Texas-based fabulous guitarist Mark May talks about the Blues, Joe Hughes, Dickey Betts, and Southern Rock

"The blues is music about deep feelings and emotions that can bring back memories, good and bad. It’s a healing music that helps us all get through life’s ups and downs so I think that’s why it will never die."

Mark May:

Music Crossroads, Southern Gumbo

Texas-based veteran guitarist, songwriter and singer Mark May released his 7th new album "Deep Dark Demon", on Gulf Coast Records. Mark's last release the highly acclaimed album Blues Heaven hit #6 on the Billboard Blues Album Chart and remained there for 5 weeks. To describe some artist's music with one word would be easy but to do that with Mark May's music would be impossible. But there's one thing for sure, it's all dripping with his rich love for the blues. His astonishing live shows featuring dynamic twin leads and dual harmony guitar work are the perfect complement to Mark's smooth vocals. For over 20 years, Mark has made a name for himself in the Texas blues scene and has been perfecting his craft performing at blues clubs, bars, and festivals.

(Mark May / Photo by Wendy Turner)

The Mark May Band has performed at numerous festivals across the country including Telluride Blues and Brews, Mississippi Valley Blues Fest, King Biscuit, Tremblant International Blues Festival. Dallas International Guitar Show, Chenango Blues Festival, and many more. Mark May also had the opportunity to be the opening act for The Allman Brothers Band on their 1997 - 1998 Amphitheater tour and went on to join up with ABB guitarist Dickey Betts and his band Great Southern for several tours and an album. He has also been featured in Blues Review, Guitar Player, Guitar World, Vintage Guitar. Tone Quest and other major publications.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Well I think most Blues and Rock musicians are more open minded about trying new things especially when they're young. Musicians and music lovers alike are emotional people and often carry their heart on their sleeves. Often exposing their true emotions, making themselves vulnerable and letting it all hang out. It's a crazy world out there right now and we all have to find a way to get together but it's never easy. If you can learn to look at both sides of an issue or listen to someone else's story before making judgment it can make things much easier to solve our differences.

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

It’s mostly just everyday life; we all have struggles and joys. I think putting some of my own life out there helps people connect with me and feel like they can be a part of my world and hopefully see a little bit of themselves in my music. Playing music is a tough world to live in, especially blues. We don’t have a huge audience out there like country, rock or hip hop but there are a lot of bands trying to get their music heard and not tons of places to play.

How do you describe MARK MAY sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I’m kind of a mix of what I grew up listening to. I was surrounded by Rock, Country, and Soul when I was young, so I try to incorporate a little of all that in my music to make it a little different kind of blues. Hopefully it makes it interesting to hear something that has a strong base in traditional blues with these other influences weaved in the fabric of my sound.

"Well I think most Blues and Rock musicians are more open minded about trying new things especially when they're young. Musicians and music lovers alike are emotional people and often carry their heart on their sleeves. Often exposing their true emotions, making themselves vulnerable and letting it all hang out." (Mark May / Photo by Wendy Turner)

How do you describe "Deep Dark Demon" sound and songbook? What has made you laugh from studio sessions?

Well I think my music has always been a little more diverse than some blues artists and this album is no different. There's nothing wrong with having a consistent style or staying in the same lane with your albums and it might make your sound more recognizable but that's just not how I roll. I grew up listening to bands like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and others whose styles constantly changed throughout their careers, especially The Beatles. This album has everything from traditional blues, blues rock, soul blues and latin infused blues on it, which is all the different styles of music I grew up on. We had fun and laughed a lot in the studio but the main thing that makes me laugh is myself. Constantly changing parts or arrangements and being hard on myself, maybe too much at times but I just have to laugh it off.

What would you say characterizes Texas blues scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

I think the big thing about Texas blues is the attitude, they say everything is bigger in Texas, but in this case a little louder too with a little hot sauce thrown on top for good measure, lol. When I was honing my craft, I spent a lot of time listening to ZZ Top, Stevie Ray, The Thunderbirds, Freddie King and Anson Funderburgh so I was excited about living in Texas because of the great blues tradition the Lone Star State had produced over the years.

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

Mainly that it’s a release and a way to share your experiences with the world (whether good or bad) in hopes of making a heartfelt connection.

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

I think that you can learn a little something from every musician you play with and I’ve tried to do just that. Two of the people I’ve learned the most from were Joe Guitar Hughes and Dickey Betts. Houston has a rich blues heritage and Joe was a big part of that. His ability to bring the music down to a whisper and let it breathe and Dickey’s ability to create big parts and endings to songs are important things to learn about dynamics in music.

