, by telling me some extremely supportive things about my guitar playing. Everybody was suppose to do a solo and a group song together or two or three, at the end of our guitar summit tour, featuring four different guitar players, he was one and I was one." "He said, "You can do it." I said, "I can't, I don't know how to solo." Then he said, "Your the reason I came on this tour, I know what you can do." I thought to myself, wow, Michael Hedges thinks I'm a good guitar player. These things began to sink in, and I thought, I need to get beyond this feeling of anxiety. I need to conquer that feeling, I need to push past it. People are telling me what a good guitar player I am, I don't think I am, but they're saying this to me. Maybe I can really make myself think I am, if I go further. Then I began trying to master the slide, which took me forever. Now I feel I have a handle on it."
PD: "I'm still working on that one myself."
RB: "It's really a Zen thing, you know, where you find the way to make it just get into the pocket. But, for five years, I couldn't get it, and then all of a sudden, I found a way. So, back to the practice issue, all of a sudden I decided, your gonna do this, your gonna master this, your gonna get better, your gonna be able to do solos, your gonna feel good about how to play your slide, and that brought me to this feeling of getting to the next level. This is the intended statement with Last Fair Deal, that I can go further with the guitar, this is exactly what I wanted to do with this CD."
PD: "Choosing the original material for Last Fair Deal, did you begin with a specific theme or begin with specific tunings, and harmonies?"
RB: "I'm definitely an experimentation type of artist, where I get an idea, sometimes playing, or practicing these days. Then I go, "Oh, I'm gonna record this, this sounds very nice!" So, Rob will record that for me and I'll leave it there. Then he'll give me a little CD of it, and I'll drive around and listen to it. That's often how I do it, I listen and say, that goes somewhere, let me see if I can continue that. I'll get little snippets of inspiration often times, other times I'll sit there and start figuring out an entire concept for a song. I have to record that fast so I don't forget it. Either way I'm sort of at the mercy of whatever recording capability is nearby because I will forget it. Since I don't write music, I'm not gonna be able to write a chart out, write the timing and the chords, you know, so I have to record it soon. That's why it's always good the computer is right nearby so as not to lose the idea."
PD: "Did you know which Robert Johnson and Son House songs you wanted on Last Fair Deal?"
RB: "It's all very last minute, because I really am a person who tends to be spontaneous and last minute about a lot of things. What I do is go, OK....there's this project coming up, and I start playing the guitar. I get some ideas and say, great...let's record this, then listen to some old Robert Johnson CD's, some old blues stuff, and see if something strikes me. It's that last minute thing where I go, oh, this one's the one, this sounds right, this is one I haven't done before, I'd love to do this one. So, right away we go and start working on it. I have a long list of material I'd like to do, in advance probably not. I've done that in the past, put together lists of collected material ready to use. Now, it's getting more and more where I can decide to do it on the spur of the moment because of the set up and the recording capability being right there. These days I'm thinking I'm just gonna create this new record, one song at a time, as I feel in the mood.
PD: "In the liner notes of "Cry Out Loud", you mentioned you were looking for a specific song, and came across this one. Do you have a sizable collection of original material to tap into?"
RB: "I wouldn't say sizable, maybe there's 10 songs sitting there I've already written and haven't yet put on albums. In any given project, if I'm writing and recording, I used to put everything onto a Sony Walkman. You don't get a chance to do them all, you might have maybe two songs left over per project, you would have done if you had the time, the space or the money. You know, you ran out of budget, you ran out of time, but, you ended up having enough songs. There's always a couple I leave off and save somewhere, maybe not in a very organized way, maybe it's in a drawer of cassettes and I lose track of where it is. There could be new songs which I unexpectedly write at the last minute and add to the project, that happens all the time. So, I do have this backlog of what could be my own interesting material, for me. It could be stuff that I would later say, hey this is worthy, and wonder why I didn't do that one. The reason would simply be, I didn't get a chance, not that I nixed it because it wasn't working. That's something I've heard other artists talk about a lot. You weed through, you try stuff, and if it isn't working you don't put it on. That's happened to me, of course, but, more often I just don't get to it.
PD: "Did you eventually find the initial song you were looking for?"
RB: "No... and that's something I'm thinking a lot about right now. I'm thinking I've got to locate that, because I want to do it on the next record."
