Q&A with Ventura-based musician Darrin Yarbrough -- Old-School Rock & Roll musicology of Blues Masters

"I think the impact of Blues and Rock n’ Roll on society is a complicated and multi-faceted topic with numerous and varied areas to discuss. One thing for certain, rock n’ roll offers youth and others an outlet to constructively direct rebellion and negative energy in a useful, healing and positive way."

Darrin Yarbrough: Shure Thing Roll

Longtime Ventura-based musician Darrin Yarbrough and the Shure Thing Band bring their feel-good Countrified-Blues to the Road to Memphis Band Challenge, presented by the Ventura County Blues Society, on Saturday, October 1 (2016) at Studio Channel Islands, 2222 Ventura Blvd. in Camarillo. Shure Thing Band started with Yarbrough's vision which revisits the late 60's early 70's era of rock n roll and integrates modern technological advances with the "Old-School" musicology of Blues Masters like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, BB King, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughn; and rock icons, such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimi Page, Kurt Cobain, and John Squire.

"I do not categorize musicians by terms, such as "good," or "better,", but rather as, synonymous, or juxtaposed, with my own feelings or interpretations," says Yarbrough. "Categorical imperatives, used to catalog my selections, are characterized by the term, "Electric Gypsies," which, I define by the way these artists make me feel when I hear them play. I want to revisit experiences stemming from the counter-cultural renaissance, and integrate the best of those times with the modern technological advances in musical recording, instrumentation, and sounds of today." Yarbrough maintains an ongoing involvement with the Saturday Night Bath Band, who educate and help disadvanted youth by presenting educational concerts in Continuation High Schools and Juvenile Detention Centers throughout LA County. Yarbrough - once offered a Music Publishing contract by the legendary Don Casale (who engineered Iron Butterfly's Platinum record "Inna Gadda Davita) - is presently recording in West Hills, Calif. with noted former MCA Records producer Mark Keefer (Tiffany). The two men are friends and have worked together for over twenty-five years.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Music has taught me everything from teamwork, sharing ideas, expression, focus, discipline, happiness and fulfillment. When I was in the eleventh grade, faced with the choice of walking to school and going to class, verses staying home and practicing scales on my guitar. I chose to abandon school in order to learn more about music. The culture surrounding the blues is one of a literacy that is far more earthen and organic than say, something like a Beethoven symphony, or Mozart sonata, which are far more formal and erudite. The blues follow a form that can be similar to forms dating back nearly a thousand years. Poems with structures like a sonnet, villanelle, sestina, quatrain, or cinquain all follow a structure that enabled traveling gypsies and bards to immediately identify and play along the form without having to ask how the music goes. This simple foundation is the vehicle that connects traditional blues musicians to the folks who appreciate the music being performed. From a cultural standpoint, people can connect rather rapidly in a way that is deeper than superficial formality, but not so deep as to expose vulnerability (though, nothing is barring this possibility as well given the time and circumstance). For the purpose of this inquiry, blues is about connecting with others who share a similar interest in being connected. This is the culture of association and identification within a circle or group of people. For those who feel they can relate, we learn that it is nice to be able to identify with other human beings using something other than words. The language of music also works well. I’ve learned that for me this is a pleasant and enjoyable way to connect with those who have the similar interest.

What does the blues mean to you?

The blues for me is a way to express emotion and feeling that can be released viscerally as opposed to verbally. There are many instances where we may want to say or do something but instead choose to refrain from doing so, for fear of misunderstanding or reprisal. This doesn’t necessarily only apply to negative circumstances. Blues is the language I use to find peace through emotional equilibrium between others and myself. A way to express angst to the whole of humanity without feeling any need to assign blame or accountability for the expression. It could be pure joy, or rage, sadness, or humor. The single most important aspect to remember is it’s a panacea for expression and the emotions such expression can invoke. That said, playing the blues becomes quite a challenge to execute on demand. This makes many who play blues to embark on a lifelong journey towards the a bility to express on demand. The real holy grail with blues is not all that different from the Tao, or buddhism, meditation, and related forms of discipline designed to create spiritual through being increasingly self-aware.

"Music has taught me everything from teamwork, sharing ideas, expression, focus, discipline, happiness and fulfillment. When I was in the eleventh grade, faced with the choice of walking to school and going to class, verses staying home and practicing scales on my guitar."

How do you describe and what characterize Darrin Yarbrough & Shure Thing Band sound, songbook and philosophy?

