Barrelhouse Blues ("BB") recently had the pleasure of interviewing
the Handy Award nominee about his music and life. Slim proved to be
fellow whose life experiences have taken him far and wide - and finally home
- to the Blues:
BB: How old were you and what was it that sparked
your first interest in music?
WS: It's an old story, many times told now, since people have been
interested. I was born in Boston, but lived there less than two years,
and my mother and father divorced soon after having my brother Peter
the next year. So I went with her to Asheville, North Carolina, and
that's where I grew up.
I grew up in the South during the last years of racial segregation.
Jim Crow. My family was pretty well off, and so we almost always
had a "maid" doing housework for us. In 1954, that maid
was a woman named Beulah Huggins. She was a fairly buxom black
woman, reddish hair, of something like 30, light brown really,
but that cuts no ice, she was still what in those days was known
as a negro-- politely. She always wore some sort of perfume that
made her really nice to sit around and just do nothing with. She
was semi-literate, because she loved to share her glee at the
funny papers with us. I was reading by the age of three-- it freaked
my mom out when I came into the kitchen and asked her to explain
what a "rebel" meant,
and showed her in the newspaper (it was an ad...). Looking back,
it inspires me to remember how she would struggle, but, sometimes
with my help, because I was an enunciating little tyke at the
age of five, succeed in getting the proper pronunciation.
Flash! Mustn't forget to mention that Bo and Muddy's great hit,
Mannish Boy (Bo did the original, I think), has now come true. "Now
when I was a young boy/About the age of five? My mama told me/Son
you'll be the greatest man alive."
My parents certainly intended me to be one of the best and brightest.
And do I have genes. Adamses on one side, Beechers on the
other. Funny how the universe lines up, though. I'm working as a musician
now, not a trucker - no matter that I still drive 400% of
the mileage of the average American. Sometimes I do still feel like
I'm being paid to drive, and at the same time play a little.
Ha ha. I will never be the greatest man alive. I'm not telegenic,
and that is an understatement. But like Muddy said, "you
don't have to be the greatest, just be a real good 'un."
Anyway, Beulah Huggins used to sing quite a bit while doing
her work. Usually just snatches. One or two lines, here
and there, whatever she was doing-- laundry, folding clothes,
scrubbing floors. the lines she would sing were things like "My
mama don' llow me to-- stay out all night long", and "one
bourbon, one scotch, one beer." I
remember sometimes she would improvise. It was not until
sometime in the late 1960s, junior year in high school or
so, that I knew that what Beulah Huggins had been singing
was the blues.
Now of course, my mother, like any good mother,
sang to me - and God be praised, she was a VERY good mother,
but that's another story. But I am quite sure that besides
a presentation of the Mikado which I can reliably place
in 1953, Beulah gave me my first memorable live music.
God bless her. She really was a fine woman. She might have been
our "maid" back
in North Carolina in 1954, but today I'd just call her "sister."
BB: Who were your greatest influences?
WS: In what? My styles? My listening? My first-hand experience?
I'll do a little on each. Harp is my earliest axe - well, not really,
I actually was playing bongos the year before I had my first harp
- and I am a percussionist, though I consider everything but tambourine
to be like my fourth axe or so. I'm a good congas player if I
stay in practice, that's the percussion axe besides tambourine that
I have most often owned. I've been a dabbla with the tabla.
Before interrupting myself, I was saying that harp, the harmonica,
is my number one axe. I had my first harmonica in Clearwater,
Florida, in 1959, on an Easter vacation trip down to visit grandma
and grampa, who had a little house down there. It cost 75 cents,
as I remember.
Now, I didn't have some great musical epiphany at the age of
10. I loved R&B, and with all the black influences in the
house constantly - sometimes I would stay at he "maids'" houses
while parents were out for a long afternoon and evening, and
that was a special treat for me, I certainly knew what it
was! And I loved doo-wop music, and rockabilly (Duane Eddy-- "Rabble
and straight-up country music, western (Marty Robbins-- what
an unforgettable voice!), and bluegrass and Appalachian music.
I really loved jazz, and I wonder if I don't owe a bit of
my style to listening to such early memorable records like
the soundtrack from "the Man With the Golden Arm." I
do remember the movie had something to do with a junkie, my
grandmother thought it was sordid, but the big-band jazz I
played the grooves off of in 1956 or 7 was unforgettable.
North Carolina has always been truly a musical crossroads,
both then and now. I also went to plenty of classical music
concerts, saw Swan Lake performed by the top dancers of
the time. Heard my first and only basso profundo solo at a concert
of the Ukrainian national choir which was touring America
in, I suppose, some sort of diplomatic exchange, since this
was the height of the Cold War. I am working on my basso
profundo range. I can now reliably sing A below low C, most of the
time. I have sung several notes deeper on occasion.
