Category Archives: Musicians

Top 11 Most Influential Singers, Songwriters, & Guitarists

Top 11 most influential singers, songwriters, and guitarists

I was recently asked to prepare answers to the questions below, and be prepared to discuss my responses for a possible radio interview. The interview never happened, but it was instructive thinking through the answers all the same, so I’m posting what I landed on here.

Question:
You’re known primarily as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. For each category, please list the 11 artists who most influenced your style and approach.

Top 11 Vocalists Who Most Influenced My Style

  1. Blind Willie Johnson
  2. Bukka White
  3. Charley Patton
  4. Howlin’ Wolf
  5. Bob Dylan
  6. Dave Van Ronk
  7. Captain Beefheart
  8. Jim Morrison
  9. Townes Van Zandt
  10. Tom Waits
  11. Lemmy Kilmister

Runners Up:
Dr. John
Leon Redbone
Tony Joe White
Joe Cocker

Top 11 Songwriters Who Most Influenced My Style

  1. Bob Dylan
  2. Bruce Springsteen
  3. Neil Young
  4. Tom Waits
  5. Tony Joe White
  6. John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
  7. The Band (Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson)
  8. Nick Cave
  9. Kris Kristofferson
  10. Shane MacGowan (The Pogues)
  11. Phil Ochs

Runners Up:
Billy Bragg
The Clash (Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon)
The Doors (Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger, John Densmore)
The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards)

Top 11 Guitarists Who Most Influenced My Style 

  1. Mississippi John Hurt
  2. Mance Lipscomb
  3. Fred McDowell
  4. Blind Willie Johnson
  5. Son House
  6. Bukka White
  7. Charley Patton
  8. Johnny Winter
  9. John Fogerty
  10. Willie Nelson
  11. Stevie Ray Vaughan

Runners up:
Mike Campbell
Tony Iommi
Brian Setzer
Marc Ribot

 


The World Is Going Wrong

Feel bad this mornin’
Ain’t got no home
No use a-worryin’
‘Cause the world gone wrong

I can’t be good no more
Once like I did before
I can’t be good, baby
Honey, because the world’s gone wrong

—from The World Is Going Wrong, by The Mississippi Sheiks

thewestsidesheiks_alt

 

In order to get a new side project off the ground, I’ve been listening to a LOT of The Mississippi Sheiks. Tremendous songwriters (“Sittin’ On Top Of The World,” anybody? Yeah, that was them …), great and powerful instrumentalists (Delta Blues fiddle? Yep, and tough as fu*k to boot …), and genuine Delta royalty, countin’ Sam Chatmon and Charley Patton amongst their kin …

And as you can tell from the lyric above … prophets. Cuz that’s just about how I feel …

This new project is called The Westside Sheiks. It’s gon’ be real, real cool. We’re on to somethin’ … see if you agree … Here’s the very first song we ever performed together …

video link: https://youtu.be/ZK2X0u99Om8

The takeaway tho, is DO be good. You must. No matter how wrong the world feels, you must be good.


Johnny Azari and Preacher Boy’s God Damn National Blues

JohnnyAzari_PreacherBoy_Final

Johnny Azari’s life and my life overlap in a great many ways. Musical, sure. We both play slide on resonator guitars. We’re both heavily influenced by the country blues. We both stomp our boots a great deal, and sing with rough-hewn voices. Read reviews of our music, and half the words are generally the same. Howl, dark, poetry, Robert Johnson, narcotic, gravel, ghost, whiskey, blues, night, etc.

“Johnny Azari doesn’t pull any punches with his blues. This is in your face, razor-edge reconstruction of a genre that’s gotten soft. His music is the last swig of whiskey after a long night of drinking. The dark alleyway. This is real-life emotion through music and he’s not cleaning it up just to make a few casual listeners more comfortable.”
—We Listen For You

“Johnny Azari is a sort of time traveler. As the musician seeks a blend between Jimmy Rogers and Robert Johnson, he hears his music going back to the roots of blues. Azari’s sound features a mix of Delta blues and alternative country — two genres known to demand authenticity from their performers. Azari said he’s just fine with that.
—The Joplin Globe

“Accompanied solely by his keening, propulsive National and Martin guitar playing, Preacher Boy compulsively unwinds a series of often startling, narcotic tales, that prove image-rich and packed with an aura of sweeping drama – made even more pungent by his gruff, whiskey-soaked vocals.”
—Sing Out

“With some of the most innovative roots music on the scene today, Preacher Boy will make a believer out of even the most skeptical. The album creates dusky lyrical landscapes littered with hobos, ghosts, drunks, loneliness, love, and salvation. The result is a totally unique twist on roots music.” 
—Blues Access

Location? Sure, that too. Brooklyn and New Orleans in particular.

