Q&A with Larry Grisham and Tommy Stillwell (The Beat Daddys) -- a duo with authentic American roots

"The Blues is an art form that allows the artist to express those life lessons in song. That we all have things in life we have to deal with. Happiness, sorrow, good times and bad. No matter our race or nationality we are all members of the HUMAN race with similar but individual problems."

The Beat Daddys: Hoodoo Emotions

Formed in 1986 by core members Larry Grisham and Tommy Stillwell, The Beat Daddys have spent almost 30 years bringing their blend of American roots music to audiences around the world. With international CD releases, several film & TV soundtrack credits, and countless shows in the US and abroad, The Beat Daddys are a duo with authentic American roots. Coming of age in rural Kentucky where the nearest interstate highway was 100 miles away, Tommy Stillwell and Larry Grisham’s musical journey was shaped by their families and the deep music traditions of Kentucky and the South.

The two founding members: Larry Grisham on lead vocals, harmonica & rhythm guitar; and Tommy Stillwell on lead guitar & backing vocals, also comprise the songwriting team responsible for the group’s original song catalog as well as tunes covered by other artists. The first studio release in over 20 years by The Beat Daddys featuring both Larry and Tommy is the album “Hoodoo That We Doo” (2015) features eleven original songs. Six written by Tommy & Larry together, two by Tommy, one by Larry, one written by Mississippi songwriter A.D. Prestage of Malaco Records fame and one more by Muscle Shoals, AL songwriter Maxwell Russell.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Larry: I've learned to celebrate getting through tough times and realize we all have the blues during bad times but singing the blues lets me rejoice in getting past those bad times and enjoy the good times.

Tommy: I've learned that I will always have more to learn from life in general. There will always be those who have it better than me, and there will always be those have it worse. Whether we realize it or not, we are always learning life lessons and that is where the Blues come into play. The Blues is an art form that allows the artist to express those life lessons in song. That we all have things in life we have to deal with. Happiness, sorrow, good times and bad. No matter our race or nationality we are all members of the HUMAN race with similar but individual problems. The Blues as a musical form can be a celebration of those ups and downs we have all faced, and how we made it through those times.

How do you describe The Beat Daddys sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Larry: Our music we write is influenced by everything we've ever heard, be it pop, rock, folk, country, blues, bluegrass, soul, r&b, all of it. We like a lot of the British Invasion bands from the '60's, who were influenced by Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and all the American blues greats, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Freddie King, BB King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Howling Wolf, Little Walter, Slim Harpo, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the list goes on. Then came Johnny Winter, SRV, Fabulous Thunderbirds, etc. All big influences. We do our originals and we cover all kinds of music, playing what we liked, what we enjoy, and hoping to turn others on to it. Philosophy...Whatever is enjoyable, music makes the heart smile, cry, ache, joyful, it stirs up all of our emotions! Music makes the world feel all these emotions, everyone anywhere can relate to music.

Tommy: My personal music philosophy is to create songs with a story that touch people in a way they can relate to.  (Photo: Larry Grisham, by Denny Simmons)

"Music is the universal language. It's all connected, everything comes from a thought, an emotion, positive, negative, the lines continue to run together, apart, in and out, music is music."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Larry: B.B. King was wonderful, Fred James is a great writer/player and blues historian, and so many great performers, agents, promoters, club owners, and FANS! BB King told us to always be ourselves, don't change for any one show or event, be true to yourself.

Tommy: Everyone I have met in my career has impacted me in some way. Of course the ones that immediately come to mind are the artists I grew up admiring. Johnny Winter, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and those who knew Jimi Hendrix. Best advice: B.B. told me to be a musician first (appreciate all styles) be a guitarist second (be versed in not only Blues, but Jazz, Country music etc.) Then, specialize in the style of music I love the most (the Blues). But be able to play most anything. He also told me to keep dressing sharp. “If you want to make a million dollars in this business, you need to look like you are WORTH a million dollars.” Advice I still follow to this day.

Are there any memories from Johnny Winter, B.B. King, James Cotton and Koko Taylor which you’d like to share?

Larry: Was fortunate to play some sold out shows with all of those folks, all fine people. It was thrill with each one, too many stories to know where to start!