Taken strait from my article "Shure Thing Band, Brand or Both”. "I take culture, apparel, and philosophy from the "good ole" American West, mix it with late 60's, early 70's, classic blues-based rock and roll, and arrive at the synthesis of the Shure Thing "Brand". The "Brand" is a blend of C. C. Filson garments, Black Angus BBQ, the street-smarts of a "Harlem Smoothy", fast cars, women, and those (like Moses) "Mighty in Words and Deed's". The Shure Thing Brand is reminiscent of Bon Jovi's lyric, "I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride...Wanted, dead or alive”.

The sounds of my guitar are reminiscent of a cat in heat, or the jet wash of a plane passing before me on into invisibility over the horizon. I like Muddy Waters stylish shouting out words to a story, which doesn’t rise to the equivalent of singing, but cannot be called spoken either. He manages to land in that nether space that remains undefined and so is totally unique to him. It takes a pretty powerful medicine man to deliver to a tribe such an individually unique identity. In that sense, Muddy Waters was to Black Blues/Folk Culture, what Geronimo was to Arizona's Apache Indians.

Our songbook reaches back to the 1780’s chain gang rant, “Who’ll Drive the Chariot when She Comes”, and still recognizes a contemporary “Funk 49” by Joe Walsh’s James Gang. We sprinkle generous portions of Led Zeppelin, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker, George Thorogood. The audacity of a John Fogerty “Born on the Bayou”, straight outta San Francisco like any other good ole southern swamp blues, ala “Run Through The Jungle”. We’re every bit of a good time Rockin Blues Band with or without the roadhouse.

Philosophically, my music is about feeling very deeply, every bit a spiritual experience. Even the Tao, is not the real Tao, buddhist monks, Chaldean priests, American Indians, African American folk blues and gospel. All of these cultures are as relevant as Christianity’s Jesus Christ in the New Testament, and the words of God in the Old Testament Bible. The common theme that permeates all areas of human culture is a notion of spirituality and human connection that surpasses spoken language, or written words. Music is one of two universal languages (the other being math) that brings people together to celebrate life and connect emotionally in ways beyond literary and linguistic boundaries.

How has the Rock and 60s counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I think I was far more impressionable with respect to the culturally romanticized version of the sixties fed to me as a child. Verses how I might think about the sixties now. The influence was immense when I was growing up, I learned to love Led Zeppelin, Kiss, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Aerosmith, Foghat, Black Sabbath, and Rare Earth. I was ecstatic to learn Iron Butterfly was to be the headliner for the local Simi Valley Days. I was dutifully indoctrinated into the religion of us vs them brought on by the man and Vietnam. Vigilantly juxtaposed at cross purposes with the flower children, far out, tune in turn down and drop out of the ever watchful eye of the authorities who would rob us of our innocence and teach us to believe war is freedom and conform ity is salvation. It’s little wonder we all found the empire unpleasant in Star Wars, rooting for Luke and Han Solo and the rebels.

Hindsight being 20/20, it all seems a shade hysterical now, but back in the day, these things were big news, in need of renovation and repair. I don’t think I got sober until the Alternative grunge, Seattle, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, blended with Soundgarden served as the cocktail for clearing the fog that was the 60’s from the halls within my head. Curiously, the very educational recording exercises that became the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and the timeless simplicity of the Beatles were downright sobering and instrumental in forming my perception of a musical legacy emerging from the 60’s. Add to it, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and the diet of 60’s and music is balanced. The fiercely determined perfection of James Brown’s rhythm section is reflected by Led Zeppelin. Bob Dylan’s dry humorless wit stands at odds with Lennon’s life-lessons. Even Prince was able to identify all of the really relevant aspects of the sixties we need to explain their effect.

Honestly, yes the sixties has immeasurably influenced my views of the world and all journey’s I’ve ever taken. But, that was by choice and to some degree, I feel like those musical groups are being shortchanged when passed over or ignored as blues influencers or practitioners. I find it impossible to swallow Jimi Hendrix’s Red House failing to establish his omnipresence in all areas of music simply because he could create beyond the traditional formalism of a twelve bar format.

"I would see the music business take steps to protect their industry from internet piracy, technological advances, and exploitation of intellectual property, in a fashion similar to the movie industry."

