Q&A with musician/author/songwriter Fred Hostetler, has been a blue spruce in a forest of music sequoias, journeying through blues, folk and the rock era

"Humility and gratitude immediately come to mind. To have commercial success in an endeavor involving music and the arts is nearly impossible without a bit of luck along the way. You do it because you love it; you must do it, but you'll experience massive amounts of disappointment along the way."

Fred Hostetler: The Lotus of The Blues

Fred Hostetler has been a blue spruce in a forest of music sequoias, journeying through blues, folk and the rock era cycling through many aspects of the music business and playing a supporting role to other musicians. He has worked with Jeff Beck, Billy Squier, Graham Parker, Johnny Winters, The Knack, been on stage with Buddy Guy, Mick Taylor, Jeff Healy, and recorded with the Grammy winning producer Jack Douglas. For 9 years he was the manager, rhythm guitarist, and co-writer for the popular southern California blues band Blue By Nature with Karen Lawrence and Rick Dufay formerly of Aerosmith. Transitioning to his move to India he entertained in hospitals and senior centers with 'Fred's Folk and Blues Revival', a solo acoustic set of old-time music, 50's favorites and blues, all filled with plenty of fun, finger-picking, strumming and banter.

(Photo: Fred Hostetler)

After 15 years of voluntary service in an ashram in Tamil Nadu, India, Fred returns to the USA. 'Heart Radio' marks his first solo effort. The eight song CD is a genre-jumping romp of all original tunes, recorded and produced in the spartan seclusion of rural India and an island in the Pacific Northwest. The tracks reflect the threads of his years abroad and in the 'swamplands'. On his album 'Blue Chair Blues' (Mukthiland Records, 2020), Fred Hostetler has created an Acoustic Blues album with his signature guitar and vocal talent. Eight delightfully tasty original songs and his rendition of the Jimmy Reed classic ‘Bright Lights, Big City’.  His is an old-fashioned blues sound, with a wholesome feel, natural textures and melodies that inspire images of a simpler life, good times and warm summer evenings. Fred's latest release ‘Wall of Dreams’ (2022) is a cohesive thematic work which hearkens back to progressive rock days. In a parallel universe this album will be the soundtrack to the Summer of Love. 

Interview by Michael Limnios       Special Thanks: Doug W. Deutsch & Fred Hostetler

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

I grew up in a small all white town in northern Indiana. My first encounter with the blues was through folk music. Lightnin’ Hopkins, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and so many others. My father loved black quartets and spiritual singers. When I was about 6 or 7 years old, he took me to Iowa on the train and we stopped over in Chicago. Dad took me to Maxwell Street. I was like a deer caught in the headlights that day, wide-eyed at the scene I saw. It was the first time I really heard street musicians and 'what was that they were playing'? It was the straight and natural Chicago Blues. I can remember the pawn shop and the man of color right out-front riffing on his guitar. I think Dad put some change in his tip jar. That experience lit the lamp of curiosity in the magic of our diversity. I wrote much more on growing up with the blues at my site (fredsheartradio) in my blog on the song Taming the Wolf.

Rock counterculture, yes, I was a part of it, and it influenced me greatly being a child of the rock era. From politics 'four dead in Ohio', to drug culture 'riding that train high on cocaine', it was an amazing intense era where Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Temptations and extending all the way to the Eagles(forgive me for not naming the hundreds of other contributing artists) wrote and performed songs that impacted all levels of society. Now we have broken down into tribes, each with their own genre who speak to a statistically identified audience. This leads us into times which I never experienced.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I like the term Avant Americana. Why, because I see it describing music grounded deeply in the roots of American music from all traditions but being reinvented for today. What a bountiful and rich tradition to be nurtured by! Whether it is just me and my guitar as on my previous album Fred's Blue Chair Blues, or the blues rock of Blue By Nature, or the new wave of Karen Lawrence and the Pinz, there is the taproot that goes deep and gives me strength. Even when I recorded India's most famous mantra as the single 'Gayatri Americana' or the song 'Go Inside', a bhajan, I tried to be true to my tradition but to meld it with a non-western form. Finally, as for "the creative drive," it ebbs and flows and needs time to grow, and where it comes from or where it leads I do not know other than to follow."                                                  (Photo: Fred Hostetler)

