Welcome to TheCountryBlues.com
Acoustic, Folk & Country Blues in the 21St Century
Old-time blues, acoustic blues, deep blues, traditional blues, pre-war blues, folk blues, primitive blues or Country blues, it has many names, but in its essence it is the pure, ethereal, original music of rural African-Americans that originated in the Southern USA during the 1920s and 1930s. Today, people of all ethnicity and origins play it worldwide. The blues has found kindred musical souls, celebrating the commonality of the human spirit. This website has one simple message: The acoustic blues is alive and well in the 21st Century––nothing more, nothing less. The musicians included here are keeping the traditions alive while helping the old-time blues progress and stay vibrant.
The Country Blues is Dead, They Say
by Frank Matheis
But tell me just when did it go away?
We know that its popularity had waned with black audiences back in the 1950s, but we also know that record collectors and opportunistic fans went out to “rediscover” acoustic blues artists in the 1960s and ‘70s, and they found plenty of them, spurring the global folk & blues revival. Even before kids internationally found a love for the old time blues, the deep roots music didn’t die, it just went underground, into people’s homes and communities. Despite the fact that most white people didn’t know it, the country blues is a maddeningly durable genre, and even though not entrenched in popular culture, or the normal experience of average white people, it maybe less fashionable today, but that’s far from dying.
Some folks, including renowned folklore musicologists, writers and such, have encapsulated this obscure musical idiom into the museum as a relic preserved on 78 rpm records. At various times, usually when their own involvement in the music and the lives of musicians waned, they self-righteously declared that it’s all over now. In every decade since the 1960s, some wise guy declared an alleged end to this musical form many of us love so much, and put down the “contemporary traditional” players. (I got a lot of flack for that term from the country blues purists, but it actually makes good sense. It means people who play traditional blues today. No different than ‘Contemporary Classical Music’.)
Somehow, they preposterously held on to the delusion that whatever happened in the genre, it was all in the past and anything happening now or in the future was, well, nothing at all. The wrongness of that claim is obvious and does not require explanation, unless you are simply not listening. The folk/roots blues has tenacity. It just kept going. Each generation brought on great new players and each time the mighty highbrowed, sometimes poisonous naysayers – mostly foreign, white musicologists – arrogantly rejected and dejected the new crop of players for reasons too ridiculous, preposterous and unworthy to waste time to repeat.
Listing the incongruous fire spitting reasons why would simply validate the irrationality of this thinking. Blues harmonica player Phil Wiggins has a simple answer for people who carry the illusion, that the acoustic blues is over and that new voices are inferior, with simple yet poignant clarity, “They ought to get out more.” Phil also points out that the purist, and sometimes obsessive compulsive 78rpm collectors, many of whom declare themselves the self-appointed authorities over all things blues, have a vested interest in the supposition that the world came to an end after the birth of the 33rpm LP.
Yet, it’s not about the records, or the collection, it’s about the songs. Performing those old songs and keeping that music alive preserves the genre. Just recently I was with a heavy hitter in the blues scene, who decried that anybody who plays the old Blind Blake songs can never be as good as the old (—). He said, with the purpose of marginalizing the new crop of players, “It’s like turning Blind Blake into Beethoven, where you have to play it note for note just like it was written.” That may be true, but, what’s wrong with that? True, there are some folks who believe that unless it is played exactly as heard on the old 78, it must be copied exactly, which locks the song into a museum. The people who believe that perspective can’t stand any evolution in the music. They will disdain most anything new, while missing the point that in order to sustain as a genre new material needs to grab the heart of contemporary audience the country blues will die a certain death as soon as the baby boomers fade into oblivion. There is nonetheless a difference between insisting that a song can only be played as on the original 78 and simply playing a song. If people like Jerron Paxton, Guy Davis, Ari Eisinger or Tom Feldman don’t play these songs, who will? They certainly don’t deserve to be put down for carrying on acoustic blues. Dogmatic traditionalism and arrogant snobbishness blinds good people to the fact that it’s about the songs. Good songs should be played. Let people play it the way they want to, whether true to the original note for note or changed, rearranged and updated. Rejecting either approach is futile obstructionism and primitive, judgmental absurdity.
Interestingly, we don’t hear these battles in other forms of roots music. I never heard a bluegrass DJ, writer, musician or fan declare that bluegrass is dead because Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and many more had gone to picking heaven. These debates somehow don’t happen. Why does the blues scene seemingly want to tear itself up?
Often the hardcore acoustic blues snobs point to the threaded cousin, blues-rock, as the evil family member of the genre. Most people nowadays identify blues with that guitar intensive, noodling sound. Yes, its saturation is far more pervasive then it should be, but it never killed acoustic, traditional blues, no matter how much purists decried it. That particular subgenre may not be your favorite, but why demonize it? Just don’t listen to it. There is lots worst music on the planet than actual musicians playing Chicago style, guitar intensive blues. Just listen to the bloody radio.