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

I had the good fortune of befriending Stanley “Buddy” Sklar, who was a member of the Hook, sang for the Spencer Davis Group, formed his own “Blues” trio (The Bud’s) with Chris Pinnick (Chicago, Spencer Davis), and Chet McCracken (Doobie Brothers, Chet McCracken Band). Chris Pinnick’s influence on me was tremendous. He was the only living rock idol group guitarist I personally knew. Chris is one of those, "force to be reckoned with,” type people who could always dig deeper and give more on demand. There is no limit to the heights Chris can make when under the pressure of having to deliver. I still to this day, consider him to be the most accomplished guitar player I personally met. Prior to meeting Chris, I played Stratocaster’s exclusively, he inspired me to shift to Telecaster’s and blond Tweed combo amps. Chris used a Peavey Classic 60, I always use a Fender Hot rod Deville with 4/10” speakers and a chrome channel plate, or a Fender black knob “Evil” Twin Reverb, with a snakeskin cover. Nearly two decades after meeting the “Buds” and going wherever they went, Buddy Sklar started playing bass in my band. I have also enjoyed the opportunity to have Chet play with my band.

Chris Pinnick received a new heart 17 years ago (probably from the stress of always being able to outdo himself on demand and never failing to amaze those who had the opportunity to see him live). Given a second chance, Chris is not taking any chances or testing the laws of nature. I am quite happy to know he is alive, well, and intending to stay that way. Chuck Vincent (won a Grammy with Dr John) also had me play with him in his band. Eventually, he came full circle, playing in my band.

My producer Mark Keefner is also a very big influence in my musical pursuits. Having responded to an ad in "The Recycler”, we agreed to barter work. I would work around the house and Mark would record songs I wanted to create. Initially, I wanted to complete a song entitled, “The Unfinished Tail of a Brand New Day”, later trimmed to “Brand New Day”. Hearing this really, rich, full, larger than life sound jump out of his reference speakers, I was hooked. An immediate fan, I had demo’s of my songs, performed by some female vocalists, Mark knew. I went to either extreme, playing, singing, and doing everything, or not doing anything at all on the finished recording. One of these songs, “Everything Changes” was picked up for publishing by Don Casale Music. Don is a living legend in the music industry. Responsible for Iron Butterfly’s “Inna Gadda Davita” being 17 minutes long. Circumstances would have this become the catalyst for a new “Platinum Record” award for units sold. Prior to Don, the industry had to be satisfied with the Gold Record award designation.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

"If you make ten dollars a day, and have to go to work everyday, you’re a poor man.” “If you make one dollar a day, and have that dollar, go to work for you everyday, you’re a rich man.” Essentially, this advice is not altogether too different than any movie actor, prime-time television show personality or a singer-songwriter, who all have the goal of making a hit song and live off the royalties made every time the song or show is played. However, there is a deeper, more significant, underlying theme that simply illustrates, "we can become slaves to the grind, or we can grind out the slavery”. The analogy being, people obsessed with accumulating material things, generally wind up enslaved to the possessions obtained by their obsession. Whereas, those who find meaning in more fulfilling and significant pursuits, generally become liberated through experiences in life that, although less obvious than material wealth, are far richer and more satisfying experiences beyond the mere act of possession.

I’m also fond of, "failing to plan, is planning to fail”, as well. I think it is a Benjamin Franklin quote? Nevertheless, it seems ironic that, the inverse of an actions intent, oftentimes is itself, an act of undoing. A simple way of saying, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” “The road to hell is paved with good intentions…et al ad infinitum!"

"Music is an incredibly powerful resource that touches even the most distant of souls, invoking both desirable and undesirable emotions through the sheer act of sonic recognition."

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

I’m pretty fond of the YouTube video of “Jesus Hear Me Crying”, at the time, I had been playing every Tuesday night in downtown Ventura at an open jam. That event was, pretty much, a plugged in, full ensemble band experience. However, I had picked up a Dean Copper Dobro guitar which, I enjoyed playing very much at home. I have a habit of video recording my dobro performances for a few reasons, learning experience, personal appearance, sound quality, and memorializing ideas in case, I was in need of referring to them for future use. The guy who would play bass every Tuesday night, had just posted a public inquiry for anyone interested in forming a blues band with him. Since I was sitting in front of my iPhone camera when a pop up notified me of the post. In a moment of spontaneity, I briefly mentioned, “Okay Mr. Ledbetter here’s your first blues song for your blues band”, I immediately went into a flawless exhibition of my “Jesus Hear Me Crying”, using Mississippi delta-slide, on my all-copper Dean Dobro guitar. The event went off, so matter of fact…absolutely flawless, with a spontaneous intro/outro made up on the spot, I was giddy for weeks, letting everyone know, I could pull that off twice if my life depended upon it. That was my honest to goodness, absolute truth. I had no problem talking about this because for that brief few minutes, I had reached the holy grail of artistic expression. Here I was, plainly the conduit, not the content. I was every bit as much a witness to the experience as anyone else. The music is simply an extension of the collective consciousness we call humanity. As if I had called upon God and in response he delivered unto me the answer of all humanity. 

