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On this page: Michael Messer, John Miller, Big Bill Morganfield..

The Blue Front Email Interview with British slide maestro Michael Messer January 2004

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BFBR:  What were your early musical influences? 
I was born in 1956 and my earliest musical memories are Rock’n’Roll 78 records being played at home on the wind-up gramophone. Then in the early 1960s I started buying pop records; Rolling Stones, Beatles, Motown....all kinds of stuff that was popular at the time. In 1965 at the Winter Gardens theatre in Margate I went to a pop concert and one of the performers was John Hammond, he had a hit record in the UK at that time and he was the first person I ever saw play acoustic delta blues & folk music. Through my formative years I listened to all kinds of music and went to literally thousands of concerts. At the time I started playing country blues, which would have been the mid to late seventies, I was listening to a very wide range of music and only treated country blues as part of a much bigger picture.

BFBR:  How and when did you get into blues? 
This is always asked by interviewers and after numerous interviews, I still can't find the definitive answer. There were so many factors that kind of all fitted together at a certain time in my life and I became obsessed in blues music. I would also add that I have always been into blues music because so much of the pop music of my time was basically the blues. I never thought of the Rolling Stones, Taste, Little Feat, Johnny Winter, Fleetwood Mac, Humble Pie, Bonnie Raitt...etc, as blues artists, I just thought it was cool pop music, but a great deal of their music was without doubt the blues. I guess I have been around music & musicians for most of my life and many different things were catalysts in this process. My connections with Nashville and exposure to many of the musicians based there also played a role in this process. I feel that the blues as a musical form has always been there in my life, right from the very early days of hearing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ on the wind-up gramophone.

BFBR:  What were your early blues influences? 
Some of the very early influences I have talked about in previous answers. When I started to become obsessed with early blues I went pretty crazy over a handful of players; Robert Johnson, Son House, Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, Ry Cooder, John Hammond. These days that list looks like a pretty standard and obvious list of who one should listen to, but back then it was not like that and the "classics" of the genre had not really been defined in print. I should add to the above that one of my major influences back then was Paul Oliver's wonderful book and double album, The Story of the Blues. I love that book and know every centimetre
of it....every word and every picture. I still enjoy thumbing through it. Those pictures and the exotic names of the musicians, that really was big for me.

BFBR:  How (and why) did you start playing in public? 
As a child I played and sung in public a few times and thought it was pretty cool. In my teens I performed a few times in rock bands; I was the drummer in Plug & Friends & the bass player and singer in the Noisy Birds. Later in my twenties it just seemed the natural step to take and I started going out playing blues gigs, some were alone, some were with my brother David on rhythm guitar, and some were with various bands. But it was never a plan, just a natural progression. It was only after doing a few gigs that I started to take myself seriously as a musician. Oh yes, in my early teens I played double bass in a folk/rockabilly band, we didn’t play in pubs but we did entertain friends & family.

BFBR: Can you remember you first gig? 
Certainly can - I was ten years old and I sung a bluesy jazzy version of Little Brown Jug at a school talent competition. I accompanied myself on a very out of tune acoustic guitar that I borrowed. I won the competition!

BFBR:  What made you decide perform professionally? How did you get started?
 It was a natural process; I wanted to play in public and when you do that hopefully someone pays you, it just moved on from there. What made me decide to give my life to music and start making records, which was a conscious decision, is a whole different story which many things contributed to. 

BFBR:  What are your preferred instruments at present?
At the moment I am playing a hand-built Fine Resophonic single cone wood-bodied resophonic guitar, a Fine Resophonic square-neck Tricone, a Holoubek Dobro style guitar, a Dave King parlour guitar, a Dave King Electric guitar, the 12 string National Havana, a 1931 National Triolian and my old trusty cast aluminium National lap steel.

BFBR:  What are your views on the best types of instruments for your style of music?
I do not believe that a resonator guitar is the ultimate blues guitar; they are my favourite acoustics to play, but that does not mean they are for everyone. Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell, Johnny Shines, Muddy Waters, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, none of those guys played Nationals.
There is a lot of romance and mythology surrounding National & Dobro guitars. These days everyone who wants to play acoustic blues has to have a National or Dobro style guitar; it has become part of the kit. It’s wonderful & in a small way I contributed to help make them popular. But a resophonic guitar is not the only acoustic guitar for a great slide guitar sound.