PD: "Gone Again" is a fantastic tune, did this become an absolute opening track for you?"
RB: "You know...I was just playing that, I was making sure that I could do these things live. I'm just gonna do a tiny bit of the intro for you, OK, just for fun?" (Rory plays a minute of the intro for me) (Laughing) "It's so much fun!" "You know, cause first I did it as an instrumental, and I had the whole song sounding very nice. I was very excited about the different rhythms and the hard driving precision of the notes, it all came together for me in a nice way. Then I thought, you know, I have enough CD's out there where the beginning is some kind of an improv. I need to take this away from an instrumental opening, like my last three albums, let's just say. Gone Woman Blues was an instrumental opening, I'm Every Woman had an instrumental opening, I thought we need to do something different. So, I decided to add the Harley stuff on top, which seemed to work. I was really worried when I played it for the record company who had heard it without anything but guitar. Worried they would hate it and say, what have you done, you've destroyed this song. But, they didn't say any of that, they loved it. I was concerned because it did stand nicely on its own, it's just, I knew it had to be the first song on the record and I didn't want it to be an instrumental. I didn't want to have the same mood begin an album that I'd already used before. I also enjoyed being able to sort of echo some of the trucker energy, you know, the truckers are cool. Your rolling down the road with the CB on, you see a brake light in the distance and then you'll hear, "Back 'er down boys, back 'er down!" It's sort of nice to be able to find a way to show some of the interesting stuff they do, that informs you when your on the road.
PD: "There are so many different layers to "Amazing Grace", will this be a difficult song to perform on tour?"
RB: "It would be, if I wanted to do everything exactly the same, but I've done it for awhile now in my live shows. It has an element of newness and spontaneity each time. In other words, I gave up the idea of trying to recreate the exact sequence of notes that's on the record. This is the first interview where I've had the guitar in my hands, I'm tempted to go to the right tuning and give you an example. Let me play you a tiny little bit here, right now. I'll give you an example of why it can be different every time, and still sound like the same concept. (Rory played a section of "Amazing Grace", using her slide) See, that was totally different than what I did on the record, but it still has the same energy."
PD: "I heard and felt the same energy, with just a subtle difference."
RB: "So, I just make it up as I go along using certain constraints like where the melody is, where the different chords are, where I ultimately have to end up, it's very free form. I've been enjoying doing it a different way each time and it still comes out OK."
PD: "Any songs from Last Fair Deal you find more challenging during a live performance?"
RB: "Yes, I wanted to be sure I was able to represent each one live. Otherwise, it just doesn't equal the energy of the record, if you can't then take it and do it live. There are certain records that I've done, where I leave certain songs alone, and I have a reason. Let's say, a song is just so emotionally intense that it's something I tend to avoid. Because of the large volume of emotionally intense songs with emotionally intense subjects I do write about, I can't really avoid these songs. So, that's something I've sort of had to deal with. In terms of something lets say, where I tune to a wild tuning, then later on, can't figure out what it was, that was the case with "Awesome Love". I just don't know what tuning that was in, it was so spontaneous we're gonna leave that one alone. Every other tune, I have a real motivation now to be able to do each and every one live. "Gone Again" I've never done live, but I can, I have it prepared. "Sookie Sookie", is a real tough one, and I'm working on it all the time. I think I've gotten it to where I can pull it off. The reason it's so tough is, I started with layer number one, which was, here on the guitar. You are the one and only person I've ever done this with, it's one way to explain the detail with "Sookie Sookie".
PD: " Rory, wow, this is quite an honor...thank you so much!"
