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|Blues Fest 2007: Slim’s Pickin’ - Watermelon Slim: Saturday, 8:30 p.m., Tent Stage|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Written by Mike Schulz|
|Wednesday, 27 June 2007 03:14|
I'm talking to blues musician Watermelon Slim about the myriad jobs he's had in between the release of his first album, 1973's Merry Airbrakes, and his second, 2003's Big Shoes to Fill. Those three decades found Slim working as a truck driver, a forklift operator, a collection agent, a firewood salesman, a funeral officiator, and even a watermelon farmer, the job for which The Artist Formerly Known as Bill Homans got his moniker.
During our phone interview, I ask if his experience with blue-collar employment of this sort aids in his songwriting. "Oh, it does," Slim says. And he proceeds to explain how.
"I mean," he begins, "case in point: On the record Big Shoes to Fill, I recorded a song called ‘Shed My Blood in Mississippi.' What happened there was I went down to Clarksdale, Mississippi, to apply for a job as a museum's assistant curator, or researcher, or whatnot, at the Delta Blues Museum. And when I got done with that application - I didn't get the position, by the way - I went and hung around a juke joint there in Clarksdale, and played there.
"And on my way to another juke joint, suddenly I found myself walkin' through the hospital. One of the cops that was with me - "
Wait. There were cops with you?
"One of the cops that was with me," he continues, "said, ‘Did you know you're hurt?' And I said I didn't know, but I was in some discomfort. And then he showed me a mirror, and my jaw was several inches out of line, and I had multiple compound jaw fractures."
"Oh, I got mugged. And then," he adds, not missing a beat, "the police threw me out of town. They took me to my motel and said, ‘Get some sleep - you've got a long drive tomorrow.'"
Slim takes a brief pause.
"But that's the kind of thing that just lends itself to a good story."
(Damn, I thought. No wonder "Shed My Blood in Mississippi" is seven minutes long.)
We may have gotten a bit off-topic, but Slim's recollection certainly makes for a good story, and Watermelon Slim's career makes for a good story, too - he's likely the only musician who can boast a W.C. Handy nomination as Best New Artist and an Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame citation ... in the span of three years.
Blues, the 57-year-old recalls, was "the first music I ever heard sung to me," as his family's maid, Beulah Huggins, "would sing in my house in '54 ... mostly John Lee Hooker music." Slim himself began playing the blues harp before the age of 10, but it would be nearly 11 more years until he picked up the guitar - the instrument for which he's best known.
"I started playing guitar in about January of 1970," says Slim. "I was in Kamron Bay, Vietnam, when I started playing." And he continued to play after returning from Vietnam; Slim, his brother Peter (now a classical musician), and four fellow musicians recorded 1973's Merry Airbrakes - a concept album about his experiences overseas - through a small, independent studio, with the hopes of getting attention from a major label.
"I was actually negotiating with Atlantic Records," he says. "But unfortunately, that year there was a watershed event not only in history but in music-industry history, and that event was the OPEC oil embargo. Polyvinyl chloride was what they were making LP albums out of, and suddenly the price of polyvinyl chloride was, you know, four-, five-, six-hundred percent what is was before the embargo hit.
"So all of a sudden," Slim continues, "the industry wasn't interested in negotiating with an untried fella with a pretty good album ... . There wasn't any guarantee that I'd make any money for anybody.
"And I didn't make another record for 28 years."
While Slim's hopes for a full-time music career were abruptly dashed, he did continue to write and perform over the next three decades. But what he did primarily was work - at those aforementioned, often laborious jobs, and at his education, eventually earning bachelor's degrees in journalism and history, and a master's degree in history from Oklahoma State University.
Slim says he sought the degrees "because I had to find some way to support a family," even though "my master's in history and all my teaching certifications have gone to waste. My family separated from me, I no longer have custody of my daughter ... you know, the things for which I went back to school did not exactly pan out.
