|Blues Fest 2007: Career Construction - Albert Cummings: Friday, 7 p.m., Bandshell Stage|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Written by Mike Schulz|
|Wednesday, 27 June 2007 03:11|
As always, the performers at this year's IH Mississippi Valley Blues Festival will arrive with a host of awards to their names. But here's a guarantee: Albert Cummings will be the only one boasting a citation from the architectural digest Remodeling.
"We just won our fourth national award," says the fourth-generation builder, of his construction company based in Williamstown, Massachusetts. "I got an award from Remodeling magazine called ‘The Big 50.' They select 50 builders in the United States [for recognition], and I was one of ‘em this year. Went to Washington, D.C., to the Ritz-Carlton. Got treated like royalty."
Expect Cummings' Friday-night set to receive the royal treatment as well, because here's another guarantee: You'll be hard-pressed to find a Blues Festival performer who appears to be having a better time. Describing his growing prominence in the blues circuit during a recent phone interview, Cummings says that in addition to his successful northeastern company, his musical career is "growin' and growin' and growin', and I just love it and love it, and every time I play I crave it even more."
Cummings, a Massachusetts native, says that he "was raised with guitars around the house," as his father was a successful guitarist himself. Young Albert hoped to play the instrument, too, but quickly discovered that "my hands weren't big enough to touch a guitar. Or at least it seemed that way."
Eventually, Cummings found an instrument his youthful hands could navigate. "I got a hold of a banjo," he says. "It had a small neck up at the top, and I was like, ‘Jeez, I can do this.' And I just started teaching myself banjo, and pretty soon I got pretty good with it."
Yet while he won several banjo competitions as a youth, Cummings still hoped to master the guitar, despite minimal assistance from his father.
"He'd teach me a few chords - the basic G, C, D chords and a few other little things - but he had no patience," says Cummings. "If I didn't pick it up, he'd be like, ‘Ahh, you're never gonna get this. Don't even try. Forget it.' There was a lot of knowledge that I could've learned on guitar, but I never got any of it from him. So that stunk ... ."
Instead, Cummings practiced on his own, even after heading to Boston's Wentworth Institute of Technology to study carpentry. "I always fooled around with the guitar," he says, "learning bluegrass songs and things like that, but I was like, ‘Well, I'm destined to be a builder anyway, so I'll just have music as fun.'"
The idea to pursue music as more than a recreational activity, though, came after watching one of his idols in concert at Boston's Orpheum Theatre in 1987.
"I went and saw Stevie Ray [Vaughan], who I'd been listening to for years, and I came out of that show that night thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is ridiculous!'" Cummings enthuses. "Forget playing banjo!"
Not long after, at age 21, Cummings wrote a song for his wife, which he performed - on guitar - at their wedding ceremony ("the first time I ever had the gumption to get up and sing," he says). But having forged a successful career as a contractor, his next public performance wouldn't come for another six years - ironically enough, at another wedding.
"A friend of mine was getting married," he says, "and someone said, ‘Why don't you get up and play with the band?' So the band had me up and I played ‘Johnny B. Goode,' and it was just so much fun. I was like, ‘Why the hell aren't I doing this?'"
A fellow wedding guest agreed. "That same night," continues Cummings, "a guy that I didn't know at the time got up and played at the same time I did, and [later] we said, ‘Hey, let's just get together and play.'" He and bass player Don Chilson made time for regular jam sessions, and after drummer Ken Pallman joined the duo, they began performing as Swamp Yankee, playing numerous northeastern venues.
Yet Cummings, at the time, was also performing solo and achieving what he calls "really good momentum," and it was during a solo engagement in Troy, New York, that the direction of Cummings' musical "hobby" forever changed.
"[Troy] was having kind of a Blues Appreciation Day," says Cummings, "and they wanted to have the hottest local act, and they chose me for that. And they said, ‘We want to have a national headliner play - who do you think we should get, Albert?'"
The longtime fan of Stevie Ray Vaughan - and of Vaughan's rhythm section - had a suggestion. "I said, ‘Why don't you just have Double Trouble come play with me?' They were like, ‘That's a great idea!', and I was like, ‘Yeah, right. That'll never happen.'
"And a couple weeks later we got a ‘yes' back. I was like, ‘Oh my God!'"
Double Trouble musicians Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon did indeed perform the Troy concert alongside Cummings - "this unbelievable night of playing," he says. "The dynamics were awesome, and it was just a really, really fun show." Yet, to Cummings' continued astonishment, the evening's highlight came after the concert ended.
"I'm driving them [to the airport] at, like, three o'clock in the morning," he says, "and they're like, ‘Albert, you've got to do a CD. What we heard on your demo, what we experienced tonight - this is great. You've really got to get a CD out, and we wanna produce it for you, and we want to be on it. We want you to come to Austin and do a CD.'
"And the next thing I knew," Cummings says with a laugh, "I was in Austin, Texas."
As if Double Trouble's participation weren't enough, Cummings had another surprise awaiting him in Austin. "They brought in Reese Wynans," he says, "who was a keyboard player with Stevie, and that made it the first time that all three guys were in a studio for an album with anybody since Stevie.
"So it was even weirder, you know? You're just beginning, you're brand-new, and then here you've got your idols staring at you ... . It was nuts."
Not long after the release of the CD, 2004's From the Heart, Cummings found another pair of famous eyes staring at him - those of B.B. King.
After attending one of the blues legend's concerts, he had the chance to meet King backstage, began a correspondence with one of King's assistants, sent out a demo CD, and, as with Double Trouble, "all of a sudden I got an opening show for B.B. King!
"And I got a standing ovation at the show," Cummings continues, "and that turned into a tour in Florida with B.B., and then it just kept goin'."
The musician isn't exaggerating; he has now opened for King more than two dozen times. "It's just crazy," he admits.
Considering Cummings' touring schedule (up to 120 shows a year) and accomplishments thus far, it's easy to forget that making music still isn't his full-time job. And Cummings admits to being a little nervous about his musical career - not to mention his fingers - being cut short by an errant power saw.
"I'm so precautious now," he says with a laugh. "Now I'm worried that I'm gonna get hurt because I'm too worried about it."
Don't expect Cummings, though, to give up contracting any time soon. "If I was Garth Brooks," he says, "I don't think I'd be building houses, you know? But I've always been in building, and I've got a lot of people that count on me for their careers ... and the niche I've created in building is really the top top end of everything that's built around here. Some of these homes are just incredible."
Yet Cummings appears happy to c ontinue juggling responsibilities, despite the stresses that accompany a musical career.
"Music's a tough thing," he says. "You see a lot of guys that are tired and they're not digging it anymore, and you can hear it in their playing - it's like they're dead, because they're so sick of it. And I understand that a little bit, because it's a hard business. Like Chris Latham told me once, ‘Being a rock star is great one hour a day, and the rest of it is pretty much hard work and hell."
And perhaps harder still when, like Cummings, you're still seeking even greater popular awareness. "People like what I'm doing and everything," the musician says, "but because I'm pretty new to the scene, my name gets to the promoter's desk and he's like, ‘Well, nobody really knows who this guy is. He's not gonna sell me an extra 27 tickets, so he's not going on the tour ... !'You know what I mean? It's like a Catch-22.
"So that's the stuff you work through," adds Cummings, "and you just keep goin', and someday I'll get there. I have a pretty optimistic outlook. 'Cause, God, the stuff that's happened to me already ... !"
For more information on Cummings, visit (http://www.albertcummings.com).
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