Boston-based guitarist Peter Ward talks about his experiences and journeys in the Blues and Western Swing paths

"At a blues symposium in the ‘90s, someone described blues as a river that flows forever. But in my view, if blues is a river it finally released into the ocean."

Peter Ward: Train to Key Biscayne

Peter “Hi-Fi” Ward's brand new album "Train to Key Biscayne" on Gandy Dancer Records hit the road on March 29th. Along for the ride with the former guitarist in The Legendary Blues Band are a trainload of New England blues notables, including Ronnie Earl, Sugar Ray Norcia, Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, Johnny Nicholas, Anthony Geraci and Michelle “Evil Gal” Willson, plus Neil Gouvin on drums, Peter’s brother Michael “Mudcat” Ward on bass (both members of Sugar Ray & the Bluetones), and Hank Walther on keyboards. Train to Key Biscayne is Peter’s follow-up to his first solo album, Blues on My Shoulders (2017), which garnered excellent reviews and made it to the Top 25 blues charts. It features 12 new blues, swing tunes and ballads, all written by Peter. On the new CD, he is joined by some of today's best blues artists - who also happen to be his friends. Train to Key Biscayne features excellent vocal performances from Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, Sugar Ray Norcia, Michelle “Evil Gal” Willson and Johnny Nicholas — all naturally gifted singers.           Peter Ward / Photo by Tom Hazeltine

Peter "Hi-Fi" Ward grew up in Lewiston, Maine, and later moved to Boston, where he worked in various bands and sat in with Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, who then featured Ronnie Earl on guitar and Peter’s brother Mudcat on bass. He backed artists such as Jimmy Rogers, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Sunnyland Slim and Lowell Fulson when they appeared locally. In New York, Peter was honored when Otis Rush, after performing together, told him he played chords “like an old man.” In the 1980s, Peter toured with the Legendary Blues Band whose members — Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones and Jerry Portnoy — had backed the great Muddy Waters. The experience reinforced in Peter the desire to play blues in a conversational, unhurried and to-the-point way. With Peter the band recorded Red Hot and Blues on Rounder Records, also featuring guitarist Duke Robillard. Peter was married for 20 years to beloved Boston WGBH-FM blues deejay Mai Cramer, who died of breast cancer in 2002. Each year Peter and Mai's fans stage a fundraiser in her honor for charity at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Mass. Headliners have included Ronnie Earl, Duke Robillard, Jody Williams, Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, Lurrie Bell, Jody Williams, Ron Levy and Eddie Taylor, Jr. In 2010, he produced Goodbye Liza Jane: Hello Western Swing, a CD of western swing songs featuring Herb Remington, an original member of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the American Root music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Blues has always shaped my worldview. I've always deplored racism and bigotry and not just because I've worked, traveled and enjoyed blues artists who were African-American. It's how I grew up. In the early 1980s I was on the road with Legendary Blues Band in a van heading to a gig. Pinetop Perkins, Calvin Jones, and Willie Smith were black and Jerry Portnoy and I were white. Two white New Jersey state police pulled us over. We would never have allowed Willie, our driver, to weave across a lane as the trooper alleged. They made us empty the truck and trailer of all our equipment and then sit on the shoulder a long time. They sought to humiliate us. Immediately afterward you could hear a pin drop in the van whereas we usually joked about everything. I think the incident reminded the guys of the bad times they faced down South. Years later, court cases exposed racial profiling. Blues teaches you to feel for the underdog, roll with the punches and stay humble. 

What were the reasons that you started the Blues researches? What is the story behind your nickname "Hi-Fi"?