"I'm a history lover so the time machine idea is too much for my little mind to handle: should I go forward or backward? But I'd love to go right now to my ancestral home, the Emmental Valley in Switzerland or return to India to visit old friends. But a day would not be enough. So, send me back 2,000 years to see what Jesus was like in person, or 2,500 years to meet the Buddha, or back 4,000 years to experience the leelas of Krishna, All are milestones in the expansion of human consciousness and awakening."

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

First off, it is good to be back with you again. I enjoyed our November of 2020 interview which was in-depth with great questions. Now…the “grown as an artist” question. I think the mystery of the process has gone along with the illusion of what stardom actually is. Still, it is always fun to hear that ‘Shelter from the Storm’, released two years ago was #15 somewhere on internet radio. It takes concentrated effort to complete songs and projects. When it is your money going into projects instead of from a backer or record company, you just have to go DIY and worship at the temple of good intentions, trusting it will work out right. Rock, progressive rock, blues rock, americana, folk As far progress in making music, I have never stopped learning it is impossible to learn it all. Trying to make use of the time available between juggling mundane duties, making a living, and all that is currently required by indie artists is an artist’s life in today’s world. I won’t complain about it. (But I did wrote an acoustic blues song called Corporate Vandals, calling them out for ignoring workers while shareholders are driving a new Mercedes into the parking garage every year.) Finally, the expression “ a watched pot never boils” somehow comes to mind. I think I allow more time for a song “to age” before finishing it. In other words, more patience to let the muse solve the roadblocks I face when creating.

How do you describe WALL OF DREAMS sound, music philosophy, and songbook?

‘Wall of Dreams’ is a cohesive thematic work which hearkens back to progressive rock days. I guess it has a ‘row row row your boat gently down the stream “dreamy sort of dualistic philosophy bubbling up in a sort of psychedelic melange. The refrain of Wall of Dreams “Behind a wall of dreams, we go where are heart leads”… pretty much sums up the album. I’ve always been a dreamer chasing after dreams in life and I suppose these songs reflect that. The album includes songs that have waited years to be completed, so to release it was another dream come true. For instance Olof Daughters Finnish Knee-High Leather Boots was written about a time when our band was recording at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studio in New York City. Fifty years later I again met the girl I sang about in the song, and I married her. Wall of Dreams is a song I started years ago but never finished because I always heard the voice of my friend Eric Troyer, who has sung on many hit records including with John Lennon) singing it with me like in our early band days. Finally, that happened and my dream came to fruition. Of course we are both Beatle fans and I had hopes this song might in a humble way pay homage to their inspiring music which embraced many styles. I find it difficult to dwell inside musical boundaries. I’m guilty of genre jumping. I enjoy pushing the song arrangement here and there until it supports the lyric and my feelings.

Let me mention one other song from Wall of Dreams, ‘You Don’t Know, What You Don’t Know’ which I really enjoyed and did an award winning video to accompany it. Lyric writing can be tedious, but this was one of those rare moments when it was really fun and emerged mostly spontaneously over a simple guitar line. It was like going back to the source, a refreshing experience on the barren wastelands of galloping individualism, which oddly enough is the inspiration for penning this piece. We live in a world of 'I and mine'. We have blind spots in the way we see things and ourselves that damage society and endanger the earth Herself. We are unaware of our own ignorance and we don't know what we don't know. In fact, we cannot know because of the confusion and control caused by corporate greed, political powers, and just downright selfishness. Screens, devices, and modern urban life are confusing and distracting us, separating us from our true nature. In danger of losing our way, we are trying to drive a broken machine down a pot-holed road to nowhere (or worse). That sentence reminds me of AC/DC's song 'Highway to Hell'. Who are we and where are we going? "The trouble is... you don't know. You don't know what you don’t know. We might all be swept away." So pay attention. Be aware. There is inner and outer work to be done. Pay attention to what you say, what you do. Be mindful. Peace...

