There’s always been something of a unique aura about Grant Green’s music, an ability that is somehow mystifying and intangible. Green played the guitar more like a horn player, having copped Charlie Parker and Miles Davis licks in his youth. Being a guitarist, his music was firmly rooted in Detroit blues and his music swings hard. His solos are almost always perfect, notable for extending repeated three note phrases over as many as 6, 8, 12, and even 16 measures at a time, making subtle rhythmic variations with each repetition, generating an obsessive tension that is relieved with either a flurry of notes or a single held tone. His solos have a strong melodic sensibility and he rarely plays fast for the sake of playing fast. Green is one of the rare few who managed style and substance, rather than sacrificing one for the other. Green died in 1979.
His distinct work has been sampled by Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Wu-Tang Clan, and Kendrick Lamar. Which is testament to the fact that you don’t manage to meaningfully contribute to history without knowledge, without taste, and without heritage.
I first met James T-Model Ford in 1997. He had opened for R.L. Burnside. His music had a memorable approach to a number of blues standards I would eventually grow to adore. Ford’s music served as an introduction, as the necessary open-valve to a whole world of blues music. His renditions of “Cut You Loose” and “My Babe” showed an affinity for James Cotton and Little Walter; and his renditions of “Smokestack Lightnin’” and “Catfish Blues” were excellent covers of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. For me, his and R.L. Burnside’s music were the blues analog of Frank Zappa to classical modernism—that is to say, a gateway drug, so to speak.
I witnessed T-Model Ford play in 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000. I was always the youngest person in the club when I attended those shows, always going with the accompaniment of a parent and always drinking Coca-Cola. One of my fondest memories was having the opportunity in 1999, to play guitar alongside T-Model Ford’s drummer, nicknamed Spam, at Santa Fe’s Thirsty Ear Festival, which primarily presented roots music and underground alternative rock. Spam and I played for about 30 minutes as a duo and he used a snare drum in a North Mississippi Hill marching style, which he muted with a handkerchief to match the dynamics of the small saloon we played in. I ran through a number of styles: Robert Johnson style Open-G riffs; John Lee Hooker style vamps; and Muddy Waters-influenced stomping drones in the key of E. Even to this day, this is one of my fondest memories of my adolescence. Later, Spam admitted that “a white boy learnt” him the drums.
In the interim between these show experiences, I participated in weekly jam sessions and gigs throughout the bar scene in New Mexico. I was thirsty for playing experiences and I was often the first musician to arrive at 8 PM and the last to leave at 2:30 AM. I would be so wound up, I sometimes couldn’t get to sleep and I would cram in as much studying as I could before attending school the next morning around 7:30 AM. Those early morning study sessions often involved practicing for jazz ensemble; studying voice leading for music theory; and writing research papers on music (Anthony Braxton, Eric Dolphy, Arnold Schoenberg and Karlheinz Stockhausen are four names I remember writing papers on at this time). I remember the feeling of walking around school after a great show—having not had time to wash the cigarette smoke out of my hair—and I would have to listen to the other kids gossip and bicker; meanwhile I was living this double life of student and bar musician and there was always this compartmentalization between being the kid with a guitar that the high school cliques ignored and being the kid with a guitar that the college cliques cheered for the night before. After my third gig, I stopped telling the other children because they usually didn’t believe me, the response was always, “Sure, in your wildest dreams you played at a bar last night and some older girl with a fake ID gave you kiss on the cheek as she was leaving.” I was fourteen when this started and it went on until I was seventeen.
I estimate that I had something like 8,000 hours of gigging, rehearsal and practice and jamming experience by the time I reached legal adulthood. Between studying classical, jazz rehearsal, guitar class, and watching movies with my guitar in hand; I was playing about 4 or 5 hours a day, and I’ve done my best to keep this pace up with all my passions throughout life. These were crucial, formative years for me and I still prefer early morning to any other time for work, often rising as early as 3 AM to start weightlifting, write critical essays, compose music, and create visual art; I also typically read for 1 or 2 hours every night before bed. I don’t drink, I don’t take drugs, I don’t pursue unnecessary partnerships, I make time for meditation, and I attempt to sublimate everything into my work. I feel truly blessed at this point. I wish I could tell T-Model Ford how much he and Spam set the forces of my passion for music into motion. James T- Model Ford passed away in 2013. He was about 90 years old.
I was very fortunate to see R.L. Burnside perform when I was 13. I was fairly unfamiliar with his music at the time, but the show changed my ideas about guitar playing. I had heard his collaboration with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, An Ass Pocket of Whiskey, which was good, but I was unfamiliar with his music, the music of his family, the traditions of the Northern Mississippi style for which he was known —I was completely unprepared for what I was to experience at that show. R.L. performed with his son Cedric on drums and Kenny Brown on slide guitar. The show was legendary. He hit the stage at about 10 P.M. and played without a break until 2 A.M. I have never seen anything of this magnitude since then.
I didn’t know it when I was in the moment, experiencing this music, but Burnside’s guitar was tuned to the same ‘Spanish’/Open G tuning that a number of the Paganini Sonatas I was learning were written in. The big revelation came when I was studying his music and realized that simply from watching him for four hours straight, I had learned exactly where to place my fingers to recreate these sounds of Northern Mississippi blues. As it turned out, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and so many others had also performed in this key. It wasn’t long before I not only set about learning Burnside’s music, but started to learn songs like ‘Boogie Chillen’, ‘If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day’, ‘Rollin’ n’ Tumblin’, and other classics of the genre. Burnside was the gateway to Junior Kimbrough (who was appropriated for white audiences by The Black Keys), T-Model Ford, Lurrie Bell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Junior Wells, Robert Nighthawk, Hound Dog Taylor, and literally a hundred other musicians.
Aesthetically, Burnside’s music was pure —no sociopolitical or spiritual pretensions lyrically- the hypnotic rhythms and his voice had more soul than anything I had heard at the time. I consider myself blessed to have been exposed to this at the age of 13, it may have saved me from MTV and hip-hop. I consider this to have been a key experience during the formative years of my psyche, another formative experience for which I am eternally grateful. R.L. Burnside died when I was 22 years old, when I was in college studying engineering and computer science.