Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the

April 18, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New Blues from Larry Garner

Like many children, when he was growing up in Baton

Rouge, Louisiana, Larry Garner was encouraged to write poetry, short

stories, and even try his hand at writing a sermon. Now, four decades

later, the guitarist and blues singer has risen in his profession

to become one of the most important songwriters of the modern blues

movement.

"I was read to as a kid, and one of my high school teachers got

me seriously interested in writing poems," Garner says in a phone

interview during a tour stop in Jacksonville, Florida. "I was

raised in a creative environment, and I was always encouraged to be

creative."

Garner and his band perform at Triumph Brewing Company on Saturday,

April 21. Garner, who sings and plays guitar, will be accompanied

by Miguel "Honeybear" Hernandez on bass, Stoney Trahan on

drums, and the Austrian-born Christian Dozzler on keyboards.

Garner, now 47, was born in New Orleans but raised in Baton Rouge,

a gritty, oil-refinery city about 90 minutes north of the Crescent

City. After graduating from high school in 1971, the Army shipped

him to Korea. He served three years in the Army, then came home and

enrolled at Southern University, then dropped out after three

semesters.

Somewhere between grade school and college, Garner says he began to

develop his flair for songwriting. He credits Bob Dylan and Curtis

Mayfield as major musical influences.

The collection of songs on Garner’s latest album, "Once Upon The

Blues," on Ruf Records, breaks new thematic ground for an idiom,

that, like country music, is packed with too many songs on the same

old themes. Among the original songs you’ll find on "Once Upon

The Blues," are "Virus Blues," about computer viruses;

"Slower Traffic Keep Right," about his experiences on the

road in a van with his band; and "Edward Had a Shotgun," about

his father’s gun collection.

Garner writes songs that combine positive messages of

hope with biting, sometimes caustic social and political commentary.

In "Edward Had A Shotgun," inspired partly by the wave of

school shootings, he tells us about his father’s gun collection:

My butt would still have blisters if I took his guns to

school,

We didn’t mess with his bullets and he didn’t lock up his shotgun

shells,

He didn’t lock up his bullets cause we didn’t mess with shotgun

shells.

Through most of the 1990s and into this new decade, Garner has

spent upwards of 200 nights a year on the road.

"Being on the road so much, it’s not so easy to sit down and have

dedicated time to write songs," he says, "but many of these

songs on this album were songs I put together on the road."

"When I’m home in Baton Rouge, it’s usually for three to five

day periods. But when I’m on the road, I’m based at

swampjack-at-yahoo-dot-com,"

he says, laughing.

Garner’s recent album was recorded at Cotton Row Studios in Memphis,

and co-produced by Chicago-based blues historian and impresario Dick

Shurman. Shurman’s production credits include albums by Johnny Winter,

Albert Collins, and a host of Chicago-based blues musicians. Ruf

Records’

owner Thomas Ruf, based in Germany, pays special attention to each

of the artists on his roster, much the same way Leonard Chess looked

after his musicians at Chess Records in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s.

"Ruf doesn’t come over and interfere with anything, but he makes

it a point to come through after the recording session is done,"

Garner says. "And I usually see Thomas at least two or three times

a year, because we go over to Europe every spring and every fall."

Last year, Evidence Music, a Pennsylvania label, released "Baton

Rouge," Garner’s 1990s debut. On that album, one of Garner’s more

potent message songs is "High On Music," a reggae-flavored

blues tune about his passion for music and his own lifelong avoidance

of drugs.

Asked about the jazzy undercurrents in much of his guitar playing

and some of the pop-sounding tunes he composes, Garner says that white

and black jazz and rock ‘n’ roll musicians played a role in his

development

as a musician.

"In high school, my friends and I listened to Carlos Santana,

Grand Funk Railroad, the James Gang, and Jimi Hendrix," he

explains,

"and George Benson was a big influence on me from a jazz

standpoint.

Also my grandfather really liked country western and my uncle played

the blues. So nobody told me, you ought to listen to this kind of

music or that kind of music," he says.

"I listened to everything from the blues to Spooky Tooth to the

Zombies," he adds.

Were these friends of Garner’s white friends? "Some were, but

unfortunately my white friends were very few in high school, because

of the integration b.s. that was going down then," he explains.

"The ones who were very brave were my friends, and I had about

three white friends in the whole world. I would call them good

associates."

Asked about what happened to his college career in the early 1970s,

Garner says he quit school when he was offered a good-paying job at

a chemical plant in Baton Rouge. He had been playing in blues and

rock combos during the week at places like Rockin’ Tabby Thomas’

Jukejoint,

"but one of the reasons I decided to go to college was because

the whole live music scene I’d left behind, before I joined the Army,

had dried up — the whole DJ and disco craze had taken over."

Throughout high school, Garner played in blues groups and in a gospel

quartet on Sundays for extra money. On weekends, he’d earn $30 or

more, not bad money for a high school kid in the late 1960s. At age

16, he became serious about playing the blues when his cousin called

in need of a bass player for his classic R&B band, the Twisters.

"I would make 12 bucks on Friday and 12 bucks on Saturday and

then another five or six bucks on Sundays with the gospel

quartet,"

he recalls, "and that would more than take care of lunch money

for the next week."

Asked to assess the state of the blues today, Garner says the scene

around the U.S., Canada, and Europe is much bigger than it was in

the 1960s and ’70s, and that there are many more performers earning

a living playing blues.

"Because of high-tech communication, and the Internet, and a lot

less ignorance, people are realizing that the blues is the only true

American music. And it’s been taking off in all kinds of different

directions. We have to thank people like Stevie Ray Vaughan for

opening

the music up to a whole other audience," he says.

"Whether the number of blues album sales goes up or down, the

music is always going to be here, and people are realizing that

fact."

Garner, who won a Living Blues magazine award for "Artist Most

Deserving of Wider Recognition" in 1997, says the number of blues

festivals around the U.S. and Canada has also grown exponentially

through the 1980s and ’90s. Now, he says, every small city east and

west of the Mississippi seems to have its own blues or jazz festival.

"You can only do so many blues festivals each year, and there’s

so many of them now," he says, "but we do some even bigger

blues festivals in Europe every spring and fall."

"I wish the festivals here in the States could be all-year-round,

but usually, the weather interferes with things in November and

December,"

he says, "but each year, we do six or eight major blues festivals

here in the States."

In recent years, as blues and folk festival organizers have caught

on to Garner’s unique brand of jazz, rock, and folk-influenced blues,

he and his band have played such massive gatherings as the Chicago

Blues Festival, the San Francisco Blues Festival, and the Montreal

Jazz Festival.

At Triumph Brewing Company, Garner will continue his longstanding

tradition of going out into the audience and shaking everyone’s hand

— at least, those people paying attention to the band, anyway.

"It’s just something I’ve always done," Garner explains,

"and

in a club setting, it’s feasible. But in a festival setting, you can’t

make that work."

"The audience is going to find out they know more about blues

than they thought," he adds. "I’m singing about things we

all know about and can relate to, whatever color we are. They’re going

to have a better understanding of the blues than they did before."

— Richard J. Skelly

Larry Garner Band, Triumph Brewing, 138 Nassau

Street,

609-924-7855. $5 cover. Saturday, April 21, 9:30 p.m.


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