As a kid, I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and immediately loved them and what they were doing. The next morning I made a beeline to the city's (Lewiston, Maine) only record store. I saw Gerry & the Pacemakers live at an armory near my home. My older brother Mudcat and his friends played records that to me sounded strange and wonderful. On the Chicago: The Blues Today series for example, Junior Wells would cry out while Buddy Guy played intense high notes on the guitar. The blues was irresistible. Soon I had a guitar and was listening to Robert Jr. Lockwood, Louis Myers, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, BB and Albert King, and trying to figure out what they were doing — and why. As a teenager, I had a few books about the blues, and a photo of an obscure guitarist named Johnny Hi-Fi caught my attention. I liked that he slung his guitar real low. I liked his name; a "hi fi" record player seemed 50s-modern. I was intrigued — and sad — that such a cool guy was obscure, even in the small world of blues. I started introducing myself as Peter Hi Fi, and some people called me Hi-Fi.

"Boston was terrific because artists like Robert Lockwood, Johnny Shines, J.B. Hutto, Muddy Waters, Albert Collins and Albert King would come to town. You could hear real blues and in some instances play with them. The climate was right. Club owners would hire unknown players like me sight unseen. And they would promote the gig in the music newspapers. How cool is that!"

How do you describe Peter Ward sound and songbook? What do you learn about yourself from the blues people?

My songbook reflects a wide swath of blues and swing within a traditional framework. I like to capture the spirit of Chuck Berry, Tiny Grimes, Muddy Waters, BB King and Albert King. I also love the wild guitar performed by less known or unidentified guitarists on obscure records from the 1950s and 60s. From blues players I learned the importance of the adage, "the show must go on."

What does "Bostonian Blues Scene" mean to you? What characterize the sound of local scene?

Boston was terrific because artists like Robert Lockwood, Johnny Shines, J.B. Hutto, Muddy Waters, Albert Collins and Albert King would come to town. You could hear real blues and in some instances play with them. The climate was right. Club owners would hire unknown players like me sight unseen. And they would promote the gig in the music newspapers. How cool is that! I'm not sure if Boston had its own sound. Like everywhere, some bands sought to play the blues exactly like the records, some improvised and some went in a rock direction. I liked traditional improvised blues. Local artists like Ronnie Earl, Duke Robillard, Johnny Nicholas, Bob Margolin and Sugar Ray Norcia became masters.  

How do you describe "Train to Key Biscayne" songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

Train to Key Biscayne showcases original 12 songs — blues, ballads and rock n roll — each with a story to tell and all featuring the best singers in today's blues world — Sugar Ray Norcia, Luther Johnson, Michelle Willson and Johnny Nicholas. It's a mix spanning the blues gamut from hard-charging guitar-driving blues of "Change" and "Blues Elixir" to swing "As Long As I Have a Chance" to Chuck Berry-style rock n roll "A Westerly Sunday Night." Regarding creativity, my head's been active with melodies and riffs the last few years. Once I got a smartphone I could capture musical snippets instead of letting them escape into the ether as I did for so long. I'll fire up Garage Band on the computer, plug in a guitar, select the drums and make a crude demo. That's how I've given "birth" to many of my songs. It's a great feeling.

"My songbook reflects a wide swath of blues and swing within a traditional framework. I like to capture the spirit of Chuck Berry, Tiny Grimes, Muddy Waters, BB King and Albert King. I also love the wild guitar performed by less known or unidentified guitarists on obscure records from the 1950s and 60s. From blues players I learned the importance of the adage, "the show must go on.""

Are there any memories from "Train to Key Biscayne" album's studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Oh yes. I was honored that Luther Johnson, formerly Muddy's guitarist, agreed to sing a song I wrote about his life. He knows hundreds, maybe thousands, of songs. But I don't know when he was last asked to learn a new tune. So in the studio we went over the lyrics line by line. It helped me understand his life better. He taught me how to pronounce Itta Bena, his Mississippi hometown. When Ronnie Earl joined us, I moved my amp from isolation into the main room to face him. As a guitar player, you've got to be on your toes when Ronnie's there. He's always generous with the space he gives you. You can turn up loud, you can throw sand into his amp. But you'll never sound better than him. Having Sugar Ray & the Bluetones (Ray Norcia, Anthony Geraci, Mudcat Ward, Neil Gouvin) backing you is a treat because they've played together for 35 years and still demonstrate passion, wisdom and imagination. They play the kind of blues I like best. We had some laughs but those guys are business-like too, which can result in some frank discussions. (Should we end the song or let it fade?) For the song, "Supposedly," I booked Hank Walther, former pianist with John Conlee ("Rose-Colored Glasses") to do overdubs. Around the appointed time the phone rang. It was Hank saying he was just outside the studio in his car waiting out an intense thunderstorm. The deluge never let up, so Hank came in soaked and proceeded to play his piano and harmonica parts beautifully.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