"But as they say," he adds, "virtue is its own reward, and the education is its own reward."
And patience is its own reward, too. In 2002, one of Slim's juke-joint performances caught the attention of Chris Hardwick, owner of Southern Artist Management & Production out of Norman, Oklahoma.
Hardwick, says Slim, "really put his money where his mouth was. He really believed in me, and he started a record label in order to bring out the first record I made there - Big Shoes to Fill." That independent release from 2003 led to Slim's Up Close & Personal in 2004, the album for which the musician was nominated as Best New Artist from the W.C. Handy Awards. ("New Artist," Slim explains, "means that I made a record that was a national release.")
And with the release of last year's CD Watermelon Slim & the Workers - which finds Slim collaborating with fellow blues artists Michael Newberry, Cliff Belcher, and Ronnie McMullen Jr. - the musician was able to add another half-dozen nominations to his credit; Slim received 2007 Blues Music Awards nods for Album, Band, Song, Traditional Blues Album, Traditional Blues Male Artist, and B.B. King Entertainer of the Year. (He did, however, leave the May 11 ceremony empty-handed.) The album also hit number-one on the Living Blues Radio Chart, debuted at number 13 on the Billboard Blues Radio Chart, and received 2006's Blues Critic Award for Album of the Year.
So considering that he now has the professional music career he sought back in 1973, is it a thrill to finally be able to perform full-time, and to have audiences, listeners, and critics respond with such enthusiasm?
"I'm not really thrilled about much," he says.
"Frankly, eventually I'm going to have to retire from all this," Slim continues. "All this business behind all this pleasure gets to be too much of a pain in the ass for me. The touring and the work and the 85,000 miles a year of driving is not particularly ... it's not really that exciting."
Not that there aren't perks, as Slim will readily admit. "Playing with people like George Brock and Jimbo Mathis, and my friend Chris Stovall Brown out of Boston, and all the musicians that I've been playing with is pretty exciting. And I'm excited to be going to Australia and New Zealand," he continues, "which we're going to at the end of September.
"I understand that New Zealand has laws whereby fish are fined if they weigh under three pounds," he says with a laugh. "So I'm gonna do some fishing over there."
In the meantime, Watermelon Slim & the Workers will continue to tour America and promote their latest CD - The Wheel Man, released on April 17 of this year - and are preparing for the release of the group's first live DVD, which was recorded in Clarksdale the day after this year's Blues Music Awards. "That'll have George Brock and Jimbo Mathis and Charlie Musselwhite and other people on there," says Slim. "Charlie, of course, won most of the categories I was nominated for."
I ask, only jokingly, if that made him mad.
"No no no no no no no!" insists Slim. (Oh great, I thought. Now I've made him mad.) "That's a, that's a ... a journalist's mistake. One of the journalists for the Memphis Commercial Appeal said, ‘Charlie's big night spoiled the hopes of Watermelon Slim & the Workers!' No, it didn't spoil our hopes. Charlie's been a friend of mine for many years. I have the greatest respect for Charlie, and anytime Charlie puts out a record, you can pretty much expect it to get awards.
"And I won a few awards last year anyway," Slim then points out. "I won Mojo magazine's Album of the Year in England. The Independent Record Producer's Association out in New Jersey awarded me Blues Record of the Year. So it's not like I was a big loser or anything like that."
Plus, on May 26 of this year, Slim was inducted into the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame - quite an achievement for a native Bostonian raised in North Carolina. "Oklahoma is not my native state but it's my adopted state," he says, "and for the foreseeable future this is where I'm from, so I'm pleased to represent Oklahoma in that way.
"I've been doing this a long time," the musician adds. "I did my first paid gig in 1968. I just haven't been a professional, touring musician for that long - I've been a truck driver or a laborer most of the time. I've failed at more things than most people have tried. And succeeded at a few."
For more information on Slim, visit (http://www.watermelonslim.com).
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