Business? A bit. We overlapped on Altco Recordings for a wee bit there. That’s how we met, actually. Well, we didn’t actually meet. We wrote. We corresponded. We listened to each others music. But we never actually met in the conventional sense of the word. But we’re about to.

Sunday, July 24th, 2016, at 8pm, at The Pocket, in Santa Cruz, CA, Johnny Azari and Preacher Boy are going to meet. And we’re going to play. And we gonna howl, and howl, and howl …

I had the pleasure of writing a review of Johnny Azari’s music once. I share it with you here:

Johnny Azari’s God Damn Blues

Johnny Azari is the kind of artist you often see referred to as an “old soul.” These people evidence a wisdom beyond their years, and seem to speak from another time. We could say this about Johnny Azari, but we won’t. Because while his roots runs very, very deep, and while he does possess a preternatural musical maturity, his music is very NOW. It is funky, it is soulful, it is raw, and it is very, very real. Put another way, God Damn Blues is goddamn powerful.

If your first look at the Lucian Freud by way of R.L. Burnside cover—and song titles like Empire of Illusion, Immaculate Abortion, and Opiated Like Tuesday—suggests to you that you’re in for something intense, the first ominous stomps of the title track will confirm it.

Depending on your own musical roots, you may need some sonic references to help you find your way into understanding this music. So you’ll do well to bone up on your Son House, Blind Willie Johnson, and Charley Patton. And make sure to dose up on some Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits while you’re at it. Bin diggers can happily cue up the gothic Americana of 16 Horsepower, the New Orleans meets the Delta sounds of John Mooney, and even The Doors of “Waiting for the Sun” and “Wild Child.” Ultimately though, the artist you most need to listen to is Johnny himself.

His voice is untamed and without boundary—one part howl and one part hum. His guitar playing and slide work have the frenetic precision of a Kokomo Arnold track, and his lyrics enact some sort of cross between Woody Guthrie and a primal scream therapy session. But at its damaged yet still wildly beating heart, this album is simply about a man and his guitar, and the stories the two combine to tell. At the end of “Empire Illusion” Johnny sings, “Oh, I think I’m too old/I think I’m too young.” Listen to this album, and you’ll think he’s timeless.

Johnny Azari’s God Damn Blues. Preacher Boy’s National Blues.

god-damn-bluesPreacherBoy_TheNationalBlues_Web

That’s what’s on offer Sunday night.

Johnny Azari and Preacher Boy’s God Damn National Blues.


Answer: Charley Patton, Bukka White, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Dave Van Ronk

Question: Who are your Top 5 Most Influential Vocalists?

 

5MostInfluentialVocalists

Depending on whether you’re at all familiar with my musical career, this may or may not be a surprising list.

But it’s definitely the list. I will never, never, never forget the first moments when I heard each of these singers. Thank you Yazoo Records. Thank you Takoma Records. Thank you Chess Records. Thank you Folkways Records. Thank you to my parents for having a record player in the house. Thank you to Samuel Charters for writing The Country Blues.

And while I’m at it, thank you to my first grade teacher for making fun of my voice when I tried to sing “I Saw Her Standing There.” You set me on a whole different vocal path, lady. And I thank you.

The thing is, if you’ve ever read a review of a Preacher Boy album, you’re probably thinking, why isn’t Tom Waits on this list? After all, virtually every Preacher Boy review in the last 25+ years has managed to mention Tom Waits.

Well, he’s not on my Top 5 list, because he doesn’t belong there.

The thing is, I was intimately and obsessively familiar with the music of the five artists in the title of this post long before I had any idea who Tom Waits was. The reason someone hipped me to Tom Waits in the first place was because they knew the other stuff I was into. It was a former roommate of mine; a college radio DJ. He gave me a Memorex. One side was Mose Allison. On the other, Swordfishtrombones.

Now, was Waits an influence? Absolutely. But not because of his voice per se. He was an influence because THAT voice was writing THOSE songs. That was what made the difference for me.

See, I knew what my voice sounded like. It wasn’t pretty. But that was ok. I didn’t like pretty voices. Charley Patton’s voice made sense to me. Bukka White’s voice made sense to me. Blind Willie Johnson’s voice made sense to me. They were the right voices for their music. That made sense to me.