In Rochester, N.Y. around 1978, jazz guitarist Sonny Dunbar told me a good guitar solo should be like a conversation with a woman who interests you. That is: Don't hurry. Don't do all the talking. Make it happy. The kind of blues played by The Legendary Blues Band — they helped create the Muddy Waters sound, which was unhurried, concise and direct— was everything I believe in. From BB King, Albert Collins, Jimmie Vaughan, Ronnie Earl and others I learned that you must throw yourself into a song, really go for it each time.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions that you’d like to share with us?                                  Peter Ward / Photo by Tom Hazeltine

Too many to tell. In New York City one time, Otis Rush told me I played like an "old man" — a nice compliment. Another time I had a gig at a tough bar. A man identified himself as the manager and told us to perform a 90-minute set. A few minutes later another guy with big hands said the first guy didn't know what he was talking about, that we should play two 40-minute sets. And a third guy told us he was the boss and something different altogether. I forgot what we did — ha ha — but at least I'm alive to talk about it. When I was with Legendary, we played a 4H-type fair in Hastings, Nebraska, where the audience was mostly white farmers whom I'm guessing hadn't heard much blues. To my surprise, they rushed the stage and gathered around Pinetop Perkins at the piano, drawn by Pinetop's charisma. He seemed to put those kids under a spell.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

At a blues symposium in the ‘90s, someone described blues as a river that flows forever. But in my view, if blues is a river it finally released into the ocean. The best blues in history has already been played and recorded. This isn't to say there aren't great blues players today. There certainly are. But the best blues was performed by young black people in the 1940s and 1950s who were interested in romance. Blues will never reach the quality from that period. Luckily we have the records from that time. They prove that the great bands took their time, told a story. Guitarists sought original tone and didn't simply submit to distorted rock tone. Subtlety was valued. I'm a grumpy old man, huh?

What are the lines that connect the legacy of American music from Blues and Swing to Country, and beyond?

A good storyline is probably essential. But musically, I think a certain element of swing connects them. Western swing guys like Bob Wills and jazzmen like Tiny Grimes are directly swinging. But there's also swing in Buck Owens, George Jones and Charley Pride. Country songs (and blues) may have a traditional chord structures, but the challenge of finding new ways to make chord changes is what keeps me playing, keeps me listening. 

What has made you laugh from Jimmy Rogers and Lowell Fulson? What touched (emotionally) you from Legendary Blues Band? 

I'd laugh inside — and smile outright — when a song by Jimmy Rogers or Legendary Blues Band hit its stride. When I toured with Left Hand Frank Craig, Ted Harvey the drummer would often blow a referee's whistle when we hit a good groove. Of course by doing that he completely wrecked the song. But we'd all laugh and build it back up. When a cheap promoter gave Pinetop a 66-key keyboard instead of a real piano, Pinetop would sometimes pretend to strike some of the 22 non-existing keys; I laughed because of the injustice but also because Pinetop had such a big heart and could see humor in the situation.

"In my earlier days white and black musicians seemed to work well together. But today I sometimes hear forms of bigotry from players who fancy themselves as blues players. It seems incongruous and ugly." (Photo: Lowell Fulson & Peter Ward, the old Nightstage in Cambridge)

What has made you laugh from the late greats Johnny Copeland, “Cleanhead” Vinson, Sunnyland Slim, and Jr Wells? 