"I just want to make people happy or make them think about a particular situation or subject. Sometimes musicians can somehow help people understand complex issues by just singing a simple line or phase, It's funny that way." (Mark May / Photo by Wendy Turner)

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

The best moment of my career was probably getting the call from Johnny Phillips from Icehouse Records for my first record deal. I felt like things were finally starting to take off for me after years of playing. Plus being involved with a record company from Memphis and especially with Johnny’s family history (Sam Phillips, Sun Records) was really exciting. I think the worst moment was around 2007 or 2008, when I realized my career was stalled. I was drinking too much and my drummer died suddenly. It was time for me to pick myself up and make some changes.

What do you miss most nowadays from the Southern Rock era?

It’s the songs, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and bands like the Outlaws were popular when I was a teenager and largely helped shape my music.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

It’s hard to pick between learning the ropes from all the real blues cats around Houston and seeing my career get off the ground or the time I spent playing with Dickey in the early 2000s. It was definitely a thrill to be on a tour bus doing gigs with bands like Charlie Daniels, 38 Special and the Doobie Brothers and being able to play all those great songs Dickey wrote that I grew up listening to.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

Well, the internet has changed music the most, good and bad. You can now spread your music and promote your band with the click of a button. We didn’t have that when I was growing up. It’s great but there’s a million people doing it too. All the free music on the web has made it hard to sell our CDs but easy to spread the word to tons of people.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?                             (Mark May / Photo by Brian Burch - Nasty Dog)

There are lots but a few stand out, when my band toured with The Allman Brothers Band, I got to sit in with them several times and when I was in Dickey Betts band we opened for The Doobie Brothers. Then when we were on The Volunteer Jam tour I jammed with Charlie Daniels and 38 Special a few times. Those are things you dream of as a kid. One night here in Houston I walked into a local jam night and ended up playing with Billy Gibbons and Richard Gere (the actor), Richard is a pretty good player but they were the last 2 people I expected to run into at Dan Electros Guitar Bar, lol. As far as studio work, I learned a lot from Dickey about dynamics and building solos, it's always amazing to see a master at work.

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

Lots of things are so much different in the way people listen and care about music now. I miss vinyl with big artwork and all the details about where it was recorded, who played on it and wrote the songs. We were interested in everyone that was involved and helped out on the album. Now people have songs on their phones and sometimes don't even know who the artist is or anything about them. Time changes everything so there's nothing that can be done about it, I guess. Of course, I miss the days when blues and rock were more popular and mainstream, the blues needs another superstar who is a household name to get people interested in it again. I remember when Steve Ray Vaughn came out and lots of people wanted to go out to see live blues bands and buy/listen to blues music, it was an exciting time. There are some talented new blues and rock artists coming out now and hopefully they will keep it alive for people to enjoy for many years to come. My fear is that it might fade away but only time will tell, let's hope it makes a big comeback.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

I just want to make people happy or make them think about a particular situation or subject. Sometimes musicians can somehow help people understand complex issues by just singing a simple line or phase, It's funny that way.

What touched (emotionally) you from Gulf Coast Records? How important is a good label/producer to the artist?

I think that working with Gulf Coast Records is a perfect fit for me. Mike (Zito) and I have a lot of the same influences, like a lot of the same music and have a lot of the same beliefs from what I can tell. He's supposed to produce the next cd and I'm looking forward to it even though I usually produce my own music. I'm hoping to use it as a learning experience and maybe see a different approach to putting together an album. They seem to have a great thing going on with Gulf Coast and I definitely think it's very important to work with someone who is well respected in the industry.

"I think the big thing about Texas blues is the attitude, they say everything is bigger in Texas, but in this case a little louder too with a little hot sauce thrown on top for good measure, lol. When I was honing my craft, I spent a lot of time listening to ZZ Top, Stevie Ray, The Thunderbirds, Freddie King and Anson Funderburgh so I was excited about living in Texas because of the great blues tradition the Lone Star State had produced over the years." (Mark May / Photo by Brian Burch - Nasty Dog)

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

Probably that most things move slower than you would like in the music business, then all of sudden you're too busy to keep up. I've learned that being warm and genuine with the audience and putting on a good exciting show is sometimes just as important as having good music. You have to be a package, a little bit of all of it to be successful plus show up on time, dress nice and play those extra 2 songs at the end of the night even when you're tired and there's only 3 people left in the club. I've learned the small shows are just as important as the big festivals because you never know who is in the crowd on any given night. But if you really want to do this thing, you better settle in for the long haul and prepare to suffer a lot of disappointment. The thing is, when you start getting some success, hearing your music on the radio and playing big shows with popular artists or your heros, or touching someone's heart with one of your songs, there's nothing better.

