Artist Spotlight  
Watermelon Slim
By Robert John, correspondent to
© 2006 - All Rights Reserved

Watermelon Slim is the real deal. He is a performer and interpreter that keeps a firm and reverent stance in Blues tradition and yet pushes the boundaries of his art enough to keep it fresh, vital and appealing.

He is mutli talented, performing and singing with equal authority on both the harmonica and the National Steel Guitar. He does this with a passion and conviction that communicates the pathos and humor that is such an intricate component of the Blues.

Barrelhouse Blues ("BB") recently had the pleasure of interviewing the Handy Award nominee about his music and life. Slim proved to be an affable 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 Rouser"--yeah), 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 musicians around.

BB: You were born in the Boston area - how is it you came to settle in Oklahoma?

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 were.

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 the vet!
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 your boat?

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 comes first.

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,

Watermelon Slim

© 2006 - All Rights Reserved

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