Texan one man band artist Washboard Jackson, has the freedom in mind and heart to creating Blues art

"The inherent spiritual nature of Blues as well as it's honesty, attracted me like tide to the moon. Blues is that form of music that is an honest expression of yourself and the kind of mood you're in that day."

Washboard Jackson: The Freedom of Blues

Washboard Jackson has been playing percussion and song writing since 1983.  Since 2004, he has composed many of his songs on guitar, extending his talents to Washboard Jackson's one man band. As a percussionist, Washboard has spent the last 10+ years with the powerhouse blues band Trainreck, featuring blues artist Rev. KM Williams and handy award winning harmonica player, Jeff Stone. With Trainreck, Washboard has written many songs including; Confessin, The Dogs Are Coming and Been Gone Too Long.

                                                                                                                    Photo by Jim Natale

As well as percussion and song writing, Washboard's talents include producing and engineering live and studio recordings. Washboard Jackson's energy and unique rhythmic style and presence has amazed fans all across the music world from small juke joints to some of the largest festivals. With concerts at the Chicago Blues Festival (2010, 2012) and 10 years of playing Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, MS, Jackson is no stranger to large audiences.

Artists Washboard has played with include: L.C. Ulmer, T-Model Ford, Jimmy Duck Holmes, Richard Johnston, Gip Gipson and more.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When your first desire to become involved in the blues was and what does the BLUES mean to you?

When I was about 17 I began to understand where blues came from, as a music form. The inherent spiritual nature of Blues as well as it's honesty, attracted me like tide to the moon. Blues is that form of music that is an honest expression of yourself and the kind of mood you're in that day. When playing real and honest blues alone or with the right people, you do whatever you feel. If I’ve been having an extra rough day with stones all in my pathway...I'm probably going to stumble my beat along them stones while I'm playing that night. It's never about sound; it's about how the expression makes you feel. And Blues fans world wide know this too. So if you're singing a bit off key or your guitar is a little out of tune, and your beat lags and jumps and skips but it still is making you feel good...then you playing Blues. And if you can't listen to these qualities without covering your ears, then Blues may not be for you. If you can't play along with these qualities without losing your place in the song, then you ain’t no Blues player.  That's what Blues means to me. You tell the truth with it, so you can be healed by it. Sometimes life is off beat, off key or out of tune. That's the Blues. If you want 12 bars in a box...go rock yourself! LOL

How do you describe Washboard Jackson sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

Music to me is art. Art is self expression. What characterizes this philosophy most for me is freedom. Freedom in your mind and in your heart. If you have these then you have freedom in your soul and the capacity to create art.

My sound...hmmm. I never really thought about it much to be honest. There's always music in my head, in my ears. When I get behind some percussion or pick up a guitar, I just play and what comes out is my sound, I guess. I mean I started out with punk influences and rock n roll. Eventually those led me to blues. I suppose those early influences have stuck with me through the years. I think that’s probably a big part of what gives Trainreck it's edgy sound as well. It has always been a certain type of musician/artist who can play with me because of this.  I don’t sugar coat anything. Nothing I ever do is rehearsed. And I almost never play percussion unless I’m performing for an audience...I don’t sit around and practice playing drums or washboard. The music I make at home, on my own time, is almost exclusively played on guitar.                                          

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

LOL...If I told you that, I would get in some serious trouble!  My entire life has been interesting, to me anyway. From growing up motherless in catholic schools to the trials of raising my own family, being homeless for several years, working as a custom wood-worker for the rich and famous, working as a musician, so close to fame and fortune myself that I can taste it with every waking breath. I've never been short of interesting fodder for my life. I could tell you some fun stories. Of hanging out in the inner-city projects in Toledo, OH. or living in the Rocky Mountains learning the ways of my American Indian heritage first hand. My short stint in the U.S. Navy was something else altogether. Not to mention the countless road stories from my travels with Trainreck. But this is probably all best to be saved for the official Washboard Jackson Biography LOL

Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Everyone always wants to know the “Bests” and the “Worsts”, including me...I want to know this stuff about my favorite artists too. And it's always such a difficult question to answer. When you have such devoted fans like Trainreck fans, they really make every show a “best” experience, even when there is an audience of 1. ahh...I got it! The best was the night we played Gip's Place.  Gip's is one of the oldest juke joints left in the country. It's old school. Located in Bessemer Alabama, 12 miles outside of Birmingham.  It lies in the lowest point in the back corner of an economically poor neighborhood.  The neighborhood reminded me of something that had developed out of the Jim Crow era after the emancipation in 1865 left Black Americans with 40 acres of non-plantable land at the back of the plantations across the South. Mr. Gipson holds his Saturday night jooks in his converted back yard barn for about the last 70 years. The atmosphere and the people in attendance that night were unforgettable. I personally had a very wild ride on stage that night. In the second set things got real heated. I made love to the crowd while playing a d'jembe at the front of the stage, holding it between my legs and whoopin it like she deserved it. Many boys got lucky that night as their dance partners all kept boys backs turned to me and their own eyes fixed on the stage.  Yeah I had a blast that night!

The Worst moment...A VFW hall in Desoto, TX where KM lives. I don’t know why they booked us. The place turned out to be full of nothing but a few old fashioned, good ol' boy racists.  They kept telling us to turn it down until I wasn’t even touching the drums anymore. Finally they turned the jukebox up on us and I just got up and started packing my drums. I told my big brother, he could keep playing if he wanted but I was done. He agreed and stopped playing as well. I stood there ready to fight our way out while KM approached the bar for the full amount contracted in pay. They did pay us in full but, jeez Louise what a bad experience. Right here in Texas we've had to deal with more of that “old South” mentality than anywhere else.

                                                                                                                      Photo by Jon Short

Why did you think that the Southern Blues culture continues to generate such a devoted following?

Southern Blues is much different than the rest of Blues. There is a purity in it that is not so concerned with how many records are sold.  Southern way of living is very simple.  We wake, we work, we family, then we drink and play music. Then we bed and do it all over again in the morning. Music is played in the south as a way of life and even if we don't play any gigs, you'll still find us on the porch or in the garage playing our music daily. Many music fans look to music for healing. Because of the consistent honesty found in the music of the southern Blues culture, fans can always find the medicine they need within it. 

Do you remember anything funny from the road with your music partner Jeff Stone?

Honestly, Stone is about three things... Music when on stage, Business when off stage and The Lord all the time.  Stone is very quick and sharp so he doesn't leave much room for 'funny'.  Jeff Stone grew up on the rough and tough south-side of Chicago and knows very well, how to work the powers of persuasion.  Once we were at a venue here in Dallas and the only available parking for KM and I, was a $15 parking lot across the street. KM and I both pleaded separately with the parking attendant. Informing him that we were there to do a benefit gig and that we weren’t even getting paid that night.  Hell, I hadn't brought a dollar with me.  We were polite with the guy, as folks are here in the south.  But this dude was solid.  Insisting he wasn’t about to let either of us, “ride the blind”, on his watch...Informing us that, “This lot ain't none of mine”. About that time Stone showed up and asked us what the problem was, as KM and I were now in front of the venue in the street discussing what to do with or vehicles. We told him what was happening.  Stone then calmly walked across the street to the parking attendant and had a very short conversation with him.  He returned about a minute later and Jeff said, “you're good to go. He has a special spot open for each of you. Go park your cars”. After we parked I asked Jeff what he said to the guy to make him so quickly and graciously change his mind.  Stone said, “I told him I had some business associates that just flew in from Chicago on their way to the venue now. And if he didn’t start treating my brothers with a little respect, His knee caps would disappear and he would be eating through a straw for the rest of his days.” But really...? I wish I was telling you more about how he's the best harmonica player on the planet.  Because he is!

                                                                                                   Photo by Deskalibrada Mental

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

Trainreck jams are definitely the best I've ever play in. And its real difficult to pinpoint the best one. I really like tracks 4 and 7 on our latest CD The Common Table.  “Chicken Head Man” and “There's Something on Your Mind”. As always, this is a live recording and These are both epic jams. Trainreck is a really special kind of band.  We've never rehearsed for anything, so everything we do always comes straight from the soul. My brothers in the band, Stone and KM are the best artists on their perspective instruments, playing today.  Neither have any fear and are both more open-minded than any musicians I've ever heard play blues. This combination of traits they share, allows me to do pretty much whatever I feel, without having to worry about messing anyone up with my weird grooves and rhythms.

The most memorable gigs would be, the one I already mentioned in Bessemer.

