Young Man's Blues
Alvin Youngblood Hart may just be the best blues artist you've never heard of.
By John Floyd
JULY 31, 2000: There's a quiet but almost unsettling intensity that burns behind the heavy eyes of Alvin Youngblood Hart, an intensity that provides a contrast to a natural demeanor that pretty much defines the word "laidback." The 37-year-old, Oakland-born, Memphis-based singer, songwriter, and guitarist exudes nonchalance, from his T-shirt-and-jeans attire to the offhanded way he offers the history of his 20-something years spent honing, perfecting, and transcending the art of the blues. The intensity, though, is still there. It's in the music he's been recording since Big Mama's Door, his debut album from 1996. It's in the stories he tells -- the tales of lifelong discrimination; the sour sagas of being kicked around and generally ignored by a music industry that's as fickle as it is infuriating; the realization that there's only so much one man can do to get his music heard.
The intensity that simmers within Hart's formidable, six-feet-plus frame is most apparent, however, on Start With the Soul, his latest album and the first he's cut since moving to Memphis in 1998. Although he bristles a bit when asked if he considers the set a departure from his previous releases, Start With the Soul -- which, in a typically self-effacing statement, he has dubbed a mere "regression" -- is unlike anything in the young bluesman's growing body of work. Where Big Mama's Door and 1998's Territory mined mostly acoustic terrain, with a mix of traditional blues and his own originals, Soul is an electric, electrifying, gamut-spanning masterpiece that flaunts Hart's scope as an artist, a fan, and a visionary of a genre of music that is desperately in need of an upstart.
Produced at Sounds Unreel by Jim Dickinson, the album balances the greatest songs Hart has ever written with a batch of covers that attest to his ability to make anything his own -- the refried Southern boogie of Black Oak Arkansas; the garage-rock wallop of the Sonics; the Seventies soul of the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose; the choogling rock-and-roll of Chuck Berry; the laconic honky-tonk of Dave Dudley; and the prewar blues of Joe McCoy, the collaborator and husband of the late Memphis Minnie. It's the kind of genre-jumping set that, like Bob Dylan's mid-Sixties decision to go electric, will no doubt baffle, if not infuriate, tight-assed blues purists. And that's just fine with Hart, who likens his approach to the music with that of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, the Texas guitarist/violinist who has dabbled in the blues, country, jazz, Cajun, and swing.
"Gatemouth Brown, he's the one I got it all from, as far as the idea of playing what you want to play, whatever you think is you," Hart says. "I think for people to understand these records I'm making, they have got to understand the depth of an artist like Gatemouth. There's nobody as purist about it as I am, but enough is enough with that whole academic thinking. I believe if Leadbelly was alive, he'd be playing a guitar synthesizer by now."
Alvin Youngblood Hart was born in Oakland, California, on March 22, 1963, "just in time to see J.F.K. off," he says with a lazy laugh, reclined comfortably on the couch of the East Memphis home he shares with a wife and son. The third child of Terry and Annie Hart, Alvin and family spent most of the Sixties on the move, settling wherever the elder Hart's work would take them. The Harts left the Oakland area when Alvin was 12, settling first in a small town outside of Columbus, Ohio, and later in central Illinois, near Chicago. Before their first move, though, Hart had already received his first guitar of sorts -- "a Bugs Bunny ukelele with the little wind-up thing on it," he recalls. "After I broke all the strings on it, I put rubber bands on it. When I was about seven, I got another upgraded toy guitar for Christmas, and I broke all of those strings."
Within a couple of years, Alvin's brother Rick began taking guitar lessons from a door-to-door salesman. "They gave him a free cheap, plywood acoustic guitar to start off on, and after he started taking lessons my parents got him a guitar for Christmas, and I got the other one and started messing around on it. I wasn't taking any lessons. I remember that I saw Roy Clark on Hee Haw playing slide with a jelly jar, so I went into the kitchen and tried that out. Our Uncle Reuben used to come over to the house, and much to our surprise he was a guitar player. He grabbed [Rick's] guitar and tuned it up. Next thing we know, he's got this John Lee Hooker thing coming out of it."
