Interview with blues humanist/poet Tas Cru: one of the most unique of bluesmen plying his trade today

"Blues poetry, like literature, they speak of the human condition and evoke a meaningful response on many levels."

Tas Cru: Keeping The Blues Alive

It is not for nothing he has been called "the master of the triple entendre." His songs are blues poetry - telltale life lessons crafted with rare verbal flair and delivered with a power and passion the heights of which only the seasoned concert entertainer can reach. Raucuss, rowdy, gentle, sweet, eccentric, quirky, and outright irreverent are all words that fittingly describe Tas Cru's songs and testify to his reputation as a one of the most unique of bluesmen plying his trade today. Tas Cru (Rick Bates) grew up in a very musical and generally unquirky family. Unlike his brother and sisters, he did not pursue music in school instead exploring and developing his talent taking up with a rougher crowd of self-taught musicians. In these early bands he was introduced to the Sun Records heroes of that day. Cru's first foray into the blues came after leaving the US Navy when he was asked to join a band formed by a former shipmate named Delray Streeter, a bluesman of unlimited bravado and  attitude but limited singing and harmonica skills.

Streeter was raised in El Dorado, Arkansas and claimed a rich blues heritage from his upbringing. Cru's schooling in country blues later served as a counterpoint to the rock- blues influences he idolized like so many other young guitar players of his time. Based out of upstate New York. Cru performs in a variety of formats ranging from solo-acoustic to a 7 piece backing band. As well, he has performed numerous Blues Education programs and workshops in schools and communities around the country. Tas Cru's discography includes five albums of original songs - "Biscuit" (2006), "gravi-Tas "(2008), "Grizzle n' Bone" (2009), "Jus' Desserts" (2010), "Tired of Bluesmen Cryin" (2012) and his latest, "You Keep the Money" (2014). In addition to these albums is Cru's 2009 recording, "Even Bugs Sing the Blues", an album of original blues music for kids. This album is not for sale. Instead Cru donates copies to schools, community groups and blues societies to use for their fundraising efforts in hopes that it will help inspire a new generation of blues fans and musicians. Honors and recognition include Cru being awarded the 2014 Blues Foundation's Keeping the Blues Alive Award (KBA) for Blues Education, named to the New York State Blues Hall of Fame - 2013 as a Master Blues Artist, and in 2009 named by Blues Festival Guide Magazine as its 2009 Blues Artist on the Rise.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos from Tas Cru Archive / All rights reserved

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues music and what does offer?

The first blues song I remember hearing was Howlin Wolf’s “300 Pounds of Joy.” I had an Uncle who was disabled from the Korean War who would spend all day drinking and listening to Blues and Jazz records. He lived next door to me and after school I would go to his house to play cards with him and sneak a drink of whiskey. I did not start playing the blues until the early 1970’s after I joined up with a Navy shipmate, Delray Streeter, a bluesman from Arkansas.

"I think it is (blues) because they are stories that listeners relate to. Like literature, they speak of the human condition and evoke a meaningful response on many levels."  (Photo by Lorna Herman)

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

The blues has taught me to be comfortable with who I am as a musician and songwriter and not to worry about trying to fit in to other people’s expectations of what a bluesman should be. More so, the blues has taught me to think and feel like an artist instead of just a singer, songwriter and musician.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

I am not a young man, therefore I have compiled quite a large repertoire of lived through experiences - bad love, poverty, war, injury but also raising a child, helping children learn, and getting to know people of many different cultures. I am an educated man, and to me being educated is not about how much I know, but how I have learned to value reflection. This allows me to be patient, observant and contemplative so to craft what I see and feel and think into songs.

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting? 

Inspiration can come several ways. My songs are stories. Many of them start with a lyric idea. I may hear or read a quirky statement and think, “What is the story behind that?” Then I think of how such a story might play out in my own life and go from there. Also, there may be a topic that I want to write about and will craft a story to address that topic. Sometimes though, I simply hear a musical hook that I want to build a song around and go from there. I am a big fan of early blues writers who used doube entendre.

Has your music changed greatly over the years or have your themes and techniques remained basically the same?

While my music has not changed, my recordings have. With the last two albums especially, I have taken more control in terms of the production. On the new album. “You Keep The Money” I wrote and arranged all of the backing vocals, percussion as well as playing all guitar parts – electric, acoustic and resonator. I will always believe that lyrics are very important in blues. I strive to find better words to paint images in my songs.

Are there any memories from “You Keep the Money” sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Yes – the recording of the backup vocals was particularly fun. The three of us (me, Mary Ann Casale, and Alice “Honetbea” Ericksen had worked really hard to get them right. Our hardwork paid off. In the studio we were very relaxed and sang with such joy in our hearts!

Which meetings have been the most important experiences and what moment that you change your music life?

