Interview with guitarist/educator Rollie Tussing -- music from the era of 78 rpm and juke-joints atmosphere

"Human suffering is universal and timeless, luckily all good art comes from this place of sadness, even the happy stuff. One of the most cathartic things someone can do is create art."

Rollie Tussing: Roots Culture of Creation

Award winning guitarist, educator and performer Rollie Tussing has performed in concert halls, major festivals and sidewalks all over the United States and parts of Europe. His raggedy brand of music is informed by the era of 78 rpm records, juke-joints, and street performers. He composes a lot of his own songs and has a knack for re-working an old obscure tune, finding beauty in the forgotten scratches, pops and grooves of his esoteric record collection. After winning the National Slide Guitar Competition in 2001 Rollie moved with his wife to Portland, OR. He spent the next decade touring, performing, writing songs and playing with some of the best regional and touring musicians the West Coast offered. In 2007 along with The Don of Division Street and Scott McDougall he formed Rollie Tussing & the Diminished Seven. The band enjoyed many enduring residencies in some of Portland’s finest venues as well as a devoted following.  Photo by Kate Glahn

In 2011 with their second child on the way Rollie and his wife decided to relocate to the mid-west to be closer to family and to tap in to the artistic resources that the mid-west, east coast and southern states have to offer. The Midwest Territory Band was born when Rollie invited bassist Serge van der Voo and percussionist Jim Carey over to his home to play some music under the stairs for an audience of spiders. The resulting noise made from the archtop instruments and vaudeville era percussion was stompingly intoxicating. Since that night the band has performed at festivals, concert venues and recently recorded a full length vinyl LP. Rollie is currently booking a solo 2015 summer/fall tour of the Midwest. He continues to teach privately and through various outreach programs. When he’s not busy doing any of those things (or changing his kid’s diaper) you can probably find him busking on a corner in some small town.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Human suffering is universal and timeless, luckily all good art comes from this place of sadness, even the happy stuff. One of the most cathartic things someone can do is create art. Creating not only alleviates some of the suffering of the creator but also (hopefully) that of others who experience the art. Personally, I find liberating if an art form is constrained to rules and patterns, like the blues. It’s also a lot of fun to break those rules and run wild.

How do you describe Rollie Tussing sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I never want to duplicate anything that already exists. Playing an old song note for note is fine and all but I like to do different things. I write a lot of songs and I also don’t shy away from the old folk ideal of rearranging a song to fit my needs, to express a feeling. Although I listen to and play a lot of “old” music I don’t think of it as antiquated or needing to be “kept alive”. Blues and related folk music has never gone away. It wanes in popularity and isn’t always in the forefront of popular culture but it’s never gone away. People need the arts, they need them to survive and add some quality to that survival. I’ve never cared much for popular culture anyway.

"Personally, I find liberating if an art form is constrained to rules and patterns, like the blues. It’s also a lot of fun to break those rules and run wild." (Photo by Shelly L Stricklen)

Why did you think that the Old Blues cats’ music continues to generate such a devoted following?

There is such a broad spectrum of performers that could be put into that category. The cats that I really dig have a sense of emotion and a different energy in performance than I find exists much today. A lot of this music was neighborhood music to be played at parties and churches or to entertain your family in the evenings. There seems to be a purpose behind the music that is not necessarily driven by money or fame. That’s not to say there isn’t anything good happening now, quite the contrary. I’m sure you’d agree that there is a ton of good music being made today. It’s just not mainstream enough for your grandma to know about it.

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

I have met so many great musicians it’s hard to narrow it down. For the older guys I would have to say that meeting and taking a lesson from Eugene Powell in Clarksdale, Ms. was a definite high point. I was so young and ignorant back then. I had no idea who he was or even what to talk to him about. In hindsight there are a million questions I should have asked him. Along the same lines I met Uncle Jessie White and Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong in Detroit many years ago. Again, I was too young and stupid to know that I was in the company of Gods!

There are quite a few contemporary musicians that I have played with or met along the way that I adore and am well aware of their greatness.  Hillstomp, McDougall, Todd Albright, Dooley Wilson, Dooley Wilson, Reverend Deadeye, Shari Kane, Madcat Ruth... These and so many more have influenced not only my music but my life in general. Not to mention folks like Chris Johnson up in Minneapolis, MN and Rick Saunders down in Folrida that are tireless supporters of good music. These guys are my heroes!

