"Blues music expresses our deepest feelings which can be complete joy or utter disappointment and sadness."
Alice Stuart: An American treasure
Alice Stuart’s music holds within it a flame that burns and burns. In 1964 Alice was introduced at the Berkeley Folk Festival with a warm welcome that led to touring with folk and blues legends such as Joan Baez, Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Albert King and many others. Her LP All The Good Times (Arhoolie Records, 1964) covered popular and esoteric folk songs.
In 1966, Stuart joined a revolution when she teamed with Frank Zappa during the formation of Mothers of Invention and then moved on to form Alice Stuart and Snake. The young folk singer soon became one of the foremothers of rock and roll. She wrote her own music, fronted a male band and played lead guitar on national and international circuits all though the 70’s. Stuart toured the US and Europe with Van Morrison, Commander Cody, and Michael Bloomfield. She appeared and recorded with Jerry Garcia, John Hammond, Elvin Bishop, Dave Mason, Sonny Terry and Tower of Power and other artists that marked that rich and creative time. And magazines such as Billboard, Rolling Stone, Guitar Player and Village Voice gave Alice rave reviews for her landmark recordings on Fantasy Records Full Time Woman (1970) and Believing (1972 Alice Stuart & Snake). After a long hiatus devoted to raising her family, Alice resumed her recording career in 1996 and by 2002 was solidly back with Can’t Find No Heaven (2002) which was met with a first run nomination for a Grammy and a Handy Award nomination. In 2006, she released the first live recording of her now four decade career, Alice Stuart & The Formerlys Live at the Triple Door.
And just as before, Alice continues to both explore her roots and expand the reach of her music. She has been chosen two years in a row as one of the top players to compete at the 2008 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, TN. Alice Stuart continues to blaze a trail and raise the bar for herself and for women in music. She recorded her newly released CD, Freedom, at Memphis’ legendary Ardent Studios with Jim Gaines.
When was your first desire to become involved in the blues & what does Blues offer?
If you don’t mind, I will start by telling you when I became interested in playing music in general.
I started playing piano at age 5. In elementary school all the way through high school, I continued piano and then played drums in concert and marching band. I got my first guitar when I was 18 and started playing folk music in coffeehouses. The first time I heard real blues singers like Bessie & Clara Smith, Rabbit Brown and Blind Willie McTell in 1962 when I found some 78 records in my aunt’s house. Some folk music friends had some tapes, too. I found I was just drawn to the passion in the music and identified with it.
I had grown up loving Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison & Chuck Berry, among others, and their music all came from the fact that they had grown up in the south and were influenced by a lot of the early blues greats. I was raised in a very small town in eastern Washington State. There were no radio stations within range and we didn’t have TV until I was about 12. I did have a short wave radio that occasionally picked up KOMA in Oklahoma City and they played music I had never heard before, rhythm and blues. I was just entranced with the rhythm and phrasing and the heartfelt, soulful feeling in the music.
Which was the best and worst moment of your career ?
Oh my. That’s always a hard question for me to answer. I feel like the best moments are yet to come, although I have had great successes and some failures for sure. One of the very best moments of my career was being on national TV with George Carlin when he hosted the Dick Cavett show one night. The time Mississippi John Hurt insisted I play with him at a large venue in Los Angeles. I was 22 years old and flabbergasted. All I had with me was an autoharp and that’s what I played for 2 whole sets. Unbelievable.
I guess the worst would have to be getting pummeled by rotten fruits and vegetables in Rotterdam, Holland while I was on tour opening for Van Morrison in Europe. Or maybe it was the time at a huge festival when I kicked off a tune in a different key than had been originally worked out with the band.
Another example of a great moment in anyone’s career is when they are told, by the writer of a song you are doing, that it’s the best version they’ve heard.. That has happened to me more than once. Chris Wall told me that about my version of “I Feel like Hank Williams Tonight”.
How do you describe and characterize Alice Stuart's music?
I feel that I am, above all else, a performer of American roots music. In 2002, I toured Australia for 6 weeks and everywhere I went, I was treated like I was an American treasure. It was eye opening for me that they so totally understood my roots and respected the tradition that influenced me. It’s the first time I felt that audiences really ‘got me’. Their grasp and knowledge of my influences was amazing to me. I mean, I don’t always feel like Americans understand that. I felt they could totally relate and they treated the music I love with respect. I think the reason people tend to call me a blues artist specifically is because of my treatment of rhythm and my passion for everything I sing, write and play. It’s American roots music, pure and simple.
Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
You certainly are asking me some questions that make me strain my brain to give you the answers.
I have had many different and varied periods in my life. I feel I have been lucky enough to have lived about 3 different lives in 1. I have been a working musician and single mom from 18 to 36 years old. At 37, I became a college student, remarried and had another child. I gave up playing music for 15 years to go to school and raise my kids. During that time I worked as a professional cook and then a legal secretary. I had to create a totally new identity for myself and learn how to just be a normal, everyday person. That wasn’t easy after being a professional musician since I was 18. I had a 3000 square foot garden to plant and maintain, I canned food, cooked a lot and was a housewife.
When I returned to music at 50 years old, I wrote a song that I call my therapy song. It was written to convince myself that I still had something to give that people could relate to. It’s called “I’ve Got Something for You” (Freedom CD 2007) I have been back playing music for a living for the past 20 years and I wouldn’t be the person I am now without the benefit of those other life experiences.
What experiences in life make you a good musician and songwriter?
My drive and need try and be the best at what I do, to prove to myself and the rest of the world that I have a talent that is purely my own.
I have learned my craft more from my life’s experiences than from listening to or copying other people’s styles, not that I haven’t learned a lot from listening to or playing with various musicians but I am a songwriter and also consider myself an interpreter of other people’s songs. If I like a specific song written by someone else, I won’t do it until I can really make the song my own and feel like I could have written it myself. One of my favorite writers is Bob Dylan. It’s so easy for me to arrange one of his songs in my own style. I would never learn a song note for note like some people do. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, it just isn’t my way.
How do you get inspiration for your songs & what do you think is the main characteristic of your personality that made you a songwriter?
I have always had a need to express myself musically and to share who I really am with my audience and my friends alike. When I write a new song, I always want it to be a little different than other people’s songs, to play an unexpected chord or have a special twist of some kind that is unpredictable. It’s not easy for me to fit right in with a blues jam because a lot of my songs do not follow the normal 3 chord progression plus I add bridges and endings that aren’t normally expected. I have to stick with the 8 bar, 12 bar or 16 bar blues progressions when invited to these jams.
My inspiration for the songs I write comes directly from my personal life experiences. Sometimes it comes from observing someone else’s problems or passions. (Photo by Jeff Bizell)
How did you first meet Frank Zappa, what kind of a guy was he? Which memory from him makes you smile?
It’s very interesting how we initially met. I was living in the Bay Area (San Francisco area) at the time and I drove down to Los Angeles to meet with a guitar player friend of mine, Steve Mann. I was to meet him at a coffee shop and after waiting for a couple hours, I started to talk with another person who had been there about the same amount of time. Turned out it was Frank Zappa. We got to talking and he was waiting for the same person I was. We waited about another hour and when Steve didn’t show up, we decided to get to know each other better and left. That lead to about a 6 week love affair that turned into an attempt to fit me into the group he had at the time. It was more a blues, cover band then. He wanted to write and create a new kind of music at that point and wanted me to play my Delta style acoustic guitar and to play in and around what I was playing.
At the time, it was just too far out for me. My focus at that point, was to acquire and learn to play the electric guitar. A smile comes to my face when I think about what he did when I kept asking for an electric guitar. He got me one and it was a scream. The strings were really a huge gauge and they were very high off the neck. Totally unplayable by anyone, let alone someone that had never played an electric guitar. It had the desired effect…very discouraging. It was a very small Fender. I still have no idea what model it was.
Also, he had a black board set up on an easel. On that black board, he wrote names of the people he felt he had been screwed over by. At the top of that list (when I knew him) was Captain Beefheart because of his former relationship with him. I always hoped I never made it on that list! (That’s a joke)
Are there any memories from Van Morrison and Michael Bloomfield, which you’d like to share with us?
Unfortunately, I didn’t tour with Michael Bloomfield. I opened for him several times, though.
Regarding Van Morrison, he is probably the total opposite of me. In fact, I’m sure he thinks I am a “Pollyanna” if you know what that means. I opened shows for Van in the U.S. and then toured with his big band (2 horns and 4 strings) for about 6 weeks in Canada, Holland, Germany and the U.K. This is the tour that was recorded and released by him called “It’s Too Late to Stop Now”. I watched every one of his shows and actually cried during some of them because of his passion and ability to put a song across. I don’t think he ever saw even one of mine. I will always be grateful for the chance to be on that tour, though.We played in some of the finest halls in Europe. I also opened for him at the Santa Monica Civic Center and a lot of other places in the States.
