Q&A with Americana and Blues pianist Clint Morgan - old gospel songs slides between blues and country

"Roots music was the original protest music. While it spoke on an individual level about the challenges faced by everyday people, it also spoke on a societal level about injustice in all areas."

Clint Morgan: Under The Blues Law

Americana singer/songwriter and Blues Pianist Clint Morgan, a charter member of the International Blues Foundation, has played in Americana meccas such as Memphis, Tennessee; Clarksdale, Mississippi; and Austin, Texas. He is equally at home pounding out a piano boogie tune as he is an old gospel song and slides between blues and country effortlessly. Lost Cause Records will be released CLINT MORGAN's new album TROUBLEMAKER on JULY 16, 2021. The 15-song offering of Morgan’s quirky stories of life was co-produced by Grammy-award winning producer Kevin McKendree and Clint Morgan, and features collaborations with multiple Blues Music Award winners Watermelon Slim, Bob Margolin, and Jonn Del Toro Richardson as well as alt-country icon Kinky Friedman and Americana gospel greats The McCrary Sisters.  Additional musicians featured on TROUBLEMAKER include pianist/organist Kevin McKendree; guitarist Doug Lancio; bassist David Santos; drummer Kenneth Blevins; blues harmonica virtuoso Bob Corritore;  violinist Jimmy Stewart; background singer Wendy Moten; and multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke, whose credits include a virtual who's who of American music.

(Photo: Clint Morgan)

TROUBLEMAKER is Morgan’s third album of original material, following his 2008 release You’re Really Bugging Me Now, and 2016’s critically-acclaimed Scofflaw. Clint Morgan, an accomplished blues and boogie-woogie piano player (and lawyer), was raised on a farm in rural Washington State. His family, originally from southern Appalachia, moved west 'back in the day' because land was cheap and the farming and logging was good. His great-great aunt was Eliza Morgan Bays, AP Carter's great grandma, and his paternal grandmother was related to the Carter Family by marriage. Additionally, Clint Morgan is a volunteer instructor and performer at the Pinetop Perkins Foundation Workshops in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Blues to me is the fountainhead of American music. It begins a stream that later included country, bluegrass, rockabilly, and gospel. Those of us who love American roots music revere blues; blues is the sound that started it all. Blues - and all roots music - speaks to us of the struggles, the triumphs, the ups and the downs of common people. It is the music of the common people.

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

For me, blues/roots music is more of a reflection of my worldview, not an influencer. It tells the story of the common person, and reflects the lives - the troubles, the joys, the ups and the downs of the average person. Coming from a rural background, it’s a musical form to which I can relate, and speaks to me. I can relate to the stories it tells, and the attitude it often displays.

How do you describe Clint Morgan sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I describe my sound and my musical preference as primitive. Since I'm a piano player, I like a good strong, steady beat for a foundation and a percussive right hand with imaginative licks. A song with too many chords doesn't speak to me. I like to keep it simple, chord wise. For me, too many chords get in the way of the beat. On slower tunes, too many chords get in the way of the message. Keep it simple, honest, heartfelt, and fun.

"I wanted to start a record label that embraces all forms of American roots music; for me, bluegrass is gospel is country is rockabilly is traditional jazz is blues. I wanted a forum to break down artificial walls between these musical forms. But it all started with blues." (Photo: Clint Morgan)

How do you describe TROUBLEMAKER sound and songbook? Do you have any stories about the making of the new album?

Wow. I always think of myself as simply a roots guy. My influences are classic American music: gospel, country, bluegrass, blues, rock and roll, with a bit a traditional jazz. My stuff is a gumbo of all of that. Plus, I like to tell stories in songs. I’m not much on “oh, baby, baby” stuff; there’s plenty of other people to do that. I’d rather tell a story that’s either funny or poignant or sometimes just plain skewed. Sometimes I’ll try to make a point in a funny way - like “Too Rich To Sing The Blues.” Here’s a dude that’s got everything, trying to relate to traditional blues. How is that really possible? It’s better to poke fun at it than hit it with a two by four.

What is the impact of Blues and Roots music to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Roots music was the original protest music. While it spoke on an individual level about the challenges faced by everyday people, it also spoke on a societal level about injustice in all areas. Artists such as Leadbelly, Josh White, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston gave rise to the protest music of the sixties like Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, who were all roots musicians. Those guys informed more modern day commentaries on society such as Kurt Cobain. It all traces directly to roots music.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

There's so many that I could talk for hours. Sitting five feet from John Lee Hooker while he played in a tiny club that had maybe 20 people in it - and he played his heart out just as if there were 20,000. Trying to convince Kris Kristofferson he was a good singer in his dressing room one night. Playing piano at Jerry Lee Lewis' 65th birthday party, and afterwards back in his hotel suite listening to him and Sam Phillips argue (gently) about royalties on Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On. Playing piano at Willie Nelson's ranch. Talking to Pinetop Perkins in the Black Diamond in Memphis while he had a blonde on each knee. Discussing with Quentin Tarantino about who was better, Charlie Feathers or Gene Vincent. Talking religion with Sleepy LaBeef. Playing piano duets with the great David Maxwell. Watching Clay Swafford play flawlessly, one take per song, on his debut. I've been very, very fortunate.               (Photo: Clint Morgan with Pinetop Perkins & Willie Nelson)

"For me, blues/roots music is more of a reflection of my worldview, not an influencer. It tells the story of the common person, and reflects the lives - the troubles, the joys, the ups and the downs of the average person. Coming from a rural background, it’s a musical form to which I can relate, and speaks to me. I can relate to the stories it tells, and the attitude it often displays."

