Buddy Guy is worried about the future of the blues—and with good reason.
So many of the pioneers of the American-born-and-bred music have died—generations of legends who brought the music from the cotton fields of the South to Chicago’s electric avenues have stepped off the stage for good, and Guy wonders who will mentor the next generation.
That’s one of the reasons he’s on a national tour with Jeff Beck, his 80th spin around the globe. On Memorial Day weekend, he makes a major solo stop at Santa Cruz’s second American Music Festival, where Guy is the headliner of Saturday’s blues day.
The line-up for that day offers a look at the past and the future of the blues. Sunday does the same for country and roots music, showing off artists who have their feet planted in the soil sown by Hank Williams, Waylon, Willie, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash, but are taking things into a new century.
“You go to sleep and you wake up and I looked around and I’m saying, ‘My God, Buddy,’ after B.B. passed last year and we lost a couple of great ones, now, British and American musicians,” Guy says in Ernie Ball’s “Pursuit of Tone” interview series. “I look around and I say, ‘Oh shit, you’ve got to keep it alive as long as you can. Hopefully I can introduce some other young persons who can carry along a little more than what we’ve been doing.’”
He wants people to see how it was done and how it should be done, and he wants to mentor new musicians, as he inspired many in the past who became legends themselves, including Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Billy Gibbons.
“It’s harder to carry on now, because the young persons are looking for a role model. They don’t say they want to be like Buddy Guy. They say, ‘Who is that?’ And I can’t blame them for that. My kids didn’t know who I was until they got 21 to come in a club.”
And he’s not the only one who has been thinking about these things.
“We talked about this with every one of these guys who are no longer with us. We used to joke and say, ‘If I go before you, don’t you let the blues die,’” says Guy.
Last year, Guy recorded his 28th album, one that does just what those late legends hoped he’d do. Born to Play Guitar isn’t some nostalgic look back propped up by guest stars, as some performers have been known to do in their later years. It’s got guest appearances by Billy Gibbons, Joss Stone and Kim Wilson, but they are only seasoning for the main course.
It is an absolutely contemporary, crisply written album with themes that include politics and the economy, the loss of blues stars B.B. King and Muddy Waters, and some of the usual blues fare; lost love, cheating women and men, smoky nights, and cheap whiskey.
“And now they’re selling water, I drank water from a creek/ Someday they are gonna sell us the very air that we breathe,” he sings on “Crazy World,” with an echo and blistering guitar that would make Jimi proud. “It’s a crazy world/Oh it’s a crazy world/You can lay your money down and win every bet/But the tax man’s gonna take half of what you get/Politicians spend millions trying to get your vote/But everybody knows, they’ve already bought your soul/People killing each other in the name of the lord/No one wants to stop a moneymaking war.”
The disc, which won a Grammy in February and a Blues Music Award earlier this month for Best Blues Album, answers the question of how you keep the blues alive: you write about what matters to people now.
That’s something Guy has been doing since he started recording in the 1950s. Born George “Buddy” Guy in Lettsworth, Louisiana, July 30, 1936 he grew up playing a homemade two-string instrument made of wire and tin cans.
In the 1950s he was working days as a custodian at Louisiana State University, and playing at nights as a sideman for John “Big Poppa” Tilley, where he overcame stage fright and began to take on the larger-than-life persona that breaks through the fourth wall in his shows today—which almost always feature a trip through the audience while he solos and maybe a stop at the bar or a climb on top of it.
That’s a trick that he started in 1958 in Chicago, where he made a name for himself in the 508 Club, where his trips around the room were aided by a 100-foot-long guitar cable, replaced today by a wireless system.
He had a small hit in 1960 with the song “First Time I Met the Blues,” but spent most of the decade touring clubs and backing up bigger artists such as Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Koko Taylor, and Little Walter.
His reputation and influence spread, as British rockers from John Mayall to the Rolling Stones paid homage to Chicago blues. In 1970, he was on the magical drug- and alcohol-filled train tour of Canada documented in the movie Festival Express, featuring the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Band, Delaney Bonnie & Friends, and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
If you really want to treat yourself to some living history, check out some of the online footage of Guy’s performances and see the scrawny, fired-up guitarist laying down jams that still hold up 46 years later.
He spent two decades touring and recording with harmonica player Junior Wells, forming a blues super group. Finally, in 1989, a tour with Eric Clapton led to a record deal with the Silvertone label and a breakout hit album, Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues. It had guest performances by Clapton, Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler, but the standouts were Guy’s own penned songs, including the title track, “Too Broke to Spend the Night” and “Remembering Stevie,” for Stevie Ray Vaughan.
At the Bar with Buddy
Around the same time, he opened a club in Chicago called Legends. I was lucky enough to spend the better part of a week there with Guy, waiting for a promised surprise set by the Rolling Stones. They never showed, but I got to see the real Guy, who was as at home tending to the details of his club as he is being a superstar on stage. We sat at the bar together every evening, before the crowds came in, looking up expectantly every time the door opened. The Stones were starting their 1997 Bridges to Babylon tour in the city and played another club, the Double Door, but had sent word they may also play Guy’s. He shrugged it off when they didn’t show, but he said he was hoping they would.
Guy’s career—and the blues—were on the upswing in the ’90s. He put out a series of rootsy blues discs, including 1993’s Feels Like Rain and 2001’s return to his southern roots, Sweet Tea.
Now he’s one of the last men standing, but drawing crowds not because of his longevity, but because he still brings it. He headlined what was then called the Santa Cruz Blues Festival in 2010, and San Jose’s Fountain Blues Festival in 2007, and the thing that got me as a listener was the tone.
Not just Guy, but his whole band took me to another place, Heaven’s Roadhouse, where blues really mattered—and was the only thing that did. The kind of sound dripping from the bass, drums and guitar, I have heard only a few times in my life. If it were barbecue, it would be authentic Chicago smoky meat with thick drippings, making almost everything else taste like Arby’s.
I played his new album for my girlfriend who says she hates the blues, and she was smiling and bouncing her head. “This sounds like a new album,” she said. “Not blues.”
And there’s a sign that Buddy Guy is doing what he was meant to be doing: spreading the gospel of Muddy, B.B., Walter, Junior, and the rest.
He sums it up in the last line of Born to Play Guitar, on the song, “Come Back Muddy”: “I’m keeping your promise that I will keep on playing. I miss you, Muddy.”