Blues Traveler: High Point guitarist and singer Bob Margolin, onetime member of Muddy Waters’ band, keeps rolling

by John Adamian

| @johnradamian

As last weekend approached, Bob Margolin was preparing for a trip to Memphis, where he and his bandmates would be part of the 32nd annual International Blues Challenge, playing the blues on Beale Street late into the night. Back in November Margolin took three separate trips to Europe to perform there. Margolin generally makes an annual trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi — what some consider the birthplace of the Delta blues — where he assists with classes and workshops and events with the Pinetop Perkins Foundation. Besides all that, Margolin, 66, played guitar in Muddy Waters’ band for most of the ’70s, and he’s done thousands of gigs, crisscrossing the country repeatedly. The blues have basically taken him around the world and shaped his life.

Margolin, who lives in High Point, has a new record, “My Road,” a collection of songs with a kind of meta-blues theme. (Margolin will play a show Sunday, February 14 in the small room at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro.) Margolin will also be on the line-up for the 30th Annual Carolina Blues Festival on May 21 in association with YES! Weekly. Margolin will share the bill with Elvin Bishop, Samantha Fish, Marquise Knox and others.

Blues songs about the blues.

“It’s about my relationship to the blues,” says Margolin of the record.

It’s about more than just that, with songs that address aging, mourning, life lessons and other themes.

“I wanted to write original songs, so I looked to my own experiences,” he says.

In “Heaven Mississippi,” Margolin’s old boss, Muddy Waters, comes to him in a dream — playing Virgil to his Dante — and leads him through an all-star blues house party of the afterlife, with Robert Johnson, Junior Wells and others. And “Young and Old Blues” pokes fun at Margolin’s shifting perspective on maturity: how when he was in his 20s he thought older blues players in their 40s were ancient, but now that he’s reached a riper age he has a more advanced view of things.

The record — like Margolin — is steeped in the blues, but there are other threads woven through. “Bye Bye Baby” is a pleasingly stripped-down bit of bluesy doo-wop, with drummer Chuck Cotton harmonizing with Margolin’s vocals, accompanied only by finger snaps and harmonica playing. “Ask Me No Question” is similarly stark, with vocal harmonies, harmonica, a steady slow beat on a tomtom and some skeletal guitar accompaniment, but with the looming threat of a gun and a wide-open vibe that conjures the sun-blasted sounds of cowboy bands like the Sons of the Pioneers.

Every genre has its conservationminded purists who tend to position themselves as guardians of a tradition. Folk fans wrinkled their noses when Dylan went electric. Certain wrongheaded jazz snobs wagged a finger at Duke Ellington when he wrote longform pieces. Some rock vigilantes got bent out of shape if they heard a disco beat creeping into Rolling Stones records in the ’70s. The blues has its own watch dogs.

Though he’s obviously soaked up the blues from some of its major exponents, and though he is invested in preserving the tradition through his role in the Pinetop Perkins Foundation and through other blues societies, Margolin doesn’t get hung up on staying true to any particular party line with regard to the blues as a form or a living and evolving aesthetic.

“I’m not a member of the blues police,” says Margolin.

He’s basically enjoyed playing whatever music he wanted to play — whether it had elements of rock, funk, soul, or whatever — all of it flowing in its own way from the blues. He’s taken the formative experience of playing with blues legends and patched those insights into his own perspective.

“On a bandstand Muddy Waters had a certain language — of the music, of his blues, and how the band collaborated with him,” says Margolin. “That was a foundation. And as much as I value that and respect him from learning from him, I wanted not only to use his approach, but to develop my own.”

Though he still returns to music from the late-’40s (around the time when he was born) and the early ’70s, when he first started playing with Muddy’s band, Margolin also finds inspiration from a newer crop of musicians, some of them the students in the workshops he leads and some of them starting out with recording careers of their own. Margolin is also a partner in the VizzTone label group. And in his role with the label he listens to a lot of new music, submissions by artists hoping to crack into the business or from seasoned players who are making a record after years on the bandstand.

“Many of those young folks inspire me the way the old folks used to,” he says.

Margolin also writes a regular column for a prominent blues magazine. In 2011 he published an ebook that was part memoir, part anthology of essays and stories.

Storytelling has become part of his show as well. Margolin aims simply to entertain his audience, and he sees it as part of his job to suss out the crowd on any given night to get a feel for whether they simply want dancing music, or whether they might crave some of the anecdotes and color commentary on the material that he’s gathered over the years.

“I feel like it’s a conversation,” says Margolin of the dynamic. His shows have a little bit of the call-and-response that’s central to the blues.

Margolin also continues to write what he calls “blues fiction,” which takes inspiration from people, music, places and folklore related to the blues that he’s been exposed to over his career.

The spirit of the blues is something that Margolin says he can feel when traveling to places like the Delta.

“It’s in the air. And it’s not subtle,” says Margolin. “There’s just a spirit in Mississippi that you can feel.”

The scope and depth of the blues and all of the music — jazz, gospel, rock, soul, country and more — that has been shaped by the blues aesthetic is something that people around the world respect and respond to, says Margolin.

“It’s something that Americans can be proud of.” !


Bob Margolin plays the small room at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro on Sunday, Feb. 14.