But by the time I had my first harp for a year, I also had
my first (cheap) conga drum, and played it to Ray Charles,
Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry, whose music was all around
me on LPs. Or jazz. Or even Latin and bossa nova, which
ma also had. And Sinatra. Now I will not claim having
been influenced vocally by Sinatra, except in one important way:
Sinatra was as good at really finishing a note as anyone
who ever sang. And not just a note, but a silence. the
more I go on in this professional-singer thing that I'm now doing
more or less steadily - I quit my day job 2 years ago
- the more important it's gotten to me to really be the best
I can. I find myself more focused, and able to focus,
on my musicianship with the veteran band I've got now than
at any time in my life. And Sinatra worked very hard at
singing the very best that his only moderately physically
gifted voice could do. And he was great. I keep several
of his songs in my repertoire just in case, and once was
able to rip out "that's
Life" for some delighted Old Blue Eyes fans in England.
I've incorporated just about anybody and everybody into
my harp style in 47 years of listening and playing,
to records and to live performers, in clubs, in festivals
and on the street. George Mayweather, James Cotton and
Junior Wells figure high among my influences because
those are the three - in that order - who I have heard most
often live. Although technically I was always better
than George, who drank a lot, George Mayweather was my mentor,
the man who brought me to that place where I knew that
my harp playing was truly my own. I have George singing
and playing inside me.
I also was lucky to get to hear Alan Wilson, the Blind
Owl, with the original Canned Heat, in New York City
at the Cafe Au Go Go, June 7 or so of 1968, after
my high school graduation party, and Big Walter Horton,
in a little town called Potsdam, New York, in 1978
with the Wolf Gang. First time I met Hubert. Of people I
never saw, that's pretty easy: Butterfield. And Stevie
Wonder, even though he plays mostly chromatic.
But I am now nothing but, and nothing if not, my own
harp player. I don't mean it in any big-headed way,
but now I'm the harp player who has influence on
other notable players. I've taught some people in harp over
my years, and my greatest student, Craig Lawler,
who started playing harp with five hour-plus lessons from
me in 1998, has far surpassed me in what he can
do with a ten-hole diatonic. He just recently met me
in Colorado and showed me what the Nashville harp
wizard Jason Ricci has taught him about overblowing.
I kicked my hat. I can't do it. Yet. the student
is teaching the teacher, and that is meet and right.
On guitar, it's a little easier: John Lee Hooker,
Fred McDowell, Ry Cooder, Elmore James, with some
Muddy and maybe a bit of Duane Allman - the only
one of my contemporaries in young-white-man-playing-the-blues
I would grant that to. Billy Colwell, who made that
awesome Colwell-Winfield Blues Band album of about
1968, was an awesome player I hung out with and
watched several times in the early 70s in Cambridge.
He drank an awful lot, and one day shot himself
- and lived, paralyzed. He's gone now. "You
know the Blues is all right, if there's someone left
to play the game?All my friends are going, and things
just don't seem the same."
Again, though, I'm
my own guitar player, finally. I've taken longer
to become the master of my own style on guitar,
because I'm just not the most rawly proficient guitarist
in the world-- my interdigital coordination is fair
to poor, and so I use a slide, and play a right-handed
guitar left handed. Slide's the only way I play.
I couldn't show you a chord on a left-handed guitar
in standard tuning. I have steadily made progress,
though, especially between 1998, when I joined Another
Roadside Attraction, an original-music rock band
led by a capital fellow from Stillwater, Nathan
Clewell, as a utility musician - I sang leads, sang
backup, played lots of harp, lots of tambourine,
and a couple of pieces that I had to get right every
time on guitar, and today, when I'm fronting incredibly
tight and dedicated blues musicians.
Along the way, playing with "Texas Ray" Isom,
the Enevoldsen cousins Kyle and Adam - and always,
my wife, the blueswoman Honour Havoc - have stretched
me, and their enthusiasm and that of many others
has kept me going during those long periods when
I wondered if maybe my gift was a curse, and I should
admit I just wasn't really good enough at what I
was doing to ever deserve to be heard widely. Can't
run with the big dogs. Should stay on the porch.
And now I can bear to hear myself play with the best
BB: You were born in the Boston area - how is it you came to settle
WS: As you can see, I didn't grow up there. I spent two parts of
my life around Boston, most of the 1970s, and a period from 1987 to
1993 or so. At the end of my first stay there, I was ready to get
out of Dodge. I had accomplished everything an activist and a musician
who was learning his trade slowly, the natural method, no lessons
- could do. I have had lessons in tenant organizing, antinuclear work,
and research into the entire nuclear fuel cycle to last me my lifetime.