"I like the term Avant Americana. Why, because I see it describing music grounded deeply in the roots of American music from all traditions but being reinvented for today. What a bountiful and rich tradition to be nurtured by!" (Fred Hostetler, 2022 / Photo by Dennis Browne)

What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

Soul makes art feel real and gives it life. Bob Dylan’s voice when combined with his lyrics and music might be an example. It has to be real and heartfelt. It is hard to fake soul. However it seems to me that technique can embolden what might at first appear to be weak and assists in delivering what one is trying to get across. It can also destroy it. I am thinking that some songs just need a touch of soul. Wow, and what about AI generated music that is now spreading all over the web? Where is the soul there? Hmmm…?

What moment changed your music life the most? What do you think is key to a life well lived?

It was not just one moment for me. I could say when I heard Beethoven’s 7th Symphony when I was very young, it altered my regard for high brow symphony stuff. It rocked. Hearing my older brother’s Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed and bluesy jazz records also rocked and then beginnings of the actual Rock era: Bill Haley, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, the skiffle of Lonnie Donegan, the folk revival and picking up the guitar…then Chicago Blues and wham…along came the British Invasion with the Beatles and a new approach to the blues from Mayall and many others. So in this constant flow of powerful soul vibration, love of music was written on my heart. Love is the essential fulfilling element of life. It seems like we are destined to confront and learn from the many challenges we face along the way. A life well-lived will have ups and downs, but learning how to handle the journey through love is key.

How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

I always have kept up some kind of regimen to keep me physically fit and stamina high. Sometimes this was just having a side job, like working for a moving company in Manhattan while recording Karen Lawrence and the Pinz album for RCA Records. I tried to avoid drug use (except for coffee), probably a habit because I loved sports when I was young and you would be dropped from the team for drug use or breaking the rules. Experiencing life’s trials and tribulations is a great challenge for all people but even more so for performers and people in the arts.                    (Photo: Fred Hostetler)

"Best advice: my father always wanted a career in music but became a doctor because it would have been nearly impossible to maintain a family based on the kind of money a musician makes. The uncertainty of the whole experience discouraged him. He told me it would be a very difficult life and to have something I could fall back on. I said to myself, I'm going to do what my father loved but was unable to do."

Are there any memories with Jeff Beck, which you’d like to share with us?

Oh, how about the Jeff Beck song… that was one of the wonderful things that can just happen out of the blue. Karen Lawrence and I were working at the Record Plant in Los Angeles using Rod Stewart's band to record some demos. Rod was asked to try to write something for a track that was to be the B side of Jeff Beck’s upcoming single ‘People Get Ready’. Mr. Beck and Mr. Stewart were to write a melody and lyric for a track Beck had already recorded, but that attempt failed. Karen and I got the call from producer/engineer Ricky Delena who said the record company wanted the single ASAP. The B side was in limbo. Jeff seemed a bit soft spoken about it all and said that all he had in mind for the title or lyric was “back on the street”. It must be finished by tomorrow! That meant it had to be done overnight? Whoa! Karen and went to work with the line 'Back on the Street' given to us by Jeff. Once we got a handle on the first verse it came together. I finished it on a little 8trk Fostex reel recorder and dubbed it to cassette for Jeff to hear in the morning while Karen got some sleep for her voice. We took it in, and Jeff loved it. It was a great experience and honor to work on that project. I wrote under the name Fred St. John at that time. It is fun to know it is being played all over the planet everyday. So, thank you Jeff Beck, whom I found him to be a quiet unassuming kind of man.

