Roger Stolle: Mission for Mississippi
Few people can claim to have had a bigger impact on the Delta blues scene in recent years than Roger Stolle. In addition to owning and operating his famed blues store Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Stolle also co-produced and co-directed the award-winning blues film M For Mississippi and its two accompanying CD soundtracks. The film received numerous awards including a Blues Music Award in 2009. Stolle also has produced three universally praised CDs and a DVD on St. Louis bluesman Big George Brock. Stolle’s recently published book Hidden History of Mississippi Blues has earned raves from critics and readers alike. Stolle also is a Blues Revue columnist and XM Radio correspondent. He was one of the architects and founders of the famed Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale.
We Juke Up In Here is a new film and music project from the makers of the award-winning blues movie M For Mississippi: A Road Trip Through the Birthplace of the Blues. Slated for an April 2012 release, We Juke Up In Here follows producers Jeff Konkel and Roger Stolle as they explore what remains of Mississippi’s once-thriving juke joint culture. The film is told largely from the vantage point of Red Paden, proprietor of the legendary Red’s Lounge in historic Clarksdale, Mississippi. Paden, a true Delta character and jack-of-all-trades, has been running his blues and beer joint for more than 30 years – providing one of the region’s most reliable live blues venues and an authentic stage for a cavalcade of veteran blues performers, both legendary and obscure.
Roger, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
As I talk about in the introduction to my new book “Hidden History of Mississippi Blues” (The History Press), it was Elvis Presley who led me to Blues music when I was 10 years old. He was, of course, a Mississippi boy and a huge blues fan. His blues covers got me interested. Then, British blues-rockers like Eric Clapton named names in interviews, and I would go down to the local mall and search them out… Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Son House, etc. As an adult, it occurred to me that I could seek out and work with Mississippi blues’ surviving, real-deal bluesmen. So I did.
My best moment was either moving to Mississippi to start my Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store (www.cathead.biz) or perhaps coming up with the idea for the movie “M for Mississippi: A Road Trip through the Birthplace of the Blues” with my buddy Jeff Konkel of Broke & Hungry Records. (We talked about that project for nearly two years before the first camera rolled!) My worst career experience? Hmm. That was probably my first day in management with the corporate marketing job that took me from my native Ohio to St. Louis, Missouri. I arrived at work, sick as a dog, only to find out that my new job position had been promised to two different ladies who now reported directly to me. They were not happy. I’m so glad to work with old blues guys now – instead of back in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate America!
Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?
Three live song performances that always move me: Big George Brock performing his heavily modified version of “Tiger in Your Tank” (like he does at the start of my film about him, “Hard Times”). Robert “Wolfman” Belfour performing John Lee Hooker’s “Hobo Blues”; it’s like stepping back in time every time he plays it. Pat Thomas performing what he call’s “After the War” – actually an old Country & Western tune that his father used to play; Pat calls it “my” song. Geez. I could name another dozen songs! Honestly, it’s not even so much the particular “blues standard” so much as it is the highly personalized performance of the specific bluesman who sings it. Lots of great songs; lots of amazing memories with each for me.
What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
Blues is truth. Blues is feeling. In many ways, this line at the end of Robert Palmer’s classic “Deep Blues” sums it up for me: “How much history can be communicated by pressure on a guitar string?” Blues is not just a genre of music to me. It’s not just a body of songs or a technical song structure. It is a living culture, and the window to it is the music. If it doesn’t move you, then you’re not human. There is some kind of “blues” for everyone – from traditional country blues to contemporary rock or soul blues. To fully experience it and best understand it, of course, folks need to spend a night at a juke joint in the Mississippi Delta. It all makes so much more sense when you see and feel it in context.
The biggest lesson of the blues experience for me is twofold: First off, there is no reason to complain or give up – no matter what happens in life; if poor Delta bluesmen in the Jim Crow South could make it, then you can be damn sure that I (or you) can! Secondly, when considering music, the culture and history behind it is just as important as the catchy sound that’s right in front of you; important roots musics didn’t just come out of thin air; there is a face behind them. Three words to describe “Cat Head’s sound & progress”? Search. Organize. Promote. Cat Head exists to “organize and promote Mississippi blues from within” (and by all means necessary). Period.
Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the recording time with the Cat Head’s artists?
Where do I start?! When making the first record on Big George Brock (“Club Caravan,” Cat Head Presents 2005), we did it all in one 3 ½ hour session at Jimbo Mathus’ studio (then) in Clarksdale. That was an amazing session because of who old and deep the sound was… and how quickly we banged out the (later) Blues Music Award-nominated album. Also, on the second Big George album (“Round Two”) had a super cool session that featured Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin; Hubert and Big George hadn’t seen each other in years, so they just smiled and giggled the whole time; what I loved is that Hubert was absolutely fearless when it came to playing guitar solos; he just went for it – with no concern of perfection or what was “right or wrong”; just amazing.