I knew what my voice sounded like. It wasn’t pretty. But that was ok. I didn’t like pretty voices.

And I knew how I was going to play guitar. I’d heard Mance Lipscomb. I’d heard Fred McDowell. I’d heard Robert Pete Williams. I’d heard Son House. I got it, man. I got it. Ever since I heard Mississippi John Hurt playing Sliding Delta, I knew what I was going to do as a guitarist.

And I knew I was going to be a songwriter.

But that was the problem. How to connect it all? I wasn’t going to write songs like Charley Patton. That wouldn’t have been honest. I knew who I was, and even at a young age, I expected authenticity of myself. So what to do? I didn’t know. I didn’t think I was going to do anything.

Then, I heard “16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six.” Vocally, I got it. The man had clearly listened to a lot of the same things I had. And the groove, the rawness, the hypnotic stomping drone-ness of it; I got that. Those were country blues ingredients. But the lyrics. The lyrics. Here was something different. A new sort of language, a new sort of poetry. A sort of rustic, sordid, gritty, earthen, American poetry that was both mystical and soiled. It was at once visionary and hallucinogenic, but also totally raw and present and real and folky and outlandish. A kind of literate and bent hobo prosody. It was Nelson Algren and Gary Snyder and James Wright and Tony Joe White and Jack Kerouac and Carson McCullers and Flannery O’ Connor and Raymond Chandler and Erksine Caldwell and Bob Dylan and Tim Buckley and Townes Van Zandt and Toni Morrison, all rolled into one. I got it. I dug it.

So that’s the Waits influence in a nutshell for me. His music—as represented by that blessed trio of Swordfishtrombones, Frank’s Wild Years, and Rain Dogs— made clear to me it was possible to weld voice and music and lyrics together in ways I hadn’t previously believed entirely possible.

But here’s the thing … and I’m probably gonna get some flack for sayin’ this … but the thing is, Tom Waits can’t play country blues. I can.

So back to my list. Charley Patton. The rawest of them all. Listen to Charley Patton’s vocals on High Water Everywhere. He sounds insane, and like he’s about to die. That’s what I strive for. Bukka White. You can’t get heavier than that. When he sings the line “When can I change my clothes?” you hear the whole history of masculinity and pain in his voice. That’s what I strive for. Blind Willie Johnson. Jesus, listen to my first record. It’s almost embarrassing to me now, how obviously derivative some of my songs are. The Cross Must Move? Please … Still, I’m really proud of that song! It’s still with me today. Derivative or not, it IS authentic to me. I’m still singin’ it and playin’ it today, 21 years after it was released. Howlin’ Wolf. Synonymous with nuanced ferocity. When I first heard the song “Who’s Been Talkin'” I thought, right. That. How do I do that? Dave Van Ronk. This should be obvious. Virtually the only white guy from the whole folk-blues thing in the sixties who could actually sing and play country blues. So yeah, when I heard him, I had hope, man. His approach still informs so much of what I do. But mainly, I just loved that he sung with total and complete full-throated abandon. No mic needed. That’s my barometer of true vocal authenticity. If you NEED a mic? Ain’t interested …

Listen to Charley Patton’s vocals on High Water Everywhere. He sounds insane, and like he’s about to die. That’s what I strive for.

Here’s my recommendations, if you’re not familiar with these voices. Start with these songs:

  • Charley Patton: High Water Everywhere, Parts 1 & 2
  • Bukka White: When Can I Change My Clothes
  • Blind Willie Johnson: God Moves On The Water
  • Howlin’ Wolf: I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)
  • Dave Van Ronk: Po’ Lazarus

Such beautiful music, man.


The Most Influential Guitarists, Bassists, Drummers, and Piano/Keys Players Who Are NOT Primarily Blues Musicians

To clarify a point, by “the most influential” I mean, of course, the most influential to me. These are the players I consider as having influenced me the most, that are not expressly blues musicians. Why draw the distinction? Because if I didn’t, this post would be overrun with the usual suspects. So, given that I am by nature primarily a guitar player, let’s begin there, with the guitarists:

 

Guitar

Mike Campbell

What Keith Richards is to rhythm guitar riffs, Mike Campbell is to “lead” guitar. Everything he plays, even when he’s just rippin’ it up, is still so incredibly, riffily melodic. Think of the guitar lines on “Breakdown” and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” as examples. Even the guitar on “The Boys of Summer.” I hate that song, but the guitar playing on it is incredible.

