You recently got back to the US after touring Europe with the Como Mamas. What was that experience like? What were some of the highlights?
It was really wonderful. I didn’t know I was going on this tour until about two weeks before we left. It was a month-long tour, and the guy who’s been playing guitar for them couldn’t do it because of a scheduling conflict. I was the substitute guitar player. Their drummer – Wallace Lester – is a guy I’ve played with for years. He’s a Mississippi guy, and I lived in Oxford for about ten years. He and I played in several bands. That’s how it came together.
I had never heard of the Como Mamas until they started showing up on social media this year. Have they been around a while?
I had seen the a few times when I lived in Mississippi. Initially, Daptones Records did this compilation called Como Now. It was revisiting that community. Alan Lomax had done these field recordings there in the 1950s, when he discovered Fred McDowell. So the Daptone compilation was an attempt to revisit and recapture some of that same material. The Como Mamas were one of several groups on that initial release. They followed it up with an a-capella record, which is the way they had always sung. Then recently they put out a record with a backing band. Some Daptone session guys from New York.
Is that the one that came out this year?
Yeah. It’s called Move Upstairs. It’s a good record. I hadn’t listened to it much, but then I got asked to do this job. So I had to go do my homework [laughs]. It’s a great record, and they were really fun to travel with. It was also fun to work out my gospel guitar chops as well. I hadn’t done that in a few years.
How did the tour go?
The tour was really fun. I had to do some quick improvising because I’d never played with them before. We didn’t have a rehearsal at all before we started the tour. The first night – I think we were in Belgium – I had maybe a ten-minute soundcheck, and then it was on [laughs].
That was kind of wild, but I was familiar with their repertoire. I had played gospel guitar before, with Reverend John Wilkins for several years. He’s a Memphis/North Mississippi gospel blues musician. His father was Robert Wilikins who had recorded back in the 20s and 30s. He was a blues man in his younger days but then got the call to preach and do religious material. He was rediscovered in the folk revival of the 1960s. So I had played with his son, and we put out a record on Fat Possum and did a little bit of touring.
It had been a few years since I’d been a guitar player in someone else’s band. But there was a lot of overlap between Reverend Wilkins’ music and the Como Mamas. Reverend Wilkins’ church is in Como, so that was another connection. Como, Mississippi is where Fred McDowell was from. Two of the women in the Como Mamas remembered him. They grew up under him and that whole scene. Osa Turner. Napoleon Strickland. All those great blues musicians in that part of the world.
When I think of gospel music, I don’t think of Europe. How did the crowd react to this regional music from the Southern United States?
Well one thing is that the record was really well publicized over there. Even more so than in the States, I think. So the reception was kind of amazing. We played some really nice art centers and festivals. The booking was really good, and everything was pretty well publicized. Most of the shows were well attended if not sold out.
Was the crowd similar to a Daptones crowd? I'm envisioning a crowd similar to a Sharon Jones or Charles Bradley show.
There were a lot of soul enthusiasts. You were asking about Southern regional music in Europe, and my experience was that the reception was even more enthusiastic than in the States (with some exceptions). I’ve been to Europe several times to play music. I went to Finland with Reverend Wilkins. I went to England and France with Precious Bryant, a blues woman from Georgia.
You had a formative experience with her, right?
Exactly. She’s who I learned gospel guitar from, even though I wasn’t playing it regularly back then. But the reception in Europe to vernacular music, or Southern music, or whatever you want to call it – in my experience, it’s always been really enthusiastic. Here, it’s more part of the accepted cultural landscape, so people maybe take it for granted. Or it falls into the general culture. But over there, people are really aware that they’re witnessing something special. Something that they’re not going to see every day.
It’s interesting – maybe a bit surprising – to see you play this vernacular music on electric guitar instead of acoustic. When did you “go electric?”
