Interview with Ted Drozdowski Nashville-based successful guitar daredevil, singer, songwriter and producer

"The blues is profound, and come from so many places full of light and dark."

Ted Drozdowski: Dharma Blues Bum

The most recent album by Ted Drozdowski’s Scissormen, 2015’s Love & Life, was yet another leap forward for the band. It received a warm reception from press and radio, including a multi-page story on Ted in the December 2015 issue of Guitar Player magazine and extensive airplay on Sirius/XM and around the world. It also led to hundreds of live performances. Like the albums before it—the full-length documentary DVD and concert CD set BIG SHOES: Walking and Talking the Blues (which includes the entire Robert Mugge feature film of the same name starring Ted) and the ghostly, hypnotic sonic experience Luck in a Hurry—the cinematic Love & Life was a major evolutionary step for Ted and the band, blending the sound of Great America Roots Music’s past, present and future, and enlisting the talent of such respected guests as the late soul powerhouse Mighty Sam McClain and the Grammy-nominated organist Paul Brown.

So what’s next? Yet another drive toward new sounds and new song concepts with an album and a radical new approach that’s so daring it requires a new name: Coyote Motel. While any high-energy performance featuring Ted and his bandmates—longtime collaborator Sean Zywick on bass and textural sounds, and the dynamic, creative drummer Kyra Curenton—will take the deepest roots of America’s musical tradition and cast them in fresh ways, the early shows we’re playing as Coyote Motel are really a workshop for exciting, unpredictable music in this vein. They focus even more on improvisation and creating sounds not commonly heard in historic genres like Delta and hill country blues, old-school country, mountain songs, and the art of the songster. Let’s be blunt: This is a band with a unique sound and vision. It’s not for the faint-hearted, shortsighted, or genre-bound—and Ted and his musical friends wouldn’t have it any other way. Stay tuned for the next chapter of Ted’s Scissormen and Coyote Motel—both bands alive and well. Coyote's new album "Coyote Motel" will be out on January 25th, 2019. Nashville-based guitar daredevil, singer, songwriter and producer creates a sonic and soulful 10-song set, funded by fans and featuring liner notes by Anthony DeCurtis. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

Ted, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues?

I became a blues fan in the early ’80s. As a music journalist, as well as a musician playing rock and some improvised music at the time, I wanted to learn more about the roots of the music I played and loved. That meant going back to country blues artists like Robert Johnson and Son House, and Charley Patton initially. And then all the great Chicago, Texas and West Coast blues players. During this immersion I found a book by the musicologist Robert Palmer that became my foundation: Deep Blues. As I read each chapter of this beautifully written book on the history and substance of blues, I determined to buy every album discussed in each chapter, and that become my college level course in the music. At the same time, I was living in Boston, Massachusetts, and a new club called Nightstage opened. There I was able to see Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwod, Gatemouth Brown, Etta James, Larry Davis, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Sippie Wallace, Otis Rush… literally more than a hundred great performers in the club’s short life. And then when I traveled to North Mississippi on the early ’90s and was lucky enough to be befriended by R.L. Burnside - who is the reason Scissomen exists - Junior Kimbrough and Jesse Mae Hemphill, everything about my life and my music started to be pulled into the blues.

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

I’ve learned so many things about the history of the music, but more important I what I’ve learned about its soul. The blues is profound, and come from so many places full of light and dark. Like the old Zen koan about a blade of grass, I believe that the universe can be found within the blues. But most important to me, learning about this music and especially playing it in the US and abroad has made me a kinder, better, more open hearted person. The blues can do that for you.