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
Blues music expresses our deepest feelings which can be complete joy or utter disappointment and sadness. But the heart is always involved in this music. Listen to Albert King and you will hear, when he starts the guitar solo, that his voice is being replaced by his guitar. His phrasing with his guitar is exactly the same as when he is singing.
Rock and Pop music in general, is flighty and fluff for the most part. I mean, to be honest, I consider it my guilty pleasure to listen to ABBA. Their harmonies and the joy in their songs just make me happy. But it doesn’t really express our deepest feelings.
Blues is a very basic form. In fact, it is the music that evolved into rock and jazz. It delivers a message in very direct terms, no big crescendos or other tricks. It just pulls at the heart strings. A lot of rock musicians have gone back to the roots, the blues. They have left the high powered world of super-amped rock and roll to bring them back to the ground floor.
My wish for the blues is that it continues to inspire all who listen to or play it. And that it remains the simple art form it is.
How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
Well, for one thing, record companies no longer control our destiny. And they can’t rob us anymore. We can make and sell our music online or at gigs or offer downloads. We are more in control of our careers and sales. The other side of that loss of record companies is that we no longer have the booking side covered. We now have to find independent booking agencies that are willing to take us on and that’s not easy. I would love to do more extensive touring in the US as well as Europe but it’s hard to find someone to book a tour anymore. Seems no agency is willing to take on someone like me that can’t fill a 5,000 seat auditorium by myself.
Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from the studio with Jerry Garcia, Elvin Bishop, Sonny Terry and Tower of Power ?
The only one of those you mentioned that I was in the studio with were my friends from the Bay Area, the Tower of Power. It was just the horn section. I sang them the part I heard in my head and all 5 of them played it exactly how I wanted it the first time. Amazing players. That was on my 3rd Album called “Believing”. The song was “Karma Stands in my Way”
Jerry Garcia and I were friends but never got into the studio together and that’s sad. We planned to, but he died shortly after I returned to the music business. I played with Elvin Bishop many times. He would sit in with my band and I sat in with his.
I met Sonny Terry in NYC and he played with me at the Gaslight, where Bob Dylan got his start. After the show, he took me home with him and his wife cooked us dinner. Very sweet people. He was the only person besides Judy Roderick in NYC and Annie Johnston in Boston that took me in and treated me like family on that east coast tour. That was in 1965 and I was traveling alone with a banjo, guitar and autoharp and staying in hotels. I was a small town country girl thrown into huge cities where I knew no one. I was much too clean cut for their liking and they actually thought I was a cop so no one befriended me. I didn’t find that out until years later.
Are there any memories from “THE ROAD WITH THE BLUES”, which you’d like to share with us?
Well, sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in a version of “Spinal Tap” when it comes to drummers. I swear I have had more problems finding a drummer that plays the rhythms I want and isn’t crazy. Honestly, it’s the one piece in the band that has rotated more than any other. My current bass player has been with me for 10 years and my keyboard player for 7 years. In 10 years, we have changed drummers at least 2 times a year. It’s frustrating. In a way, everytime you add a new drummer to the mix, it’s like starting all over with the songs you’ve been doing for a long time.
A regret I have is not staying in Holland when I was asked to. I had been on tour with my band “Snake” and the owner of the record company asked me to stay and let my band go back. I really couldn’t stay, partly because I was afraid to stay there alone and because I had to get back to my son who was only about 4 years old at the time. He was staying with a friend in California. The record company told me after my return that they had paged me at Heathrow Airport in London to get me to not take my flight but to take the ferry back to Holland. I didn’t get the page.
Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet? Of all the BLUES people you’ve met, who do you admire the most?
A lot of the Blues personalities that I admire the most are no longer with us. I am particularly partial to the older style of blues, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and early Ike Turner. Roy Buchanan was a huge influence on me and I did meet him. I opened for him twice in San Francisco. I have also met Robert Cray and admire him a lot. I love his songs and his voice. His guitar playing is very unique too.
My favorite guitar player, bar none, is Mark Knopfler. I would love to not only get a chance to play with him, but I’d like to be able to have him produce an album for me. He can play anything well, and that includes country, rock, jazz, and blues. He made some marvelous albums with Chet Atkins and he has produced 2 albums for my favorite songwriter of all time, Bob Dylan. One of my favorite albums of Dylan’s is “Infidels” which is a mostly forgotten album that Mark and Bob did together.