BFBR:  If you could have any instruments you wanted (past or present) what would they be?
After nearly thirty years of collecting and playing some of the most important guitars in history, I would say that the list above pretty well covers that one!

BFBR:  Why do you think you are drawn to performing blues? 
I think I am drawn to playing blues for the reasons I have talked about earlier in this interview; because blues is my natural music. It is what comes out of me when I pick up a guitar. Through my childhood it dominated my taste & as a musician, I have been playing blues & blues based/related music for nearly thirty years. In saying that, I should also add that I am interested and closely connected to other styles too. After all, we are in England and it is 2004 and through my life I have enjoyed, been influenced by, and played a lot of different styles.

BFBR:  Pundits often express strong views on the merits or value of
contemporary artists performing 'covers' or 'interpretations' of pre-war or Chicago blues originals.
What are your current views on this on-going debate?
I don't really see the point in recording or performing an exact replica of someone else’s work. However, using the style of the ‘blues original’ to create ones own original piece of work can be very interesting and very creative. I am not saying that playing in an exact 1920s style is wrong, just impersonating someone else’s work. In my own recent music I have worked with a palette of traditional & well-worn styles to create an original and new blues sound. I don’t think there is another blues album that sounds like Second Mind. I am sure of one thing in this crazy business of trying to live from making music; you must be yourself, whatever that is, is what will get you noticed. It ain’t what you do….it’s the way that you do it!

BFBR:  What do you think is your inner inspiration for writing and
performing your own material or for conveying the emotional content of
someone else's song?

I try not to analyse my own creativity too much. I try to flow with my emotions and not be academic about it. I have learned to trust my creative judgement and when something feels right, I stick with it.

BFBR:  How do your new songs/material come about?
The past few albums have been a combination of my creative vision & music mixed with Terry Clarke’s lyrics. I love Terry’s writing and we work very well together. What comes out of that mixture of styles and tastes is unique. Second Mind, my last album, was written in three weeks and recorded without rehearsing the band. I don’t like to lose the moment; it is a bit like group photography; there is a moment when everybody looks great and then for the rest of the day someone is always blinking! Music is the same; you’ve got to catch it while it’s still fresh. Depending on what I am doing, but for this kind of music I like to record live.  All the blues tracks on Second Mind were recorded live, very little overdubbing, it ruins it.

BFBR:  How do you feel your playing style has developed since you began performing and more recently?

My playing style hasn’t changed that much, but I have become more accomplished at doing it. As I get older I feel I just get better at doing it; more relaxed, more controlled, more in control of my own playing. I like to go back and re-learn things that I have been playing for years, when I listen to Muddy Waters or Blind Willie Johnson these days, I hear it in a very different way than how I heard it when I was learning. I now understand what I am listening to and it is all clearer and easier for me to visualize.  Age does have some advantages, one of which is having over thirty years playing experience behind you. These days when I hear other guitar players I don’t get impressed by speed or virtuosity, it is the tone I am looking for. That’s it….tone & touch, that is what I listen for in musicians. Tone & touch…plus creativity.

BFBR:  What are you views on playing in UK ,Europe & The US - the current scene & gigs?
I’ll play wherever they send me, as long as they pay me! I don’t pay that much attention to the current scene. In the UK these days I play at a lot of arts centres and small theatres, in other parts of the world there are more venues that are music clubs and dancehalls. There are not many of those in the UK that are interested in blues & roots music. Of course there is the Blue Front Blues Room, tucked away in the Forest of Dean!

BFBR:  How do you see the future for acoustic blues?

As a world art form it will never go away, it really is here to stay and the foundations that were laid in the twentieth century by blues musicians from the 20s, 30s, 40s & 50s, and rock & folk musicians from the 60s, 70s, 80s & 90s, are here to stay. The White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are shining examples of that. On another level the acoustic guitar industry is bigger & better than ever in its history. We are going through a second golden era of guitar making. Also through technology more people than ever before can get to hear this music and in turn they learn to play & create their own version.