[Laughs.] Honestly, I never made a conscientious move to the electric guitar. It was more practical than anything else. For years, I’d play acoustic guitar when I was performing solo. And I still will from time to time. But there was something about the crowds in Mississippi. I don’t know what it is, but bars can be really loud. And people are talkative. There’s not a lot of patience for quiet, acoustic music. It’s a regional thing.
For years, I was playing in the corner of a bar and I couldn’t get through to the audience because [my playing] was just too quiet. I tried different things – playing with metal finger picks, using different pickups on the guitar, different microphones. After a while, I said screw it and started playing electric.
I played electric with Reverend Wilkins, and I played it in some bands. We played country music, so it was more logical to play electric with the drums and bass. Especially if I was going to do any finger-picking, which is my main thing. You just have to cut through. It was out of necessity.
I realized that playing electric guitar allowed me to play more delicately. With an acoustic guitar, if you’re trying to get volume and cut through, you end up playing really hard. You’re really banging songs out. With an electric guitar, I can play more quietly. I can be more delicate, and in the long run, I can be more expressive.
Absolutely. I have your new record on vinyl, and it’s the best sounding record I bought this year. I’ve got a good stereo setup in a room with high ceilings and a hardwood floor, so it just sort of has this warm, baked-in concert-hall feel. And the record sounds phenomenal in that setting. The delicate playing that you’re talking about really carries over to the album.
I’m glad to hear that and that it comes across that way. It’s not always the easiest thing to record. I was lucky to work with some talented people who helped me bring it to fruition. Nick Petersen, who lives here in Durham, was the engineer. And Jason Meagher, who runs Black Dirt Studios. He recorded the first half up in New York, and I finished it down here in Durham. And Jeff Zeigler, a Philly guy. He mastered it for me.
He did the new War on Drugs record, right?
Yep. And he’s worked a lot with Mary Lattimore.
You told an interviewer that you find a lot of your album material on YouTube, which I find delightfully ironic. The oldest music brought to you on the newest platform. Do you think the essence of those songs diminishes in cyberspace? If you find a song on YouTube that moves you, do you have to track down a physical copy to confirm that it’s right for you, or is the digital version good enough?
Usually the digital version suffices for me. I’m not someone who’s a big record collector, honestly. I like records, but increasingly I find that they’re too expensive [laughs]. If I can find things on vinyl, that’s great. But I’m not a big stickler for that kind of thing. Usually YouTube does the trick for me. I also still listen to a lot of CDs.
I prefer vinyl because I like holding the big picture. The record cover with the art. I like holding something in my hands and reading the notes. I like the physical aspects of vinyl, but for convenience and accessibility, I like YouTube. There’s so much out there, and it’s free. It’s also more democratic. Anybody with a computer and a camera can upload something to YouTube. Some people see it as a bad thing, but I like it. It’s about accessibility and equity. People who wouldn’t normally have access to be able to publish something can publish on YouTube. I think it’s nice to be able to watch videos of, say, a Mexican Norteño band in a backyard, say, in Charlotte. A band like that wouldn’t have had that kind of access fifteen years ago.
Paintings and visual art – particularly the work of Roger Brown – informed your approach to What in the Natural World. You’ve also posted several images of paintings to social media recently. Are these just works of art that you like, or do they tie in to your music?
Both. I’m just a big art fan. I grew up in an art family. My dad was the curator of a museum in Columbus, Georgia. All my family are visual artists. My dad’s a water colorist and painter. My mom and my sister are quilters. My sister’s also a painter.
I was a big admirer of Roger Brown for years. When I was a little kid, my dad curated a show for him at the Columbus art museum. My dad knew him a little bit. He was from Opeleika, Alabama, which is right across the river. Roger Brown lived in Chicago, but a lot of his painting have imagery that’s from my part of the world. So I was a fan of his, and there was a painting of his that my dad's museum had in the permanent collection. I grew up looking at it on an almost-weekly basis.
When I made this record, I was thinking a lot about Roger Brown’s paintings and hoping to have one on the cover. I didn’t know anything about what that would entail legally and assumed it was a slim chance. I assumed that I’d have to pay thousands of dollars for it, because he’s a pretty celebrated painter beyond the region where I’m from.