       The Chicago blues festival  both 2010 and 2012. Playing with Gabe Carter on the streets of Clarksdale. I always love playing with Gabe.  I'll never forget playing with T-Model. He only gave me 3 songs because, well I couldn’t help but do my Washboard Jackson thing and you know he's more used to the Spam style drummer, but it was fun for me LOL. Also, KM and I did a short 20 minute set one year with John Lowe at the Juke Joint Fest.  I'll never forget that either.  It was the most insane jam I think I’ve ever heard.  It's always like that with John!

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

I met and hung out with Hezekiah Early in the green room during the 2009 Deep Blues Festival.  This was a dream come true. I don't really get over excited about meeting other artists but some of them who I feel a real connection with are a real treat to get to know.  Meeting Cedell Davis was also great! He is like a Grandfather to everyone he meets and Cedell inspires me to no end.  So many of the artists still playing and now starting out are a real pleasure to be around. I know a good many of them and always enjoy seeing them anytime.  However, the most important meetings I've ever had have always been the ones with the fans. They are always the best.  When I'm on stage already pouring my soul into what I do, it's the reactions from the fans that pulls even more out of me every time. They are like magic. Just when I think I've found my high spot in a performance...there go the fans, reaching into my chest and demanding more of me. They cause me to learn more about myself and the depths of my art. I absolutely love it!  So naturally when I get the opportunity to meet the source of these energies its like lightning.  Definitely the best and most important meetings for me.

The best advice I've ever received was to “Keep on doing what you're doing”. 

                                                                                                                    Photo by Kim Welsh

Are there any memories from Rev KM Williams and L. C. Ulmer which you’d like to share with us?

LC shocked me when I played with him because I threw at him whatever I felt, (as usual) while playing together.  And nothing I did even phased him.  He understood it all.  If my interpretations serve me well, I would even say that he pick up on some of what I was doing and ran with it in his own crazy directions.  As if to show me I ain't got nothin' he ain't never seen.  He's really a rare master, LC Ulmer.

         KM and I have been traveling partner, neighbors, brother, for so long that answering this question could turn into a book series LOL.  So I'll just give one sweet little interesting nugget that nobody but a few close friends know about.  A few years back at the JJF we landed a pick-up gig at Lady-of-the-Levee. A real nice restaurant there in Clarksdale.  KM had recently been moved to third shift at his day job and was having a difficult time adjusting to the road schedule that year.  He was a lot more tired and a bit more sensitive than usual and I of course wasn't prepared to take no crap off of him, as usual. Well, he started in on me with trying to tell me how I was supposed to be playing to this song and that, while we were in the middle of a set.  We wound up cutting the set short and taking an early break.  During the break we exchanged a few questionable words, as brothers sometimes do.  I honestly thought we were going to have to take it outside and settle the argument toe to toe.  He finally told me to just leave him alone and so I left. When he started the next set without me, I couldn't stay away.  From outside I heard him playing and my feet carried my reluctant head to the stage.  We finished the show and didn’t speak again til the next morning when KM explained to me how much trouble he had been having adjusting his schedule and it was making him feel sick.  He is such a soldier though, that I didn't see this ill effect on him. He never let it show. I learned a lot about KM and the relationship between us with that experience.  My big brother is not just a great artist you know. KM Williams is also a great man!

Do you know why the sound of washboard is connected to the Blues and what are the secrets of?

Finally an easy question to answer.  Blues itself is a creation of necessity. People need an outlet for the trials of life as we experience them.  Good people use outlets like music and dancing to heal themselves from these troubles.  Just like the music that is played on it, the washboard as are the spoons, bones, diddly bow, jug, wash-tub and anything else lying around that you can make noise with are all instruments of necessity.  In the early days, well even today,  folks just didn't have the means to go get a set of drums or a guitar or piano all the time. So often times they used whatever was around.  I've heard stories from some folks, of women doing the wash and singing while they make the music of rubbing the clothes back and forth on the washboard.  Like the way Georgia prison chain gangs would keep time with the spike mallet while singing their work songs.  I've also been told by some of the older cats that they're wives and mothers would chase them as they ran away with their washboards to make music.  And that many times it was just accepted that at night after all the work was done, folks would all gather around on the porch and drink moonshine and play blues and all sorts of other types of music too with the washboard and everything else they could find. 

As far as secrets for the washboard...I’m not telling.  If I told you then they wouldn't be secrets any more.  I mean really now, do you actually expect me to give up my trade secrets here? This isn't even television....