From the time Alvin was about three, the Harts would take occasional vacations to Carroll County, Mississippi, to visit his grandmother. "She was living in the 19th century," Hart recalls. "The only thing she had was electricity. That was it, and that was new for her. There was outdoor plumbing, you'd go to the well, go to the outhouse. There were animals running around everywhere. She had turkeys and chickens and cows. Everyone was riding horses. It was a lot of fun -- like Disneyland, you know? That was our summer vacation. We didn't go to Yellowstone or places like that. We'd go to grandma's house.
"Every once in a while we'd come to Memphis, but not too often. To me, that was boring, because you'd have to put on clean clothes. I remember my great-grandfather said one time when we asked if he wanted to go to Memphis, 'Nah, folks up there think you gotta dress up too much.' And I didn't want to clean up or nothing. I just wanted to hang out there in the woods and get dirty."
During one of these rural vacations, Alvin and Rick discovered they had an uncle who had seen such legendary bluesmen as Elmore James and Charley Patton. The Hart brothers were amazed. "Rick had been into all these music books and records, and he asked one of my uncles about some of the musicians he may have seen. I just remember how excited he got when the name Charley Patton came up, so I decided to find out about this guy myself."
Alvin soon began immersing himself in the verities of the blues -- the work of such pioneers as Patton, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Robert Johnson. He was also boning up on rock-and-roll guitar monsters like Link Wray, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, and Robin Trower, as well as George Clinton's psyched-out Parliament-Funkadelic and especially the funk-rock hybrids of Sly and the Family Stone.
"Where I was living in the late Sixties, Sly was like a local hero," he says. "All the kids in the neighborhood were into them. I went to elementary school with [Stone bassist] Larry Graham's son. Sly was probably the greatest rock-and-roll preacher ever. We could sure use a guy like that now. He wasn't talking about all of this hate and destruction. He was talking about the real thing: 'Stand! In the end you'll still be.' All that kinda thing. He certainly had more to say than the people kids are into now -- Korn and stuff like that. Radio is really bad today. Give me Black Sabbath! They weren't talking about this kind of foolishness. Listening to Black Sabbath was like watching a Christopher Lee movie, which I always dug."
After a few years in Illinois, during which he cut his teeth in various garage bands and made frequent trips to Chicago's famed Maxwell Street, Hart returned to Southern California only to discover you can't always go home again. "L.A. in the late Seventies was still kind of tolerable, but things really changed in the Eighties," he laments. "I tried to hang out in the music scene for a while, but it was the whole dressed-up blues thing -- the sharkskin suits and sunglasses and overamplified harmonica thing was coming into play, and I wasn't into that too much. Fifty guys walking around with sharkskin suits and pompadours? No thanks."
Instead, he joined the Coast Guard. "It was all right, pretty cool. A steady paycheck. I was stationed on a buoy boat on the Mississippi in Natchez. I had weekends off and I would drive up from Natchez to my aunt's house in Carroll County. I like to hunt and fish, so that's pretty much what I'd do in my spare time. I was on the boat for about three years, then I got the crazy notion that I wanted to go to the Coast Guard's electronics school, which at the time was in New York City. That was kind of interesting: One minute I'm in Natchez, the next I'm in New York City.
"I could've gotten stationed there," he continues, "but I didn't want to stay in the city that much, so I got shipped to a place outside of San Francisco to work on radio transmitters out in some cowfield. I'd work two 12-hour shifts, 30 days in a row, then be off for 72 hours. During those 72 hours, I started hanging out in Berkeley at a guitar store, and that sort of became the center of my life. That's where I met Joe Louis Walker."
Hart's move to the Berkeley area, and his friendship with revered bluesman Joe Louis Walker, would provide the catalyst for his eventual signing to OKeh, an imprint overseen by Sony named after the legendary label that issued some of the finest blues, jazz, soul, and R&B from the Twenties through the Sixties. Walker took a liking to Hart, and soon the pair were performing together at a local coffee house, and Hart eventually earned a slot on the bill of 1995's San Francisco Blues Festival, no small feat considering he didn't even have a record out.
