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
"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
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
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
We didn’t mess with his bullets and he didn’t lock up his shotgun
He didn’t lock up his bullets cause we didn’t mess with shotgun
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
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
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
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
as a musician.
"In high school, my friends and I listened to Carlos Santana,
Grand Funk Railroad, the James Gang, and Jimi Hendrix," he
"and George Benson was a big influence on me from a jazz
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
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’
"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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
609-924-7855. $5 cover. Saturday, April 21, 9:30 p.m.
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