The Big Joe Shelton Live from Mississippi Interview

photo courtesy Big Joe Shelton

photo courtesy Big Joe Shelton

Willie King was really an influential guy, not so much as teaching me his style of music, but he was a good person and he had love in his heart for everyone. That was a life lesson just knowing him in those terms.” – Big Joe Shelton

Big Joe Shelton headed into 2013 off of a nomination in 2012 at The Blues Music Awards in Memphis, Tennessee for “Song of the Year” with high expectations on this years’ new release I’d Never Let Her Down.  Straight out of the box on the Rock and Roll Shuffle “Frog’s Hair,” he announces who you got on the turntable, “I’m Big Joe Shelton, come to play your town…”

Indeed, this is a confidant record having released two strong albums over the last four years of original material, Big Joe Shelton seems to be playing his cards close to home with lyrics that are stuff that the average working guy can relate to when times can be a little tough, but you have a strong woman at home that still keeps a little paradise under the dashboard light.

The title track, “I’d Never Let Her Down”  really tells the story of a guy still living the American dream of running around, maybe a musician pulling an all-nighter with a totally supportive woman at home, he easily says “She expects nothin’ of me and I’d never let her down.” In reality, this is what every Artist wishes to have; an understanding partner while they figure it all out instead of nag, nag, nag.

Big Joe has some strong harp playing throughout, but the emphasis is on lyrics that everybody can relate to. These are story songs much like a Junior Brown tune with a Roadhouse Blues feel that don’t necessarily point to any certain neighborhood in Mississippi, but explore any where he wants to go from a huge nod to Reggae on “Stop The Hating” to the Classic Country of “Catfish Ed” as a homage to one of his earliest influences “Catfish” Ed Reed who was a regional Country Artist he got to know back when.

One of the most recent influences in Big Joe’s life as a way to approach ideas was the late great Willie “Sweet Potato Man” King and Big Joe continues to let the world know about Willie through song on “Little Willie” with a Bo Diddley beat and a call and response dead on of Johnny Otis, “ Willie and The Hand Jive” of all things, a homage of the tales Willie King shared about how he started playing music.

There are change-ups all over the place from “Riding With The Wind” which evokes The Doors “Riders On The Storm” played out like Santana jamming “Black Magic Woman” all the way to strange coincidences like “Pity Party” following the same pattern as Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers’ track “Hospital” played more as a lounge act on Saturday Night Live instead of The Velvet Underground at a Boston College frat party.

Big Joe Shelton crossed paths with Big Joe Williams early on and he carries the torch of that bigger than life blues persona of people like the aforementioned Big Joe Williams and another Black Prairie alumni Howlin’ Wolf while throwing in a little Dr. John and Junior Brown storytelling which may have come through from the early Country influences of “Catfish” Ed Reed on the importance of telling a great story or spin a tale that hits home.

big joe shelton albumThe recording is superb having been recorded close to home in Starkville, Mississippi and Mastered at the Ardent Studios complex known for all the ZZ Top albums up to Eliminator as well as Led Zeppelin 3 and the Big Star era Alex Chilton material by Larry Nix Mastering which now houses the original fully restored Neumann lathe that was used by Stax for cutting vinyl.

Big Joe Shelton and The Black Prairie Ambassadors caught up with The Nashville Bridge at the end of a very busy October. He puts on one hell of a show.  In fact, there is enough Rock & Roll Roadhouse Blues to keep a bikers rally in the Black Hills rollin’ along and he tends to wear biker influenced Lansky’s of Memphis [clothier to the King, Elvis] silk shirts while blowing some serious “Mississippi Sax” that would make any Rolling Stones “Midnight Rambler” happy.

Brad Hardisty / The Nashville Bridge: I know you live down in the Black Prairie area of Mississippi. That’s not something I am familiar with. I am a little bit after seeing you live at The Bukka White Festival in Aberdeen. Did you grow up there?

 Big Joe Shelton: Yes, the Black Prairie lays hard up against the Alabama line a little north of Midway down the state. The Black Prairies are the prehistoric  flood plains of the Tombigbee river  that starts up in the Northeast corner of the state towards Alabama and runs midway down the state where  it then crosses over into Alabama. It is named the Black Prairies because of the dark, rich soil deposited by the flooding river thousands of years ago.

TNB: Did you say that was the area Howlin’ Wolf was from?

BJS: Yes, some of our Blues icons from this area are Howlin’ Wolf who was born up in Clay County Mississippi, it’s called White Station, a little community out there and that was his birthplace. I think he lived there till about eleven years old or so then he jumped the train and went over to the Delta to find his Aunt over there and lived with them. Also, about 20 miles south of that is where Big Joe Williams lived across the Mississippi and that was in Lowndes County Mississippi which was the county where I was born in and I was fortunate enough to see Big Joe and get to know him a little bit back in the early 70’s when he quit his ramblin’ around and set down in Crawford. I kind of sought him out. I was kind of like his local Road Manager maybe book him a gig here and there or take him to some joints and set his stuff up for him; just kind of being in his presence, learning at the feet of a Master in Blues, Man. It was not like he taught me. He has a particular kind of music, but it was just kind of like just being in the presence of a great Blues Artist. Also, Bukka White was from up around Houston, Mississippi and he was another one of our famous blues guys from this area. A more contemporary Artist would be Mr. Willie King. I think you are familiar with him through some friends of ours. Willie was from out here in Noxubee County out where I now live. I live in Macon, Mississippi which is about 30 miles south of Columbus and Macon is a very agricultural area. Willie was born here and then he moved right across the Alabama state line to Old Memphis, Alabama.