The 7-day road-trip where we filmed/recorded “M for Mississippi” (www.mformississippi.com) was full of funny and interesting points. The house party at R.L. Boyces was insane; the search for T-Model Ford’s new house (since he’d just been evicted from the old one) was an adventure; tryin to film Mississippi Marvel – knowing that we weren’t allowed to actually show his face (since he is also a deacon in his church… even as he plays the “devil’s music”); etc.
Oh, another favorite recording memory is actually for one of my buddy Jeff’s sessions – “Searching for Odell Harris.” We recorded all night long till the tape ran out around 7am. It was the craziest, loosest session every, but the resulting album is pretty cool. And Odell hasn’t been seen since. What a fabulous character!
What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had like agency? When did you last laughing in gigs and why?
Wow. I’ve booked some incredible gigs for older, Mississippi-born blues guys – both in the U.S. and throughout Europe. Chicago blues festival, Blues Music Awards, Ponderosa Stomp, a series of gigs in New York… are all some of my favorite domestic bookings. Overseas… the Roots & Blues Festival in Italy, Cognac Blues Festival in France, Notodden Blues Festival in Norway and the two-week U.K. tour I did with Big George Brock all stand out as highpoints. In Switzerland, I think, Big George and I stayed at a hotel with motion-triggered lights in the hallway; he couldn’t move fast enough to keep the lights on; we laughed till we were red in the face. In Italy, I was in a big tour van with T-Model Ford, when the driver suddenly got up out of his seat to try and grab a map – while the van flew down the highway on cruise control; even the normally unflappable T-Model panicked! Oh, also, when on our way to Norway a couple years ago, we had the worst flight ever; Jeff Konkel and I had T-Model Ford, L.C. Ulmer and Robert Belfour on the flight when it hit horrible weather and started rising and dropping like it was the end of the world; L.C. just laughed to himself the whole time, Mr. Belfour seemed to be praying to himself and T-Model acted like nothing was happening… until we hit a particular bad patch and some ladies in back screamed; then, T-Model flashed me a look like, “Hey, are we gonna make it?!”; I got to say, even I thought we might be done for. One of my favorite trips to Italy was with crazy blues-soul-rocker Robert “Bilbo” Walker; nothing in particularly funny happened, but it was just a blast to hang out with such an out-of-this-world character. As a bonus, the music was killer.
The blues artist who I’ve worked with the most and consider friends include Big George Brock, Robert Belfour, T-Model Ford, Pat Thomas, Robert “Bilbo” Walker, L.C. Ulmer, (the late) Wesley “Junebug” Jefferson, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, (the late) Foster “Mr. Tater” Wiley, Terry “Big T” Williams, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood. Geez. I’m leaving plenty of folks out. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work, help and hang out with some of the greatest of the last of Mississippi’s authentic bluesmen. These are all guys who came up through something. They grew up playing house parties and juke joints, and many also grew up working the cotton plantations around the Delta. They are as real-deal as you can get, and spending time with them is like crawling inside a good blues history book. You just get to learn so much, and it truly helps you understand where the music came from and how it ended like it is today.
Of all the people you’ve meet, who do you admire the most?
I can’t say, really. I can pick favorites. All of the names above are musicians I admire. Also, my buddy Jeff is a blues friends I admire. Without Jeff’s Broke & Hungry Records label, there wouldn’t have been much Mississippi blues recorded over the past five years. (Just check out his “Mistakes Were Made” 2-CD overview… www.brokeandhungryrecords.com.)
If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?
Look, I am a person who looks forward, not backward. If I hadn’t done everything in life that I’ve done – good, bad or otherwise – then I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m proud of the hundreds of gigs, festivals, recording sessions, film projects, etc., etc. that I’ve been involved with. My thing is to just get things done now, while we still have these living Delta blues dinosaurs. I try to learn from my successes and my failures to improve on things continually as we go forward. Right now, I’m in a very wonderful place in life. I hang out with my blues heroes. I work on awesome projects (like our new “We Juke Up In Here: Mississippi Juke Joints at the Crossroads,” www.wejukeupinhere.com). I have an amazing girlfriend and some excellent friends and business partners. I get to put on events like Juke Joint Festival and my Cat Head Mini Blues Fests. Life is good.
Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?
Charley Patton and Django Reinhardt. I don’t need to meet them. I’d just like to go back in time for an evening to hear them play at their favorite local spots – to absorb both the music and the environment that spawned it.
