Storyteller/guitarist Sunny Lowdown talks about John Lee Hooker, Paul Oscher, R.L. Burnside and KFFA

"A lot of blues today is basically a rhythm section backing a screaming guitar. The dynamics have been lost. I’m not saying every modern blues player is like that, but the ones that move me are few and far between."

Sunny Lowdown: The Blues Volume Low

Sunny Lowdown (aka Louie X. Erlanger) plays the raw, deep blues, drawing from the music of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jesse Mae Hemphill and R.L. Burnside. Some critics have described Sunny’s music as “swamp music”, but Sunny shuns labels. “I’m just me -- Sunny Lowdown, “he says. "If you want to categorize it, call it 'Sunny Side Up'." Sunny started playing professionally at an early age. He was only sixteen when he first backed up John Lee Hooker. He went on to work with many of his favorite blues musicians: Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Muddy Waters pianist Pinetop Perkins, Chicago blues legends Otis Rush and George “Wild Child” Butler, Fat Possum recording artists R.L. Burnside and Cedell Davis, and others. He has shared stages with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, Gregg Allman and Elvis Costello.

Louie X. Erlanger is also best known for his work with the band Mink DeVille. He recorded three albums with the group: Cabretta, Return to Magenta, and Le Chat Bleu. He also appeared on Live at CBGB's, an album of bands that pioneered punk rock at the venerable nightclub CBGB in the mid-1970s. The Blues Volume Low (2014) is Sunny’s first solo release, a mixture of traditional blues tunes and tunes he has written himself. “I always liked the singers who could sit with just their guitar and tell you a story,” he says. “Whether they had written the song or not, they made it their story.” The Blues Volume Low is Sunny’s story. Ten tracks with just Sunny and his electric or acoustic guitar, augmented by three tracks with his trio. Sunny’s powerful five-piece band rips it includes Sunny Tubbs (aka Ben Carr) on drums, Sunny Keys (aka Paul Nadeau) on keyboards, Sunny Bottom (aka Louk Houk) on bass and Sunny Reed (aka Fred Tipton) on saxophone. Rhythmic, and powerful, you won’t find many of Sunny’s chords in guitar books. “I like my music raw, and then I cook it up,” he says. “But I never over cook it." Sunny has a great guitar style that combines both Texas and Mississippi Blues guitar styles and his singing and song lyrics are exceptional. This is the real "Lowdown" blues!

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

The blues has been a lifelong friend. I listen to it when I’m feeling bad, I listen to it when I’m feeling good. I’ve met some of my favorite people through the blues. When I was very young I thought I’d love the blues for a while and then I’d get into classical music, which all of the adults around me were listening to. But it didn’t happen. Life constantly changed as I grew older, but my love for the blues just deepened.

How do you describe Sunny Lowdown sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I like to tell a story, and I make it my story, even if I’m singing someone else’s song. So while maybe I’ll do some fancy picking occasionally, I’ll do it to tell the story. The blues is very personal, that’s why you can identify the best players from the first note they play or sing. I like the tunes that have a very deep feeling, like those of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins. I like to take my time telling the story. That’s why my CD is called “The Blues Volume Low”. There used to be a series of Chess recordings called “The Blues Volume 1”, “The Blues Volume 2”, etc.  With all of the the hopped up loud blues out there today, I wanted people to know Sunny Lowdown is “The Blues Volume Low”. Turn out the lights and take your time when you listen to my music.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues researches? What is the story of nickname Sunny Lowdown?

My mother used to play this one Coleman Hawkins record when I was a kid – “The Genius of Coleman Hawkins” - and my older sister got into VeeJay Records’ “The Best of Jimmy Reed” around the same time. I felt that same blues feeling from both recordings and was very moved. So I started looking for records with that sound, and by doing so I met other kids who felt the way I did and we started trading information, and before we knew it, we were knee deep in blues records. You could get them cheap, so I’d spend my allowance on them. Then I started learning guitar and I got to see some of the great blues artists when I was in high school – Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Williams. That just made me crazier about the music. While still in high school I had the opportunity to back up John Lee Hooker and the shows went very well, so I thought “hey, I can do this!”, even though I still had a lot to learn. But I just kept it up. It’s like an addiction that’s also a gift, because you always have something new to learn, and that keeps you going.

”Sunny Lowdown”? That came from when I decided to perform solo more often.  I used to listen to a guy named “Lonesome Sundown”who had a cool sound, and so “Sunny Lowdown” came from messing around with that name.