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

They’ve been a beacon for me—luring me from the small city where I grew up to the rest of the world: Boston and Nashville, where I’ve lived as an adult, and the places where the music I’ve loved was made, from the Bowery in New York City to the studios in Midtown, to the Mississippi Delta and hills, the Arkansas pinewoods, urban Atlanta, Muscle Shoals, Bristol, Tennessee, Memphis (of course) and more. And, of course, in each of those places I’ve found people, sounds and memories that have inspired me and shaped my thinking as an artist and a person. Time spent, in particular, with R.L. Burnside, Sonny Sharrock, Mighty Sam McClain, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Otis Taylor, Ronnie Earl, Junior Kimbrough, Roy Buchanan, Reeves Gabrels, and a handful of others has shaped my character and my music, and taught me what it means to be an artist and a person in a lot of ways. I’ve also had so many adventures and met so many interesting people, and made so many friends through touring as a musician, that I have an overflow of gratitude in my heart for all of it.

How do you describe album's songbook and sound? What are the differences between Scissormen & Coyote Motel?

 Coyote Motel is Cosmic Roots Music that embraces the deep foundation of American roots music and includes elements of blues, jazz, rock, Tex-Mex, and textural and improvisational music, and even more. And to my ears and thinking, it sounds unique in the roots and blues music worlds. And that sound feels like home to me now. I also hear a lot of love and heart in this album. Even when there’s humor, the message is always sincere—but then again, I’ve always meant every note I’ve played or sung. But I worked very hard to make Coyote Motel the very best and most personal album that I could make, and I feel very confident about its sound, messages, and character. It’s me, basically, in sound.

I was also lucky to have some great friends along with me, to inspire me and help bring the music to life. Specifically, that’s bassist Sean Zywick—he and me work brilliantly together—and drummers Kyra Curenton and Peter Pulkrabek. And my friend Mark Robinson was essential to the recording as engineer.

Scissormen was, at the core, a very pure blues band—even when we moved from being a duo to a trio and began to incorporate more blue-rock-psychedelic sounds. Coyote Motel, the band, is the next evolutionary stage of that.

Why the change from Scissormen to Coyote Motel? I think artists need to evolve to get a better and deeper understanding of themselves and their music, so my previous Scissormen album, Love & Life, was—for the most part—a big step away from the Mississippi hill country and Delta based sound that I founded Scissormen to play. It was a very good album. “Black Lung Fever” and “The River” on Love & Life are two of the best songs I’ve written and recorded in my 30-years-plus career.

But after five albums, and a documentary film about the band by Robert Mugge —BIG SHOES—that all explored my revved-up hill country and Delta approach as a duo, I felt the need to grow artistically and really open up my sound.

Coyote Motel is an even more refined and broadened approach—so much that I felt Scissormen was no longer the proper name of the band. So the album and new band are both called Coyote Motel. I’ve had three years since Love & Life to really consider the kind of songs I was most passionate about recording, and to really challenge myself as a lyricist and composer to write meaningful songs—where the language worked at a high level, and all of the music reinforced those words with a sound and strength more emotionally powerful than language. I spent many, many, many hours and months working on creating distinctive guitar sounds and exploring compositional ideas. And when I felt ready, it all came together exactly as I’d hoped. I feel really fortunate.

If you could change one thing in the musical world what would that be? What are your hopes & fears for the future of?

I’m not sure there’s anything I would change. For better or worse, change is inevitable. It’s so easy to get MP3s and to steam music that music has lost some of its specialness to a lot of people. That’s the downside of easy access. The upside is that if you are truly curious, you can find all kinds of interesting music quickly.

But I would like to see people put value in live, organic music again. I wish people of all ages would come out to clubs more and take a chance on seeing artists they’re not entirely familiar with. That’s what I did when I was forming my musical nature, and still do as often as possible. That opens you up to new possibilities and makes for surprises.

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

It’s a genre. Anybody who hears the word “blues” and thinks music associated with it is exclusively depressing has been living in a bell jar. Sure, you can “get the blues” and be depressed, but people shouldn’t confuse the two.