I met people of character there. I number as my friends and colleagues
the historian Howard Zinn and the linguist Noam Chomsky. The late
Nobel Prizewinner George Wald completed the trio I marched with
in the antiwar movement. A couple of the young lawyers my dad
mentored in his career are Justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Court,
and were my friends.
I also met a lot of people of no character. I was always a stoner.
When I got my first taste of pot, I was sold. Not hooked, but
that was a taste and feeling I would duplicate numberlessly.
I wanted pot around. And the best way to ensure that was to deal
in enough quantity and be connected well enough so that I would
almost never be out.
Although I kept a straight job most of the time, always some
kind of forklift-involved form of labor, warehouses or docks
or brickyards, I was more and more a professional in the trade
through the middle 70s. I had connections. And I would occasionally
arrange hash to be smuggled out of India on my own account.
Occasionally I would loan friends who had made bad deals with
the Italians money to put another scam together and make it
back. Amazingly, I was always paid in this kind of favor.
After the paraquat scare of 76-77, that put any Colombian
weed under suspicion of being poisoned, and the Colombian
buyer's market dried up in a hurry. I was under surveillance,
not constant, but they knew they had somebody out there
- or in there, as you disconcertingly feel as you see the plain
car in front of the house. And if I wasn't under surveillance,
some of my associates, much harder cases than I, definitely
It was seriously time to leave, while I didn't owe anybody
any favors I couldn't pay, and before the law had decided
to pounce on me. I was looking to do a stretch, if I kept
on, I think. And I wasted a lot of time being a criminal.
But it was part of my learning process, and I have survived
it and become wiser, thank God.
So I did, and went and bought a little piece of land in
Oklahoma. And here I have, mostly, stayed.
BB: Was there
a defining moment for you in your career in terms of your musical
direction and development?
WS: Too many to do justice to, I think. But when Chris Hardwick
signed me, that was the first real contract I ever signed, so that
was big. the finishing of the Big Shoes sessions, produced by Chris
Stovall Brown, was a big step. I knew I had stuff in the can for the
first time that could not be ignored. I had some hot music. Stepping
back on the plane in 2004 after my first, wildly successful-on-a-small-scale
European tour - that moment certainly made me think, "well, by God, I really
CAN do this big-time visiting musician thing!" The acquisition of the
Workers. No one moment. I remember it all. It's the subject for an entire
article, or a cautionary tale.
BB: What’s it like to live the life of a busy touring musician?
WS: Busy. Lots of driving, more driving than any other occupation
of time. I have co-drivers, of course, and must employ them sometimes
because I've got parts of me that hurt sometimes, injuries and
degenerations left over from decades of hard labor I guess. But the
playing, the meeting new people, the pleasant surprises that're happening
more often, like when somebody who saw you last year in Duluth gives
you a hug in Dubuque, are worth the long drives. I'd be driving
for a living anyway, if I wasn't doing this.
BB: What has been your most memorable moment on stage thus far?
WS: I guess one would have to say that the spot at the Handy
Awards last year would have to rank right up there. Playing
with Guy Davis at the Isle of Man Festival in May of 2005
was a biggie. Recently, having Magic Slim come to the Zoo Bar, in
Lincoln, Nebraska - twice so far - to sit in with the Workers
was a great honor. Slim will be making a guest appearance
on the next Watermelon Slim and the Workers CD.
BB: What are some of your unfulfilled career goals?
WS: One big 'un: to be the steady-gigging sideman for some
established star musician.
Buddy Guy or George Thorogood or somebody, wouldn't have
to be blues even, I am as good a C&W harp player as anybody
this side of Charlie McCoy. I think part of that big lack
in my life is mostly attributable to my stubborn insistence
of doing my career my way. I promise, you big dogs, I'll
be quiet as a mouse until it's time to do my stuff. Hire
And one more: I've never sold anybody a song. I've got
so many of 'em, in C&W and other genres, wish somebody
would buy one sometime.
BB: You sing, play harp and National Steel Guitar. Any preference
for you in terms of musical expression? Which really floats
WS: I'm a singer/songwriter/harp player who also plays left-handed
backwards guitar, mbira - and other African thumb pianos
- and percussion. It ALL floats my boat. But the blues is
a vocal music, and I don't even have to sing words, so singer
BB: What do you value most about making music?
WS: I play, therefore I must be breathing. And breathing,
I can know how I am blessed.
God bless us all, every one,