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

Meeting John Lee Hooker when I was in high school was very important. I was crazy about his music, and to meet him and hear those sounds right up close, well, you can’t beat it. Seeing any of the great blues players is very different from just listening to their records. You can hear nuances in tone, timing, performance, stage presence, etc. that just clue you into new things you had no idea existed in music. And being around working musicians, you see how the life is, and how they run things. Paul Oscher, who played harp with Muddy Waters in the late 1960s and early 1970s was also very important to me because he played a lot around New York City, where I grew up, and he would let me sit in with his group. He had a very deep sound and so it gave me a chance to experience that sound on a regular basis. He also shared the stage with a whole lot of great local blues singers and players, so I’d get to see what they did up close.

Are there any memories from John Lee Hooker, Hubert Sumlin, and Pinetop Perkins, which you’d like to share?

My experiences with the well-known blues musicians were all good. They loved the music as much as I did, if not more, so I felt like they were my friends from the start. To hear Hooker’s, Hubert’s or Pinetop’s playing right on stage with me was so great I would sometimes almost start laughing.  And then also it gave me the opportunity to get to know them a little as people, rather than as some statistic in a blues history book.  

"The blues is very personal, that’s why you can identify the best players from the first note they play or sing." (Photo: Early 80's. Twist Turner, Sunny Lowdown, the late great Hubert Sumlin, Mark Dalton and a friend; Old Timer's Cafe in Pioneer Square, SeattleWA)

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

I miss the great players. They had a story to tell, and each one told it in his or her own way. And when they’d play together their instruments would talk to each other, and they’d get a kick out of having their instruments talk to each other. The piano player would play something and the guitar player would answer. The singer would sing a line and maybe the drummer would pop the snare in response. And it was all to tell a story. There was a language and a humor to the blues that seems to have been diluted over time. A lot of blues today is basically a rhythm section backing a screaming guitar. The dynamics have been lost. I’m not saying every modern blues player is like that, but the ones that move me are few and far between. Of the younger guys, although he’s not so young any more, Jimmie Vaughan has the sensibility and tension in his playing that is from the old days. Paul Oscher. And R.L. Burnside’s grandson Cedric has it with his new group. I think that may be the hope for the blues – the grandsons of the great blues singers. And people like Gary Clark Jr., although his music is all over the map, but he has a great blues feel.

What has made you laugh from “Wild Child” Butler and what touched (emotionally) you from R.L. Burnside?

When I met R.L. Burnside I thought I had run into the reincarnation of John Lee Hooker. He was introduced to me by Jon Morris, a harp player who had toured the world with Burnside for a number of years. Burnside was a very funny guy, full of life and mischief. He could sit and tell stories that rhymed for hours. A great memory I have is when I visited Big Jack Johnson in Clarksdale, MS and we played some guitar together, then he took me to where Muddy Waters lived on Stovall’s Plantation, and then we went to Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint near Holly Springs, MS, where R.L. was from. On the way we picked up R.L. Burnside and Mojo Buford, and when we got to the juke joint Frank Frost was there. They took me behind the joint and got me drunk on moonshine. They thought it was very funny. I was having fun with guys I greatly admired.

Wild Child Butler was great, and also had a good sense of humor. He had a very big voice that just boomed out of his chest, and of course he played great harp. I really enjoyed that tour, which was put together by Mark Carpentieri of M.C. Records, who also played drums on that tour.

"Sunny Lowdown, came from when I decided to perform solo more often. I used to listen to a guy named “Lonesome Sundown”who had a cool sound, and so “Sunny Lowdown” came from messing around with that name." (Photo: Sunny Lowdown with the late great bluesman, RL Burnside)

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

I don’t know that I can answer that question. It is what it is. Get rid of the crooks – that would be an improvement.

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

The blues revival of the 1960s helped bring the races together. That was very positive. But the down side was that the white groups made a lot more money than the black groups they imitated. Just speaking for myself personally, the blues put me in touch with a lot of African-Americans I might never have met otherwise. It helped make me more comfortable with African-American culture, more appreciative of it, and more understanding of what we all as people have in common. It also made me more aware of the everyday difficulties African-Americans experience dealing with white people in this country and in many parts of the world. When you travel with African-Americans you see firsthand the subtle ways they are humiliated daily in certain circumstances – the difficulty in getting a taxi, or walking into a store to buy something and being watched suspiciously. You see how it wears on people who are your friends, and how they take it as a fact of life. It’s depressing and embarrassing at the same time. 

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

I assume you are talking about this in the context of the blues. I’d like to have spent some time in the studio of radio station KFFA when Sonny Boy Williamson had so many great blues players on, and I would have liked to have watched him teach harp to Howlin’ Wolf, his step sister’s husband. I also would have liked to have been at Sun Studios when Howlin’ Wolf recorded, and at Chess studios during their heyday. I’d like to have hung out with Robert Lockwood Jr. and Robert Johnson when they were young. There’s a hundred places I’d like to have been. But I’m happy where I am too.

Sunny Lowdown - Official website

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