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

There are a lot of important practical lessons—from “don’t take the brown acid” to always carry a charged cell phone on the road. But the most important thing is that the best artists are always recognizably themselves—with their own sounds, their own perspectives on life, and their own overall personalities. Being true to yourself and your own vision should define you as an artist. That’s what all of the musicians who inspire me really reflect, and that's what I try to do.

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

Music is the bellwether of our times. I’m not sure we’ll ever return to the powerful role it played in shaping culture in the ’60s and ’70s, from serving as an instrument of resistance to war and racism in the United States, to igniting a slow fuse that ultimately helped inform social and political change the Czech region. But I do think there are a lot of interesting artists at work today making protest music—whether it’s protest through the lens of history, which Otis Taylor does beautifully, to the visceral cultural critiques of Fantastic Negrito to rappers like M.I.A.—who is ferociously aware of everything—to the music of MILCK, who speaks eloquently for the empowerment of women. I have several protest songs on my new album: “Josh Gibson,” “Trouble” and “Jimmy Brown.” I think to be alive in the world today and to not be touched by the terrible wrongs everywhere is blindness. And as an aware person, I had a need to address them. If one idea expressed in the current wave of protest music helps change a single person’s mind about something, then it’s all worthwhile.

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

There are so many places I’d like to be: listening to Robert Johnson on a dusty street in a Delta town, or Son House in a juke joint; hearing Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue band in rehearsal: catching Muddy Waters at Newport; experiencing Pink Floyd in 1967 at the Roundhouse, or in the studio during the Wish You Were Here sessions; hearing Billie Holiday at Café Society or listening to Tom Waits at the Troubadour. I’m intrigued by so many musical events. But right now, I’d pick any of the days in 1967 or 1968 at Olympic Studios in London or the Record Plant in New York City when Jimi Hendrix was recording guitar tracks for Electric Ladyland. Watching Hendrix at work in the studio for one day would be a lifetime’s learning.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The worst moments are when, as an independent artist in today’s world, I’m nagged by worry about how I’m going to make another album and keep touring, or pay the bills - or, because the band is so busy - worried about how I’m possibly going to have time to handle all the business aspects that need to get gone. We’re so busy with business and touring and songwriting now that we really need to seriously consider adding a booking agent and manger, which is a good thing.  So worry gives me the worst times. The best times are literally every time I get on stage and get to make this music in front of people, who always enjoy what Scissormen do, because we are extremely good entertainers and players, if I do say so myself. Being able to play this music and have people love it and share their joy with me is a gift that’s indescribable. Such a wonderful thing. For that I am very lucky.

What do you miss most nowadays from the “OLD DAYS OF BLUES”?

I miss the people who made and embraced the music that I knew and loved, like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Jesse Mae Hemphill, Solomon Burke, Robert Palmer, Teo Leyasmeyer and others who befriended me. Their friendship was such a deep gift, and I still feel the joy of that gift and the sadness of their absence every day. I reflect on it. But in a broader sense I miss the creativity of the “old days” of the blues. In the 20s through the 60s, artists were allowed to be artists - to create and push the music forward in new directions. Today, there are self-appointed gatekeepers - both business people and certain players - who don’t understand that part of being an artist and part of the nature of any art form including blues is evolution. The music must be allowed to change, develop and grow connections with contemporary culture to remain relevant and vital. I consider that an important part of my job, although what Scissormen do also remains deeply connected to the roots. Too many people think this music is a fossil that was trapped in amber, like some prehistoric bug, during the late ’60s. What they don’t grasp is how important change has always been to blues. If Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf hadn’t been allowed or encouraged to use the foundation of Son House and Charley Patton to create their own electric blues, most of the music will all love today would never exist. If Paul Butterfield and John Mayall hadn’t gotten record contacts, evolution would have stopped with Muddy and Wolf. And so it goes. Artists with new ideas in their genre are often not encouraged, although I see that changing - especially among disc jockeys, who for the most part seem interested in the new. The emergence of Otis Taylor, who is a profoundly good bluesman, is one exception, and proof that the music can be both deeply rooted and fresh. The blues must be allowed and encouraged to grow to stay healthy - and too often it hasn’t been, and that’s one of the reasons it is a struggling art form today.