In German there is an important phrase that blues fans should learn: zusammen halten. It means “holding together,” being loyal to each other. Stop the silly put-downs and death declarations. Give the music room to grow wherever it can find some sunshine and like an old weed, you just can’t kill it. It keeps coming back (unless we spray it with poison.)
The acoustic blues is alive and well any anybody who will listen to the people I just spent the week with, young players like Jerron Paxton from New York, Marcus Cartwright from Louisiana, Andrew Alli from Virginia, and Samuel James from Maine, and still claim otherwise is simply living in the past while ignoring the present. Add to that the phenomenal Jontavious Willis from Georgia, who I just wrote about in Living Blues, and there you have the new generation of players…and they are great.
American Roots: The Art of Country Blues – Why study it?
by Woody Mann
Country blues is an essential part of America’s musical history. It is an art form that transcends its original times, offering a lasting body of material, techniques, and approaches to improvisation. Though its heyday in the 1920’s and 30’s is a distant memory for most musicians today, time has not diminished the musical contribution of the early masters. The instrumental, vocal and songwriting techniques, as well as their approaches to improvisation were central to the development of America’s roots music as well as the early jazz styles.
Historically, country blues traditions developed from the collective work of individual musicians. In the 1920’s, itinerant musicians traveled throughout the South and mid-west playing on street corners, at local dances, and in churches. Their music was a confluence of sounds from African chants to the pop music of the day to Appalachian and English folk ballads. There was no one geographic center where musicians would meet. As a result, each artist developed his or her own sound, repertoire and technique. In addition, jobs were scarce and highly competitive, encouraging little collaboration among musicians. The result was a genre rich in sounds and approaches defined by the individuality of the artists.
Today, country blues is often overlooked as a type of music that existed in a contained time and space. Though it’s initial audience is gone, it is a genre that should not be simply acknowledged, but expanded. The instrumental and songwriting techniques as well as the approaches to improvisation are central to the development of America’s roots music. It represents the beginnings of the jazz story and pre-cursor to the early styles of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and the musicians who recorded in New Orleans in the late 1920s.
As musicians and students, we understand that studying both classical music and jazz allows us to hone our musical skills. Similarly, the concepts specific to country blues provide the basis for a wide variety of playing styles from the early country traditions to jazz and contemporary music. Country blues is an art form defined by a precise craft. Just as we study the music of the jazz “greats” to develop our skills, learning the techniques of the original blues masters is a curriculum for musical inspiration and creativity.
Publisher’s Note, Oct. 2014
Will the Acoustic Blues Survive?
by Frank Matheis, publisher, 2014
The good news is that there are still at least 500 or so musicians actively performing the acoustic blues today, many (if not most) of them listed here in thecountryblues.com. The acoustic blues is still alive and well in the 21st Century.
For those of us who love this music, that’s a hopeful sign, but undeniably, the existentialist facts are not so rosy for the long term survival of acoustic/folk/country blues.
Let’s start with the good news…
Plenty of musicians are still able to make a living playing the old time blues. Many of the musicians who were the disciples of the great originals, who learned directly from the blues musicians who reemerged during the 1960s and 70s, and who picked up the styles, tuning and songs as apprentices from the old masters, are still active and successful today. Indeed, today they are the blues elders: Taj Mahal, John Hammond, Paul Geremia, Doug MacLeod, Phil Wiggins, Roy Bookbinder, Jorma Kaukonen, on and on. Then, there are the guitar virtuosos, the supreme guitarists of the genre, with a broad repertoire of folk/roots styles: Ry Cooder (when he is in a blues mood), Woody Mann, Ed Gerhardt, Mike Dowling, and many more.
There is a core group of excellent African-American players who have achieved wide ranging success and who carry on the blues tradition internationally: Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Guy Davis, Eric Bibb, Keb Mo, Otis Taylor, Phil Wiggins and Samuel James. Some wonderful younger players are infusing new blood into the scene, including the new blues sensation Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, the MSG Blues Trio and Valerie & Ben Turner
The blues women are as powerful as ever, thanks to Shemika Copeland, Rory Block, Valerie Turner, Maria Muldaur, Mary Flower, Valerie June, Emily Druce, Eleanor Ellis, Janiwa Magness and many more.
Plus, there are wonderful players all over Europe, and increasingly in Asia, such as in Japan and even in Pakistan.
There are great records being produced, concert halls and clubs filled by the musicians who are keeping the acoustic blues flames burning today. Blues Festivals still draw a good crowd and acoustic blues is still a small but steady portion of this. There is also still a fascination and strong interest in the acoustic blues over in Europe. Many American players regularly tour the continent and rely on that market as an important source of income.
Yet, the genre’s very survival, in the long term, is challenged.