I mentioned Shari Kane above. She is such a phenomenal player and generous person. I took one lesson from her many years ago. She taught me how to finger-pick the guitar in that lesson. I practiced and practiced until it became second nature and I was playing everything as perfectly as I could. A few years later Shari and I were on the bill at a festival. After my performance she said something along the lines of “Your guitar playing has really come along, now let yourself go and don’t be afraid to play some wrong notes.” With that advice she really helped me relax about performing/guitar playing. I play a ton of wrong notes now.

"Blues and folk music are good at changing things for the better." (Photo: Rollie, performing for Gelek Rinpoche's birthday celebration, Jewel Heart Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, Ann Arbor)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, studio session and on the road which you’d like to share with us?

My band (The Midwest Territory Band) just finished record a full length LP. We play vintage instruments, 50’s Gibson archtop guitar, upright bass and the drummer plays this crazy Ludwig & Ludwig vaudeville era trap kit. We felt like the most fitting way to present our music was in a vintage format. We recorded everything live to tape, mixed down to tape, did a complete analog master and we are presently having a vinyl record pressed. It’s 100% analog. It turns out that a completely analog recording with no computers involved is quite a bit of hard work. We did it though and it sounds pretty damn good.

We just launched a kickstarter campaign to help fund it. It will be officially released on May 30 2015.

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

Quiet. There is not a lot of stuff that I hear that is very subtle. In the past I’ve been guilty of trying to hit people over the head sonically. Part of that is just an exchange of energy and part of it was the way I thought things had to be.

Music as community entertainment. I’ve been watching these documentaries on youtube about various parties and barbeques where people get together and play music with or without microphones to entertain themselves and party goers. I don’t feel like that happens much anymore. If there is musical entertainment at an event there’s usually a performance aspect to it. A stage, amplification, a rehearsed band etc.  Instead of the performance being another aspect of the event, it turns in to a more “look at me, I am entertaining you”. I really like the idea of neighbors getting together to play music just for the sake of music.

Having said all that, I have more than a glimmer of hope that these things are happening in certain areas. I love seeing hobo kids playing washboards and banjos in large groups on the street and in people’s basement all across the country. I think the old ideas of art and what it means to a community are slowly coming back and that’s pretty exciting. Hopefully it will sneak in to popular culture and start changing things. Blues and folk music are good at changing things for the better.

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

Wow, only one thing?

"People need the arts, they need them to survive and add some quality to that survival. I’ve never cared much for popular culture anyway."

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

I always get a laugh from absurd requests. It usually happens after I’ve been playing my weird blues stuff for a while and somebody will come up and ask me if I know any Taylor Swift… Huh? It’s always something out of left field and I never seem to be prepared for it. Just last week my band was playing a bar and somebody asked, “Hey do you know any songs from that Disney movie Frozen?”. I have two young daughters at home so that time I was able to accommodate.

Do you know why the sound of resonator guitar is connected to the blues?

I don’t know. It’s quite a nice connection though. My guess would be that they are flashy. Man, could you imagine being in the early 30’s and having one of those things? They are still attention getters and they are a lot less rare now. Also, they are loud. I play on the street a lot and sometimes in venues that don’t have any amplification or microphones. Having a loud voice and a loud instrument really helps you cut through. Back in the days before the electric guitar I think more volume from an acoustic instrument would help immensely. Not to mention they can sound fantastic with that built in reverb and sustain. They can mimic the human voice nicely.

What are the secrets of fingerpicking?

Rote muscle memory. I remember practicing the same pattern over and over for long periods of time. The most basic pattern that I used to make my thumb independent of the fingers took 2 hours of practice everyday for over three weeks. That was just one pattern. After practicing so long my hands knew what to do and I didn’t have to think about it. With that foundation I was able to branch off and experiment more.

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

That’s another tough question. My mind races… The moment that comes to mind would be the day that Louise Johnson, Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton recorded at Paramount. To be in the room for that recording would be a religious experience. I always wondered how they got to Wisconsin. Did they ride a train? Did one of them have a car and they all rode together? Being in that backseat of that car while they all drove from Mississippi to Wisconsin would be pretty fantastic too.

Or, go back to the late 60’s and spend the day fishing with Scott Dunbar on Lake Mary. Have you heard his record? Crazy, crazy good stuff!

Rollie Tussing - Official website

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