What are some of the most memorable tales with film maker Robert Mugge?

Many of them are before the idea of Deep Blues began, when we were getting to know each other while Bob lived in Mississippi. He came to many shows Scissormen played in Jackson, and it was always great to see him and we had fun. We also stayed at this home in Philadelphia once before he moved to Indiana, and during that stay I really got to understand the depth and sheer volume of his work. He is my favorite documentary film maker, and to be in a movie made by him is an incredible honor. A great moment from the filming of BIG SHOES was finding ourselves outside in eight-degrees Fahrenheit weather trying to dig up a memorial to Charley Patton in Richmond, Indiana with nothing by an auto windshield brush and a plastic shovel. It was a hilarious, spontaneous and very cold times.

What's been their experience from “studies” with RL Burnside?

I never really studied guitar with R.L. I just hung out with him whenever I could, listened, asked some questions and performed with him as a guest occasionally, and somehow that opened all the doors that needed to be opened

What advice has given RL Burnside, what was your relationship with him & which memory from makes you smile?

R.L. mostly offered practical advice, like how to hide your whiskey so the police wouldn’t know (in a Mylanta bottle - “because nobody’s going to bother an old man about his Mylanta”), and to always talk to people and be friendly because you’re likely to learn something. And that if you’re touring on the road and somebody offers you something, from a bottle of whiskey to $20 to a chicken sandwich, take it. You never know when you’ll need it. And he told jokes all the time, as I guess everybody knows. A song on BIG SHOES, a country blues I call “R.L. Burnside,” tells the true story of a night he spent hanging out at my house when I lived in Boston. After dinner I asked him what he wanted to do - play music, listen to music, see part of the town? He opted to see a movie, and then he went to my movie collection and pulled out an Amos & Andy movie called “Check and Double Check.” Since these films are considered racist today, I was shocked and a little uncomfortable until the movie started and R.L. started to laugh out loud right from the first joke. So we watch the movie, and when it was over I asked R.L. what he thought about Amos & Andy - two white men in blackface. He told me that as a boy he and his friend would save their money and when a new Amos & Andy film would run in Memphis, they’d take their bicycles up there from Holly Springs, which is about 40 miles, and see the movie and then bike home at night. And when they saw headlight at night they’d throw their bicycles off the road and hard, for fear that it was the violent “night riders,” who would harass African-Americans out alone or in small groups. I put all of this in that song. There was also the first time I played with him, on stage at the original House of Blues club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I knew something had happened to me when I got weak at the knees and almost fell down when we all - me, R.L., Kenny Brown and Cedric Burnside - all stopped playing. I just wasn’t sure what it was that night, but it was the beginning of my musical life shifting.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

I think right now is the most interesting in some ways, because I have some very clear goals and am working hard to reach them. But the most unlikely period for a white kid with a Polish coal miner family background was the time I spent in North Mississippi and the Delta in the ’90s, which added up to about two-and-a-half years.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?

It’s a real composite. Part of it is deeply studying the history of the music, and being able to translate that history to other people in song, writing and conversation. Part of it is learning to appreciate humility and open-heartedness in others and myself. The blues, if you really believe in it, makes you honest. Plus my own family history is very much steeped in blues, but not in the traditional sense. Both of my grandfathers died of black lung from mining coal before I was born. My mother was so poor she didn’t wear shoes until she had to go to school and my father had to go to work at age 12 to help support his family. So there are some parallels there between my family’s experience and that of many poor, hard working black Americans. And during my childhood my mom and dad were just getting us all by, so that gave me an appreciation for, - let’s call it a “blues perspective” on life.

Are there any memories from “Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues”, which you’d like to share with us?