Tommy: I could go on for days about any of people you mentioned. I will say they were all as nice to me as a person could possibly be, and made me feel as if I belonged right there in their circle. That meant a lot to me as a struggling musician. Johnny had a great sense of humor. Even came to see us play when he heard we were at a local club in Houston, TX. I don't need to tell anyone what a wonderful human being B.B. King was. I still have my purple suit he liked so much. James Cotton was another “down home” kind of guy who used to come into The Black Diamond in Memphis with Rufus Thomas and just sit and dig our music. Koko Taylor was a sweetheart. I feel blessed to have met them all.

"The Blues as a musical form can be a celebration of those ups and downs we have all faced, and how we made it through those times." (Photo: Tommy Stillwell, by Denny Simmons)

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

Larry: The simplicity of getting a gig, the honesty of the music, the integrity of the players and club owners, and the music itself. Hopes, fears? ...I truly think the blues genre will never disappear.

Tommy: Nowadays, at least at times, I believe the sincerity in the music is getting lost. It seems these days, too much importance can be put on sheer technical ability and musicianship over emotion and content of the song. When Howlin' Wolf sang “Evil”, you felt it was for real because of the emotion, not because some guitar player was shredding some exotic scale over him in the background. My hopes, to continue to create and play the music I love. I have no fears for the future. I have only the drive to shape the things I can control, make it through the things I cannot change, and write songs about my journey.

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

Larry: There is so much wrong in this business I wouldn't know where to start.

Tommy: To get the people back out to the live venues. To have more industry people coming out to the live shows and finding talent in the little clubs where the energy is, instead of running some sort of contest or TV competition to find talent. Music was meant to be an art form, not a game show.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz and Rock n’ Roll Music?

Larry: Music is the universal language. It's all connected, everything comes from a thought, an emotion, positive, negative, the lines continue to run together, apart, in and out, music is music. I don't like it to be sorted and divided into genres. It's all music.

Tommy: One word comes to mind... Self-expression. For example: “I'm dealing with troubles and raw emotion”. I have the blues... “I want to express my feelings of love in a smooth gentile way, but with conviction.” I have soul... “I have a free form spirit and express myself in that way. Rules don't always apply.” I am jazz... “I hear all these forms of music but in my youth, I want to arrange it in a way that moves my body”. I am Rock n' Roll.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

Larry: Some bands who do a gig once a month and tell people they are pros makes me laugh, they all have day jobs and have no idea the time and sacrifice it takes to be a real pro... Emotionally it was knowing we wouldn't get to see B.B. King again. He was a true, sincere, talented, kind hearted man. 

Tommy: Aside from the jokes I hear being thrown around on the way to shows, I would say some of the things I hear people say or ask before they think about what they a saying. (Alcohol is usually involved). Touched me emotionally? Sort of the same as far as what people say. But in the other direction. It affects me deeply to have someone tell me about a particular song and what it has meant to them. And you realize, “they get it”. To know you have impacted someone with your music in some way is a very humbling powerful thing.

 

What is the Impact of Blues culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications? 

Larry: The blues came from the workers in the fields who, because of the early days of slavery, were predominately of African descent. Over time, they moved to the Northern cities for the promise of jobs and a better life. At the time, there were white people in the industry who recognized the significance of the music they brought and helped get it out to the world. I think that was a big step in bringing the races together, culturally and socially.

Tommy: I'm not really sure about all of that... I just know from the interactions within my life. We used to play a series of shows in Mississippi in memory of the late civil rights activist Medgar Evers. These are the very shows where I first met B.B. King. The money raised went to a lot of worthy causes to benefit people stricken by poverty. A wonderful day of Gospel and Blues music to raise money for people. Not Black people. Not white people. But people. As Charles Evers told me (and I'm sure a lot of others), poverty knows no race. But people of all races know poverty. In this instance, the Blues had a positive impact.

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

Larry: Many come to mind but one cool day would be attending Woodstock Aug. Of 1969. I personally would enjoy seeing all the people enjoying themselves and the music!

Tommy: I wouldn't go there. I prefer to remember the days of my past just as they happened and keep them in that way... And, I have no interest in traveling into the future. I would prefer to live in the present and shape my future as best I can.

The Beat Daddys - Official website

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