Two things come to mind and they both have to do with gaining confidence – the first was when I became aware that I was a good songwriter and lyricist. People told me my songs always had something memorable about them. About the same time, Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records sent me a note of praise calling me a rare, real writer in today’s blues. The second is very recent and has to do with my confidence as a guitar player. While on my last tour it was evident that audiences were enthusiastically responding to my guitar work, cheering and playing “air guitars” along with me as they watched from the front of the stage. This is the boost I needed to elevate my live performance to a new height, inspiring me to try to play new and more interesting riffs and with much more fire and commitment.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

At the end of my last tour I received a great honor from a very prestigious, well-know blues club in Memphis – the Rum Boogie Café. At this famous Beale St. club, guitars hang everywhere from the ceiling and the walls. Each of these has been awarded to and autographed by world class musicians who have performed there. I was very surprised and humbled to be included among them when they presented me with a guitar to sign. What an honor and what a way to wrap up the tour!

Why did you think that folk blues and blues poetry continues to generate such a devoted following?

Well, I think it is because they are stories that listeners relate to. Like literature, they speak of the human condition and evoke a meaningful response on many levels.

"I will always believe that lyrics are very important in blues."

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

If you don’t feel it, your audience don’t either.

What characterize your music philosophy and sound?

I favor simplicity over virtuosity. I hear many songs from other artists that are just a vehicle for them to show how great they play and sing.  That is fine, if they are truly highly talented. They are great entertainment, but I do not come away remembering anything from the song when they are done. For me, the song is an end itself, not a vehicle just to display musical skills. On my albums, I like a blend of traditional acoustic and modern electric approaches. I like to try to keep my sound organic and not overdone.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

Much of what I know comes from playing with other musicians who do not understand blues music. They want to play the blues from their head, not their heart. From them I have been taught what NOT to do! I have also learned much from playing blues for school children. They react to the music in a very unfiltered way – very primal. They react to how the music makes them feel and I am reminded every time, that this is what the music is about – how it makes you feel.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst? 

I guess the worst comes from the early part of my career. I was mentored by a long time blues journalist who I thought was my friend.  It turns out that he was feeding my obsession and ambition just to make himself feel powerful and take my money. For a time, I was ill and could not do the things he wanted. So he got angry and turned his back on me and instead of trying to help, he accused me of abandoning him and told other in the blues industry that I mistreated him. He is no longer a “big time journalist” but I am still playing my songs. Now for the best – that is easy to remember but hard to talk about. I have a daughter whom I cherish.  Her heart was broken when her mother and I divorced when she was 9 years old.  I wrote a song for her called, “Daddy Didn’t Give You Much (but he sure gave you the blues). This song laid it all on the line to her and it helped her understand how much I love her and how hard it was not to always be there for her. I played the song for her on her 21st birthday. The song was a catharsis for her - she finally understood and it brought her peace.

"The blues has taught me to be comfortable with who I am as a musician and songwriter and not to worry about trying to fit in to other people’s expectations of what a bluesman should be."

What is the “feeling” you miss nowadays from the blues of past? 

The songs just don’t mean enough today. I don’t believe them! When the blond sixteen-year-old blues guitar whiz sings about hopping boxcars or how a woman broke up his happy home. I just turn the radio off. The blues of the past had songs that were real and meant something to those who sang them! There are still good songs today – Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Keb Mo – all good songwriters.

Are there any memories from Delray Streeter, which you’d like to share with us?  

Yes! He was a character – short on talent but long on bravado.  Women loved him and men envied him! His lack of skills brought many challenges to the band musically. He could not follow arrangements, or would play in the wrong key, things like that, which were very frustrating for the rest of us. We got to fighting about those things all the time. We put up with him because we all loved that he was the real deal, being black and from Arkansas and having grown up around many bluesmen. One night after one of our quarrels had calmed down, we went for a drink. He told me something that went like this, “ I know I’m not as good as the rest of you but who do the ladies love?  Just goes to show that good looks and a bad attitude counts a lot more than talent and hard work!” “Wow,” I thought, “now there is an honest man.” I am still hoping that Delray was wrong, though sometimes I am not so sure.

Tell me a few things about the road’s life with the blues around the States, which memory makes you smile? 

What I like best is going to places where regional influences still add character to the blues music played by musicians from that area. This is absent in the Northeast and the West Coast but is evident in the South. For example, I am a big fan of the Tulsa blues – which is blues influence by the “Red Dirt Sound.” Simple melodies and laid back feel is what your hear in their blues. It has influenced many well known artists in rock and country music too such as JJ Cale, Elvin Bishop Tom Petty and Garth Brooks. My favorite memory comes form playing a song I had written in that “Red Dirt” style and performing it for a wild and rowdy crew of real Okies (folks from Oklahoma) at a club outside of Tulsa and watching them go crazy for it. I new I had hit it!

