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Blues struggles in changing musical climate

by Daniel Bayer

They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but the growth of Greensboro’s music scene in the last several years has some of the city’s blues musicians feeling that, in the words of blues great Skip James, “Times is harder than they’ve ever been before.” At Fisher’s Grille on North Elm Street, the only downtown venue where one can still see the blues played on a regular basis, there’s a distinct lack of younger faces in the crowd of Tuesday night regulars who have gathered to see the Matt Hill Blues Band, one of several blues outfits who share the rotating weeknight residency.

“College-age kids, up until ten years ago, loved the blues,” says Hill, the band’s 21-year-old singer/guitarist. “You could play all the time in a college town. They wanted to see it and looked for it. Now they just don’t care. There’s a couple of players, and young kids like me coming up who are learning to play, but you don’t have a young audience. How’s it going to move on if they’re not interested?” The other members of the band are a veritable who’s who of the city’s once thriving blues scene: bassist Shiela Kleinfelter of the Ladies’ Auxiliary; drummer Chuck Cotton, formerly with the Sky Kings; guitarist Terry Vun Cannon and keyboardist Eric Alston.

As late as the mid-1990s, the Greensboro bar scene was fertile ground for bands like the Misdemeanors, Big Bump and the Stun Guns, the Allison King Band, the Fairlanes and a host of other groups rooted in blues and R&B. With the rise of dance clubs, karaoke and indie rock, though, the blues has increasingly taken a back seat in popularity.

While many of his peers were listening to rap-rock and alternative during the Clinton era, however, Hill was digging into the rich heritage of blues.

“When I started out I was into the classic rock thing,” says Hill. “When you’re young and white and 14, you just don’t hear any blues on the radio. It’s hard to find that. I learned about the blues through Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, but my thing was to figure out where it came from before that. There’s a lot of guys who love that stuff, but they stop it right there. They love Stevie Ray Vaughan and that’s it. For me, it’s ‘Why did he sound that way? Who did he listen to?’ I was big on history when I was a kid, and I always want to investigate and figure out where everything came from, who did what, who wrote what. I guess I’m a blues historian nut, but what can you do?”

Hill first began perfecting his licks at the area’s many blues jams, which proliferated in the late ’90s at clubs like Plum Krazy’s and the Red Lion.

“When I started coming out [to the jams], I knew a little bit, but it teaches you how to play with people, how to listen to people, follow other people, how to adapt to their style,” says Hill. “It shows you how to play with people, and that’s the only way you’re ever going to get good.”

Hill’s progress as a blues guitar player was helped along by the interest of “Steady Rollin'” Bob Margolin, who played guitar with Muddy Waters from 1973 to 1980 (Margolin can be seen playing beside Waters in the latter’s appearance in the Band’s classic 1976 concert film The Last Waltz).

“I owe a lot to Bob,” Hill says. “He’s helped me along. It’s not that he showed me things on guitar, or anything like that, he just puts you around the right stuff you need to be around,” says Hill. “If I’m doing something wrong, he’ll tell me. I’ve played stuff before and he’s like, ‘Don’t play that.’ You can’t get that education in any college.”

Hill says that the popularity of the blues has been hurt by the deaths of many of those who made the music’s seminal recordings, including Waters, who died in 1983.

“Ten or 15 years ago all the big guys, other than BB King and Buddy Guy’… pretty much everybody’s gone,” says Hill. “We lost Howling Wolf, we lost Willie Dixon, we lost Muddy, Albert King. Everybody’s kind of in limbo now.”

The popularity of the blues has waxed and waned over the years. In the 1960s and ’70s, many younger African-Americans, the blues’ original audience, deserted it for soul music and funk. The style enjoyed a revival in the early 1980s, however, with the success of Vaughan, Robert Cray and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, all of whom enjoyed hit records at the time.

Hill, whose band won the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society’s Talent contest in 2004 and went on the semi-finals in Memphis, feels that the time is ripe for a blues resurgence.

“It’ll never go away,” he says. “You’ve got the musicians who want to preserve it and keep it going,” says Hill. “It’s got to come around. In the sixties the hippie crowd got into blues. In the eighties it was the rock crowd’… It’s been twenty years, and somebody’s got to do something or it will go away. The younger generation has to latch on to it. It’s the only way it’s going to go on.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Daniel Bayer at spudkat@earthlink.net.

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