I think it would be a good experience to play with Eric Clapton, too.
What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
What is the “thing” you miss from the ‘60s?
The thing I miss the most from the ‘60s is the innocence we all felt. Also, the energy and time to just immerse myself in the writing, and having time to discover new avenues and not have all this ‘busy’ work to do. I handle all the business myself and it’s very time consuming. Plus, there wasn’t nearly as much competition in the 60’s. Artists tended to be ‘one of a kind’ instead of being able to be compared with so many others. When I first started playing professionally, there weren’t any other women who were players. There were lots of singers, but not anyone who was really trying to master the guitar. The 60s were a very exciting and creative time for me and a lot of other musicians.
Are there any memories from studio with Jim Gaines, which you’d like to share with us?
Jim has been a friend of mine since he mixed my first album that I made for Fantasy Records in 1969. We had always talked about making an album together and it was wonderful working with him in Memphis. It was a real great experience for the whole band. My bass player, Marc Willett, is an excellent recording engineer himself and I think he learned more than any of the rest of us.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
For one thing, don’t expect to get rich doing this…That’s not to say you can’t get rich doing this but it’s the wrong reason to get into it. Don’t expect to be an overnight success either, though it is possible, of course. I think anyone going into music as a profession needs some higher education first, or at least some technical skills. You need to have something to fall back on in case playing music doesn’t produce enough money to take care of yourself. There’s no shame in having a day job while you’re working on fulfilling your passion through music. I did without a lot of things and it was hard. I really needed a ‘nanny’ to take care of my son when I was on the road and couldn’t afford it. I needed new equipment, a better place to live and just comforts in general that I couldn’t afford.
From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between: bluesman & blueswoman?
I have fought gender identity my whole life. I was told that I would never be able to play ‘like a man’ because my hands were too small and that I would never be considered a good guitar player. It’s hard not to listen to that sort of thing and believe it. But I think rather than make me despair about those judgments, it made me stronger so that I could prove them wrong. There continues to be the problem with ‘type-casting’. Even as late as 2002 for me. I made a record for Burnside Records in Portland, OR in 2002 and when it was finished, I got a call from the President of the company telling me they really liked the record except they wanted to replace ALL my guitar solos with a man of their choosing. I told them that was not going to happen. I hung up and called my lawyer who called them…and that was that.
What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……
Finally getting a decent booking agency to take me on, take a chance on me and get me on the road with my band. Who knows how much longer I will want to do this? (My kids don’t seem to think I’ll ever want to stop and they’re probably right) I just want to be able to make enough money that my band and I can live comfortably and not have to feel on the edge all the time. Really gets tiresome, you know? And everyone in the band, with the exception of the keyboard player and I, has to do other jobs like construction work, to make ends meet.
I would like to buy a house and fix it up like I want to and not be afraid that I can’t pay the rent or the mortgage. And I will not give up the dream of someday being able to do this and to play my music around the world.
In order to tell you what makes me happy, if you don’t mind, I will first tell you about my childhood. I was raised in a small town in what I would call a nontraditional family. I never felt like I really had anyone that I was truly close to. There was no one that I felt was a real friend that I could share my innermost thoughts with. I had a couple of girlfriends that rode horses with me but no one else that had the passion to play music. I was most definitely a tomboy. I loved to play baseball with the boys and, in fact, I felt like I should be able to do everything they did. I got into cars, hotrods, and probably would have become very good at working on them but I lived with my aunt and uncle and my uncle wasn’t a ‘handyman’ kind of guy. I really had no role model. My mom left me with my aunt when I was 2 years old, so I lived with her and when she remarried, I called my aunt’s husband ‘Dad’…It was all just too weird for people to accept so I think music was my link to my soul, a way to communicate and put my feelings into words. So, I started writing songs when I was about 13.
After I left home and began playing music professionally, I found my real ‘family’, the people I share music with. I have met and played with so many people and I have stayed in touch with many of them that I’ve met over the years.. They remain very special to me and have all played a part in my evolution as a whole person and a good musician. There are a lot of people that started out as fans of my music that have become really true friends of mine and that makes me happy.
And last but not least, my children and grandchildren have all grown into kind and good people and involved in worthwhile careers. And we all live within 60 miles of one another. That makes me very happy too….
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