After a brief snafu with our appointed interview date, I finally reached Kim Wilson, co-founder of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and one of the most accomplished harmonica players in the United States, as he was dragging his bags down the hall to his hotel room.
While the Tbirds are in their 'off-season', Wilson doesn't stop, and is off again, on another club tour with his Blues All Stars: Guitarists Billy Flynn and Little Frank, bassist Randy Bermudes and drummer Richard Innes, plus piano player Barrelhouse Chuck. They also did a string of performances in Sweden and have recently arrived back from the Stockholm Blues Festival.
One of the things I have liked about Wilson is his open way of talking. Not many artists have a willingness to discuss any subject you bring up, but the evening found him in good spirits. It was a refreshing break to just relax and have a conversation. We talked a good long while about a topic very close to my heart: the crippling death and deterioration happening within the blues industry. We also discussed Marshall Amp stacks, education, his plans for the future, and respect. Buckle up kids, we’re goin’ to school, and this man drives his own bus.
MF: Lately, I find myself amidst more than a few touring musicians, club owners and even musicians’ wives, listening to them debate about how so many of ‘the blues greats’ are gone. That it’s had a devastating impact on the whole genre because, for so long, so many held so few in such high regard. Blues is all about the story of living life, yet with every passing, with every club closing its doors and every record label that runs out of money, the traditional form is dying little by little. There are fewer and fewer stories being told.
Mr. Robert Jr. Lockwood's protege and dear friend, Cleveland Fats, once told me he felt like a car tire losing a little more air after every trip down the road, because more and more of his friends, like Lockwood, are missing from the picture. What’s your position on all of this?
KW: It's true. There is less of the real thing available now. It all started in the 80’s when it was thought that there was quick cash to be made in the blues. So, now there are people seeing dollar signs and there are fewer ‘generations’ of people left. It’s dwindling. It’s all about the money for so many people…
Some people who actually sanctioned the whole ‘guitar hero’ electric thing (the use of electric guitars in a freeform “shredding” style at high volumes in small clubs) really shouldn’t have. People hear that and they get eventually turned off because it’s not friendly. You don’t hear the phrasing or musicality or the tone. It’s all more like loud rock, not blues. While the traditional musicians are getting on in their years, clubs are starting to lose their audiences because people really don’t want to listen to it. You have a couple of generations of new people bringing like… Marshall (Amp)stacks into clubs and then people really don’t want to listen to it, because you really can’t. It’s so loud.
MF: I’ve seen Marshall Amp stacks (powerful, oversized floor amplifiers stacked one on top of the other) turned up so loudly that drinks, sitting on the bar, vibrate. It’s supposed to be commitment before fancy equipment. I’ve said that to many people who think doing it as a career is just planning and marketing. They make a catchy name for the group and buy some expensive equipment. Then, a few months in the family garage with the 'fellas' and it's time to find a booking agent. No voice coaching. They don't know what dynamics are and can't understand why they aren't booked everywhere in town. It takes such a massive investment of yourself. Focus and discipline have to be first. I might be off the mark, but to play the blues, you really have to go back to the basics and learn before you just go buy a fancy painted Gibson and a boutique amplifier.
KW: And kids come in thinking the book has totally been written and all the old guys wrote it, which is true, but you can certainly write your own page in there when you get to a certain point. You can’t do anything remotely close to the kind of music that pushes the envelope without being well-versed. To be able to reach back to where this all started.
Where the record label screws up is that an artist has to be viable…to bend, go different directions. Many of them can’t. They don’t have the background. Then, as an artist, one day you have to face it. You have to lay down the harp and sing.
MF: So, have you gone back to the basics?
KW: A lot of what you are hearing from us now, at certain points during the set, is very standard and from the "book." You have to have guys that can cover ALL the bases, not just a few. I am here with great guys. The best guys in the world, and, luckily, they enjoy playing with me.
I go out in the wintertime with the All Stars, doing the mid-West before Christmas with them and then some stops in January on the East Coast. Tbirds again in the spring. Everybody knows when it gets slow, I start the All Stars and we play the clubs.