RB: (chuckle) "I started out with this little bass line idea, I went like this..."(Rory plays the bass line of "Sookie Sookie). "I just did that for the whole song, just that bass line, then I came along with another part, another tuning capoed at another position. I added a texture and then I came along and did...."( played another section of the song) "I did those things so now, I have to put those things into one part, that's the challenge. With "Sookie Sookie", it was harder as was "Last Fair Deal", but I'm getting it and that's the exciting part. Every morning I come down and leave my guitar out. If I don't leave it out by the kitchen table, I won't remember to play it. So, it's sitting out in it's stand, the same stand we use on stage, right there by my plate." "I pick it up and try to combine those two parts like this......"(playing the bass line and finger picking the melody of "Sookie Sookie"). "I try to combine it, the lead and the rhythm together, that's what I'm working on. I feel excited about the fact that it seems to be coming together." "Last Fair Deal, was another challenge in that same way, because I also did the slide part on top of a couple of different rhythm layers. That's what really makes it meaningful, if I can bring it together the way I wrote it in the studio, still has total validity. Which, is to do different parts if I so choose, you know, put a second part on, put a lead line on it, absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's great, its sort of building a track, then I have to consolidate it and do it live. Otherwise it's not as meaningful for me in a live show to leave that song out. So I have a version of "Sookie Sookie" which I've got, and I've also got "County Farm Blues". I had that down early on, so that's a joy to do live. "Last Fair Deal", I have yet to try live, I'm going to do it. "Declare", I have a pretty good version I'm very comfortable with, people really have a great reaction to it in live shows. "Cry Out Loud", I can do, "Amazing Grace", I love doing, and "Traveling Riverside Blues", I have a version and performed it live. "Mama's Stray Baby", that's gonna be a tough one, I'm working on it. "Two Places at a Table", I already do in live shows and I love that one.
PD: "I was at your show back in March, and loved your performance of "Two Places at a Table", it was very moving. I tell everyone, "You can't appreciate this woman enough, until you go and see her in person."
RB: "See, that's exactly how I would want it to be, I would rather be better in live performance then someone expects me to be. With a live show, the set up is the same at every venue, so nothing is distracting me anymore. It used to be in the past, the unknowns of each different venue would be variable and be distracting sometimes. You'd get a sound system that was so unfamiliar you just wouldn't be able to hear yourself correctly. That's been eliminated by Rob who has put together a sound system we now carry with us. It's really very freeing for me now that I have the same monitors every night. Rob takes care of everything so I have my familiar set up, I don't have to worry about distractions. I really find myself able to apply my energy to the show more. I've noticed that when things are distracting me with the sound system or other things are going on, I lose focus and I can't be quite as directed, I can't be as good. Now that gets reduced or eliminated by having Rob keeping it consistent."
PD: "I imagine it's a great feeling, having the freedom to focus all your energy on what your trying to accomplish at each performance."
RB: "Yes, well...let me reveal something extremely personal. I've only said it one or two times ever in an interview and I may not have said it in the same way that I'll say it now. We truly are on a mission, which doesn't mean we're like these crazy people. It just means, before we go on stage every night, we just focus together on wanting to help somebody. It's not about anything outward, it's about touching another human being. You know, in a way where they might go home with a ray of hope, that they're not alone. I know I write songs about things that make other people feel personally involved, because they tell me at the end of the shows. They'll say, this song saved my life, or thank you for writing this song, it got me through the hardest time. Often times I hear, "I'm your number one fan.", then they'll cry. Not at all because of me, but because they don't feel alone. It's knowing that somebody else dealt with the same situation, they thought was going to overwhelm them. They get some hope, knowing that my dear friend Ron died of cancer and I wrote a song about it. They'll come up crying and say, "You know, I just lost my Dad and that song just made me cry, thank you." OK, well that person feels better because of something, or the lady who said, "I heard you sing, "Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down", and I decided I wasn't gonna die of cancer." I tell that story to people, you've probably heard me tell it. Other people come up and say, "You know what, I have cancer too, and I'm inspired by that woman's story, I'm gonna put in a good fight." I think to myself, this is why I do this, it's not about how many records I might or might not sell. Sure, that increases your visibility and helps you help more people, let's just say. It's truly about the personal, intimate connection with a group of people, who are kind enough to spend their hard earned money to come out to hear a show. I'm gonna give them everything I can as a human being, to touch them in a way that would be helpful, that's our mission. The music is a vehicle, the music is a joy for me and hopefully it will give somebody else joy, but it's a vehicle for sharing the human experience. At some point along the line, I decided to give up my fear about singing personal songs and writing them, because I used to be afraid. I would say, "Love and Whiskey" is too personal, I shouldn't sing it. Then I realized, wait a minute, we're all in this thing together, we're all having these kinds of experiences. Nobody can tell a deep story about their personal experience, where someone else won't resonate or understand, chances are many people will. I began saying, I have nothing to be ashamed of, I'm just another human being and we're sharing this experience. I might as well do this, because I know I'm just like everyone else out there. You know, slogging through, doing my best trying to understand, so, why not share that. It's been from that point onwards, where I felt like things really came together. I guess because that's my special focus, or that's what I do. I want to make it clear that I don't think it's me, I feel like it's a privilege to be able to be a performer and have people come to your shows. That's a tremendous privilege and without people coming to your shows you can't have a career. So, I one hundred percent thank the people who come out, this is a privilege it's not something I ever want to abuse. I sort of feel like I'm being a good and faithful servant, if you want to put it that way, I want to be used to help other people. I don't think like oh, I'm this important entity, it's me, I really set that aside. Let me emphasize again, I really set that aside.