I was involved in the early stages, in putting together the information that helped get them money from Microsoft’s Paul Allen to start on the project. I did, however, turn Martin Scorsese on to the music of Othar Turner, which became the basis for the episode he directions with Othar and Corey Harris, and later he used Othar’s music for gang’s of New York. Honestly, working with them wasn’t the best experience for me. I guess that’s all I should say about it.

Where did you pick up your guitar style & what were the first songs you learned? What were your favorite guitars?

I’m self-taught and was mostly playing blues-based rock and improvised/textural music before I got led down the blues path. I was always interested in playing blues, but somehow when I tried to play Chicago or Texas blues, I just didn’t feel like I believed in it enough. R.L.’s direct encouragement opened up a window to the style I play now, and I think I have developed a very personal approach to the music. Right from the beginning, though, I made up my own songs. I feel like an artist has to have something of his or her own to say. But, still, at the very start I had to learn the basic chords on guitar, so I played “Wild Thing” and Chuck Berry, and then went deep into space making music like Pink Floyd until I focused on rock. To play the blues I love, I then - after making three albums with earlier bands – had to teach myself about open tunings and playing with fingers instead of a pick, which I love. But the first blues song I learns, like so many others, was “Sweet Home Chicago.” My favorite blues songs to cover are “Death Letter,” “Rollin’ and  Tumblin’,” “John the Revelator,” “Jumper On the Line.” Scissormen has recorded all of them!

Do you know why the sound of the slide is connected to the blues & what characterize the sound of Ted Drozdowski?

Historically speaking, the sound of a country bluesman playing slide is what inspired W.C. Handy to compose the first formally written blues, but more important to me, the slide makes the guitar more like the human voice. Frets and notes are unconstrained since the slide can move between all of them much like a person singing can smoothly glide between registers. So the slide, which is so important to my approach, makes the guitar more like a human voice. And in open tunings I can hear within the guitar the sounds of people singing in the fields, the voices of African musicians, even the muezzin’s call to prayer.  It’s beautiful. And when I play I like to create sounds that will touch people - either by making them have fun, hypnotizing them and making them hear the great ghosts of the past  (and not just those of musicians) in the music. Hopefully I succeed to a certain degree. In the song “Tupelo,’ about a vengeful God bringing a flood to a once-wicked town, I like to think I an conjuring the sounds of destruction and lost souls. I want to make the music a total experience with songs like that and a new on called “The River,” which I sometimes describe as Junior Kimbrough meets Pink Floyd.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

It goes back to that Zen idea. The sounds and stories of the blues are timeless. They get at the core of what it is to be human. And I wish more people who book festivals and clubs, play blues on radio, have record labels and are avid fans would keep their heart open to artists doing creative things in the style so the music can stay healthy and vibrant and as connected to modern life as well as the past as it should be. Ideally, playing blues is like having a time machine that lets you and the audience experience the past, present and future all at once.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

I started as a rock artist, and I like the blues world so much better. I saw the rock scene I worked in, particularly with the band Vision Thing, grow from being a community to being competitive and factionalized. That was sad. Blues is much more of a community, especially among musicians, disc jockeys and writers. And that is beautiful. I love being a blues artist! I really do.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

I’ve been playing in bands since the late 1980s, and I’ve really learned this to be a core truth: Try to be honest to yourself and the music you want to make at every turn. At the end of it all, sometimes your integrity and creative soul is all you’re got. Those are precious things. Protect them. And they will keep your heart rich.

Tell me a few things about your meet with beat poet and activist John Sinclair, what kind of a guy is?

