I remember when Little Feat burst onto the scene, with an infectious NOLA groove and lyric blues licks underpinning a hard-driving rock rhythm. Arguably one of the best rock and roll albums of all times, Feats Don’t Fail Me Now had me from the first notes that hit my brain-pan. The thought of interviewing the only surviving member of Little Feat would have seemed impossible back in the 70’s, when I was still struggling to cement my own musical style and legacy, if I might be so vainglorious to name it so.
I spent a decade living in Durham for two years, steadfastly resisting the prevailing cultural climate that kept pushing me towards bluegrass and old-timey music. My interest was in the Delta blues and finger-picking guitar. My icons were Leadbelly and John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson and David Bromberg, not Ralph or Bill or Flatt or Scruggs. Try as I might, I could not find work on the Eastern Shore of Carolina; they had no use for a curly-haired Yankee, and so I wound up getting a job back home, working to dismantle the proposed dam across the Delaware River, my home waters. It was a relief of sorts to move back, because at that time there was no music scene in the Triangle Area, although the nascent flower of Asheville was beginning to bloom even then.
Anyhow, I wasn’t back for a year when I hired a band that called themselves The Lost Ramblers to sub for me at the Penn Stroud Hilton, now a decrepit hovel on Main Street in Stroudsburg with bad food, thanks to the Irish thug Barry Lynch that bought the food concession there. I was going to hop a plane to RDU on Eastern Airlines to visit some of my NC buddies, and the Ramblers, then as now, were nothing if not available. That was their first public appearance, and I never even got a thank-you card from them. Anyway, little did I know that the lure of money, beer and bluegrass festivals would push me over the edge into a world I have since grown to love, and that I would spend the next 30 years leaning on a stand-up bass and scheming to get back to my native instrument, the guitar.
Bluegrass aliens aside, my checkered musical past made it easy to interview other musicians. Having penned a few decent songs myself and recorded at least one more album than I wanted to, the realities of playing, touring and recording are still fresh in my mind, and my own musical proclivities brought color to the interviews I did. I always kept them short, under 10 minutes, because many musicians (myself included) quickly get over the lime-light and find the prospect of talking to civilians about “their” music vaguely annoying.
This piece was one of several I did when Tom Ridge’s abortive re-invention of the Old Tamament resort as The Mountain Laurel was in progress. It’s odd what you remember when you come across an old piece of scribbling: I still remember doing the Cray interview while sitting on my luthier Frank Finnochio’s lovely Italian patio in Easton PA while waiting for my bass to be repaired so I could blast off to a festival someplace, and have absolutely no remembrance of talking to Payne, who with Lowell George re-invented rock and roll for me.
One last note: the album title is not “OWUe9.” I would type a bunch of nonsense caps in a piece while I was writing it and go back and look it up before I submitted the draft to Helen Yanulus, bless her heart.
Best editor ever!
“The Mount,” or Mountain Laurel, as it was originally christened, hopes to build a fan base by bringing national acts to the venue. On June 9th, the Mount will present a “twofer” when Little Feat and Robert Cray will appear.
Cray, compatriot of Eric Clapton and winner of five Grammys, records and tours frequently. In addition to dozens of annual live shows, he has cut around 20 CDs, putting his original blues material in front of loyal fans nationwide.
“I’m old fashioned. I record my songs on cassette tapes when I’m at home. I just grab a guitar and go. Digital takes too much time to set up. Tapes are simpler, just pop it in and you’re ready to go. Normally how it starts is as a line going through your head. Most times it’s just an idea, but sometimes the music is there. It all starts with what I hear, a partial story, then the music is made to fit,” Cray said.
Although his style centers around the Fender electric guitars he favors, Cray still gives a nod to the old style acoustic guitar players like Mississippi John Hurt and Muddy Waters, even though the younger generation of blues artists don’t reach that far back for inspiration .
“I have listened to a lot of that stuff; it’s in my collection, but I don’t play it. It’s a generational thing. When people mention Clapton, who is a big follower of the blues, it’s what they heard when they started playing,” he explained, just as the earliest blues artists who were on some radio stations back in the 60’s and 70’s looked to the blues music of the Mississippi Delta.
The blues definitely unite the two acts, as Little Feat successfully melded elements of blues and jazz with Rock and Roll to create a truly unique style of music. The band has been performing successfully since their inception in the early 70’s, although five decades of touring has brought some personal changes.
In 2009, drummer Ritchie Hayward took a medical leave, and after auditioning some “stars” to fill in, the band was so underwhelmed that they recruited their drum tech, Gabe Ford. That proved to be a good move, according to the only remaining original “Feat”, Bill Payne.
“It’s gone very well. When Richie was with us, he supported Gabe 100%. If he had gotten better, Gabe could go back to being the drum tech. Gabe’s family was very musical, and when he was growing up his family said ‘You’ve got to learn how to play a shuffle is you want to play with us.’ That’s a little like telling a piano player ‘You have to play Chopin,’” Payne said, then began talking about touring and their upcoming CD, entitled OWUe9.
“This year has been pretty slow (for tour dates). Gabe and his wife had a baby, Paul (Barrere) had a few things he had to do, and we were finishing up the CD, so it’s been busy, just not in the touring sense. The sessions were very relaxed. We recorded at Johnny Lee Schell’s Studio City in North LA. He played guitar with Bonnie Raitt and has his own group, in fact he’s working with the Blues Brothers, Jim Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. I played with them up in San Francisco a couple weeks ago, and it was lots of fun; I was on stage grinning.”
Little Feat’s prior CD, “Join the Band,” featured a huge array of other starts like Dave Matthews and Jimmy Buffet, but this CD was mostly the Feat themselves, with some local connections thrown in. And for perhaps the first time, some tracks have a hint of bluegrass not found in earlier Feat.
“It’s just Little Feat, with Tom Wilson playing harmonica and the Texicali Horns on two or three tracks. Back in the day, which is to say when we were doing “Feats don’t Fail me Now,” we recorded in Baltimore and there was a band called The Seldom Scene, and I played with Emmy Lou (Harris), so Bluegrass is not part of my written vocabulary, but definitely is part of my experience. Fred Tackett is a wonderful mandolin player, and Larry Campbell played violin or fiddle on two tracks, Rooster Rag and Soleme. That’s a really nice part of this record. For the most part , except for two songs, everything is original. Fred Tackett wrote four tracks and I wrote five, one with Gabe Ford, and the other four with Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead. The start of that collaboration started late last summer,” Payne said, adding that a special piano made the sessions a bit magical for him.
“I played Richard Manuel’s piano, the keyboard player for the Band, and it just plays itself. A couple people who have played it said the same thing, you just can’t do anything wrong on it, “ Payne said.
It won’t be the first time the two acts have shared the stage.
“Oh, Little Feat, I played with them a couple times out here in California,” Cray said, adding that he is looking forward to performing together with them again.