 

The Edge

Think of every great U2 song. Now, think of what is REALLY the hook. Exactly. It’s ALWAYS the guitar part. He’s capable of being a riffer, certainly, but mainly, he’s a textualist supreme. The Joshua Tree is essentially just an Edge record, as far as I’m concerned.

 

Marc Ribot

The coolest, most angular, most inventive guitarist who can still sound rough and raw and weird and funky. Listen to his playing on Jockey Full of Bourbon or Telephone Call From Istanbul.

 

Willie Nelson

His REAL nylon-string work, on display on records like Teatro, was, for me, my point of entry into playing my Martin 0018g. He showed me how that guitar was supposed to be played.

 

Tony Iommi

When I play electric guitar, if I’m to actually “solo,” this is who I try to sound like. His solos are like Hans Christian Andersen stories. On fire.

 

John Fogerty

When he just let loose and played, and didn’t overthink it, he was just an incredible tone monster, and a picking dictionary of American music. Go dig Green River.

 

Steve Cropper

The best, most soulful rhythm guitar player ever to hold a Tele. The reason why I have a Tele.

 

Charlie Christian

THE greatest jazz guitarist. Say no more …

 

Mark Knopfler

If you’re willing to consider “Sultans of Swing” a rock n’ roll song, then the solos on that song are possibly the greatest rock n’ roll guitar solos ever.

 

Bass:

Jim Prescott (Jimi Jazz)

Because upright bass CAN be funky. And Jimi Jazz makes it so. Listen to G. Love’s first album. If you want to play funky upright bass, that’s how you do it.

 

Sebastian Steinberg

The funkiest, coolest, phattest alt-rock bassist ever. Soul Coughing was the greatest, most innovative, most unusual, most cool band, and their art-poetry-funk-hip-hop-Americana-beatnik-trashcan-altrock sound simply couldn’t have been possible without the impossibly fat bass tracks of Mr. Steinberg.

 

Paul Chambers

The greatest bassist ever. Period.

 

Lemmy

Because no one EVER rocked the bass harder.

 

Donald “Duck” Dunn

The soulfulest bassist on the soulfulest songs. I Thank You. Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay. Knock On Wood. Duh.

 

Paul Simonon

Because The Clash is the only band that matters, and EVERY bass line he played was perfect.

 

Charles Mingus

The greatest bassist-composer ever. And the weirdest. Listen to his playing on Money Jungle. Incredible. So painfully assertive and weird and florid and inescapably compelling.

 

Drums:

Jean-Yves Tola

Because he played drums on those early 16 Horsepower records, and those are the best Gothic Americana records ever, and his drums make the sound come alive. Incredible snare work, every time. He just percolates.

 

John Bonham

The greatest rock drummer of them all, who could do more with straight 8s on the hat than … anyone. Go listen to All Of My Love. Ignore Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Just listen to John Paul Jones and Bonham together. It’s incredible.

 

Jimmy Cobb

The Rhythm Section! Say no more. My favorite jazz drummer, with the best jazz bassist.

 

Topper Headon

Ditto re: Paul Simonon and The Clash above, but on drums.

 

Bill Rieflin

Listen to Ministry’s live album “In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up.” DEVASTATING drums.

 

Stevie Wonder

Because the drum intro to “Superstition” is the drum beat I’ve been trying to play my whole life.

 

Al Jackson Jr.

Born Under A Bad Sign. That fill. Perfection.

 

Piano/Organ:

Thelonious Monk

My favorite piano player. Period.

 

Sonny Clark

His records with Grant Green are the best guitar/organ duos in jazz, for my money. Which puts them above Wes and Jimmy. Which is pretty incredible.

 

Jimmy Smith

You can’t really talk about organ without him.

 

Bill Evans

So textural, so swingin’, so cerebral, so painterly, so moody, so impressionistic, SUCH touch, such grace. A philosopher, a zen pianist, a master.

 

Dr. John

The alpha and omega of all that is great in funky American music, as represented by what the keys are capable of.

 

Money Mark

Because Beastie Boys records have AMAZING organ/keys parts on them, and they’re usually Money Mark’s parts. So What’cha Want? More Money Mark.

 

And that, folks, is my list. Add all these players up, and you have the ne plus ultra of my (non-blues) musical influences.

 

Now, discuss.


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