I was at a rehearsal in Vermont with Johnny Copeland's band when he walked in with a new guitar, a Peavey T-60. "I ain't gonna play a flabbergaster no more," he said, referring to the Fender Stratocaster. Cleanhead made me laugh by producing this big sound — saxophone and voice! — for such a little guy. Sunnyland made everyone laugh singing his Woody Woodpecker call. Junior Wells was total fun. He called me over once, at Jonathan Swift's in Cambridge, and, well - let's just say - I heard suggestive language I had never heard before. He told a story involving sexual desire and a block of ice.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in the music circuits?

It took me a while to figure out what I want to say musically. I try to find originality within the framework of traditional blues. I have my influences but I never copy records or solos. I never plan what I'm going to play. I refuse to play a song the same way twice. I used to worry because I'm not fast or have great technique. But over time I learned to just do what I do and trust my instincts.

There's always going to be competitiveness in music business. But I like when musicians support each other. A few kind words go a long way. I learned that from my late wife, Mai Cramer, a radio show host in Boston for 24 years. She loved the blues and the people who played them, too.

In my earlier days white and black musicians seemed to work well together. But today I sometimes hear forms of bigotry from players who fancy themselves as blues players. It seems incongruous and ugly.

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Both, I'd say. When you hear records from the 1950s — Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Lil Green, John Brim — there's no denying it's a distinct genre. But blues is also a state of mind. The old adage, “laugh to keep from crying,” is about happiness and sadness, hardship and survival all wrapped in one. I understood that mindset when I toured with the Legendary Blues Band — Pinetop Perkins, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Calvin "Fuzz" Jones and Jerry Portnoy — the guys who backed Muddy Waters. I loved working with them. One time we were traveling in our van, driving hundreds of miles to the next gig as we usually did, tired, hot, hungry and in need of a shower. We pulled into Lafayette, Indiana, thinking we had an hour before show time; but no. The motel clerk said it was 8 o'clock, not 7. Time for us to hit the stage! Indiana's zig-zag time zone line robbed us of an hour. "I ain't even got time to get my damned coffee pot outta my damned suitcase," said Fuzz. We all laughed. That's the music business. That's the blues.

What is the impact of Blues and Western Swing on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

That's a tough one. First, let me say I dislike the climate today in which so many political leaders embrace divisiveness and bigotry. Many years ago, Legendary Blues Band shared a double bill with Rockin' Dopsie in Lafayette, Louisiana, and it was great. The audience was young and old, white and black, all dancing. You don't see that too often. Our history is packed with injustice, but it's interesting. Benny Goodman supposedly had to be persuaded into accepting Charlie Christian, but at least we eventually had records like Seven Come Eleven. Talented western swing bands like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys borrowed heavily from blues and black culture, and white audiences rewarded them. But Wills suffered for it. I can visualize a hard-working Depression-era Texas farmer coming in from plowing under a hot sun and listening to blues played by Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan on a scratchy live local lunchtime radio broadcast. Now there's a connection. Guys like Big Walter Horton, Robert Nighthawk and Robert Lockwood Jr. gave so much and got back too little. I don't know if they would have been as pioneering had they not suffered like they did, not sure. I'd have preferred they didn't suffer. Of course, some of them simply wanted to do what I want to do today: make music that makes people happy enough to feel like dancing.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

It'd be wonderful if more people went out to hear blues, to dance. I'd like more venues where bands can perform without worrying about drawing customers (but they'd have to be good).

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

Let me have two trips through time please. First: Around 1952 in Chicago after Little Walter Jacobs had a hit song with "Juke." I'd want to see him gig with Muddy, Jimmy Rogers or Louis Meyers and Fred Below.

The other: Around 1940 or after the war when Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys returned from a road trip to perform at Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa Oklahoma. I can hear Bob and fiddles, Tommy Duncan sing, Eldon Shamblin and Junior Barnard on guitar and Noel Boggs or Herb Remington on steel, Tiny Moore on electric mandolin. All those harmony arrangements on early Fender amplifiers over the famous Bob Wills beat. Wow!

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