The audience demographic is aging and there has not been significant interest among the younger generation to infuse new enthusiasm into the genre. The baby-boomers of the 1960s and 70s who formed the first ‘folk & blues revival’ that gave a second wind to an entire set of blues musicians, are by now in their late 50s and up. With plenty of attrition and no considerable influx of new audiences, the currently active musicians are reporting a decline in listeners. Unless there is a resurgence of interest, a new blues revival or a sudden shift in the wind of popular music, it is likely that the core audience of today is the last and that the acoustic blues will experience a decline after this generation.
There has been only a tiny black audience for the acoustic blues, even during the heyday of the 1960s blues revival, and today its is minuscule, almost down to the angstrom. African American audiences left the genre decades ago, except in a few pockets in the Deep South. Most acoustic blues fans today are white men over fifty – many in their sixties and seventies. The counterculture baby boomers are aging and they are buying less music and going out to hear live music less.
Radio is no salvation. The deep roots acoustic blues is virtually shut out of the radio. You’ll hear a fews classics here and there, but the picture is bleak in the syndicated shows, satellite radio blues shows and even the independent DJs focus mostly on electric blues and blues rock. There are of course exceptions, a few shows nationwide still feature the acoustic blues, but we could not fill a classroom if we tried.
Blues record labels also report that sales of acoustic blues are so sluggish and weak that they are reluctant to sign folk blues acts. Alligator, for example, once signed Corey Harris and Cephas & Wiggins, but now shies away from country blues acts due to lackluster sales. Consequently, musicians are increasingly self-producing their recordings, with mixed results. Some very excellent musicians are churning out poorly produced, lackluster albums, often in studios that do not understand or know how to record acoustic music. The market is flooded with self-produced albums that never really get off the ground. Sadly, today this is the norm for many struggling and upcoming artists, rather than the exception , because few “not yet famous” acoustic country blues artists have the financial backing to be able to afford a professionally produced album where everything is done right. Even in cases where everything is played and recorded perfectly well, many “good” albums simply lack the energy, fire and passionate intensity of the early blues, or those produced in the 1960s and 70s, when record labels still had an interest in the country blues.
The blues today maybe the only profession in America where it is a distinct advantage to be a black man – and of course that speaks volumes about the plight of black men in America today, still struggling for equality – and worst than that, still struggling against racial stereotypes and injustice. Blues is an African-American cultural contribution to the world, a black musical form and an inherent part of the African-American experience. Yet, black musicians can feel a form of estrangement, as this music which had its origins in the black experience is now in a white dominated world. The blues press, blues forums, record labels and radio DJs are predominately white (including this writer) – as is the audience. Even the one blues magazine devoted to the preservation of the African American legacy, Living Blues, is drastically underrepresented by African American writers and critics. The blues academia, the professors of the blues, the book authors, all mostly white. No wonder that black blues musicians want to hold on to the fact that they are, indeed, the authentic cultural heirs to the blues. These are legitimate grievances of black musicians.
Yet, like any successful cultural phenomena, the blues is now international, a cultural triumph that should be celebrated and a source of pride. Blues has circumnavigated the globe, just like jazz, rock and roll and Classical music, Many people from all over the world play, feel and love the blues. This is not cultural theft, as some like to call it, but it is a natural aspect of the powerful international cultural contribution of African-Americans.The blues is a musical form that has been integrated from the time of Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang (even if only behind the scenes). Musicians broke the color barrier, played together and learned each other’s music, maybe not openly when oppressed by Jim Crow laws, but certainly they hooked up and sat in with each other when possible. This is evident by the wide ranging repertoire of the Piedmont songsters, for example, which drew from ragtime, Country, Appalachian Mountain music, blues, gospel and even European folk songs. Music was always the true melting pot.
Today some people talk about “true blues,” not how the music is played, but by the authenticity of the music based on the skin color or the performer. This is simply wrong in the blues as anywhere in life. Music should be a unifying force, and not a reason to judge human beings by the color of their skin.
Ostensibly, a threat to the very survival of the genre may be those who profess to know and love it the most. Admittedly, that seems like a bizarre statement. Because the acoustic blues is a very small world compared to electric blues, and the blues overall is a very small segment of the popular music culture, you would think that the genre’s survival will be carried by the true fans, the blues aficionados, the most devoted acoustic blues fans. The problem is that a sizable portion of the acoustic, folk and country blues fans only love the original old blues, and tend to dismiss the new purveyors of the musical form. Of course, people can like what they want to like. Nothing wrong with that. If people enjoy only the blues of the golden era (1920s-1930s) played exactly as it was in the original 78 rpm recordings, that’s perfectly fine. We love that music ! Otherwise those songs would wither on the vine. The only way people will know and love the blues is to cherish the legacy. Everybody has a right to like and listen to what they want.