TNB: I was wondering because I knew he was known as an Alabama Blues man – “The Sweet Potato Man”, but I didn’t know if he born in Alabama or not, so, that kind of clarifies things for me.

BJS: Yeah, he probably never lived more than five or six miles from the state line so he didn’t travel very far when he decided to settle down. A matter of fact, on the Mississippi Blues markers, he is on the one down here in Macon.  You are familiar with those markers, I’m sure.

TNB: I’ll have to catch that one when I am over there.

BJS: Yeah, Willie is on it. It has quite a few names on it, Eddy Clearwater, Carrie Bell and Willie were the three main honorees, plus, it mentions some more obscure artists from this area too.

TNB: I got a real kick out of you writing a song about Willie King. I don’t know if Debbie Bond [band member of late great Willie king’s band] knows about the song. I tried telling her about that when I received an email from her.

photo courtesy Big Joe Shelton

photo courtesy Big Joe Shelton

BJS: I was a young’un when I was hanging with Big Joe Williams, but with Willie I was more of a…I would like to think, a peer to some extent and his influence  on me was more about striving to be a better man with love and compassion in my heart.

TNB: I hope people pick up the fact that that song is about Willie King. Obviously, when you do it “Live” you let people know about that.

BJS: Right. My 2008 release is a song titled Black Prairie Blues and and in that song I sing about blues artists from the Black Prairie;  Willie, Bukka White,  Howlin’ Wolf and Big Joe [Williams] and in the last verse I say “ on a Sunday night and Willie King is playin’ all night long.” I guess that they would know what that was about.  That was like a real Prairie theme. I also pay homage to Wille by including songs dealing with social consciousness. He inspired me to speak up about social injustice.

TNB: That is very cool. I could tell in your album, you are actually kind of playing all of your influences. It’s not something where you can make it definitive where this is “Hill Country” because there is “boogie” there is “Rock & Roll” there is, you know “Little Willie” reminds of “Willie & The Hand Jive,” kind of the same beat and stuff.

BJS: Yeah, it’s based on like a Bo Diddley beat kind of a thing too. The way the percussion and all goes on there and then it morphs kind of into a Rock kind of thing it then kind of goes back and forth. I just kind of take all my influences and things and see what I can come up with. I like to refer to my music as “Being rooted in the past but conceived in the present. “ You know, keeping it fresh and current. You know, the themes of it are current and maybe kind of push the envelope a little bit. I love traditional blues with all my heart, but if that were all we were doing then it would be a dying art, I believe.

TNB: I would say that in your lyrics you tell a lot of stories and rather than saying a lot of blues particular phrasing like four lines that are being repeated over and over through the song, you are telling a story kind of like a traditional Country song a lot of the time. It reminds me a little of Junior Brown’s writing because sometimes you are a little tongue in cheek. Is that a good comparison?

photo courtesy Big Joe Shelton

photo courtesy Big Joe Shelton

BJS: That is a good comparison.  That is a good analogy. I do try to tell stories. It’s like a good fish story. You never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. Also, like a lot of things, humor will grab people’s attention pretty quickly too and sometimes when you are on a touch y subject or something with a little humor injected you can turn it that way or it will cause people to accept it more or listen to it a little more than if you were just trying to ram something down their throat. The storytelling; that is what I enjoy and almost all of my music is inspired by the people and the culture and the music of the Black Prairie that I have known all my life and interacted with, you know things, I have gone to bar-b-cues and fish fries, chitlin’ cookings and just whatever happens to be goin’ on in this area since I was a kid. But, also by the same token, I grew up like a lot of baby boomers grew up, listening to radio and whatever was popular at the time. A lot of that music back in the 50’s and 60’s was inspired by blues during that time. I remember riding my bicycle to hear Roy Orbison at the local Women’s College when I was back in third grade in ’59 or so. So, I was always drawn to musicians and such. My first remembrance of hearing blues was when I was in Pre-School on the downtown streets of Columbus and there was a black guy that played harmonica outside the “Five & Dime” store and I can remember walking by with my parents on many occasions and seeing him out there. I didn’t realize it was the blues, but he was playing the harmonica and whatever it was that he was playing. It got my attention in the following years when I grew older and learned a little about music and started adding my own taste. I kind of realized that I was living here in the midst of something special that a lot of the music I was listening to on the radio had roots in. That kind of led me to seek out Big Joe, when I realized that Big Joe Williams lived in Crawford, just about an hour away. I think he was playing somewhere and I remembered I was familiar with that name from somewhere and then I realized how actually famous and influential he was in the blues world. I was fortunate to be born in this area, but I was also aware enough to seek out and investigate what it had to offer. 

