Del Rey

Del Rey. Photo by Frank Matheis 2017.

Del Rey. Photo by Frank Matheis 2017.

If you suddenly get a rush of deliverance because you think your teenager has finally caught on to the impeccable entertainment enjoyment derived from roots & blues music, when he/she enthusiastically declares, “Wow, Del Rey. I love her so”, think twice. There is an evil doppelgänger lurking in the pop world, and that maybe who your kids might be thinking, about, Lana Del Rey who absconded the name, and who would have thought there could ever be two? No disrespect to Lana, but the real Del Rey is a true musico, a guitar and ukelele virtuoso and a grand dame of the blues. In the roots & blues world, Del Rey is the one and only!

The fingerpicking bard’s music infuses jazz, blues, ragtime and more into a blend of old time and traditional blues a la Memphis Minnie. Harmonica master Phil Wiggins refers to her as “One of the best guitarists anywhere and one of the best I have ever played with.”

Del Rey, born in Los Angeles and residing in Seattle, favors metal body resophonic guitars and ukeleles, both of which she pays with exquisite virtuosity.

The stylishly blues diva is one of the reigning women in the blues, with a retro-chic, cool nerdy hillbilly-hipster vibe, frequently performs with Steve James, a slide player exraordinaire, with whom she recorded two duo albums Tonight (2004) and Twins (2002). The duo was established in 2001 at the Port Townsend Country Blues Workshop and it’s a match made in heaven, with Steve Jame’s intricate and expressive bottleneck slide guitar work perfectly complimenting Del Rey’s fingerpicking. Steve appears on Del Rey’s 2008 Blue Uke CD and Del is on Steve’s Short Blue Stories.

She is one classy lady, a frequent music writer for various publications, including Acoustic Guitar Magazine, and she is a very popular instructor at numerous guitar camps and workshops. She has several instructional DVD videos and books on Happy Traum’s Homespun teaching series, and she is highly popular on the old time circuit.

Both Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur are professed fans. Del Ray and Steve James are beloved roots artists who have been a big hit at the King Biscuit Blues Festival. Merlefest, Waterfront Blues Festival and A Prairie Home Companion.

Del Rey. Photo by Frank Matheis 2017.

Del Rey. Photo by Frank Matheis 2017.

Listen to Del Rey and go back in time musically to the 78 rpm blues era and she will take you on an adventurous, perfectly satisfying journey to keep alive the old blues. Del Rey is one of today’s most important women in the acoustic blues and ragtime music, and make no mistake about it, one of the best acoustic guitar and ukelele pickers, period.

It all started when Lou Curtiss, proprietor of Folk Arts and artistic director of the San Diego Folk Festival suggested that she should quit wasting my time playing “Stairway to Heaven” and listen to some Memphis Minnie. “He put me on stage with Sam Chatmon when I was fourteen, and introduced me to Lydia Mendoza and Howard Armstrong. Lou gave me recordings that still influence everything I do on solo acoustic guitar. I soaked up country blues, stride piano, classic jazz and hillbilly boogie. It was a musical education hanging around the record shop.”

A wonderfully fascinating woman and one of our finest practitioners of old time fingerpicking guitar, Del Rey is a musical genius who, with a bit of nostalgic creativity, keeps the music fun, fresh and invigorating. Amazing stuff!

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Update July 18, 2017. Personal interview with Del Rey:

DR: I have a fairly recent release titled Solo. People have been asking for me play solo, just me on vocals and guitar and uke. So I just did that. That’s my latest release. Then I just finished a record that should be out very shortly with the fabulous country blues fiddle player Suzy Thompson. So that’s coming out pretty soon. It’s called Communique. It’s our usual bunch: we did a Clifford Hays jug band tune and a bunch of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey tunes, and a couple original tunes. That’s what I’ve been doing musically.

In the last 10 years I’ve been playing a ton of ukulele. I was in Europe for about four or five week in May and June, and a lot of my travel was ukulele related. I was at the Greater Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, which is a big old classic jazz festival, and with some ukulele people in the U.K.

I still live in Seattle, Washington. I’ve been out there since 1997. California kept getting more and more expensive. I used to be in Santa Cruz. Up in Seattle it’s been great. I might have to move someplace cheaper soon, as the rich people chase the artists around. Then they follow us and move in – When you say you’ve played a lot of ukulele, when did that emerge as your primary recent occupation or vocation?