BFBR:  What advice would you pass on to players and to 'amateur' and
semi-pro performers?

Techniques – Learn to play in your own way; don’t be dominated by tutorial DVDs, books, classes & rules. Most of the great players made their own set of rules, which is why they are different and have a cutting edge to their work. Too much information going in too fast will amount to confusion. It is wonderful to be surrounded by “the blues” at events like Blues Week at Exeter University, it is one of the most enjoyable blues & music related holidays that anyone could wish for, but it doesn’t make you learn faster.
BFBR: Business-wise etc?
I think I have answered this part in earlier questions; if you are going to be professional musician touring & recording, you really are swimming in shark infested waters….and I am not joking. Nothing’s changed since those early days. What you read about in books about the blues and country music, it still happens. Publishers & record companies working in an industry that has no respect for its life-blood, the artist.

BFBR:  What music are you currently listening to?
CDs out on the table at the moment are:
Rob Ickes “Slide City”
Blue Highway “Midnight Storm”
Mark Knopfler “Ragpicker’s Dream”
Robert Johnson – Columbia compilation (it still blows me away every time I hear it)
Chris Rea “Blue Guitars”
Beatles “Let It Be..Naked”
Tampa Red – Catfish compilation
Rambling Thomas – Catfish compilation
Chaz Jankel – Zoom
Oscar Woods & Black Ace “Texas Slide Guitars”
Casey Bill Weldon – Catfish compilation.

BFBR:  Where are you headed musically at present?
With my own slide playing I am heading in two directions at present; one is heavily back into pre-war slide guitar blues.  Yes I have once again become obsessed with this amazing art form. I get the bug every few years and then I waver for a while and then I am back in there. The other direction is as a traditional country Dobro player; I am having a great time and think I may have been a closet-Dobro-player for the past twenty-five years. In the late 1970s I met and played with “Bashful” Brother Oswald at the Ryman auditorium in Nashville & hung out and played with some of the greats of traditional country music.  Since then it has kind of been a burning desire that I have hinted at here & there, but never really taken it on. It’s great, I love that very bluesy area of old country music; people like the Stanley Brothers & Flatt & Scruggs with Josh Graves on Dobro, Jimmie Rodgers playing blues,  that’s very cool music. I love Rob Ickes playing; he works under his own name and also plays with Blue Highway. I spent some time with him in Slovakia a few years ago, we were going to record an album together, but business considerations got in the way and it never happened.

BFBR: What are your current musical and career developments? 
In the Spring we are releasing a box-set comprising of my two Catfish albums, King Guitar & Second Mind, plus a CD of back catalogue & unreleased material from the vaults. As for my next album, I am currently in discussion with a new company and do not want to say anything until everything is finalized. Musically, I think that country blues fans will really like what we are planning. Away from my music; we are planning to launch a range of MM slide guitar accessories and will keep you posted about that.

BFBR: Thank you Michael for giving us these insights into you and your music.
It has been a pleasure. Shine On, Michael Messer (January 2004)

Michael Messer: 'Second Mind'

Extract from Issue 13  ‘BLUES MATTERS!’ - interview by John Anderson

I’ve been playing your album Second Mind (on Catfish records) at home and on air since it came out. It has certainly attracted a lot of interest from a wide range of listeners. Can you tell us about the range of music and some of the influences on your new album?
This album has been brewing in my head for a long time. As well as the blues and roots influences that many years of slide guitar playing has given me, I was brought up on the pop music of the 1960s and 70s and I have certainly brought those influences to the forefront on this one. Hopefully I found a way of doing so without losing the traditional themes and styles of the blues.

How is this album "different" for you?
I think the difference is in my own experience and ability to make and produce the music. Many of the elements that make up this album have shown themselves on my previous albums, but as a body of work I feel it is my most complete to date. All but one of the songs were written with Catfish label-mate, Terry Clarke. We have been writing together for a long time and have a loose but successful formula for merging ideas.

