"I think acoustic blues just by it's uniquely personal nature, can be freer and more wide open."
Catfish Keith: Βreathing The Blues
Cutting-edge blues singer, songwriter and bottleneck slide guitarist Catfish Keith has established himself as one of the most exciting country blues performers of our time. Catfish's innovative style of foot-stomping, deep delta blues and American roots music has spellbound audiences the world over. A two-time W. C. Handy Blues Award nominee for BEST ACOUSTIC BLUES ALBUM, and 2008 inductee into the BLUES HALL OF FAME, Catfish has twelve NUMBER ONE independent radio chart-topping albums to his credit, and packs houses all over the world with his dynamic stage show. Catfish Keith toured the USA, UK and Europe dozens of times to wide acclaim, headlining major music festivals, and appearing with legends John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Robert Cray, Koko Taylor, Taj Mahal , Leo Kottke, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Johnny Shines and many, many others.
Catfish Keith was born in East Chicago, Indiana on February 9th, 1962. He first heard blues as a child while living in "The Harbor," a working-class, steel mill town. When he picked up the guitar as a teenager, he was inspired to pursue the deep delta blues after being converted by Son House. In 1984, at age 22, Catfish recorded his first album (on Kicking Mule), Catfish Blues. The all-solo debut established him as a new force in acoustic blues, reaching #1 on independent worldwide radio charts. This enabled Catfish to play and tour continually, learning directly from legends such as Johnny Shines, David Honeyboy Edwards, Jesse Mae Hemphill and Henry Townsend. Since then, Catfish has made a dozen solo albums. He constantly tours the world, is a major endorser for National Reso-Phonic Guitars, and his music plays on top-rated TV shows in the US and abroad. He’s also become a respected educator as well as performer, doing guitar workshops, master classes and blues in the schools throughout the the world.
Photo Credits: Dave Arcari, Ian Woodward, Penny Cahill, Witod de Man
When was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
I heard blues and folk and country music since I was a little kid. I was born back in 1962 in East Chicago, and my folks both enjoyed music. They first met singing in summer stock at Indiana University, so I guess it was natural that I'd have an interest in music. Mom & Dad had a bunch of LPs, I remember records by Leadbelly, Odetta, Johnny Cash, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Joni Mitchell around the house.
I was always drawn to acoustic guitar and when I heard fingerpicking guitar, I thought it was two or three guitars playing at the same time. When I got into playing guitar, I gravitated to the guitar-as-orchestra sound of fingerstyle greats Leo Kottke and John Fahey. So my focus started as just a picker, and then I added more songs and singing. I always had a curiosity about the roots of the music, and that took me back to the deep country blues. So I started with people like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, and quickly ended up deep in an obscure world of scratchy old records, learning the repertoires of Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Booker White, Son House, Robert Johnson, Barbecue Bob, Memphis Minnie, John Lee Hooker, Fred MacDowell, Little Hat Jones and so many others.
"I think acoustic blues just by it's uniquely personal nature, can be freer and more wide open. I don't know a lot of electric blues, really, but I do love that brief period in history when the blues first got plugged in."
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
There have been many highlights, I've been making my entire life and living with music since I got out of high school in 1979. I feel so lucky to be able to do this. I feel like every day, now is the best moment. I was blessed with having the vision early; I think by 15 or 16 years old, after playing guitar for a year or two, I knew that that's what I wanted to do. I had gone through my young life at that point looking for true magic. I'd tried a lot of things, drawing, painting, acting, magic tricks, but when I found the guitar it just got better and deeper, and I reached a transcendental moment of revelation. It came to me, that was it! And here we are.
The worst moments, well, I think a person can be their own worst enemy. I did hit bottom kind of hard almost a decade ago. But you probably need that to come back up again, and make a change. I do know when I quit some lifelong bad habits, there was a great clarity. I felt high without being high, if you know what I mean.
Is there any similarity between the blues today and the blues from the 30s - 50s?
Yes, there may be a similarity, at least for me. I kind of live in my own musical world, which is built from the great treasure trove of beautiful American roots music, lots of it heard in recordings from the 1920's until today...It is defined by a quirky, highly individual approach to music; to me it's taking the guitar and making the whole world of music from just a voice, a guitar, and a stomping foot.
From the musical point of view, is there any difference between acoustic & electric blues?
Yes, I think acoustic blues just by it's uniquely personal nature, can be freer and more wide open. I don't know a lot of electric blues, really, but I do love that brief period in history when the blues first got plugged in.
What does the BLUES mean to you, what does Blues offered you & why do you play the blues?
My music can be called blues, it may go deeper and wider than that. It encompasses the world of expressive, weird, soulful music, that is made by humans from this tradition, the stuff of life itself. I can't help myself, I am compelled to play this music, just like a person must breathe.
Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
All periods of life have their merits. Your formative years of childhood kind of determine who you end up being. The intense period of study and crafting you music as a young adult is interesting, that's when you put in your tens of thousands of hours learning, listening, practicing, absorbing. Then, there is the period when you travel the world and make your name for yourself. Now, really, is the most interesting, because here we are, living it, right?