LOL Just kidding.  Really there are no secrets.  I'm always happy to sit with folks and talk about how I play and the many ways other folks play washboard but when it come down to it....you just scratch and tap until it sounds the way you like it.                    (Photo by Shein Die)

What are your hopes and fears for the Blues music?

I have none of either.  Blues is much bigger than me or any artists that play it.  But I hope Blues has some kind of plans for me.  As long as people need spiritual healing there will always be blues music.

Which memory from your experience in local juke joints makes you smile?

It never fails to bring a smile to my face anytime kids get up and dance during our set. One never knows how adults in the crowd are thinking or feeling about the music because they are so often inhibited. But Kids will dance if the music is moving them. So, the memories of kids dancing in front of the stage are definitely the best ones that make me smile. The last local joint we played here in the Dallas area had an outdoor stage and the place was packed. Much of the evening, Stone and Andrea Dawson, (backing vocals/percussion for Trainreck and Dallas blues diva in her own right), were out in the crowd playing to and dancing with, all the little kids that couldn't seem to stay away from the dance floor.  Whenever this happens I can't help but smile and have a great time!

                                                                                                          Photo by Claudia F Coker

What are the lines that connect the legacy of folk with urban and continue to modern Blues and one man band?

You may have caught the rabbit with this question.  My answer here is the one that could land me in trouble with the greater blues community around the globe. For it is not a very popular view on the topic and I offer no apologies for my beliefs, views or opinions.  Further, I’m too polite to evade your question and either too honest or too stupid not to answer it completely.  Either way, this is how I see it and since you asked...

Folk blues, (the roots of blues), expresses truth about life.  It is with truth that we are all healed and set free. Therefore, folk blues is originally created for the purpose of healing.  When the genre of blues began among common folk, there was nothing else to gain by it but healing.  No money or fame was promised or expected as a result of composing and playing this music. Again, just healing from life's everyday woes. 

Skip forward 40-50 years from the beginnings of pre-recorded blues of the 1890's. And we find our heroes in the midst of a transmigration in search of a better, easier life containing more value for the effort required to live daily life.  From the Mississippi delta to the western end of the deep south, (Texas), on up to the urban culture of the big cities around the great lakes, bluesmen began to travel, expanding their performance circuit. 

Many of these traveling performers found great value in the masses of people living in the great lakes region, with an ability and readiness to spend their personal money on entertainment, deciding to make their homes from Chicago to New York.  After a while, many blues artists would just move there directly from their rural homes of the deep south, with hopes of taking advantage of the hot-bed of Blues success.  Eventually, with the foot of the bluesman in the big city, the record label producers began to take notice of the opportunity of wealth pouring like milk from these artists' souls.  These producers, who did not understand the music but saw the effects it was having on those who listened with open ears and hearts, began to offer “deals”, to these artists coming from the poorest regions of the country without knowledge of the true trade value of their own craft. 

From the beginnings of urban blues there has been a swift disintegration of the honesty of this music. When the producers took a singular guitar part and forced it broken up into a band of musicians whose goal was to profit, urban blues fell from grace. When songs were taken from a writer and given to performers for profit, urban blues fell from grace. When the central goal of a (sub)genre became profit rather than healing, urban blues fell from grace.  There were indeed a countable few artists involved in the development of urban blues, successful as leaders of their own bands and/or composers of their own music.  These artists maintained a creativity level of innovation and integrity to their music as healing, truth music thereby giving urban blues the only leg it has to stand on today as a form of real blues.

From urban and folk blues combined, we come to modern blues and OMB, (one man band) blues. Today’s modern blues players have grown up with the sounds of all types of blues as well as so many other genres the world of music has to offer in the 21st century. Still today we have artists that play blues with innovation, honesty and healing as their purpose. Likewise, we still have performers who perpetrate blues with fame and fortune as their exclusive goal.  The later are simply, not modern blues. So of them I will not promote the injection of their existence into the future history of blues by discussing them as part of today's modern blues. 

Today's modern blues players have felt intensely, the difference between truth music that heals and music for profit, from blues of all origins rural and urban.  They have called on the inspiration and life influence of their blues predecessors and merely applied these as sparse seasonings to their own fresh meat, creating new sounds, as did Son House, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Bukka White and countless others.  These are the players keeping the art of blues alive today for future generations to further expand on.

