Brave Hart: Alvin Youngblood Hart

By: Drew Lyon

Alvin Youngblood Hart
12 years after the release of Alvin Youngblood Hart's seminal debut, Big Mama's Door, the music racket's grim realities have forced the Memphis, Tennessee-based guitarist-songwriter to reexamine his tolerance for the recording industry.

"I'm pondering my future in the music business," Hart announces from his Memphis home on the eve of his winter tour with his musical brethren, North Mississippi Allstars. "I been just kind of sittin' around, watching the music business change, you know, because with digital albums, the Internet and all that downloading and things, the record business is changing man."

Hart has earned the right to lament the logic of continuing onward in the endless cycle of touring and recording. Big Mama's Door, a potent combination of original and pre-World War II blues numbers, came with an unwelcome catch after garnering a heap of glowing reviews from blues fans on a futile quest for a modern-day link to acoustic deities like Charley Patton and Leadbelly. Hart, to his ire, was forever filed away in the oft-constricting idiom of modern blues. It didn't matter if Territory (Big Mama's successor) strayed far outside the borders of the blues. In the narrow eyes of the music business, Alvin Hart was merely, if incorrectly, classified as a bluesman.

"Unfortunately, people don't want to let you out of that label," Hart says. He speaks from experience. Since his debut in 1996, he has recorded four albums of varying musical styles, but each album saw its release on a different record label. In 2004, Hart earned a Grammy nomination for his fourth album, Down In The Alley, a multi-instrumental solo album of dusty blues covers that recalled the rustic sensibilities of Big Mama's Door. A year later, Hart won a Grammy for his contribution to the Stephen Foster tribute album, Beautiful Dreamer.

Throughout his career, Hart has consistently challenged his listeners, and he prefers it that way. "It's not a conscious thing like, 'Oh they think I'm going this route, so I'm going to do this.' It's just how music moves me," he says.

Alvin Youngblood Hart
The momentum behind Hart's latest album, 2005's superlative and sly Motivational Speaker, was halted when his label, Tone Cool, folded. The record was met with justifiably enthusiastic reviews, and the album's muscle and depth - it's a rare breed that can pull off convincing covers of Otis Redding and Johnny Paycheck - indicate it wouldn't be hyperbolic to herald Motivational Speaker as the 21st century's premier rock 'n' roll statement. "I think it's my best record," Hart says. "I wrote some good songs, and we had a good time making it."

Again stuck in the webs of the music business, a stoic Hart regrouped and did what's always come natural to the U.S. Coast Guard veteran; he grabbed his trusty bottleneck slide, gathered his arsenal of vintage guitars, banjos and mandolins, and hit the road. If Tone Cool wasn't going to sell Motivational Speaker, Hart's engaging, haunting live performances would.

"[Motivational Speaker] didn't get the attention it deserved when it came out," Hart says. "I took the reigns and said, 'Well, if the label's not going to do this and that, then I'll do it myself.' So for the next year or so, I went out and played and got some word-of-mouth going. It was a noble effort, but it didn't do too much [and] it exhausted a lot of resources."

"But," Hart sighed, "that's what happens. Meanwhile, I'm still writing some songs and playin' guitar and fixin' amps."

Alvin Youngblood Hart
Even if the experience left scars, Hart has managed, on his own terms, to wrestle free of misconceptions and his perpetual state of label instability. He's a highly respected songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and accomplished session guitarist in Americana circles; a true "musician's musician."

Hart's resume has swelled considerably in recent years, as Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and many others began endorsing his blues authenticity. The self-proclaimed "Cosmic American love child of Howlin' Wolf and Link Wray" backed up Bo Diddley on a 2007 tour, played slide guitar on harp wizard Junior Wells' final studio album, cut an album with Bobby Rush in a marathon 14-hour session, and strangely, also recorded an unreleased duet with actress Christina Ricci that was left on the cutting room floor of the Black Snake Moan movie soundtrack.

"That tune with Ricci wasn't [cut] at the same time," Hart says. "I did my part of the song, and I was back on the road, and she came in a week later and overdubbed some things."

Hart says he still gets excited when he crosses paths with his musical luminaries.

"It still happens all the time," he says. "If you had told me when I was 15 and playing in the garage that someday I was going to meet John Lee Hooker, I would've been like 'What?'"

Last year, Hart and a crew of Mississippi Hill Country musicians, appeared on the Black Snake Moan soundtrack, and he even helped teach Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a blues singer in the movie, a few rudimentary chords on the guitar. Scott Bomar, the film's musical director, initially tapped Hart to record the movie's title track, "but the director's brother-in-law or something got it," Hart inserts. "Nepotism always wins in Hollywood."

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