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

Well I guess it would be easy to say I'd like to spend a day at Woodstock, a day in at Abbey Road studio with The Beatles or a day at Electric Ladyland with Jimi Hendrix. Maybe a day on tour with Albert, Freddie or B.B.King, Albert Collins or Muddy Waters but that might be selfish. If you really think about it, it might be more wise to go back on a day when you made a big mistake in life or a day when you hurt someone close really bad and make that day turn out better. That's what we should all do given the opportunity.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

If you’re in it for the money, (you’re in the wrong business) you should look at playing something with a large audience like Country or Rock, you’re not gonna get rich playing the blues, LOL! But seriously, if you’re going to play, play with passion and don’t be afraid to put yourself and your feelings out there for the people to grasp onto. I think you have to make yourself a little vulnerable and not hide behind a wall if you want to make a connection.

"I wish I would have started playing blues earlier in my career and maybe I could have met and played with some of the guys I admire like Albert Collins and SRV. I’d love to meet and play with Clapton, Santana and Buddy Guy but wouldn’t we all want to? LOL!" (Mark May / Photo by Wendy Turner)

Why did you think that Texas Blues and Southern Rock continues to generate such a devoted following?

Because it’s damn good music with a lot of feeling and meaning which means it attracts passionate followers and listeners.

Are there any memories from Joe 'Guitar' Hughes which you’d like to share with us?

Joe basically took me under his wing for a short time and told everyone to check me and my music out. He loved the way I played Albert Collins songs and helped me believe in myself early on. If Joe talked in Houston people listened. He was pretty much the top dog in the blues world around Houston so letting me play on one of his CDs and letting me play with him at big shows really helped me get started around town.

Do you remember anything funny from your recording time with Memphis Horns?

When the Memphis Horns came in to lay tracks on “Telephone Road,” I remember trying to give them an idea for a part on “Lights Are On” and they matter of fact-ly said no let’s not do that part so I thought to myself why am I giving these guys direction when they have played on over 300 #1 hits and I haven’t. LOL!

Tell me a few things about your meet with Dickey Betts, which memory makes you smile?

He was actually really nice and regular down to earth guy to work with except the time he told me to shut the hell up and learn the parts. LOL! Another time I flew in for a recording session and he was playing a see-thru red Les Paul and I asked, “Where did you get that?” and he simply said, “…it’s my Les Paul”. It took me a minute to figure out that he had just refinished his 57 Goldtop!

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?                                                      (Mark May / Photo by Rachel List)

I once played with Billy Gibbons and the actor Richard Gere at Dan Electros Guitar Bar in Houston which was pretty cool. Sitting in with The Fabulous Thunderbirds at Telluride Blues Fest was awesome. When I played with Dickey Betts we did the Volunteer Jam Tour for the month and I got to play with Charlie Daniels and 38 Special. Jamming with the Allman Brothers Band and The Marshall Tucker Band was definitely one of the highlights too. Good times for sure!

"Well, the internet has changed music the most, good and bad. "

What are the differences and similarities between the BLUES and SOUTHERN ROCK?

I think they are both just a simple man’s music, just songs about everyday life. I tend to think Southern Rock could have been called Country Blues except for the fact that the guitars were a little louder and over driven like Rock music.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Stop playing so many notes and bend more strings and let them ring out!

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your shows at rough and tumble biker bars and blues clubs?

Lots of them, how much time do you have? LOL! Some of the highlights include seeing a fan shot at in the parking lot during load out, numerous fights that brought the gig to an early end when the cops showed up and most recently with a guy getting a finger cut off in a brawl between bikers and drug dealers.

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

The blues is music about deep feelings and emotions that can bring back memories, good and bad. It’s a healing music that helps us all get through life’s ups and downs so I think that’s why it will never die. If I had one wish for the blues I think it would be that it could gain a wider audience. Some people think it’s all slow, depressing songs when in reality it’s a variety of different styles (which I love!) and can be quite uplifting and exciting.

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?

I think it’s easy to develop a lot of bad habits playing music, especially in bars. I wish I could have handled my business a little better, partied a little less and could spend more time writing, which I plan to do. But hey, that’s the life of a blues man and I couldn’t dream of doing anything else.

"Mainly that it’s a release and a way to share your experiences with the world (whether good or bad) in hopes of making a heartfelt connection." (Photo: Mark May)

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet? What is your MUSIC DREAM?

I wish I would have started playing blues earlier in my career and maybe I could have met and played with some of the guys I admire like Albert Collins and Stevie Ray. I’d love to meet and play with Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and Buddy Guy but wouldn’t we all want to? LOL!

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? Happiness is…

I play a lot of basketball and like to spend time with my lady, going to the movies or bowling. I don’t have very many nights off from playing but it seems like I always end up at someone else’s gig on my night off. I guess it’s all about the music!

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