Article & Photos by Frank Matheis as published in Living Blues Magazine Issue #245. Vol.47, #5. October 2016.
If you made up Marcus Lamont Cartwright, who some call “Mookie,” as a fictional bluesman in a Hollywood movie or a Broadway show, chances are the character would be rewritten for being too unbelievable. He just couldn’t be that stereotypically perfect. Acoustic bluesmen have acted in similar roles. Guy Davis played in Mulebone and Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil. Chris Thomas King played Tommy Johnson in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou; Keb Mo played Robert Johnson in Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl. All of them acted well, but Marcus Cartwright is not acting. He could play all those roles because, at the tender age of 22, he wouldn’t have to learn the part – he already lives it. Everything anybody has ever imagined about long lost personas of idealized bluesmen, Marcus Cartwright is in real life today. He’s been shot at, has seen his action of entering and fleeing out “my husband just now left” back doors, and a whole lot more. Yes, the cliché teaches us that reality can be stranger than fiction. Marcus Cartwright is really all that and then some.
The charismatic young bard is shockingly good musically and dangerously handsome, with an infectious smile that will open the vault doors to Fort Knox and seemingly irresistible to the young ladies. He flaunts his million-dollar smile and sex-appeal, and when he gets out the cheap acoustic Yamaha and sings in his deep Louisiana/Arkansas dialect Oh baby, don’t you wish you had a man like me and Rock Me Baby – rock me all night long, he brings silence to the wide eyed ladies who just stare and, well, you can feel what they are thinking. He claims to have 13-14 girlfriends (but no children), and he’s a few shy of Muddy’s famous 19, so he is working on a few more, and this writer believes every bit of it. He tells, “My grandma started me singing at the age of four at church and everywhere else. I had a family that played guitar and we picked everything and sang everything – and when I say everything, I mean everything – from dirty stuff to clean stuff. And we even got Southern soul…My momma made sure I finished high school, but when the money started coming in I started playing professionally at age 14 and I kept going with it. Somehow everybody likes me. I don’t know why.” Anybody who hears him play will instantly know the answer to that. Everybody who meets him loves him, and that’s even before he starts singing.
The young bluesman was born in Stuttgart, Arkansas, his family settled in Holly Grove, Arkansas and then moved to Amite City Louisiana, where he still resides. At the Augusta Heritage Center Blues Week 2016, in Elkins West Virginia, he was a member of the “house band” of Jerron Paxton on guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica; Phil Wiggins on harmonica and Marcus Cartwright on guitar. The obsessed trio started playing around Noon and continued virtually non-stop, euphorically and exuberantly, until the crack of dawn, proving to anyone who witnessed it that the acoustic roots & blues are alive and well and these were three of the best talents in the genre. The musical genius Jerron Paxton found his true equal in Marcus Cartwright. When Cartwright plays the Howlin’ Wolf songs that he learned at the knees of Hubert Sumlin and sings those great tunes on his acoustic guitar, or any of the vast repertoire of blues, soul or other roots music, he is simply amazing. When he gets the electric guitar out and starts to play Chicago blues he sounds like the great Willie Johnson, the Wolf’s guitarist before he moved north to Chicago. Cartwright sings in a rich, warm tenor, as soulful and enthralling as it gets. He has it all, and along with Jontavious Willis and Jerron Paxton, he is the future of the acoustic blues. Blues fans worldwide can rejoice, because these guys today are simply magical. “ I just love the music. I can play some of what we call we call “mountain music” – we play that back in Arkansas. We call it “dancing music.” We have banjos and guitars and everything. We’ll do a Delta Blues number, maybe Sitting on Top of the World at the dances. They’ll dance to anything down there. But with me, Phil and Jerron all playing it – that happens all the time down in Arkansas. It’s like down South, man, we get down, down, down.”
He tells how he got his first guitar from his mother: “I got my harp at 10. I started messing around with a banjo at 10. I had got a guitar – crazy story, but I’m going to tell you. And here’s how I got playing the guitar. We was in Stuttgart, Arkansas, with my mom, and we went to get her pistol out of pawn. And I was looking at the guitar around the counter yonder and the guitar looked at me and I said, “Mom, I want a guitar.” And she said, “You want a guitar? Why you want a guitar?” She said, “I tell you what. I’m not going to get you that thing because it’s old dusty. I’m going to get you a brand new one for your birthday or for Christmas.” So she got me my guitar for my 14th birthday and I’ve been playing it – a Kona acoustic…a blond looking colored, pretty guitar. From there I’ve been playing ever since.” (He said about his mom, “She can shoot that little bitty pistol and she shoots a shotgun like it was a pistol.)
To meet him is to love him and many musicians supported the young upcoming star. “I played with David Kimbrough and I learned some stuff from Big Jack Johnson, and all the Clarksdale musicians – Mr. Arthneice “Gas Man” Jones, Mr. Ernest “Guitar” Roy, Mr. Hubert Sumlin taught me some stuff on the guitar. Mr. Bob Margolin, Mr. L.C. Ulmer. Mr. Elmo Williams – he’s gone home now. Mr. Hezekiah Early, Mr. Lonne Pitchford, and Lil’ Poochie all taught me some. Man, there’s so many who showed me stuff. Many of those folks I met at Pinetop Perkins homecoming in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Most of them are gone now. Hubie and them and I was real – you know, Hubie and them was my homies so to say, but they were cool buddies of mine. I got to play with Mr. Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins. I didn’t get a chance to play with Mr. Willie Big Eyes Smith. He always was sitting back looking at me while I play. I played with his son, Kenny Smith. Bob Margolin, Mr. Bob Stroger bass player, and Mr. Jimmy Mays on drums. I even had a chance to play with old Eddie C. Campbell. We are having a good time, man. I tell you what if fat meat weren’t greasy.”
More festivals are catching on to him. Right now he plays mostly around Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee but he is getting out to the coasts more frequently to major festivals. “I’ve done the King Biscuit Blues Festival, the Juke Joint Festival out there in Clarksdale, the Sunflower Festival out there in Clarksdale. In Little Rock, I did the Saint Francis County Heritage Blues Festival in Forrest City, Arkansas. I recently been to California to do the Hayward-Russell City, California. Yeah, man, music pays my bills and notes and everything. I can even pay some other folk’s bills. I have been truly blessed.”
“I just want folks to be happy, and I’m looking forward to people smiling and laughing and dancing while I play music. I’ve probably been through some of everything. You know I’m 22 years old. I promise you, life is not worth holding your head down for no reason at all, because you know one thing my momma tells me is tomorrow ain’t promised to nobody. Not just that. You know, you just got to try your best to maintain your happiness, because that is your virtue, a life…It’s good to see somebody – no matter if it is a club, or if we’re at home playing our dances with fiddles and banjos and guitars, no matter if we’re in the barroom or the club , if you come there looking sad or feeling confused or just got some trouble with you, and we can play music and make you to enjoy this right now – I ain’t going to worry about that. So that’s my thing, to just make people happy. I like the people to be happy and lead a wonderful life, because I live a wonderful life. I’m truly blessed. With music we can go anywhere we want to go. I’m free when I play music – everybody else is free with music.”
Marcus Cartwright has not yet released an album and he is hoping to get into the studio in 2017. Look for great things coming from him soon enough.