PD: " I see it as mutual sharing, a hopeful, uplifting thread that runs between you and your audience. Your not someone who's distant as a performer, in fact quite the opposite. There's this universal understanding out there, people know your genuine, down to earth, and just like the rest of us."
RB: " Oh good, because it's not at all about me. I want people to believe I'm just like everyone else. Sometimes without stories, without words even, a song like say "Amazing Grace", the guitar playing, the music itself, has the ability to touch, heal and comfort people. That's one of the things I feel strongly about, why I want my guitar playing to grow. Listening to the music, the harmony, all those good things, even without words, just the harmonic quality of music has that ability. The more my guitar playing does what I want, the more I can reach out with the harmonics of the music itself. I feel it's also a part of how this all comes together, the harmonic beauty of music. So, I'm trying to tap into that higher level, you know, the harmonic healing capability of music.
PD: "There was a definite gospel influence to Last Fair Deal, are you leaning more towards the gospel side of blues?"
RB: "I think I am, I think it just took the right place in this record, it settled in without fighting anything. Everything is sort of related, the energy, and the message overall, is very compatible with this record. This is the most gospel I've done on one CD, in the past it was say, only one per CD. I've been doing that for years, you know, enough where I could collect everything, all the different gospel tunes on the Rounder CD's, and make a nice gospel compilation or collection at some point. With this one, I don't know how many, maybe three or four, it automatically took a larger portion of the overall presentation then it ever has before. I don't know what the next record will be like, but I do sometimes think, well why don't I do just a straight out gospel record. Then I think, yeah, but it's so interesting to connect the dots of the different styles of music, in particular blues.
PD: "The gospel selections blended together beautifully on Last Fair Deal, a very positive and uplifting feeling throughout the CD.
RB: "Thank you, already the pressure is on. The record company is excited about the next record, including the production company that initially approached me to sign with them. They're a really good company who keeps their ear to the ground, watches what's going on, and approaches artists if they like them. That's how this whole deal with Telarc came about, through this other production company called Deludge Entertainment. They're talking with me about the new record and so there's obviously a high expectation. I can't just do something less interesting, and I can't do something as interesting, I have to do something "more" interesting (chuckle), so, I feel like it better be good."
PD: "I'm Every Woman, was certainly a pleasant surprise. Like coloring outside of the lines, the focus being R&B. Any thoughts about recording more R&B in the future?"
RB: "I would love to, but I think my fans right now, are really excited about the acoustic stuff. Believe me, I would "love" to do a whole record of Motown, but in an unusual way of course, I'd probably put slide on every song. I love to sing those songs, like "totally love" to do them. Someday I will when there's an opportunity or I decide to do that. I think the energy for what people want to hear right now is truly focused on what I'm gonna do with my largely acoustic approach.
PD: "Listening to I'm Every Woman, it sounded like you were such a great time. You know, just having fun, singing with the other artists."
RB: "Oh, I was, it was very exciting, I was having the time of my life.
PD: "It must feel great being able to kick back, without all the expectations your dealing with now."