In the liner notes it says, "No digital recorders or computers were used in the making of this record". Can you tell us about the sound you were after and the recording process?
I really wanted this album to sound warm and rich like old vinyl records not bright, clean and digital like so many modern recordings and re-masters. We used an old analogue tape recorder and a non-computerized mixing desk.  Almost everything was played live and overdubs were kept to a minimum. The instruments, studio and recording equipment were all carefully chosen to create a certain type of sound. As for the creative process of making the music, I'd rather not over analyse that too much.

Can you tell us about the musicians on the album?
The basic core of musicians: Ed Genis (guitar), Andy Crowdy (bass) and Simon Price (drums), have been working with me for many years and are an integral part of the whole sound. In addition, on keyboards we have Richard Causon, who has recorded with Ryan Adams, Whiskytown and the Jayhawks. Ruby Turner is singing the backing vocals. Louie Genis, son of Ed Genis, is the man behind the turntables doing all the scratching and drum loops. West Weston is playing the harp and last but certainly not least, we have Alan Whetton on saxophone. Most recently Alan has been working with the Blues Band and the Manfreds.

Can you tell us about the use of 'authentic' blues samples on the album and why you used them. How do you think purists may view it?
It is sometimes difficult to explain why something creative is done. I really love the effect the samples and scratching have on the music, adding a sharp contemporary edge whilst still keeping it warm with tradition. I don't think anyone in the blues world has done it in quite this way before. I hope people like the way it sounds and that it does not offend purists. Those old records are just as special to me as they are to them.

Can you tell us about your musical directions for the near future?
Well I am still very focused on the music of this album. I start touring in January and hope to reach all corners of the UK. Some of the dates will be with the whole band and some will be as a duo with my long time musical partner, Ed Genis, and also as a trio with Louie and Ed Genis - it's a family show!

Where do you think the Blues is going in this new 21st century?
Interesting question. If I look at the twentieth century, the blues went from being a localized folk music to being a major world art-form. Technology played a dramatic role in its development from acoustic guitars and 78 records to full electric bands and digital sound. However, I don't think the music itself changed that much. As for the 21st century, I reckon in 2999 Robert Johnson will still be the king of the blues and Fender will still be selling Stratocasters. However, for the immediate future I see the blending of old and new sounds becoming more and more popular, which I think should help turn a younger audience onto the blues.  

The Blue Front Email Interview with US acoustic guitarist John Miller February 2004

BFBR:  What were your early musical influences?
Certainly my parents were early musical influences.  My mother is a Classical pianist and organist and taught piano and music and my father sang in the choir and was a great harmonica player.  In terms of early influences on my guitar-playing, my older sister and brother, but also particularly Mississippi John Hurt, who I saw perform at the 1963 Philadelphia Folk Festival, when I was 12, Doc Watson, and Mance Lipscomb.    

BFBR:  How and when did you get into blues music?
I started getting in to blues first by hearing various '60s revivalist types--Dave Van Ronk, Eric Von Schmidt, Tom Rush, Koerner, Ray & Glover, and the like.  This would have been around 1963-1965.  At the same time though, I was beginning to listen to Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten, Mance Lipscomb and other first generation country Blues musicians.  I was very fortunate where I grew up (and when) in that I had the opportunity to see a tremendous number of the country Blues performers who were still alive and playing into the '60s and '70s.  Apart from those already mentioned, I saw Son House, Skip James, Rev. Gary Davis, Buddy Moss, Arthur Crudup, Bukka White, Blind Connie Williams, John Jackson, Bill Williams, Sam Chatmon, Martin, Bogan & Armstrong, and others.   

BFBR:  What were your early blues influences?
I was particularly drawn to the music of Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, Blind Blake and Bo Carter, although I also enjoyed many other players.

BFBR:  How (and why) did you start playing in public?
I think I first played in public when I was still in high school.   I believe there was a club opening up and the open mike performance was presented as though it was an audition for a playing engagement.  It turned out this was not really the case.  As to why I started playing in public, I suppose I wanted recognition for what I was doing musically, and I just wanted people to like it.  Also I thought it would be great to be paid for playing music.
Can you remember you first gig?