That would soon change. During a four-night stint opening for Taj Mahal at Yoshi's in Oakland, Hart caught the ears of some reps from TriTone, who would soon be managing the young artist. Although he was drawing praise in the local press and earning the respect of some high-profile musicians, just as many bluesmen -- the sharkskinned pompadoured bunch -- were puzzled by Hart's solo acoustic performances of such prewar Delta blues standards as "Pony Blues."
"In the Eighties, when I really started doing this, I made a conscious effort to concentrate on the solo acoustic thing," he says. "Back at that time, that was a really weird thing to be doing. Some of the musicians were like, 'Where did you learn that?' and really dug it, but the sharkskin sect just totally missed it. And in the early Nineties, there weren't a whole lot of people doing it. All the labels were only interested in anything that was remotely like Stevie Ray Vaughan." Not surprisingly, Hart's demo tapes were rejected by such blues labels as High Tone and Alligator. Then three things happened that Hart credits with the mid-'90s resurgence of acoustic blues: The 1990 compact-disc collection of Robert Johnson's hallowed 1930s recordings, which was a huge commercial success; the 1994 debut album by the singer/acoustic guitarist Keb' Mo'; and what he describes as the "whole MTV Unplugged thing," of which he was immediately suspect.
"I'm glad that whole thing is over," he says, then asks, "It is over, right? I mean, some people should never have been unplugged. That's what was so bad about it."
He's right, of course, as proven by Eric Clapton's bathetic, lounge-lizard reworking of "Layla." He's also on target when he tacitly dismisses the spit-slick pseudo-blues of Keb' Mo'. But by the middle of 1995, there clearly was an audience for acoustic-based music, and by the next year Hart had inked a deal with OKeh, which, ironically enough, was also the home of Keb' Mo'.
Big Mama's Door, released in 1996 to a slew of critical praise, was a throttling collection of prewar-style blues that held immeasurable relevance in the modern world, thanks to Hart's inherent intensity. Hart's playing was both precise and percussive, equal parts Charley Patton and Mississippi John Hurt, and his vocals -- scratchy at times, howling at others, and always powerful -- packed the emotional wallop of his early blues hero Howlin' Wolf. Fittingly, the album earned several awards, and Hart was named Best New Blues Artist at the 1997 W.C. Handy Awards.
Unfortunately, the album was a commercial flop, thanks to the shuffling of personnel at OKeh and virtually no promotional push beyond the magazines geared toward blues nuts and guitar heads. Within a year, the OKeh imprint, as well as Hart's deal with the label, was kaput. Although Hart is by nature self-effacing to a fault, he's no fool; he knows Big Mama's Door is a damn fine album, and the bitterness is palpable when he talks about his brief stint with Sony.
"The best thing that came out of that deal was this," he says, then scurries off to another room in the house. He comes back with a 10-inch record -- a promotional giveaway containing two songs from Big Mama's Door -- made to look like a vintage OKeh 78 from the Twenties. "That was the coolest thing about it." He falls back onto the couch, shakes his head, and gazes down at his untied brown leather boots. "I don't really know what happened. I've been told it was due to personnel changes as far as the people who were supposedly working my record. I mean, all of a sudden there was no media happening for it. One story I got was that Michael Jackson -- blame it on Michael Jackson! -- spent way too much money on a video, so [Sony] had to cut some programs, and [OKeh] was one of them. It's a shame it didn't fly."
A shame, indeed: It's always sad when brilliant albums disappear within the cracks of popular taste and label indifference. Hart soon found a better home, though. Following a 1997 appearance at the Folk Alliance Convention in Toronto, Hart met up with legendary folk producer Joe Boyd, the man behind the classic Richard and Linda Thompson albums of the Seventies and the head of Hannibal Records, an imprint distributed by Rykodisc. A deal was made, and by the summer of 1998, Territory hit the racks. "Joe and I talked about what kind of records I wanted to make, and we both agreed that I didn't want to make [Big Mama's Door] again, and we finished the album in February of '98."
Far from a reiteration of his debut's sparse blues, Territory offered an eclectic hodgepodge that touched on Western Swing, ska, and prewar country-and-western, in addition to Hart's mastery of the haunting, harrowing sound of the Delta. A stunning cover of Captain Beefheart's "Ice Rose" made it clear that Hart was hardly a neo-trad purist content to mine the catalogs of Charley Patton and Son House, or a radio-ready stooge content to water down Robert Johnson for the masses. And like its predecessor, Territory was a critical success, garnering awards from magazines including Downbeat, Living Blues, and Guitar.