TNB: It sounds like you grew up around blues and appreciating blues but did you start out playing “Rock & Roll?” You play Sax as well, that is what I have seen on the web.

BJS: No, actually “Mississippi Saxophone” is what I play, that is what we call a harmonica down here. I started out singing at church functions and school like grade school plays and stuff and I always got in grade school plays. A lot of times, you get lead parts and you get to sing. In Junior High School, I got into sports and I thought, “cool,” you know? So, I kind of put it behind me through High School.  I played a little guitar, but not much to speak of and I had a lot of friends that were in bands during that time and then out of High School and all. When I got to College, I started trying to learn how to play music and investigate more and that is when I started getting more interest in it, but it was almost like a serious hobby kind of thing. I was more of a harmonica player and I am barely a guitar player and it was hard especially, back in that day unless you were a pure bluesman and there weren’t many around that I knew of, you know, my age, contemporary people of my age. It was hard for them to take you on as a band member as a harmonica player so it was, I guess, I really started kind of writing songs for real   probably in the mid to late 70’s when I moved outside of Chicago when I was going to college.

TNB: So you were going to school in Chicago, did you start writing blues when you first started writing?

photo courtesy Big Joe Shelton

photo courtesy Big Joe Shelton

BJS:  My earliest songwriting influence was on the song “Catfish Ed” and Ed Reed was a local Country musician and I used to gravitate toward him and in some point in time I learned that a lot of the songs he was singing were original songs and it dawned on me that, you know, even to my young untrained ear they sounded as good of songs as any Jimmy Reed or Hank Williams song in the world and could make your hair stand on end, but he was also a creative artist and that kind of influenced me to start writing songs. About the mid ‘70’s or so, moving up to Chicago and in that area I started putting some lyrics together and I had a little bit of life experience under my belt and I just kind of started piddling with it and jotting things down and re-working them so one thing lead to another and I realized I could string a few words together. Another famous songwriter that is from Vernon, Alabama that is just right across the state line named Dan Penn was a big influence. Dan is a couple years older than me, but I met him years ago.  He used to come over here when he was a younger man to Columbus and there used to be a lot of clubs.

Lowndes County Mississippi was the only “Wet” county for a hundred mile radius and Dan used to come over here and hang with some of the older guys that I knew. So I was aware of his success when he started producing and writing some songs up at Stax and Muscle Shoals and that had an impact on my songwriting sensibilities as well. I am also a visual artist and have always recognized my creativity and been willing  and been willing to pursue it in where ever it led.

TNB: I think that helps you keep control of your career and what you are shooting for. What I see, is that your music can cross genres like Classic Country with what you are doing, you are writing “average guy” kind of lyrics. A guy who is happily married, but gets kind of feisty now and then. I mean your stories are about being appreciative of a good woman, things like that. It’s like what Country used to be. It was guy’s music, listened to by truck drivers, working guys…

BJS: This new record especially has a little more of that, especially with the new “Catfish Ed” song. It has a little more of a feel to that, more storytelling. Some of my earlier work was more “Whiskey and Women” kind of thing.  More of your classic blues canon of subject, I guess you would say, but, then again, I would also try to put humor in a lot of those things and then the older I get, as my last record was called The Older I Get The Better I Was , but, the older I get I grow more appreciative of what life has provided me and the place I am now in life, having someone that I can totally trust and rely on and understands me and encourages me to be the person that I am. That is invaluable to an Artist. Some Artists muses are negative and they thrive on, well, not thrive, but they have influences from maybe not happy situations. I have been there and done that too and have done music from that perspective and I probably will in the future I’m sure.  It’s nice to have such a positive kind of a thing, to come at it from that side too. You know, blues is not all about sorrow and such. There is a way of coping in life through blues too.

TNB: Very therapeutic in some respects.

BJS: Yeah, celebrating good things just as well as bad. I really do believe in my heart that is the way it works for me, to see all sides of it. One thing is if you just look at it from one view point it is going to narrow your scope and your options and the more receptive whatever the idea is surrounding you in your mind, it offers you more opportunities and more avenues kind of songs and music and such.

TNB: Any shows coming up?

BJS: Actually, October was the last big month. I have a few private things coming up, a benefit or two, but, nothing at the moment. As a matter of fact, you might want to put that I am starting to put my early spring schedule together if they would like to contact me.

 TNB: I guess “Frog’s Hair” [first track on new album] is some kind of traditional thing down there?

photo courtesy Big Joe Shelton

photo courtesy Big Joe Shelton

BJS: It’s like it’s as scarce as chicken’s feet. You know there is no such thing as chicken feet, but I guess it would be pretty slick to come across a frog with hair. It’s the same kind of thing.

–          Brad Hardisty, Nashvllle, TN     thenashvillebridgeathotmaildotcom