BFBR:  What made you decide perform professionally? How did you get started?
I joined a Bluegrass band called Country Cooking in Ithaca, New York where I was attending Cornell University, and the band began to get gigs right away. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to play music for money.
I had played radio shows on the campus radio station at Cornell, and I think professional opportunities came out of that.

BFBR:  What are your preferred instruments at present?
I play a Martin OM-18v and a custom Martin OM-28H.  I also have a Martin OM-21 with onboard electronics that I use to play restaurant gigs, casuals and the like.

BFBR:  What are your views on the best types of instruments for your style of music?  

For the varieties of music that I play, I prefer Martin OMs.  I like the dreadnought scale length and I also like the wider neck.  they are very well balanced, bass to treble, as well.

BFBR:  If you could have any instruments you wanted (past or present) what would they be?
I would like to have the guitar I started out on, a Martin 0-16NY back, for purely sentimental reasons.  Apart from that I am not particularly acquisitive with regard to guitars.
BFBR:  Why do you think you are drawn to performing blues?
I think the guitar tradition that rose up in the country blues in the first half of the twentieth century was amazingly strong, varied and compelling.  Many of the songs are beautiful and striking, as well.

BFBR:  Pundits often express strong views on the merits or value of
contemporary artists performing 'covers' or 'interpretations' of pre-war or Chicago blues originals and or the artist's own original material (blues-based or not). What are your current views on this on-going debate?

For myself, the process of transcribing great Country Blues performances of the past remains very engaging and exciting.  However, I find as the years go by that I am less inclined to perform covers of great Blues performances in my concert sets.  Part of it is ego, I suppose.  I would rather express my own musical ideas and tastes at this time, rather than try to recreate those of some musician of the past.  As far as other musicians performing covers, I have no across-the-board opinion or critical stance, but instead, operate on a case-by-case basis, letting my tastes dictate who I want to hear and who I am less drawn to musically.  

BFBR:  What do you think is your inner inspiration for writing and
performing your own material or for conveying the emotional content of
someone else's song?

As far as singing someone else's song goes, I would either have to love the melody to want to sing it, or feel that the lyrics held a particular significance for me.  As far as motivation for writing my own material, I would say there's an excitement in the creation of a musical composition that continues into the performance of that composition.

BFBR:  How do your new songs/material come about?
Different ways at different times - I may say, "I want to write a tune like X does.

BFBR:  How do you feel your playing style has developed since you began performing and more recently?
I feel like my rhythmic sense is more settled and controlled.  I believe I am able to change my playing more in the moment.  I believe I have more tonal variety.  I have far more knowledge of harmony than I used to.

BFBR:  What are you views on playing in UK & Europe?
I am always happy to play in the UK, despite having a relatively limited experience of doing that. I have never performed as a solo guitarist in Europe so I can't speak intelligently to that.

BFBR:  How do you see the future for acoustic blues?

I would like to see more people trying to figure the music out by ear.  I think it lays a better foundation for musicianship than does learning everything via TAB.  I don't see the market for the music increasing greatly.

BFBR:  What advice would you pass on to players and to 'amateur' and
semi-pro performers?

Don't forget to listen to yourself when you practice.  Concentrate on tone--making a sound on the instrument that is you and yours alone.  Leave space in your playing for your vocals and don't try to keep from filling up every gap in the music.

BFBR:  What music are you currently listening to?
Lots of present day European Jazz, including musicians from Finland, France, Italy

BFBR:  Where are you headed musically at present?
I am moving toward doing more solo performances than at any time in the recent past. I have a new solo CD of Jazz Standards coming out, my first solo recording in 25 years.  I will be travelling to Finland in March with violinist Ruthie Dornfeld to record an album with Finnish musicians Tapani Varis and Petri Hakala.

Thank you for giving us these insights into you and your music.

'Wading In Muddy Waters'

'The blues legend's son, Big Bill Morganfield, gets his Mojo workin' and forges his own career.'