John Coltrane said "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

Ha…ha…ha… you’re going straight to the heart of it. Coltrane’s reflection sounds good to me and it implies an even deeper insight. We are not just the body. There is an inner spirit reality and an outer physical reality. The journey inward enriches are earthly experience of living. Philosophers and scientists pretty much agree that vibration is the very of basis of physical reality, even beyond the atom. So you might say that the “music of the spheres” is our very nature. This kind of ‘music’ is expressed through our words, thoughts, and deeds. By experiencing, we are adding to that ambient sound. Staying in tune with the natural world helps us live in such a way that adds to the harmony of life and gives the power to grow out of our animal nature and realize that our inner nature resides in the heart space. The heart is a symbol for love and music is integral to life’s journey of learning to love.

"I always have kept up some kind of regimen to keep me physically fit and stamina high. Sometimes this was just having a side job, like working for a moving company in Manhattan while recording Karen Lawrence and the Pinz album for RCA Records. I tried to avoid drug use (except for coffee), probably a habit because I loved sports when I was young and you would be dropped from the team for drug use or breaking the rules. Experiencing life’s trials and tribulations is a great challenge for all people but even more so for performers and people in the arts." (Fred Hostetler, 2022 / Photo by Dennis Browne)

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

Best advice: my father always wanted a career in music but became a doctor because it would have been nearly impossible to maintain a family based on the kind of money a musician makes. The uncertainty of the whole experience discouraged him. He told me it would be a very difficult life and to have something I could fall back on. I said to myself, I'm going to do what my father loved but was unable to do.

Meetings that nurture the heart are the most important, because they can alter the trajectory of your journey. For instance when a tour ended in Montreal, I had no idea what I would do when I returned to New York City. A woman who was a friend of the drummer came to my attention. She had a different air about her. There was a depth to her presence. When I asked him about her, he said ‘she has second sight...sort of like a white witch’ and maybe she could help me. The next morning I drove out to her ranch. She was very encouraging and predicted that the day I landed in New York my life would change and everything would work out. She was spot on with her prediction and I was soon to become road manager for the band 1994 who was signed to A&M Records. That story accounted for 20 more years in the music.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, tours and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Place: Giant Stadium in the Meadowlands. Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush were the opening act at an all day music festival. I was working then as Mr. Marino's guitar tech. I had his rig set up and his number one guitar, a Gibson SG, in my hands, ready to do the sound check. The stadium was filling up, people pouring in. When I struck the first chord the crowd showed its appreciation and anticipation for the day's event by letting loose a loud roar. I played a couple rhythm riffs, shut down the rig, and left the stage to scattered applause. I always remember that feeling, but I have a hard time describing or defining it.

"I grew up in a small all white town in northern Indiana. My first encounter with the blues was through folk music. Lightnin’ Hopkins, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and so many others. My father loved black quartets and spiritual singers. When I was about 6 or 7 years old, he took me to Iowa on the train and we stopped over in Chicago. Dad took me to Maxwell Street. I was like a deer caught in the headlights that day, wide-eyed at the scene I saw." (Photo: Fred Hostetler, Blue By Nature L.A. area club)

How do you describe and what characterize previous album 'Blue Chair Blues' sound, music philosophy and songbook?

This is what I call living room blues. By that I mean stripped down, unplugged, and recorded at home in my living room. Whatever you may think of it, I find it intimate and refreshing during this time of Covid 19 to see artists performing in their kitchen, barn, patio, bedroom, etc. It inspired me to video an hour show for the Facebook page/group Can’t Stop the Blues. It was shown in May 2020 and is still available to view. It is a platform supporting blues music and artists. I was able to make a little money and donate half of it back to organizations supporting unemployed blues musicians. After that I did a playlist on Spotify for artists who have appeared on Can’t Stop the Blues. I never thought much more about it until one September night when a voice woke me up with the words “release your living room recordings as an album.” My first thought after sitting up in bed was…but they’re not good enough…they’re not perfect. The thought came back, “what does it matter…let the audience decide.” So here we are with a really different kind of album made up focused living room recordings.