The problem comes in when the fans of the old blues don’t love, and even reject, the new blues for whatever reason. If the celebration of the past comes with the rejection of the present, there is logically a risk that there will be no future, just cultural extinction, that the music they love will simply be locked into a time capsule in a museum or in the Library of Congress.
At its worst, some hardcore blues purists dismiss contemporary players as “mere imitators” or they question where an acoustic blues musician is from (I recently read a very misguided review of the new John Hammond record where the writer claimed that John sounds “like a New York musician copying the Southern blues”); what the skin color is ; or, they categorically attack anyone who changes the music even slightly. Scathing criticism is reserved for those who don’t play it note for note as it was played 70 years ago on the original 78 rm records. The level of criticism holds no boundaries.
This phenomena among acoustic blues audiences seems to be unique in contemporary American roots & folk music. Bluegrass, Cajun, Zydeco, Celtic-American, Tex-Mex and many other roots music forms are going strong, in large part because the audiences may cherish the past but celebrate the present. Bluegrass audiences may love Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs, but they love and support the young players on the scene today. In Zydeco, everybody cherishes Clifton Chenier, but they still turn out for the new generation.
So there it is, pure common sense. Unless the blues can progress, stay vibrant and relevant today, there may be no folk and country blues in the next generation, given the demographic reality. To preserve the old blues, we need new blues – new songs, new songwriters, new interpretations, new sounds along with the originals. If we can swing that, the acoustic blues has a fleeting chance. Hopefully, folks will see that this is the point of this website.
Please check out the musicians listed here, both in the Who is Who directory, and in the full profile section here. The acoustic blues today may be summoned up by an old song lyric by Johnny Winter:
So everyone will know
I’m still alive and well
I’m still alive and well every now and then
its kind of hard
To tell I’m still alive and well
The ‘Who’s Who’ list includes over 400 active musicians who are making a contribution to the genre today. This is the definitive, and steadily growing, list of musicians from all over the world who play the acoustic blues. If you know somebody who deserves to be on it, let us know.
The in-depth documentary “I wish I was in Heaven Sitting Down” won several prestigious radio documentary awards, including ‘Best Documentary’ at the New York Festivals. This Podcast provides an ideal primer of the Mississippi Delta blues.
Original musician photos from the portfolio of fine art photographer Bibiana Huang Matheis. Country blues musicians and more. www.bibiphoto.com
A collection of diverse articles, opinions, interviews, musicology, blues related creative writing, and other odd musings, by various authors. Feel free to submit relevant, well written material that advances to the topic.
“Frank Matheis is one of the best blues journalists on the scene–a well-informed and independent voice… His terrific new website, The Country Blues, is the fruit of that deep knowledge and fearless engagement with the music we all love.”
Dr. Adam Gussow
Professor of Southern Studies
University of Mississippi
Author, musician & musicologist
“…I have found your website and podcasts to be a fantastic resource, and just plain fun (for a blues lover like me!).”
Prof. Dr. Steve Garabedian
Dept. of History
Author of: Reds, Whites, and the Blues: Lawrence Gellert, “Negro Songs of Protest,” and the Leftwing Folksong Revival of the 1930s and 1940s
“This site is the greatest! At last, something that points true fans of country blues to the quality of music that’s out there. I could spend hours, days even, checking it all out. “
Dr. David Evans
Prof. of Ethnomusicology
University of Memphis
Musicologist, musician, author of Big Road Blues
“TheCountryBlues.com website that Frank Matheis has so diligently and meticulously created is my main “go-to” source whenever I need information on the contemporary country blues scene. Teaching several university courses in the blues means that I’m always being asked by my students what’s a good source of info on modern acoustic blues. Without hesitation I shoot them off to Frank’s site. It (and he) are a font of inestimable information presented with the care of someone who truly loves (and knows) the country blues! There’s no other site like it on the internet!”
Dr. Bruce Conforth, musician, musicologist, author
Prof. of American Culture – University of Michigan
This resource is dedicated to all the old masters, the itinerant minstrels, blues shouters, songsters and pickers who never saw fame and fortune in their own time, and could hardly imagine the posthumous love and adulation that would be bestowed upon them. All those great “musicianers” before our time : Robert Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw, Frank Stokes, Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller, Sleepy John Estes, Son House, Willie Brown, Muddy Waters, John Hurt, Texas Alexander, Lonnie Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Fred McDowell… and countless others…and not to forget the generations following, the people we knew and loved in our time: John Jackson, John Cephas, Jerry Ricks, Nat Reese, Flora Molton, Bill Harris, Archie Edwards, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Big Joe Williams, Connie Williams, on and on. We love and miss you. We also tip our hat to all the blues musicologists worldwide, whether the academics, the writers or those who simply followed out of love and passion.
“Never play a note you don’t believe.”
– Ernest Banks
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