By Hal Horowitz

"I'm my daddy's rising son," moans Atlanta's Big Bill Morganfield on the title cut of his debut album. And rising he is. In the rough and tumble world of the blues where hundreds of similar sounding bands vie for a piece of an extremely small popular music pie, a recognizable name, or even a tenuous affiliation with one, can make the difference between drawing a crowd on a sleepy Wednesday night, or playing to yet another empty bar. A stint, no matter how short, backing any of the blues legends, living or more likely dead, will assure a blues musician a resume entry that may not put you on festival stages, but can at least guarantee some national publications will review your new album.

In the blues genre there aren't many icons whose shadow looms larger than Muddy Waters'. His well publicized journey from a lowly cotton field laborer on Stovall's Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi, to becoming the patriarch of post World War ll Chicago blues is documented in every blues and rock and roll history book. Waters also had a knack for finding and grooming great musicians, who not surprisingly left his famous fold to form their own influential bands. Since his passing in 1983, just about every Waters alumni has gone solo, or regrouped into another band highlighting his affiliation with the deceased legend.

As one of the sons of Muddy Waters, whose real name McKinley Morganfield is known only to fans who read songwriter credits, Big Bill Morganfield, immediately commands attention in the blues world, not simply because he shares the surname of one of the most influential figures in the genre, but also because his debut album features three high-profile, long-time Muddy sidemen. It took almost a lifetime of living to connect Bill with his dad's band, but it's been worth the wait.

Although he's sketchy on the details, Bill was born in Chicago in 1956 to a woman Muddy apparently never married, and at the age of four months was sent to Florida to be raised by his grandmother. Although reunited with Muddy at age 10, neither music nor his dad was a major factor in his formative development, and after college he eventually relocated to Atlanta to teach in public schools. It wasn't until after Muddy's death in 1983 that Bill, then in his late 20's, picked up the guitar and started seriously learning, but more importantly, understanding, the blues genre to which his father's name was so indelibly linked.

At the age of 40, Big Bill finally decided to follow in Muddy's hard won footsteps and present the world with a taste of his famous bloodline. He quietly gigged around Atlanta clubs, honing his craft, and building a reputation until the time was right to make a move. Enter Bob Margolin, Waters' last long-term great guitarist, in a career filled with a lot of them. Bill met Margolin at the ceremony for the release of the Waters' postage stamp about five years ago, and although he didn't have a band at the time, the seeds for a future collaboration were planted. "I was still working on my skills, but we talked about things my dad had passed on to him about right hand technique with guitars, and other musical topics." The two connected again last year at the Kennedy Center show honoring Waters, where Margolin backed Bill on some Muddy classics. Morganfield's performance was astonishingly intense and the concert was seen widely on PBS. Phone calls were made, sessions booked with old Waters' sidemen, contracts signed, and Rising Son, Big Bill's first solo album was recorded on the established blues label, Blind Pig. The disc featured Morganfield's husky, emotive vocals, which, while far from an imitation of his father's unconventional and unique style, exhibit aspects of the legend's exquisite timing and simple yet powerful lyrical finesse.

  Although it would have been easy, obvious and ultimately safe, to merely reprise some of Waters' biggest hits, Morganfield wisely decided to pen most of the tunes himself, and cover only a few relatively obscure Muddy tunes. "You got so many people who have done "Hoochie Coochie Man," and "Mojo Workin'," explained Bill last week from his Atlanta home. "I mean who hasn't done those things? I wanted to be a little more thoughtful. I didn't want fans to say 'OK, you can do "Hoochie Coochie," what else you got?' "Screamin' & Cryin' " was one of my dad's favorite songs that he liked to sing, and I had taken "Champagne & Reefer" and rewrote it into a party song, so I thought that would be cool for he and I to kind of collaborate on something together

Aside from a few covers and his legendary band, there's another genetic aspect that Big Bill shares with his famous father. It's the electric feeling he feels while performing live, the place where Muddy was at his best and when he seemed possessed by emotion. "Every time I hit the stage I get charged up from the feedback of the people, it just does something to me. I guess you could say it's like a drug."