I mentioned it to Brendan Greaves, who runs Paradise of Bachelors. He’s an art guy too, and he was like, “He’s one of my favorite painters.” I didn’t know Brendan was a Roger Brown too, but we started talking about it. I reached out to the Roger Brown Study Collection in Chicago. There were a few that I was interested in, so I wrote them. They gave me full access and didn’t charge me anything. They liked my music enough and thought it was in line with what [Roger] would have been interested in. They were extremely generous. I had to credit him using their terminology…and then I had to mail a couple of copies of the record to his brother in Alabama. So that was cool [laughs]. That was the only caveat.
Since then, I’ve played in Chicago a couple of times. At The Hideout. And then I opened for Wilco at the Chicago Theatre. Lisa Stone, the director of the Roger Brown Study Collection, came to the show. I got to pay the place a visit. We have a relationship now that came out of the record.
You’ve grown up studying and playing music that often originated with non-white communities. It is primarily blues, gospel, folk or traditional music played by African Americans or Native Americans. However, it seems that a lot of the music coming from today’s boutique record labels – and I’m talking about my favorite stuff, the absolutely vital stuff – is still really white. As a promoter, most of the shows I’ve done here are for white guys. I really want to find people that are making similar music that are not white, but it’s hard. Especially when you run the risk of tokenizing the artist. So I'm curious - where do you look to find diversity in today’s music? And, more difficult: do you have any ideas for how to promote non-white music without tokenizing the artists who make it?
Man, that’s a really good and difficult question. I think it always has to do with perspective and worldview. I think you’re on to something with the avenues and outlets of publicity. Different record labels, and blogs, and things like that. There’s a tendency for scenes to get stuck and not branch out. To get stuck in a comfort zone, and a lot of times that comfort zone ends up being white people of a certain class or a certain persuasion or interest group. So I think expanding the outlets we look to for music – that helps. Having those YouTube videos of those Norteño groups in Charlotte, this fictitious thing that I’m making up. I think we need to have those sorts of outlets be as important a being on a good record label’s mailing list. Of course, those labels are good too. One of Paradise of Bachelors first releases was Plant and See, a Lumbee rock and roll record.
That’s right. And they did that David Lee compilation too.
My friend Jeff Currie had a big hand in that. He’s a Lumbee Indian, historian and folklorist. He had a hand in both of those releases. I think he wrote the notes to Plant and See, actually.
But looking at other outlets. And maintaining a sense of accessibility and inclusion and equity about the whole thing. Not getting too comfortable in your own social zone. That’s the way I think about it.
It’s easy to fall into habits. There are certain arbiters of what’s cool and hip.
Right. The arbiters of taste. I don’t have anything against those blogs or magazines. They write really nice reviews of my records and review really interesting stuff. But there seems to be some regurgitation of the same boutique labels that are releasing white artists. I think it’s important to broaden the perspective on that and have a more inclusive view. Go outside your comfort zone, not just about race, but about what’s cool or what’s not cool. Does it have to be little and boutique-y to be interesting? Can it be something that’s sort of mainstream, or something that you might have thought of as cheesy a couple years ago?
One of my favorite groups out there right now is this group called Los Cenzontles. They’re a really great group of younger, Mexican-American revivalists. They grew up in the East Bay area of San Francisco. Berkeley. Oakland. Los Cerritos. They’re earliest records were banda music, which is that brass band music from the Mexican diaspora. They’ll take these trips down to Mexico to learn from the masters of regional traditions. Regional fiddling. Harp music from the state of Veracruz. Jarocho music, which is its own thing. All of these regional music traditions that they draw from. They’re almost like a Mexican-American version of what the New Lost City Ramblers were doing in the late 50s and 60s folk revival. They do a lot of YouTube videos and are active on social media. They also do socio-political commentary on things like immigration and contemporary issues in Latino communities. So that’s one example of something that’s not part of this blog world that we’re talking about
You see a lot of repetition of stuff on these publications. It’s the promotion of a perceived scene. I’m not sure how tight knit it is. I think music writers sometimes creates a scene out of something that’s not all that much of a community. Sometimes I get compared to people or their names are alongside mine in a review – and I’ve never even met the person. It’s okay, but I don’t think of myself of being in the same scene.