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

I miss the soul of the early blues. It has been diluted by its own success. Many guitarists are out there playing it and I understand why. It is something that satisfies the soul even when done in a simple way. Often what is missing is that 'seasoned feel'. On the other hand I have heard young musicians play wonderful inspiring stuff. I never had a lesson. Just listened, watched, and learned (but imperfectly). Now YouTube can show the guitarist exactly how a song is played. There are so many learning tools available to musicians, but living life and the experience of living is the fire that brings life to the blues. It is the prime ingredient. "If it's in him, it just got to come out." You can fake it only to a point.

As far as the future goes, I wonder what effect Covid 19 will have on live performances. For instance, will people be satisfied to watch a screen instead of going out to a venue, will virtual reality take the place of live music? I'm very happy with the vibrant growth of the worldwide blues community and with the broadening of the boundaries of 'what is blues music'. On the other hand, the arguing about cultural appropriation leaves me in the limbo of my cultural whiteness. But the truth is that musicians themselves in my day paid little if any attention to it. Making music together is part of the American experience, both in the North and in the South. But we should always remember and honor those on whose shoulders we stand. So thank you to founders of our blues roots.

What touched (emotionally) you from your time in India's ashram and Pacific Ocean's islands?                            (Photo: Fred Hostetler and Hindu priest working out a chanting, India)

Let me start with India. My 17 years in India was a journey of self-discovery after I was asked to leave the band which I had managed, booked, helped produce and engineer, and been the rhythm guitarist and co-writer of 4 albums. I experienced the feel and feelings of Indian music from bhajans to Bollywood. I detached from years of working all kinds of band gigs and listening to western music. I immersed myself in learning a different culture and its music. I went 'inside'. What emerged was a sense of the interconnectedness of everything and how actions can have unknown consequences. Pop trends of the USA passed me by and like Rip Van Winkle, I woke up to a totally changed music and business landscape. There were astonishing changes in the way music was made, recorded, and marketed. CDBaby was pioneering a path for Independent musicians to release, market, and eke out a career. Independent musicians were accounting for an increasingly large share of the industry. It was amazing, and so was the MacBook Pro that my old band mate Eric Troyer said I should buy for recording. After the solitude of ashram life in southern India, an island just north of Seattle in the Pacific Northwest was the perfect spot to re-enter western-style life. The inner life could be nourished there while the outer natural world could provide some solace from the constant use of screens, iPhones, smart TV’s, politics, and the stress of facing the learning curve and coming up to speed in a changed world. Haven't quite succeeded with that, but the burst of creativity I have experienced is gratifying.

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

Humility and gratitude immediately come to mind. To have commercial success in an endeavor involving music and the arts is nearly impossible without a bit of luck along the way. You do it because you love it; you must do it, but you'll experience massive amounts of disappointment along the way.

But if you do it without being attached to the fruits of your work, then disappointment can be kept at arm's length and you'll have a level of satisfaction just from having brought something to life that was not here before; accomplished something creative.

What is the impact of music on the spiritual and socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Hmm…some songs/music is just for fun, just to help life go by even in troubled times. But I prefer to plant a seed of love somewhere in every song. In a time when they are trying to put musicians in a box, or should I say 'a genre' or something that fits on a certain type of playlist, it would be great to be able to write and perform something that is inclusive and builds unity. Therefore, let love lead.

"I miss the soul of the early blues. It has been diluted by its own success." (Photo: Fred Hostetler)

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

Oh mercy…I'm a history lover so the time machine idea is too much for my little mind to handle: should I go forward or backward? But I'd love to go right now to my ancestral home, the Emmental Valley in Switzerland or return to India to visit old friends. But a day would not be enough. So, send me back 2,000 years to see what Jesus was like in person, or 2,500 years to meet the Buddha, or back 4,000 years to experience the leelas of Krishna, All are milestones in the expansion of human consciousness and awakening.

Fred Hostetler / Heart Radio - Home

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