John and I met in the Delta and in Boston, where he was performing. I was struck by his depth and knowledge as a human, an artist and a musical scholar. I also knew I could back him pretty effectively on stage when he needed a group in the Northeast, where I lived at the time, so we started touring annually together and staying in touch in between. John is a true free spirit who loves life, and when he’s performing his poetry crackles through him like electricity.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

As a rock band, I did a leg of a tour with Belly and Catherine Wheel, who were two of my favorite bands. That was exciting! We also opened shows for the Gang of Four, X and other rock artists I loved. And some of my favorite jams were in people’s houses playing improvised instrumental music that combined elements of Sonny Sharrock (who is my major non-blues slide influence), King Crimson and Brian Eno. But my three favorite jams of all time are these. Once, during the Kerouac Festival in Lowell, Massachusetts, my band the Devil Gods was supporting John Sinclair and the jazz master David Amram jumped on stage playing only penny whistles, and I swear he played penny whistle like Coltrane played sax and I had to follow his solo, and somehow I played something beautiful and sharp toned like I’d never played before. He had inspired me to reach deeper inside. I guess it was good, because when I saw him five years later he still remembered me. Then there was the first time I played with R.L. He had me plug into his amp and he got up in front of me, Kenny and Cedric shaking his ass as he danced across the stage singing “I’m A Man” and gesturing like Muddy Waters, who was one of his heroes. I was thrilled beyond belief. And just last year at BLUES RULES in Switzerland there was a super-jam with me, Matt the Scissormen drummer, Lubos Pena from the Czech republic, Hillstomp, Was Mackey, Kenny Brown and more — and it was scalding.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from writing time about the music in the early 1980s?

Besides getting to meet Junior and R.L. and Jessie in the earlier ’90s, one of my greatest interview experiences was a dual interview with John Lee Hooker and B.B. King. Listening to those two old friends speak, and hearing the love they had for one another, was deeply moving and a really piece of history. On the rock side, touring with Metallica as a journalist in the Netherlands was also a real eye opener!

Are there any memories from “THE ROAD FOR THE BLUES” in the north Mississippi in the early ’90s, which you’d like to share with us?

Every minute of my time there was so amazing. Just being in the land where this music began is a profound experience. We’re playing in New Orleans tomorrow, and Matt and I are driving up through the Delta to Memphis to recharge our batteries on the way. But one thing to share is the first time I stepping into Junior’s juke joint. It was loud as hell, with the amps turned up all the way and Junior playing against the wall with his band. He was shaking the walls. On the other side, R.L. sat in a folding chair drinking a beer. There were about a dozen people there on a Sunday afternoon, and they all looked so drunk if seemed like they’d been there since the night before. It was October, but it was still hot, and the only thing cooling the place was a five-foot tall fan from a cotton gin with no protection, so anybody could have stumbled into it at any time. It was also as loud as the band. I don’t think I moved a muscle for the first hour I was there, just trying to take it all in.

Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most? From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

It would have to be R.L., Junior, Jessie Mae and Solomon Burke, in that order. And I think that more important than blues, which I kind of absorbed just being around them, they taught me about life and what’s important in being a decent person striving to find one’s place in the world and to give something to others. What a precious gift!

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between the folk Blues & modern Blues?

At the bottom, it all comes from the same place. But the fundamental difference is that technology, extended playing technique and all kinds of other more contemporary flourishes that even Robert Johnson never dreamed of are available to musicians today - and using those things, properly, and with respect for the roots - can help us connect the music to these trying modern times and to reach a new generation of listeners who can help was keep the blues thriving. We have these tools, whether they are production utilities like ProTools, sonic devices like effects pedals, or more knowledge about music so we can put direct African/Cuban, etc lines in the music, so it’s a shame not to use them to allow the music to grow.

What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……

Well, beside owning a Gibson Flying V guitar, I’d like to be able to play to a wider audience and help bring the blues into a new wave of popularity, and especially to younger people, who I think understand the value of great blues with character and depth when they hear it. I’d like to be part of making the blues a truly popular art form again, without losing a scrap of respect and reverence for its roots and deep traditions. That is really perhaps the most important goal of Scissormen, and we are trying with all our hearts and souls to achieve it.

Official site - Ted Drozdowski 

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