Where does your lyrics/music creative drive come from? What do you love most and what touched you about the sound of piano?

With me, the lyrics come first. A funny premise will come to me, or someone will tell me something that makes me think, “Somebody should write a tune about that.” When I have guy friends talking about the women in their life, sometimes I’ll hear “She’s wrecking my life, man. Runs around, drains the bank account, and hits me with a frying pan.” When I ask why the hang around, I invariably hear, “Because I love her, man.” It’s a pretty twisted way to live, but kinda funny, too. So, I wrote, “I’ll Love You If I Want To.” As to piano - I grew up in church. Old school church means piano. I play a little guitar, too, and trumpet - but piano is the king of instruments. It can do anything. Jerry Lee taught us that.

What musicians have continued to inspire you and your music? What musicians would you absolutely love to work with in the future?

My website has a list of my influences - and it’s a lot of people. I like diverse stuff, but the commonality is simplicity. I don’t like a lot of chords. I like simple, primitive, driving tunes. I get excited if ZZ Top, or John Hiatt, or Mavis Staples, or Ray Wylie Hubbard, or Jerry Lee, or Watermelon Slim have a new record coming out, if that tells you anything. Who would I like to play with the most? Unfortunately, they’re mostly gone: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy, Tony Joe White, Johnny Cash, maybe Mahalia Jackson.

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

Sadly, I’m not sure I have grown. I just keep writing these tunes that come to me. Maybe, as I get older, I gain more perspective - and hopefully the tunes reflect that. I’m not sure, because I have almost no introspection. I just put down stuff that speaks to me or I think is funny, or just plain fun, and hope that others like it, too.

"I miss the authenticity of those blues pioneers who came up through harder times than anybody nowadays can know about: prejudice, crushing poverty, and an oppressive political system helped create an eternal music. I worry that the raw emotion and life experience that it took to create that music is simply no longer around. I worry that the authenticity will be gone. If I have anything to say about it, it won't." (Photo: Americana singer/songwriter and Blues Pianist Clint Morgan)

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

That people would turn off the electric beats and get back to real music. I love a good beat, but a song that’s just an electronic beat and little else means nothing to me - and that stuff is everywhere.

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

I miss the authenticity of those blues pioneers who came up through harder times than anybody nowadays can know about: prejudice, crushing poverty, and an oppressive political system helped create an eternal music. I worry that the raw emotion and life experience that it took to create that music is simply no longer around. I worry that the authenticity will be gone. If I have anything to say about it, it won't.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with barrelhouse and continue to gospel and boogie-woogie?

Blues sped up for dancing became barrelhouse. Boogie woogie started in the lumber and turpentine camps in northeast Texas, emulating the sound of trains. It soon spread across the country. Like barrelhouse, it is upbeat, good time music, but with a far more repetitive and driving bass hand. Gospel overlays it all: some fast, some slow, but all completely emotionally based.

How started the thought of Lost Cause Records? What are the differences between the local US scenes?

I wanted to start a record label that embraces all forms of American roots music; for me, bluegrass is gospel is country is rockabilly is traditional jazz is blues. I wanted a forum to break down artificial walls between these musical forms. But it all started with blues.

What has made you laugh and touched you from previous album “SCOFFLAW” sessions?

Probably not one thing, but watching these world class players and singers craft a song was really humbling. You get an idea for a song, you put it on paper, and you give it to others to record with you, not really knowing if it is good or bad. To watch them jump in and add their own musical ideas to create something special from what was basically an idea you had is very, very gratifying.

"Blues to me is the fountainhead of American music." (Photo: Clint Morgan)

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

Wow. That's tough. I first learned blues from an old blues piano player named Daddy Cool. Daddy Cool was an itinerant blues player who could play anything; a true blues virtuoso. He had been all over the United States playing piano. I heard him play in a bar one night and struck up a conversation. This ended up with him coming over to my house every couple weeks for an hour or so, showing me the foundation of blues piano. This went in for a year or so. The Cool One taught me a lot. After a couple years he moved on, and I never saw him again. I also learned a lot from Annieville Blues, a player from Seattle who worked with me for a year or so. These two taught me more musically than anybody else - right hand licks, different bass styles, how to play while you sing and how fill in the cracks with a right hand if you're playing with a band and keep the beat with the left.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Washington. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

While, I do most of my playing in the American south, Washington State has a very vibrant blues scene with great players. We have several large festivals that attract international talent, and good venues that exclusively host blues and roots musicians. Blues fans in Washington are enthusiastic and loyal.

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

That’s a tough one, since I mostly play in the south. The big problem I know of up here is the lack of venues. It’s tough to find a place up here that plays our music. But a lot of people love roots music here!

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

Be nice to everyone. Don’t take any of it too seriously. Don’t get all wigged out if everybody doesn’t like your stuff. Don’t pander; stay true to what you like.

And don’t quit your day job unless your darn sure you’re okay with low pay, irregular hours, and sleeping in the car.

"I always think of myself as simply a roots guy. My influences are classic American music: gospel, country, bluegrass, blues, rock and roll, with a bit a traditional jazz. My stuff is a gumbo of all of that. Plus, I like to tell stories in songs." (Photo: Clint Morgan)

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

Wow. I'm thinking Newport Jazz Festival 1960 just to hear Muddy Waters and Otis Spann. Or anytime, anywhere to hear Howlin' Wolf in his prime.

Clint Morgan - official website

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