Roy Book Binder considers last year's The Good Book to be his most important album. And he never thought it would happen.
"I didn't really want to make any more records," he said in a recent phone interview. "I didn't want to do any more covers of [Mississippi] John Hurt and this one and that one. I figured, 70 years old coming up, why bother? ... I kept telling people, 'When I write enough songs, I'm going to put out an album.' I never thought I'd really do it."
But, he said, there was another pull, the simple fact of getting older: "If I don't make my mark soon, I ain't ever going to make it."
He said he had two good songs, and "I did a live album [2005's Live at the Fur Peace Station] just to get them out before I died, you know?"
When people would ask about a new album, Binder said, he'd pay lip service to the idea: "I kept saying it would be out in the spring, but it never was. Then finally I said, 'It's really going to be out in the spring.'"
But when he returned home in the winter from his annual six-month trek around the country, his wife asked him how it was going. "I got out my notebooks and my pads," he said, "and I had like three and a half songs written, plus the two that I put on the live album ... ." Then, during a visit to the Caribbean, "the songs came to me."
The resulting record, he said, will likely be his legacy.
"It's me," he said. "I know I've made a mark; I feel it around the country. But now I made a mark that I'm really proud of. ... I finally did something I'm proud of. ...
"It's the first record I ever made that stands up to my heroes. My heroes weren't [Reverend] Gary Davis and Pink Anderson," he continued, citing two of his mentors from the early stages of his career. "My heroes are Merle Haggard and I don't know who else. I never wanted to be Gary Davis or Muddy Waters or Son House. The guys I wanted to be when I started out were Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Dave Van Ronk. They're my folk heroes. They took traditional music, and they made it their own. They changed it, they adapted it ... . They made their mark in the world. Nobody doing Robert Johnson songs is ever going to make a mark in the world ... . You've got to be yourself."
For that reason, Binder doesn't consider himself a blues artist, even though his Web site dubs him "Master of the Blues Guitar." The distinction, it appears, is less about style than about original songs and capturing an artist's specific voice. His finger-picked acoustic blues put him equally at home with blues, country, and folk audiences. (Of his 1988-98 tenure with the Rounder label, Binder joked: "That's when I went country. I had my Nashville period. I did the exact same show I did with a bigger hat, baggier pants, and a bigger mustache.")
After leaving the Navy in the 1960s, Binder had three key friendships/apprenticeships: with Van Ronk, Davis, and Anderson. Van Ronk was a songwriting and guitar idol, and Anderson's showmanship was a model for being what Binder called being an "entertainer."
Davis, meanwhile, was a guitar tutor. "I had two $5 guitar lessons, quit school, and went on the road with him," Binder said. "I told him I had $50 saved up, and he laughed at me and said he'd carry me the rest of the way, straighten out my guitar-playing - which he thought was a mess. ...
"I never wanted to be a Gary Davis clone. There's a lot of them out there. I just wanted to learn enough so I could come up with my own sound."
For 15 years starting in 1976, Binder lived full-time on the road in an RV. "It was just great to always have a home on the road," he said. "I don't think I could still be on the road if I didn't do it that way. People say, 'How do you do it?' You've got to make the road your life; it's got to be a friend."
After getting married in 1991, he cut down his touring schedule to six months a year, spending the remainder of the year at his Florida home. (Binder guessed he's had between 10 and 12 RVs over the years, with the latest being a 2012 Winnebago Sprinter.)
Each year's sojourn begins at North Carolina's roots-music MerleFest in North Carolina, at which Binder curates a stage. "For 19 years, I have been the impresario of what I named the 'greatest acoustic blues show on Earth,'" he said. "Over the years, we have had every acoustic blues player of merit. ... We've had everybody ... .
"It's the greatest honor any festival has ever given me," he continued. "We're keeping the blues alive."
Many blues festivals, he said, have eliminated or severely cut down on acoustic acts "because people don't have the attention span to listen." At MerleFest, he added, "we're turning people on to finger-pickin' blues, which is a dying art. And it's tragic that the blues world has decided to let it go, except for an occasional one guy on early in the afternoon. It's a disgrace."
So when Binder performs at the Mississippi Valley Valley Blues Festival, he would appreciate your attentive ears. "Most festivals are big parties where people drink a lot and jump up and down," he said. "They don't even listen to the lyrics. It's all about lyrics and the heart and soul. ...
"Why do I play anything? Because I want to be heard."