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

I miss the fearlessness and spontaneity exhibited by those such as Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Willie Dixon, and Robert Johnson. Nowadays, everyone is too busy copying and rigorously conforming to the old recordings. As if somehow, this proves their contemporary status is valid through bearing witness to their ability to demonstrate with rigorous precision, the old-school masters form, sound, and style. People like Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Willie Dixon, and Robert Johnson would never have bothered to do that. If they could they wouldn’t try, if they couldn’t we wouldn’t know because that is atypical and ideologically inconsistent with their own beliefs and views on creative expression.

Nowadays, it’s as if, the only authentic blues masters are those who show us how well they have learned the old players work and ways. Sadly, that is not a Willie Dixon song which would stop at nothing to break new ground through transcending or even abandoning the established Blues forms. Players like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin (who receive no credit as blues men) are more ideologically aligned and consistent to a Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters outlook and attitude than most contemporary blues players. Today’s blues players measure each others progress, by using the ability to remain synonymous with the Muddy/Robert era recorded song structures. Where Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon, would act more like, Hendrix and Zeppelin, totally abandoning and ignoring the rules of their predecessors, favoring their own unique interpretations of what Blues mean. In fact, it is this very independence and rejection for conformity and authority that eventually emerges to become rock and roll. You’d be very hard pressed to find such troubadours and maverick’s in the contemporary blues of today.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of blues?

I would hope that trail blazers like Jimi Hendrix are openly acknowledged and recognized as the generation of blues players that come after Muddy Waters, not some others who are recognized for flawlessly copying a 12-bar format 15 times on a CD and thereby consider that, and not, Electric Ladyland or Axis Bold as Love, as the authentic extension of traditional to contemporary blues. Actually, it would simply be better to know that all these artists are considered the extension of blues for building new folk, rock, blues, jazz foundations that both challenge and extend the boundaries and horizons for the blues of today and on to tomorrow, then beyond.

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

I would see the music business take steps to protect their industry from internet piracy, technological advances, and exploitation of intellectual property, in a fashion similar to the movie industry. It’s apparent that both industries faced the same monumental challenges emerging from the internet and technological innovations. However, the movie industry conducted carefully though out means and methods that rolled out in measured and controllable ways, never failing to maintain and protect intellectual property. Whereas, in the music industry, the internet, napster, technology, and piracy have all but castrated a wounded, weak and gasping business model that can barely tread water, let alone stand up to deliver a fight to defend their product.

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

Arguably, now is the most interesting period in the local scene around Ventura. This year the VCBS sanctioned all-star blues jam came to a close, and while we still have John Marx’s jam in Simi Valley every Wednesday night, the venue and area are far more suburban than the urban environment Main Street Ventura exhibits. This creates some interesting dynamics because, being suburban and at the opposite end of the county, John Marx’s jam requires a dedication that insures only those with a fixed mission and purpose are going to be in regular attendance. Neither feast, nor famine, the local area still has a ceiling of about 100 venues that field requests from an excess of 1,000 bands.

A large staple of those bands are going to be of the generic top-forty variety, which, generally consist of the standard weekend warrior type musician’s. The kind who appreciate a limited degree of proficiency, that is just good enough to sell drinks to the local dancers. In my experience, these bands actually excel in the absence of artistic expression. The bar owners don’t want great bands, great bands rehearse to often and have no friends.

The weekend warriors don’t play very good but they do know the songs their drinking friends like, Since drinking and dancing are the priority, they seldom find a need to complain about the artistic qualities of those who, on the bandstand are molesting the hell out of that old high school ballad we used to think we loved (it didn’t really sound like that did it?). That wraps up the sweet center mass of middle-class candidates.