What is a story back from your nickname?
I got named Catfish when I was 19 or so. I had literally gotten a one-way ticket to the Caribbean that winter. It was January, and it was certainly the coldest, snowiest winter I ever remember, probably 20 or 30 below zero, several feet of snow in Iowa. I ended up crewing on a sailboat in the Virgin Islands. I had met the Captain, named Curly, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and I think he may have been joking when he said, "You should come crew on my sailboat." I thought that was an outstanding idea. So, I found him, on his boat, in a bay off of Tortilla, and he, very kindly, let me stay on his boat for awhile. I started to go fishing and lobster diving with him and a local guy. That guy would say, "You ain't nothin' but a Catfish swimmin' around!" That, and "Catfish-steel-guitar-man!" I have absolutely no clue why he called me that. But, not too long after that, I got my first record deal, and I found I needed a stage name that people would remember, so I became Catfish Keith.
"My music can be called blues, it may go deeper and wider than that. It encompasses the world of expressive, weird, soulful music, that is made by humans from this tradition, the stuff of life itself."
Which of historical music personalities would you like to meet?
I would have loved to have met Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Django Reinhardt, Lonnie Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and would still love to meet Jerry Lee Lewis. Wow what powerful music.
But, even better, I actually did get to meet, and have very interesting and rewarding relationships with Johnny Shines, Pinetop Perkins, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Henry Townsend, Honeyboy Edwards, Homesick James and many others.
What do you think is the main characteristic of your personality that made you a musician?
Probably the instinct to be an explorer, and that I'm kind of a loner, and, quite happy in my own little universe. And, that the music itself is endlessly inspiring to me.
What were your favorite guitars back then? Do you prefer playing acoustic or electric guitar?
The guitars that I formed my style on were a 1930 National Duolian, and a 1926 Gibson Nick Lucas Special. I've always loved acoustic guitar the most. I just love the sound. But, I do play a little electric, it's enjoyable, but my heart has always been in steel string, acoustic and resophonic guitars.
Do you know why the sound of the reso-phonic guitar is connected to the blues?
In it's day, before the electric guitar, the National guitar was the loudest, shiniest thing available. Resophonic guitars have been associated with Hawaiian and Hillbilly music, which influenced early blues music, and it made sense as a perfect blues guitar. I think a National Duolian cost $25 dollars back then, so they were not unaffordable.
That old Robert Petway song, "Catfish Blues" may be what drove me to want a National for myself. Then I heard Son House, got into Tampa Red, Sol Hoopii, I knew I wanted a National. With slide guitar, there is a connection with Hawaiian music, and the one-string, where you turn your house into a giant droning slide guitar.
What are the secrets of reso-phonic National guitar?
I'm afraid I can't tell you. It's a secret, after all.
Where did you pick up your guitar style & what were the first songs you learned?
I learned mostly by ear, and by seeing others play. Back in the early 70's, you really couldn't get too much instructional help. I listened very intently, then made my own version. I suppose that's how you make your own style. So many songs! "I'm a Howlin' Tom Cat," "Catfish Blues," "She's a Hum Dum Dinger from Dingersville." The search for beautiful songs was and still is very exhilarating to me.
Where did you pick up your slide style?
My favorite slide guitarist is Blind Willie Johnson. His slide voice was just like a woman's voice, just beautiful. It's that vocal quality that I strive for. And the sanctified songs are so great.
"In it's day, before the electric guitar, the National guitar was the loudest, shiniest thing available. Resophonic guitars have been associated with Hawaiian and Hillbilly music, which influenced early blues music, and it made sense as a perfect blues guitar."
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
Maybe Jessie Mae Hemphill. Just the simple beauty, using one chord or mode. In a way, it's the hardest to pull off, because it is the most naked. But, the most soulful.
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
I think it's a kind of timeless world music, it's never been a big craze but it's always been there, but you may have to seek it out.
How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
The recording industry has changed formats, it was LPs when I started, then cassettes and then CDs, now, it is downloads, and "file sharing" which is a nice term for stealing, and makes it harder to make a living by selling your recordings. But we were lucky to come up in the era of the independent label, and we are totally independent; we have put out almost all of my 14 albums out on our own Fish Tail Records label, and will continue, one way or the other.
Why did you think that Catfish continued to generate such a devoted following? (Photo: Catfish Keith & Penny Cahill)
I hope that I can continue to communicate the uplifting feeling of joy this music brings to me. I am so happy that people still want to come along on this journey with me. We don't give up, this is our life. My wife and manager and President of Fish Tail Records, Penny Cahill, and I have been working very hard at the business of putting on shows, and recording for over a quarter of a century now. We've known lots of the fans that are friends too, forever, we all have grown up together. And they keep coming to the shows and buying CDs. And I am very grateful for that. It's my hope that people continue to respond to that grassroots approach.
Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your gigs with Johnny Shines & Honeyboy Edwards?
I've been very blessed to get to know all of these legendary musicians. I would consider them like musical grandparents.
When I played with Johnny Shines, it was after he had had a stroke, so he had lost much of his guitar playing ability, it had to have been very frustrating for him. And he was such an eloquent, deep, rhythmic delta blues guitarist. He asked me to back him up at the Wheatland Music Festival in Remus, Michigan, in 1987. It was a great honor. He was a soft spoken, quiet man. But when he sang it was with such a passion and power, man! His voice made every hair stand up on end. He was truly a force of nature. I had studied his music for a long time before that, and knew lots of his songs. I never dreamed I'd be able to play with him. That was a high point for me; I was only 25 years old at the time. What a great experience!
I had a great relationship with Honeyboy Edwards. We have both played on a lot of the same festival and concert bills over the years, throughout the USA and Europe. He was so kind and sweet to everybody, I can see why he earned the name Honeyboy. His legacy was not only in his ability to sing and play, but also to tell stories of his life. He was a contemporary with so many greats in the history of blues, from Big Joe Williams, who he mentored with, to Robert Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw, Big Boy Crudup, Muddy Waters, the list goes on and on. He would describe in great detail how he would cheat at dice, hobo all around the country, and exploits he had, from just a few years ago to seemingly Day One. I was asked by a promoter friend to pick him up once in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, as he was coming in on the Amtrak train. From there, I drove him up to Iowa City to do a gig. I remember asking him, what would he attribute his longevity to? He said, "I'm a meat man." and then, "Well, you got to know how to drink." and he went on to describe a very specific formula, involving amounts of beer and whiskey, and how to imbibe to make a successful night. I had several very touching moments with him. He would ask me if needed any money, to ask him anytime. He'd hold my hand when we were sitting together at a break at his concerts. And the vitality of his music was always there. If you listen back to those 1942 sessions with Alan Lomax, up to recently, there was always a complex rhythmic dynamic, totally unpredictable. I loved Honeyboy, the world will miss him so. He left us in 2011, I think, at age 97! He was the last living link to the original days of Mississippi Delta Blues.
... and any amusing tales from Jesse Mae Hemphill & Henry Townsend?
Jessie Mae Hemphill was very special. What a totally unique style! Her music shared the same one-chord, trance-inducing fife-and-drum inspired rhythms shared by her neighbors in the Mississippi Hill Country of Como and Senatobia, Mississippi. Penny and I first met her in 1989 or 1990, down in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, at the Eureka Blues Festival. She was so funny and vibrant and expressive, I just think she was the greatest. When we were first getting to know her she'd call me "Pepper in My Shoe!" because I played that song, and she liked it. Seeing her perform was a life-altering moment. She would wear these spangly, sparkling, sequined outfits, have Chocktaw Indian Bells tied to her legs, and play and sing her hits, like "Feelin' Good," and "Standing In The Dooway Cryin'." So hypnotic. For years, we would keep in touch on the phone with Jessie Mae, and see her at festivals. I remember she came to a gig I was playing in Oxford, Mississippi that Dick Waterman had arranged for me. It was a restaurant, and I was told by Dick Waterman that we'd be served gourmet food there. When all they actually offered me and Penny were hot dogs, Penny and Jessie Mae went somewhere else and returned with something good to eat. When I played my sets, Jessie Mae played drums on the pizza boxes, using knifes and forks for drumsticks. We had so much fun. Not too long after that, at the height of her career, Jessie Mae had a stroke that left her unable to play guitar. We continued our friendship and stayed in touch until her death in 2005. I still play her song "Eagle Bird" in almost every show.
Henry Townsend was a fantastic fellow. We got to know him when 1'd perform in St. Louis. I played on the same stage with Henry Townsend at the St. Louis Blues Festival in the early 90's with him and Honeyboy Edwards and John Jackson. Henry Townsend was known for his early signature hit, "Cairo Blues," and would sing sometimes with his wife Vernell on heartbreaking songs like "Can't You See," and "When Tears Come Rolling Down." Leroy Pearson introduced us, and I remember being very nervous when Henry and Vernell would come to my shows there. Henry always was a dear, kind man, and kept playing his music till the very end. He passed away at age 96 while playing at the Paramount Blues Festival in Grafton, Wisconsin.
"I hope that I can continue to communicate the uplifting feeling of joy this music brings to me. I am so happy that people still want to come along on this journey with me. We don't give up, this is our life."
What do you learn about yourself from music?
You learn quite a lot about yourself. It is such a wonderful means to let it all out there. Everything in life is in this music.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Most people can't really make a living with their music, I would not recommend it. Go to college, learn a trade, have another way to make money. Unless you're a nut, like me. Then you'll find a way. And talent is only a small part of the equation, determination is ninety-plus percent of anything.
Give one wish for the music
My one hope is that the music will live on. I think it has, and will continue to do so.
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