By: Dennis Cook
The blues have few better shepherds than Elvin Bishop, who's been exploring the myriad permutations available inside a genre that many others have tried to standardize since the early '60s. He was the guitar foil to one of that era's great guitarist, Mike Bloomfield, in the landmark Butterfield Blues Band, and a regular sparring partner for both veteran bluesmen being rediscovered in the '60s and young, emerging blues rock future-giants like the Allman Brothers Band. His instinct for music with a lil' mess on it is nigh infallible, and his guitar chops are just plain tasty, if a little wild, like a pile of yummy ingredients you might not think to assemble yourself but wolf down immediately when placed before you.
Despite some mainstream commercial success, notably '70s uber-hit "Fooled Around And Fell In Love," Bishop has charted a course that's largely honored and advanced the blues. His new album, The Blues Rolls On (released September 23 on Delta Groove Music), accentuates his long standing goal of sharing the blues with future generations while honoring those who've picked and moaned before him. It's a heck of a record, not too pretty in a time of mostly gussied up blues, and features strong guest turns from Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, George Thorogood, Kim Wilson (The Fabulous Thunderbirds), James Cotton, Tommy Castro, Angela Strehli and some less established names well worth pricking up one's ears about. But perhaps the most striking tune in this set is "Oklahoma," a blessedly rough one-man history lesson of the blues as lived through Bishop's own life, including recounting how "Charlie Daniels had the nerve to call me ugly right on his record/ He was too big to fight so I just had to accept it/ He said, 'I always knew that your music was funky but where did you get that little touch of country?'/ I said, 'I come all the way from Oklahoma.'"
We got Elvin to pull up a chair and share a bit of his hard earned wisdom, and we're mighty happy he did.
JamBase: Part of my love of the blues – and not a few others, too – can be credited to you. That first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album from 1965, which my pot smokin' uncle turned me onto, was the spark for many of us to dig into this music.
Elvin Bishop: Thank God for stoner uncles!
JamBase: You've always had a knack for creating new blues that resonate with the same weight, authority and even playfulness of vintage blues. "Drunken Hearted Boy," particularly The Fillmore East rendition with the Allman Brothers, immediately springs to mind.
Elvin Bishop: Especially the older you get, the job seems to be to contribute something of your own. I don't think the world needs another "Got My Mojo Working" or "Stormy Monday." We need something that connects up blues with real life.
|Lovin' the vintage look|
A recent great example of that is your own "What The Hell Is Going On" [a heartbreaking song inspired by the murder of his daughter from 2005's Gettin' My Groove Back]. Tradition is great but I don't think at heart the blues want to remain static.
That's a great point of view. It's been easier for me [to break out of tradition] because of two faults or lacks of mine. One is I was never able to effectively imitate anybody else, and number two is I don't have a great voice that's just a pleasure to listen to by itself, no matter what it's talking about. I have to have a strong story to get over with people. To capture people's imaginations I have to come up with something unique they can't get from everybody else.
I dig that you do this in different ways. You have a number of animal themed songs that always make me giggle, but you also have a lot of heavier stuff, too. One of the marks of the best blues is that range of laughter and tears.
One of my favorite old guys is Lightnin' Hopkins, and he would write a song about anything. His girlfriend gets a job in a candy factory and he writes a song called "Candy Kitchen." There's a dog howling in his backyard, so he writes a song about that. His thing was Chicago blues guys can't write a song until a woman does something wrong. He said all their songs were about women.
So, it's really about the ability to write about anything?
There's a couple of times in my life that I just thanked God that the blues was there and available to me. The blues was invented by people in an impossible position in the Mississippi Delta, and it just wasn't gonna get right and there was a lot of suffering built into it. But the blues is the kind of music that if you play it and sing it good enough somehow it makes you feel better about things, even though nothing has really changed.
Have you always thought of yourself as a blues musician, even with the success and notoriety you've had in the rock world?
Basically at the bottom I've always been a blues guy. I've also always had an irrational desire to support my family as well [laughs]. But there's only been very few times that there's been a pigeonhole they could stuff me into that worked with what the media had going.
Continue reading for more with Elvin Bishop...