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I have hosted a jam for the past 7 years at the IBC in Memphis at the Rum Boogie on Beale Street. Those are pretty special. Hundreds of blues musicians from all over the world come to play and it makes me happy to help them have a good time. I am sure it is memorable for them and so glad to be a part of it. As far as memorable gigs go, sure festivals are great, but the most memorable ones are those I played in small, intimate places where the interaction between me and audience members is very direct. Small acoustic clubs are a lot of fun. Smaller festivals are fun too, mainly because they are organized and staffed by volunteers who really care about the event and care for the musicians.  Festivals like this that come to mind are the Billtown Blues Festival, The Kalamazoo Blues Fest and the Chenango Blues Festival.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

Because the blues is the Daddy of it all! Popular improvisational music –  jazz, rock and roll, hip-hop, all are the babies! My wish for the blues is that blues fans quit talking about “Keeping The Blues Alive.” But rather do things to make it THRIVE! The blues is lucky to be supported by organizations like the Blues Foundation and numerous blues societies. But the number one thing they can do to help the blues thrive is to get off their asses and get out to the shows – not just the festivals but even the local venues. If the local venues are not successful, they quit booking blues. And then – due to being economicall poor – the blues gets ill so to speak.

"Blues Education in the US is all I can speak about. As a whole, blues music is largely ignored as part of the music curriculum in schools." (Photo by Eric Fieldstadt)

Do you know why the sound of cigar box guitar, slide and harmonica are connected to the blues?   

I think so. Cigar boxes and slide come from the traditional Diddley Bow – a homemade instrument played by sliding glass or smooth metal or a stone along the string. Early blues players did not have access to custom instruments – some banjos, but mostly just the voice. The slide kind of mimics singing. When harmonicas came along they were relatively inexpensive so they were more available to poor folks who wanted to make music besides just singing.

Tell me a few things about your box guitars. What are the secrets of cigar box guitar, slide and harmonica? 

I have one real cigar box, several diddley bows and a couple guitars built like cigar boxes. Cigar boxes are primitive in terms of how they look and sound. People like them because they remind them how the blues came out of poverty – that people could make good music without having to have expensive instruments to help them. Cigar boxes played with a slide are even more primitive. It is the combined imperfection of the instrument and the slide notes that captures the audience’s imagination. They use their imagination to fill the sound in, and fill in the imperfections as they lik to make them “perfect” enough for them to enjoy. This makes their listening experience active not something passive. Many guitar purists and highly skilled players do not like the Cigar Box or the slide because of these imperfections. Harmonica – well, I don’t play that well enough to offer much insight.  I like to say I only play it good enough so that people who don’t play harmonica think I am really good.  Harmonica purists are even fussier about their instrument than guitarists I find.

Make an account for current realities of the case of “blues education”.  

Blues Education in the US is all I can speak about. As a whole, blues music is largely ignored as part of the music curriculum in schools.  Music teachers know little about it and do not have much appreciation for it – instead they focus on jazz and “spirituals” as African- American music worthy of study. Many of the blues education programs I do are not directly about the blues, but instead teach about something else through the blues. This works to get people interested in the blues without having to force it on them. The programs that I do with music teachers and their students are few compared to these others. I think it is important for blues educators to understand that they have to find ways to connect the blues to things that those they wish to educate already value. That is what I try to do. Blues performers need to understand that a blues education performance is not the same as just doing another gig.

Do you think the younger are interested for the Blues?

Absolutely yes! This astounds me! I wok with younger musicians who just seem to want to drink in everything about the blues. Many of them know as much about the blues as me. I often joke to audiences that me and my young band mates both share a love of playing music that is older than we are! Also, my work with school-aged children shows me that they love this music. They don’t see it as music played by tired old men at all!

What difference has a self-taught by one who has studied the blues music? 

I believe they learn to feel the music while they are learning how it is made and how it is played. They make the music their own instead of just regurgitating what they learn. The self - taught player acquires the blues whereas the studied player learns the blues. A serious blues player does both.

Who would want to be your disciple and who make to you a workshop? Do you remember any fanny from classroom? 

I have been fortunate to have worked with many young people who want to play music. Guitarists especially want to know more about the slide and unusual guitars such as resonators and Cigar Boxes as well as different guitar tunings. For me, the guitar is part of what I do to perform. My voice, my stomping feet and hands and the guitar are all one sound – not separated. I always encourage young guitarists to sing and understand that the guitar is not the only way to express their musicality.

If you could change one thing in the music industry what would that be? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Well – in the entertainment industry while there has always been an infatuation with youth, I am concerned that in the blues there is too much. I see a lot of fans gushing about 12 and 13 year olds when in fact these young folks have a long way to go before they can contribute something vital and memorable to the blues genre. Yes, they should be encouraged, but at the same time they need to learn that they must still be students of the genre. In America, we have a trend where parents live vicariously through their children by pushing them into stardom as performers, athletes, actors, and beauty queens even when these kids are far less talented then their parents think.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Take me back in time to Memphis. I want to spend the entire day in the sun studio with Ike Turner and Sam Phillips watching them record those who would become so influential in bringing blues music to wider audiences, blurring racial lines with music that was not black or white – just blue.

Tas Cru - Official website

 

 

 

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