RB: "Actually there was some pressure behind the scenes, because Rounder wanted me to make an all duet album. I sort of fought them a little for the first time in the history of my long and wonderful friendship with Rounder, I love them so much. They were saying let's make a duet CD, cause they knew duet CD's have a sort of hitch to them. People like them, it's a catch which might get it to sell. But, in my rebellious nature, I decided I couldn't just do something that was advisable for me to do. I had to give it a real twist, I just couldn't have it be the expected. So, I sort of crawled off into my own space and handed them this record which was 50% of what they asked for and the other 50% were surprises. You know they loved it, but, at the same time, I am a rebellious spirit, and have to do things in my own way. You know, for no good reason, probably resisted if I know I'm expected to do something. Unless, it's a project where I'm being hired and someone asks if I can write a song that does this. I love that too, it's a whole other side, make it be what they want it to be, but still make it my thing. Someone who promotes for radio, a good friend of mine once said about another artist, "she always does everything backwards, spins the ball backwards from what the music business would expect, and it works for her". I thought, you know that kinda goes for me too, that's truly what I like to do. After all, who knew that blues or country blues, especially country blues, would ever have any position of respect in the music industry. Certainly no evidence of that for years and years, in the years I've been doing this. There was nothing but discouragement and criticism. Who knew I would just keep going, and sooner or later there would be blues awards, blues awareness, and blues societies. Those things weren't happening when I was first starting out, and for the longest time there was no indication whatsoever. Yet, whether through personal stupidity on my part, or the inability to come up with something else, I kept doing it.
PD: "You stayed true to yourself and the style of music you love. You didn't waiver or allow the industry to change or mold you into someone your not. Traditional country blues is something that's in your blood and fit you like a glove from the very beginning."
RB: "I want to do unusual stuff, I want it to be as absolutely creative and as high quality as I can possibly make it. I want to bring everything I've been given, to bear on everything I do, to the best of my ability. I've always said, everybody is unbelievably unique, everyone has talents that nobody else on Earth has. Everyone can be something completely special and valuable, that's how I approach it. I say, this is what I'm given and this is what I have to work with. Let me take it and enhance it to the very best of my ability, then I'll be doing what I'm meant to do. I actually got that perspective after my son died, to bring up something that's, you know, a very difficult subject. I was speaking with someone who recently lost their mother to cervical cancer. Explaining, it's OK to feel angry, it's normal for you to go through that and say there's nothing meaningful out there, you know, just feel like this is unfair. I explained, you can feel that way, but ultimately down the line, what you come up with is, OK, there's only one chance. There's really only one go 'round here, and there's special things that each of us are given. So, I'll say, let me take the things that I've been given, these abilities however humble, however off the beaten track, however different from what sells in a particular day and age, and magnify it to the best of my ability. That will be what I can do in this place while I'm here. That's helped my mission focus, believe it or not, with something so tragic and horrible. First I went into the anger and despair, then into a deep depression after my son died. I went into that feeling of, you know, maybe I just want to die so I can be with him. Which many people feel when they lose somebody terribly close to them. Then, I came out of that, maybe I should just end it to be with that person stage, and said no. I'm not going to understand it all right now, I just have to take what I'm given. You know, do the best job I can while I'm here, then later on I'll understand it. It would be wrong for me not to take what I have, while I have this opportunity in this place, and make something out of it. That still lingers to this day, even though it was back in 1986. That focus and drive has lingered, to really be the fire behind what I do now.
PD: "You play with such intensity, besides breaking a string now and then, how does the instrument hold up?" "Is there a shelf-life, so to speak with your guitar while out on tour?"
RB: (Laughing) "It is a problem, I wear my frets down. So, when I need it reworked, I'll go down to Martin Guitars every chance I can get to them, they're wonderful, and I love them so much. They just take it and fix it, do it while I'm there lots of times. They send it to their best guitar doctor, he'll do things like, reset the action, re-install frets for me sometimes, cause I whack the daylights out of them. The frets get pits in them, all these little pitted lines when you wear them down. You also get more buzzing on your strings because they're much closer to the fretboard. Those are the biggest problems with the guitars, that I just beat the frets down. I can't get there frequently enough to keep on top of the problem cause it develops fast. Say like within two months, I really should have new frets built. You know, we're making a signature model guitar right now, we're using a super technologically harder fret material which I think, will make a major difference. The guitar I'll be playing as a result of this new design, will have those harder frets. In fact, the instrument usually holds up a lot better than my hands.
PD: "Yes, I read about the cuts to your fingers, is that still a problem?"
RB: "Not as much, I don't know why, but I haven't had as many problems with bleeding fingers or even breaking strings. Those things have settled down a bit, I think because I play a little more when I'm home. If you stop playing, for even two weeks, you know, the normal process of washing dishes, taking showers, all of that, the calluses get soaked right off. Giving lessons and practicing is helpful, it doesn't let those calluses just disappear. So, when I go back to the next gig, I'm better prepared.