OMB blues is a craft that is taking back the music from the urban experience  where complete compositions were taken from the guitar and parted out among band members who often times didn’t have the faculties to express their own feeling musically, rather could merely play notes in a progression.  Most percussionists could not play with the sometimes,(seemingly but not actually), off-time rhythms of Fred McDowell and many players like him.  OMB fixes that problem for the artist that wants more in their composition without having to be the guitar virtuoso that Patton and Robert Johnson were.  Blues was originally performed from the soul of one person as their own personal expression, before folks started sharing them together. It is only natural that we would have so many OMB blues artists today carrying on the tradition of blues as being innovative and cutting edge like Richard Johnston, John Lowe and Ben Prestige.

From the musical point of view what are the differences between: Drummer, Washboard and Guitar player?

The differences aren't much if you're doing it right.  You can play motherless children with any instrument exclusively.  It's all about rhythm and soul.  So many blues players today play so many of these instruments themselves.  KM understands how my washboard relates to his guitar.  He would easily be able to sing any blues song he knows with only my washboard or drums as his accompaniment.  And if Rollin and Tumblin was done with Cedric Burnside on drums and me on washboard, you would likely know it as Rollin and Tumblin even without vocals.  The differences, if you are playing blues and not perpetrating blues, between the different instrument players are all merely personal today.  Nothing really instrumental. 

What do you miss nowadays from the Blues of past? Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

It's hard for me to miss much today from Blues of the past because it's in the past.  Those early artists never intended for the things they did to be copied to the future.  They were all original themselves.  They weren’t coping what had already been done. They were doing things their own ways, each one of them.  And when folks talk about 'traditional' Blues, it often causes me to cringe.  The only real thing traditional about Blues music is 'being original'.  Because as I said earlier, music is SELF expression and ourselves are all unique. So should be the music each of us creates.  Even when you wish to pay homage to heroes by covering one of their songs, you must do it entirely in your own way. 

As for real blues existing today... absolutely it exists today!  And it exists in a new generation today as well.  Look at all the Burnside family and the Kimbroughs, just for the easy obvious examples. Then there's Gabe Carter, Jimbo Mathis, North Mississippi Allstars.  And Trainreck!  Km Williams is real Blues of course.  Just look at Roger Stolle's Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale and the Deep Blues Festival in Minneapolis and now Cleveland as well.  You'll find a lot of these contemporary new-comers playing real blues at just these two venues alone. There's also many great blues artists making blues around the world too.  I've recently learned of some wonderful artists in Israel, South Africa, Ireland... Look all around the Med. and you'll find people right where you are in Greece, who are playing real blues...simply because they are living The Blues and believe in originality in art at the same time. As always there are still a lot of players perpetrating Blues out there and always will be but there are Plenty of great new comers creating and playing from the soul as well.

What's the legacy of all these legendary Bluesmen in music? Was more ghosts or humans?

Definitely human! Every one of them. Their legacy, as I see it is all the new, creative Blues and other music influenced by Blues, still being created today.

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

Can I give you two?

1st: The birthing of my little 'Washboard' children.

2nd: The time at Gip's Place in Bessemer playing the d'jembe at the front of the stage, thrashing her about as if we were in the throes of passion together....hehe, that was fun and would probably make a cool painting!

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

18:00 April 4, 1968. Memphis, Tennessee at the Lorraine Motel.

I go there so I could jump in front of that damned bullet that killed the greatest hero of our time.

How you would spend a day with Dr. Ross? What would you say to Jesse Fuller? What would you like to ask Washboard Willie?

I would ask Washboard Willie, why I can't find any recordings of him anywhere. His set-up looks more like mine than any I’ve ever seen.  I was really excited when I came across that photo of him and have been searching for his recordings ever since. I would love to hear if my sound is anywhere near his.  My own kit was set-up like it is, to enable me.  It wasn't until just recently that I found proof that I wasn't the first to go there with the washboard and drums like I do.

With Dr. Ross, I would spend my day the same way I would with any blues musician...telling lies and playing Blues.  And with Jesse Fuller, I think I would simply ask him if he would kindly oblige to jam with me. Then simply allow my percussion to do all the talking from there.  One thing I've learned from hanging out with T-Model Ford, Cedell Davis, LC Ulmer, Robert Belfour, Hezekiah Early and so many other cats is, When you have the opportunity to be around them it is best to shut up and listen. They have so many years experience musically and in life. Even when i think they aren’t making any sense, what they say could very well end up being relevant to me later in my own life. So it's most important to listen closely.

                                                                                           Photo by Rasta Rastot Yamit Hagar

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