It’s funny, the ukulele really creeps up on you. I had a really good friend who played the ukulele all the time and was very obsessive. That’s how I met Lightnin’ Wells. She said, “We’ve got to go visit Lightnin’ Wells.” Anything she could do to hear ukulele, see ukulele being played. So we went and visited Lightnin’ one time, and he’s a wonderful ukulele player. Then it’s like you get a flu. It’s like a virus, and it takes hold of you and all you want to do is play the ukulele. So I was showing up at the blues festivals and stuff I was playing it with my ukulele. And they were kind of like, ‘That’s not a blues instrument. There’s no ukulele” – and then I was like, wait a minute. So you do a little research, and of course there was ukulele everywhere. So there’s Rabbit Mews from the Piedmont and then there’s Lemon Nash? He’s lovely. I found him – I was with Elijah Wald and Steve James down in New Orleans, and they were looking up something in the archives, and I was killing time in the Tulane Archives and I asked randomly, “Do you have any ukulele stuff?” They gave me these tapes from Rabbit Mews from I think 1959. You can hear kids playing on the street in the background. He grew up in the same Plaquemines Parrish, the same Parrish as Lonnie Johnson, and he plays single-note like Lonnie Johnson but on the ukulele. So it seems like there’s some kind of regional thing going on with him and he’s more jazzy than Rabbit Mews was. He’s definitely playing closed-chord kind of jazz things – a lovely player. Those Lemon Nash Tulane tapes recently got re-released on Arhoolie on either LP or CD. They’re really worth listening to. They’re nice. Tell me about that beautiful resonator guitar you’re playing.

DR: That is a Ron Phillips. He’s out of Martinez, California. That’s the third Resonator he’s made for me. I met him probably like 1991, something like that. He came up – “You want to see this guitar I made?” I’m like, “Yeah, sure.” He had made it out of galvanizedsteel, because he wanted it to look like a trash can, and it sounded really great. I have always wanted a parlor-sized Resonator. A few months later he showed up, again with one, and it was just gorgeous. So he’s been my guitar guy ever since. It’s made out of nickel silver. Nickel silver and brass is the sound that I like, yes. He had another one that he dipped candy apple red at the car shop. Besides your obvious love for Memphis Minnie, what are the factors in life that led you to this path in music?

My mom came home with a guitar and a Mel Bay method book when I was four, and I showed an interest in the instrument, so they went out and got a little three-quarters sized guitar, and my mom and I together would watch a PBS TV program called “Playing the Solo Classical Guitar,” By Frederick Noad. And that was like an educational television program that came on once a week. So we watched that and learned to read music from that. So then I just practiced – like all kids practice – like, “Go practice your guitar.” “Do I have to?” “Go practice your guitar – just 15 minutes. Go practice.” So that was like that until I was about 12, and then I started – like a friend of mine taught me how to play Buffalo Gals and also how to play Stairway to Heaven. So other guy taught me how to play Blackbird. And I had all the facilities. It was easy for me to pick that up because I had been playing for so long. And then I heard Tom Waits playing in a little tiny folk music shop. And the folk music shop owner, Lou Curtis, who is kind of a folk music legend down in Southern California, invited me and my friend David to come back for the Hoot night. He said, “Come back and play.” So we played and afterwards – I can’t remember what we played – he said, “Here, listen to this” – and he gave me a tape of Memphis Minnie volumes one and two on cassette. And so that’s what – I just loved it immediately. I thought it was wonderful. So that – I was doomed. So what did Tom Waits say to you?

DR: Tom Waits was just like the young weird kid who worked at the pizza parlor as the janitor down in National City and wrote these incredible songs. Like he was only maybe six or seven years older than us, but he hadn’t recorded any records and he was just starting to play piano – he mostly played guitar. So he was just beginning. And we just loved him. We always kind of followed him around, thought he was really cool. Went to all his shows. Then he got that record deal, and we’re all really excited because he got a record deal. Yeah, he was the home team. Yeah, playing in a record store that seated maybe 20 people, sitting underneath the bins. And I saw all kinds of people, because Lou Curtiss put on the San Diego Folk Festival. That was before Reagan cut all the funding for the arts. So there was pretty good funding for this folk festival. So I saw Lydia Mendoza and Martin Bogan and Howard Armstrong, and all kinds of people came. Tom Waits was a regular. He was always at the folk festival, because Lou really encouraged young new talent. I’m sure that Lou probably fed him material too – like, “Here, listen to this.” Like he was waiting for that. Lou I think was a real musicologist too. Every once in a while he’d go off in his little camper van with his wife Virginia and they’d go off taping old fiddlers – they’d hear about somebody out living in a hamlet out in the hills, and they’d go and do a little fieldtrip. So, yeah, yeah. So after all these years of keeping this wonderful traditional music alive and playing all kinds of roots music and going all over the world. How is it going for you professionally?

DR: It’s fine. I mean, I don’t spend a lot of money: that’s the key to being a professional musician: don’t spend a lot of money. I don’t own a house. I don’t have any kids. I don’t have a lot of responsibilities that make me nervous about my profession. So I’m actually perfectly suited to this profession. I like to travel; I don’t mind spending time by myself: all those things are good. So, you know, that being said, I’m perfectly happy with it. And I have my little weird niche – I’ve been at it for so long. And I know a lot about very specific things and how to do them. So I’m doing okay. I don’t know if it would work for everybody – you know, they might want more stuff than I have. Well, stuff, you know, that’s – you don’t need a lot of stuff. You need a lot of love.