MF: Do you feel as if you’ve been “well seasoned” for so many years with the success of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, that writing and performing blues…it’s all coming to you in a more natural flow these days? You’ve been a busy man since 1980 and, in the music industry, that puts you in some mighty fine company.
KW: We’ve been picking up some speed…still going strong but you have to take it one step at a time. Yes, it’s probably the “seasoning” (laughs) I’ve gone through, especially now the way that I feel. It’s the best music I’ve ever played. It’s like breathing for me. Physically, yeah, it’s hard but when we do a two set show like the one Wednesday night at Harlow’s, a lot of cool things happen in the second set, a lot of improvisation. I would say, the REAL show happens in the second set.
I love to re-introduce people to what the blues is: just having a good time in mind. When they come to our show, there is no set list. Half the time I don’t tell the guys when I’m starting out. I just might call out a shuffle in ‘G’ and I’ll start singing. It’s not preconceived. Totally improvised. Lots of dynamics. Everyone’s having fun and people dance a lot.
MF: There are so many people who adore blues music. It’s as if the sound become a part of your heart and you just have to have it. I especially love the intimate venues where I can photograph the artists. You can actually watch them play. There is that one on one exchange, a level of respect in small venues. I know the awareness is growing; I just wish there was more career longevity so that it would allow more of the younger musicians an opportunity to spend their lives learning and growing.
KW: 34 years ago, everybody could play. If you had the skills and wanted it, you could make it happen. There was that incentive to be a musician for your whole life. Now, there is no incentive for kids to do that. The people who want to hear quality are still there, but there are no examples for the up and coming. The young kids are not going out to see the older ones. There is no respect being paid, no time spent watching.
MF: I know what you mean. There are a few musicians I will never tire of watching and a few months ago, I had the honor of speaking with Ron Thompson. Every time I photograph him or speak to him, I learn something. He is a powerful and talented man who has spent his life honing his craft….
KW: Ron Thompson, now THERE’S a guy who really can sing! He puts on a great show. He is a great entertainer and an incredible musician. And he’s been really great for a long time. And this is what I mean: there isn’t one of him on the corner of every bar in town and there’s a distinct reason for that. He is unique. But still, people are not watching. Respect is not being paid.
MF: If you could lecture at a music department somewhere, what would you tell them about respect and understanding the history before you think you can carve your own?
KW: I actually lectured at Harvard. Five years ago, one of the professors there added me as part of his curriculum. You can learn music from pages and records but it really helps more to watch people. I did tell the ones I met, that this is a lifetime commitment. You know, I still carry around a ’59 amp that I had in 1972 when I played with Luther Tucker. I really enjoyed doing that course and I’d do it again if I could.
MF: You use an amp from 1959?
KW: Yes, it sleeps next to me every night.
I laugh and then realize he is dead serious.
MF: I realize there is some creative diversity in running the two bands, but how in the world have you kept things fresh for all these years?
KW: I’ve recorded with so many different artists and I’ve enjoyed all those projects. I enjoy the arena events with the Thunderbirds but making a performance intimate is hard in the arena. The kind of places I’m playing in now, you can hear a lot of the things you won’t hear with an engineer and a giant soundboard. Playing to 10 or 20 thousand people is great but you can’t live on that and keep your inspiration fresh for yourself.
MF: What could possibly be left on the “Kim Wilson Bucket List?”
KW: I just want to keep getting better and better, creating more and more fresh versions of traditional music. I really want to write my own page in this stuff and I now have all the guys to do it with.
Right now, it’s just a good time, both in my life and when I’m with them. This is not some serious thing either. It’s all made to dance to or live your life by it. It’s made to party and that’s the kind of atmosphere we try to bring to the clubs every night.
Kim Wilson and his Blues All Stars are at Harlow’s, 2708 J Street on Wednesday, December 8th. Tickets are $20. Doors open at 7, show starts at 8.