Fabulous guitarist Mark May talks about the Blues Heaven, 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: Welcome To Blues Heaven

Blues Heaven is the 6th album for Columbus, Ohio-based Mark May and his band, and its 13 tracks represent a new height in blues power performances and songwriting chops for the celebrated musician. The new album also features backing by The Soul Satyr Horns, who provide extra punch to Mark and the band’s incendiary blues riffs with special guests. Music was a part of Mark May's life from an early age. A brother had worked with Pure Prairie League's Craig Fuller, and his mom was drawn to the strains of country and bluegrass. A native of Ohio, the blues guitarist began learning to play the instrument when he was five years old, and during his teen years he became involved with several bands. By the time he'd turned 16, he had played the first of what would become many professional gigs. Upon relocating to Houston during the early '80s, May continued to perform professionally with a variety of country outfits.                                                    Mark May / Photo by Wendy Turner

He went on to work with rock groups, but his heart always was with the blues. Thanks to a friend, he discovered an affinity for Albert Collins' brand of the blues. He soon pulled together his own blues-rock group. The band included saxophonist Eric Dimmer, drummer Danny Goza, and singer and bass player "Fretless" Dan Cooper. Dimmer left the group to work with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and singer and harpist Dave Nevling came aboard. May and the Agitators, his Houston-based band, headed into the studio and made their demo, You Can Call on the Blues. Before a month had passed, Icehouse/Priority Records executive Johnny Philips was ready to sign May and the Agitators. After the record company issued a CD titled Call on the Blues, the band's lineup shifted. Guitarist Billy Wells and drummer Greg Grubbs stepped in to take over for Goza and Nevling. Icehouse issued May's sophomore effort, Telephone Road Houston, Texas, in 1997. The CD features contributions from the Agitators' former saxophonist, Dimmer, as well as Alan Haynes, Larry McCray, and the Memphis Horns. Two years later, May was dubbed Houston Press Musician of the Year. Previously, he had been named a nominee in the city's Best Guitar Contest. (Biography by Linda Seida/ allmusic.com)

Interview by Michael Limnios

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.

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.

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.

"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." (Photo by Rachel List)

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.

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 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!"

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 the 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 from him 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 is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

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

"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." (Photo by Brian Burch)

 

What the difference and similarity between the BLUES and SOUTHERN ROCK feeling?

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

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!

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."

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!

Mark May - Official website

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