DR: Yeah, that’s true. And you certainly get it in this world. I love the little – the folk-slash-blues – acoustic blues world that I’m in. I mean, we’re here at Augusta and that’s really – you really get the taste of it. You know, people like Phil Wiggins and I’ve worked with him since the ‘80s in the – at the (guitar workshop. And I think we both come from different but similar places. Like I’m super West Coast and he’s super – he’s East Coast. But there’s like a common belief I think that we share that music will transform people’s lives. And it makes us come together and do things together. And it’s all good: the sound of humans doing no harm. And I think that’s the tradition that I feel part of. If people allow that to happen, because even there are now people that are beginning to be divisive. But, you know, the thing is right now who is your audience? Are you touching a younger generation like the college kids? Are they – is there a group of people that are interested in what you are doing?

DR: There’s a ton of young people playing old-time music. They’re playing – there’s banjos and fiddles all over, yeah, and tons of ukuleles – both young and older playing ukuleles. I play big shows. I played MerleFest, I played big stages. I play big jazz festivals and stuff, but I prefer to play like a house between 60 and 200 people – a tiny house is good, because that’s how I like to hear music. I like to hear music with no sound system. I like to hear music where the sound is transparent and you’re just like in the room with the music and the person. So I just love that, so that’s how I prefer to perform. I like making the money on the big stages, but that’s not how – I don’t feel like a call to be on them all the time. I like doing those because you meet so many people, but actually I find my career is more advanced by doing things like this, where you’re meeting all the people that really, really love music and play music, and then they go – and they say, “Oh, yeah, you know, in my town Lansing, you play here. Then I know where to play. They bring me. What’s the most important thing to you in your life right now?

DR: That’s an odd question, Frank. Probably just the same, you know, playing music and trying not to make too much trouble – trying to be a responsible earthling and be engaged and try to stand up for what’s right. Talk about songwriting.

DR: I write quite a few of them, yeah. I try to make them as transparent as possible so that you can’t tell that they’re new songs. I think the blues in particular – it’s a language that’s very – it’s almost like a stone in the river, the language in the blues has just been worn through use. And there’s certain images like the bell that shines like gold. You know, there are certain images that they come up and they’re timeless. So I try to write songs that are in that vein. Hopefully I achieve it. You are one of the most loved musicians in the acoustic blues. And I wonder what it is that you feel that causes that in people.

DR: Well, maybe it’s just because I’m so happy to be doing what I’m doing. Like I really feel like I don’t have a lot of doubt about my purpose, and I think that for a lot of people they have a lot of doubt about their purpose. Like are they doing the right thing? What are they here for? You know, that great song that Lambert, Hendricks & Ross do, “What am I here for? What am I here for? What does my living all mean?” (Singing.) You know, it’s like I have always pretty much known that I was supposed to be playing the guitar and talking about Memphis Minnie – that’s kind of my job. And I feel that – I feel this real connection with her music, even though she’s from another time. She’s a black woman from another – just like another place and another time. But I feel like her artistic vision was so strong and so well expressed that it’s like a grand opera. It’s like a work of art that enables you to view how somebody else lived and felt and thought. That’s what art is supposed to do. So it’s just my pleasure to kind of like facilitate that work getting out a little bit, so more people know – and that’s actually working, like really seriously when I – in the ‘70s Memphis Minnie was like way more obscure. And when people talked about the history of blues they would leave her out. And I notice that that’s not the case any more. And I think all of us – like all of us who talk about her and play her music – that’s making her more part of the overt history of the music.

Yeah, I think maybe people like me just because I’m so happy doing what I’m doing. You like to see happy people. As a woman performer, what advice do you give other young women coming up, whether it’s folk music or country music or blues, whatever it may be?

DR: I’m super aggressive. I’m super aggressive. I mean the idea that women have to play gently, I mean it’s just old-fashioned sexism, the idea that she plays like a man – or aka aggressive. John Jackson did not play aggressively. John Jackson was a beautiful, lyrical player. Valerie Turner is very much in that tradition of the John Jackson, John Hurt – you know, that’s a whole – it’s just a different strain of the blues from Memphis Minnie, Muddy Waters – they’re really hard players. Memphis Minnie had a very hard attack, and it’s just where they came up playing. It’s about how the music developed, the places it was played in. Like you can really hear who was playing in loud bars and who was playing picnics by the river. You can hear the difference in the style – what kind of songs they play. And, as a musician, if I’m playing in a noisy bar, I don’t play complicated ragtime four-part pieces; I play boogie-woogie. That’s how the music develops as well.

The thing about the music business is you just have to not expect much. There’s reasons why people get famous and there’s reasons why people don’t get famous. A person might be a great guitar player but they’re crazy, so they can’t get to their bookings. Or that person might be a lousy guitar player but they have a wonderful personality, so everybody wants him to come back. There’s all kinds of factors as to why people get recognition, and you just can’t think about other people’s recognition – just think about your music and trying to do it and not worry about it. I don’t worry about it. I think if you’re a good player there’s a good place for you.

I don’t feel like women need to see me – like young women know they can play. I mean young women who haven’t started yet, it’s really great to see people like you. It’s just like if you’re black it’s really great to see a black person in a position of leadership. If you’re female, if you see people like you doing things, you’re like, “Oh, I could do that.” I mean, that’s just part of why it’s good to have diversity – so everybody feels like they can do everything. And so I think that – and when young men see that women can play they think of women as more like them – as just another person, not an “other,” you know. Women are not “other” – they’re just people.