Big George Brock. Hanging out with him at very personal, private moments has really given me a window into the Mississippi blues of the 40s and 50s. He worked the cotton fields near Clarksdale, owned blues clubs in St. Louis and got to sit in with everyone Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King and so on. When you hang out in a French hotel room just trying to kill time, it’s amazing the thoughts, stories and advice that will bubble to the surface.
Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new? What was the last record you bought?
I love deep, Southern blues. All the early Delta guys (Son House, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, etc.) as well as the Delta-gone-North folks (Muddy, Wolf, Elmore, Sonny Boy, Nighthawk, the Kings, etc.)… and the surviving Mississippi guys who we’ve included in our “M for Mississippi” and “We Juke Up in Here” DVD/CD projects. The last record I bought? Little Joe Ayers on Devil Down Records. Nice hill country blues from Junior Kimbrough’s bass player. That said, my favorite release of the year by far is “Mistakes Were Made: Five Years Of Raw Blues, Damaged Livers & Questionable Business Decisions.” It’s Jeff’s 2-CD overview of his label. The music is amazing and authentic, and the memories from some of those sessions always make me smile.
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
The Blues is real. It’s truly “authentic.” And it’s at the root of nearly all other modern, Western music. It will never go away – even if it doesn’t sell like the Pop music it influenced. I usually tell visitors to my Cat Head blues store who ask me, “Is Blues dying?”, that the music genre is not dying – it’s the last of the Mississippi bluesmen who are truly attached to the land here that I’m worried about. Look, you didn’t have to grow up picking cotton, driving a mule or playing juke joints… but if you did, it absolutely informs and infects your music. The landscape, lifestyle and environment here in the Mississippi Delta back in the day absolutely made this music what it is today. The blues and bluesmen from here are the foundation, and we are lucky enough to still have a handful of those guys who came up through it still playing today.
How do you see the future of blues music? Give one wish for the BLUES
Blues music – the genre – will never go away. But, and this is a big but for hardcore fans like me, it will (and is) evolving. That’s fine, of course. For any art form to survive and remain relevant, it must evolve. However, fans of music, culture and history aren’t doing themselves any favors if they are ignoring the older, more archaic, real-deal stuff that still exists here and there in Mississippi. To best understand the present and future states of music – especially Blues – folks need to get to Mississippi NOW to experience the last breath of this amazing juke joint art form and the men who managed to keep it going somehow even in this digital age of internet and MP3s.
Making films like M for Mississippi, We Juke Up In Here, and my first one, Hard Times, is the greatest experience that you can have as a music fan. It gives you the excuse to spend very personal moments with your blues heroes and hanging out at the coolest juke joints and house parties imaginable. I invite folks to check out our films. We try to make them in such a way that the viewer comes right along with us on a whirlwind, deep blues experience. There are video preview trailers at: www.mformississippi.com, www.wejukeupinhere.com, and http://www.filmbaby.com/films/940.
How does the blues music come out of the “Hidden History of Mississippi Blues” pages?
By (hopefully) crystalizing an overall history of the blues that came from Mississippi and spread to the world AND letting some of the genre’s surviving bluesmen tell their own personal stories, “Hidden History of Mississippi Blues” aims to offer something to both new AND veteran blues fans. If we’ve done our job, the music, the history and the men behind it all will come to life and motivate readers to visit Mississippi or pick up some Delta blues CDs today.
What is the story behind the title of book?
“Hidden History of Mississippi Blues” is part of The History Press’ “Hidden History” series, but the title is appropriate, I think, for two reasons. First, the early history of blues isn’t generally known by the mass public, so it is good to tell that in a quick, clear manner; it’s a history that really reads a bit like a mystery novel; it’s that compelling. Second, for me, the biggest “hidden history of Mississippi blues” is that it is still here, still going on. A good Saturday night at a juke joint in the Mississippi Delta is like stepping back in time or stepping into the pages of a history book; it is that amazing and that unchanged. That said, it won’t be here for long. Just in the 10 years I’ve lived in Clarksdale, Mississippi, I’ve seen probably 8 or 10 juke joints close and a dozen blues players pass away. Folks need to read the book (please!) as a primer, and then visit here NOW before they miss the living blues history.
Juke Joint Festival & Clarksdale Film Festival, how did those projects come about?
I am a blues fan, first and foremost, so I’m always looking for way to “organize and promote the blues from within” (which is my overall mission). Juke Joint Festival involves over 100 blues acts in one weekend, including all of the older Mississippi bluesmen that I can get. It’s an incredible weekend. Readers can find out more at www.jukejointfestival.com. Our dates for Juke Joint Festival & Related Events are April 12-15, 2012. Clarksdale Film Festival serves a similar purpose and is comprised of blues, Mississippi and Southern films. There is more information on this event on our Juke Joint Festival site.
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