So I’m trying to continually keep myself in check regarding what kind of avenues and outlets I’m paying attention to. What I consider to be relevant or interesting. It’s difficult though. I hang out with a certain group and fall into it. But I try to stay self-reflective. Self-critical. Don’t get too comfy [laughs].
I saw you play in Charlotte when you opened for Justin Townes Earle a couple of years ago. Is that only time you’ve played here? What are your impressions of our fair city?
Man – I think that’s the only time I’ve played Charlotte. I know it’s the only time I’ve played solo there. I may have toured through there with a band, but I don’t think I did.
I like Charlotte – I just don’t know it that well. It’s a unique city. I’ve gotten to be attracted to those towns that people like to talk shit about [laughs]. Because I’m from one of those places. One of those medium-sized, industrial Southern cities.
Interesting people are from Charlotte. Ross McElwee is from there. The documentary filmmaker. He made a film called Sherman’s March in the 80s. Really great filmmaker. Also – there were a lot of great recordings made in Charlotte back in the 20s and 30s. These prewar vernacular recordings. Jimmy Tarlton, who was part of Darby and Tarlton. I think those recordings were done in a hotel room.
You wouldn’t think it, but Charlotte has a regional record studio legacy. Arthur Smith in the 40s, 50s, 60s had a studio. Lee Fields cut his first record there. And then there was a big beach music scene. It’s not my scene, but I’ve heard that music my whole life. I love it for the nostalgic reasons. But it’s pretty cool to think about 1960s Charlotte with a primarily African-American owned music industry in the city – regardless of whether you like beach music or not – just the fact that it was there. I don’t think many people know that about Charlotte.
A lot of gospel records come out of Charlotte too. I see them all the time. I work part time at Carolina Soul Records, and we get a lot of regional gospel records. Little labels and studios in Charlotte in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Charlotte’s not great about preserving its history. Maybe people like us can slowly bring it a little more out of the shadows.
I think it will happen. Growing up in Columbus, that was always one of my main complaints. I’m from a city that hates itself. Always comparing itself to Atlanta and not being good enough. There’s always been people who are local historians or promoters of regional lore. My parents were definitely two of those people, but they were in the minority. Now when I go back, and go to the bar or the coffee shop, there’s these huge prints of Ma Rainey on the wall. That was never the case when I was a kid. Any kind of embrace of that kind of thing.
Charlotte has a very similar thing with Romare Bearden.
Yeah. He was a giant figure in American art, so he should be recognized. But it takes a while. A lot of that goes back to racial segregation and whites not wanting to embrace black culture. There’s a long history of that. And of course, the black community of Columbus knew about Ma Rainey forever. Now, it’s hip. Same thing with the novelist Carson McCullers. She’s an important part of the Columbus cultural landscape now. It’s great. I love it. But it takes a while. You get these places that are underappreciated, and it takes them awhile to realize that it’s worth embracing your own regional culture and history. Sometimes it just takes a national push for people to realize that people are coming here asking about this stuff, but we’re not promoting it ourselves. So I think it’s going to keep happening. Charlotte’s going to embrace its own history more and more. Maybe in a couple of years we’ll have the Charlotte Music Museum [laughs]. You never know. It can happen.
You’re show here is right around the corner. What do you have in mind? You going to do the new record? The old record? Maybe throw some holiday tunes in there?
I probably won’t play too many holiday tunes [laughs]. Nothing against them. I’m just not good at playing them. Usually my set is a mix of both records, and then I play some other stuff I haven’t recorded. Things I have on my mind. I usually ad-lib it.