PD: "You have a wonderful vocal range, do you practice any vocal exercises?"
RB: "No, that I never do, I'm sure it wouldn't be a bad thing if I did it, I've just never have. The way the set works, there's enough mellow tunes, back to back with hard driving vocal approaches, so my voice gets it's own natural warm up. The only thing that really does damage my voice is cigarette smoke. It only takes the slightest amount, I'm amazed every time there happens to be someone smoking in a hallway far away from the venue. By the time an atom or a molecule drifts into the room, it really affects me. Which is rare, since most of the venues I play are non smoking. Lets say, I play in a place where there's smoking allowed before the show, then it's no smoking during the show, that's enough to ruin my voice. There's something about it where I must be allergic, because in an instant I'll lose my voice. It's so much better now, you know, because most places have become non smoking venues.
PD: "What are your thoughts about the future for traditional country blues?"
RB: "That's an interesting question, I wouldn't really know how to speculate on that. I think, if I were to sort of close my eyes, I think it's going to continue to grow. Maybe get to a point eventually, where I hope, the Grammy's will encompass a traditional acoustic blues category, because they don't have it now. For the Grammy's still, acoustic blues doesn't really exist on its own, and it should. It shouldn't be absorbed into a category like contemporary blues, because it isn't contemporary blues. It's done in today's contemporary world, to that extent, but it's a style that should be acknowledged in a separate category as traditional acoustic country blues. Knowing it's the styles of Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, you know, things that were recorded in the '30's, it should have a distinct category. The Handy Awards acknowledge it and that's fantastic, but I'd like to see this thing grow until the Grammy's have an appropriate category too. They've encompassed lots of new categories, but this one is still a hold out. You know, it's almost like we still don't really exist in that sense. Traditional acoustic blues is so precious, so special, and actually so important in terms of the music we have in todays world, it's descended from it. We really shouldn't waste any more time and give traditional acoustic country blues it's own category. It's the only way to fully and completely embrace it and celebrate it by giving it it's own name. So, I'm waiting to see that happen, but I think it's going to happen. You know, Bonnie Raitt said to me, "Why don't you suggest to them that they do it?" I had asked her, I said, "Could you suggest to NARIS, or to the Grammy board to come up with a category that's just for country blues?" She said, "You should do it, you should say that." I thought who am I, that I won't have any impact, this was about maybe five or six years ago. I told Bonnie, "They won't listen to me, they'll listen to you." Yet, she was confident they would listen to me, however, I haven't done it yet. It was nice she thought I could have some impact, so I probably should, you know, if someone hasn't done it soon, I probably will.
PD: "Being it was five or six years ago, you'll definitely have a major impact on them today!"
RB: "Yeah, I think it's different now, every year the visibility gets much larger. Our web site gets between say, three and 10,000 hits a day, that's a lot of hits I think."
PD: "Yes it is, there's so many people, very interested and excited about your music."
RB: "It certainly seems that way. As I say in my life story, who knew, how would I know that this wonderful thing would come to pass, or grow, or would ever be this much interest. It's really wonderful, a true blessing, that's how I see it."
PD: "Any new artists out there, you believe could carry the torch for the future of acoustic country blues?"
RB: "I have some students that I have complete faith in, at this time totally unknown, without record deals. Lisa Rich, she's a student right now, and she plays at open mics. This woman has more fire and more drive, with a real desire to do the same material I do, both country blues and original material as well, which is very nice. During a lesson, she stomped her foot so hard, playing with such a hard driving style, I actually had to tell her to go easy on the floor boards. This is a woman with real fire and real talent, I said , "You know what, your my protege, I'm gonna take a special interest in passing this on to you!" There's so many who I've come across wanting to learn this stuff. There's definitely a new generation on fire for this music, and they're asking me, as if I'm somebody who's in a position of authority, which is a great honor to me. Asking, "Can you pass on some of what you've touched to me?" You know, they say this to me with such respect, I think, wow, I never thought I'd live long enough to have somebody come up to me as if I'm an authority, with such respect in their eyes." You know, this is just really amazing. So yes, there's a whole new wave of these young players out there, who are going to be playing Robert Johnson and traditional country blues in an awesome way, for a very long time."
PD: "Rory, thank you so much for your time today, especially playing your guitar and sharing so much with me."
RB: "Your very welcome, I thank you for the work you do as well."
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