A few months prior to the release of Territory, Hart relocated to Memphis -- not to be in the supposed mecca of the blues, but to simply be closer to his family. "They all live in Carroll County now, so it's just better for me to be here," he says with typical nonchalance. "I like to go hunting and fishing a lot, and we're only two hours away. Memphis is cool. It's got all the hassles of the big city, but it's still just a little old cow town." Although he played for a while on Beale Street upon his arrival -- usually to passersby who had no idea who they were hearing -- Hart has kept a low profile in the city, playing gigs so seldomly that to say they're sporadic would be generous.
"I didn't really care about any of that stuff at the time. I was thinking more about crappie fishing and going to my mom's house. I tour a lot through the spring and summer, then in the fall and winter I slow down and spend time at the house or in Mississippi. When I'm not on the road, I just like to be at home."
The pairing of Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jim Dickinson would have been a masterstroke even if Alvin hadn't decided to make Memphis his home. Not surprisingly, what the twin visionaries conjured on Start With the Soul is the absolute embodiment of the city's music legacy -- a seamless construction of African-American and white styles that is so perfect it's impossible to tell them apart. Barriers are demolished, preconceived notions are debunked, and the result is a gorgeous, glorious noise that defines -- and more often than not redefines -- rock-and-roll's emotional and visceral power.
"Did he tell you what he conceptually calls it?" Dickinson asks. "Freedom rock. Because rock-and-roll was supposed to be cross-racial, and it's become so much the other way that I'm glad to see someone actually celebrating the fucking meaning of the music. What [Soul] does is show him as an overall artist, rather than being limited to a specific reproductive genre. Which he happens to be very, very good at. I've never seen anybody convincingly do Charley Patton before. Some people are blaming it on me, but he brought all of those songs to the table. He's a much broader artist than the public knows, and I think that's what was important for him to get across.
"Also, I think he was real tired of being poster boy for Living Blues. Alvin is a complicated man. It's definitely an analyzed life. He's a very conscious artist."
Hart, of course, downplays the boldness of Start With the Soul, which is arguably the most adventurous, even revolutionary, chunk of music produced by a blues artist since Muddy Waters discovered electricity and swapped his acoustic for a Les Paul. "For me, it's nothing new," he insists. "It's the same old thing I've been doing for the last 22 years."
Perhaps more accurately, the album is a distillation of everything Hart has absorbed over the last two decades, from Hendrix and Aerosmith to Link Wray, Howlin' Wolf, and the Sonics. More important, it contains both his finest singing to date ("His voice is fucking incredible," gushes Dickinson) and a set of originals that capture the rage, disillusionment, and unrest provoked by what Hart describes as "the never-ending struggle against ignorance in our beautiful America." On "Manos Arriba," he documents a real-life incident of racially motivated police harassment, while "Fightin' Hard" finds him grappling with aging, death, and parenthood. "A Prophet's Mission" is a song of apocalypse worthy of John Fogarty, and "Once Again" is a celebration of love as an anodyne to the bitter realities of day-to-day life.
Although nearly every song on the album deserves airplay (especially the shuffling instrumental "Maxwell Street Jimmy," the Stax-ified version of "Treat Her Like a Lady," and the flamethrowing rock-and-roll of "Fightin' Hard"), the fragmented segregation of rock radio today pretty much ensures that Start With the Soul will fail to reach the audience it so clearly deserves.
Hart seems aware of this, maybe even bothered. His fatalism is definitely palpable when he contemplates the future of his career, to the point that his expectations are seemingly nonexistent beyond simply keeping his band on the road and keeping his wits about him.
"I really don't know," he says when asked what kind of reception he's expecting Start With the Soul will receive. "It's hard to say. We'll just see how things go and try and pursue as many high-profile gigs as possible. It's all about just trying to keep the eyes open, both front and back, and make sure I keep a grip on all my stuff."
He lets out a deep, defeatist sigh, then laughs. "I'm always trying to look ahead to see what I can do when the bottom falls out."
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