The remainder are those few who are either so damaged, or play so poorly, even the weekend warriors reject them outright in their garage rehearsal, leaving only open mic night opportunities to potentially witness these few. The rest are those devoted students who favor the chance to be categorically classified, artist, entertainer, or musician. These are the blues players who represent, reward, revise, and replay the blues often and sincerely enough to be called the blues scene. As far as scenes go, these guys are pretty accomplished and can be split into two categories. The first being the swing dancer, old time blues enthusiasts who hit upon a formula for success and only upon pain of impending doom will they deviate from the formula they found that works. Excellent players who grandma and grandpa are bound to be diehard enthusiasts.

The other end of the spectrum holds those who explore new territory, deviate from redundancy, introduce alternative genres of music, and in general, try to see what they can get away with, not from malice, but rather from curiosity and a developed database of experiences that “do” and “don’t” work. Of these few, we can still divide into, those who make Ventura their home and favor less exposure and opportunity of moving or leaving home. And, those who view future growth and improvement subject to their ability to get work away from Ventura County. I think it’s a safe bet to assume that there’s likely less than 100 of these players who would likely outline the perception and understanding of blues in Ventura County.

Apart from now (as I said), it is entirely possible the most interesting period is about to, or yet to have begun. Depending on how one chooses to look at it. Nevertheless, there’s a shift happening, however subtle and serene, it’s still a shift. However it turns out is not yet altogether clear. But shift it will and with that shift will be those who are actively participating in it.   

"The blues for me is a way to express emotion and feeling that can be released viscerally as opposed to verbally. There are many instances where we may want to say or do something but instead choose to refrain from doing so, for fear of misunderstanding or reprisal. This doesn’t necessarily only apply to negative circumstances."

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the Ventura County Blues Society?

I don’t know about laugh but Alan Mirkitani (BB Chung King and the Buddha Head’s) died recently, about a year ago. This touched many deeply because he was so readily present and accessible. I think the last two times I saw him were both at Bombay’s during the Ventura County Blues Society sanctioned All-Star Blues Jam every Wednesday. One of those two times he plopped down right next me on the couch waiting for his opportunity to play. We got to exchange a few words about guitars. Not long after that is when I heard about him passing. This is still touchy to talk about to many of his closest friends and associates.

What is the impact of Blues and Rock n’ Roll to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

I think the impact of Blues and Rock n’ Roll on society is a complicated and multi-faceted topic with numerous and varied areas to discuss. One thing for certain, rock n’ roll offers youth and others an outlet to constructively direct rebellion and negative energy in a useful, healing and positive way. Even when negative, offering a vehicle for expression enables those affected with an avenue for expression that avoids hurting anyone. The blues in a much broader sense does the same thing only for bigger problems with less intensity. Subjects like relationships, marriage, divorce anger separation. All accessible through the expression of blues and avoiding conflict or escalation of emotional intensity due to a location to release the energy without hurting one’s self or others.

Rock n’ roll is far more liberal and narrowly defined in terms of rebellion against ethnic, cultural, and social conventions of the day. Even those who know the establishment must exist can embrace the luxury of outrage and or disapproval without fear it will manifest elsewhere in an unforeseen way. Music is an incredibly powerful resource that touches even the most distant of souls, invoking both desirable and undesirable emotions through the sheer act of sonic recognition.

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

"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain, starts with a scene where men are standing around a suit of armor with a bullet hole in the chest plate, years before guns were invented. A modern day Connecticut Yankee, being struck in the head with a tire iron, awakens with a horrible headache and begins tuning into the conversation about the bullet hole in the armor’s breast plate. This is the premise Mark twain gives us to share the Yankee’s day being knocked all the way from today back into King Arthur’s Court from the force of a tire iron.

I think through sharing this story, I would be very excited to visit King Arthur’s court. My perceptions may have been tainted through reading the book however, the Yankee who discovers he can act like Merlin the magician, figures out several hilarious ways to use current day scientific knowledge to trick Arthurian’s into believing he was in possession of great magic. In fact, this magic (a rifle) is what put the bullet hole in the breastplate as if by magic to those knowing none the better.

I suppose it would be fantastic to move forward in time 3,000 years and see what becomes of humanity then. It is quite inevitable that we will cease to exist. In about 70 million years, the surface of the Sun will be at the orbit of Earth. Unless humanity has discovered another planet or how to live in space, we will be gone from the heat exposure of far less than the coming 70 million years death of our Sun. Three thousand years for me, is just enough to see what became of the “us” we are today. I would like to see how we have adapted, and what answers are available for things that puzzle us so much today.

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