A Benefit to Being Poor: Playing Music that Almost No One Else is Playing, and Sounding Like No One Else is Sounding. Here’s Why…

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 8:55 AM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas
Tondeleo: One factor in the sound of many of the deeply rural musicians in America is that they are not in areas where they can get a clean radio signal, internet access is spotty at best, and they just don’t listen to new music.

For Doc and his friends and neighbors, hi speed internet is not even available. The more affluent ones have dial up, which means that YouTube and other media are basically non accessible.

What this means is that the musicians and singers who live in these outlying areas are playing only the songs they remember from their childhoods or ones they learned by hearing other musicians play them live. It keeps them from even knowing how the original recordings sounded.

Another factor is that they could not take real music lessons, so they just picked up the instruments and figured out how to play. Their instruments tend to be old and cheap, or home made. While the musicians from the middle class have nice instruments and equipment, the rural ones have the cheapest and the most improvised of equipment, and it gives them a unique sound. That is again, a disadvantage on one hand, and an advantage on the other.

Blues Festival 2Doc: Yeah, Tondy, you’re right about that. We cain’t generally pick up the radio out here. And when we do, we ain’t like what they’s playin.’ 

We don’t sound like any other bands and don’t play what any of ‘em is playin’ most of the time. That’s good for them and also good for us.

Then, we got cheap equipment and home made equipment which is more what the original players and singer used. What we play is poor people music, which is what all the originals was: poor.

We mostly play what we grew up with. Music we heard our daddies and mama’s playin’ and singin’. It’s old songs, but good ones, and for us they have all the memories of when mama and daddy was young. We like that music better.

And, no, we ain’t able to go into town to take music lessons for a half day’s wages for a half hour lesson. That is for office boys and their spoilt teenage kids. It takes us 45 minutes to just get to La Plata. That’s a lot of gas. Then a half hour lesson and then 45 minutes back. Plus they want to stand around and talk a little bit, which is ok, but it adds to the time away. 

And then they want you to learn how to read charts and notes while you’re playin’! We aint up to that! It is all I can do to play that dang thing, let alone be lookin’ a a book while doin’ it, and then tryin’ to sing. That ain’t happenin’.

We just stick to what we know. But that ain’t a bad thing. When we go out and play and there is other bands, we ain’t doin’ the songs that they do, so that makes them like us more.Blues Festival 1
A lot of places get us to play for that reason. Ain’t too many people playin’ and singin’ what we do. We ain’t do NOTHIN’ newer than maybe 1958. And we ain’t doin’ any of the rock and roll hits from back then. 

A lot of people like what we play, but can’t find nobody to play it. Another thing is we ain’t human jukeboxes. We ain’t heard the original records probally in 20 years, and Marilyn ain’t never heard ‘em. So we ain’t hittin’ anything like a note for note copy of the original. Some people like what they call our arrangements. We ain’t got arrangements – that’s just how we remember them, and sometimes we get it wrong.

We all are church folks – and we go to churches where the people really get into it. We jump around in church, Tondy! You been there. Well, when we do it on stage, people think it is good showmanship, but it is just how we do. 

Playin’ out on the streets is somethin’ a lot of musicians ain’t done, and that gives us a different kind of edge. SO I guess bein’ poor can help you if you’re into playin’ music.

But it all works out, and it makes us sound like we got an original sound, and we ain’t copyin’ nobody. Hey, even if we did, we couldn’t sound like nobody else! It’s hard enough for us to sound like us! 

Having a girl in the band helps… a lot. Get a Girl in Your Band.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012 7:53 AM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas
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Tondeleo: One thing that it doesn’t take long to find out is that it takes a fair bit of business sense to be able to live cheaply and survive well on very little money. That is true in the UK where I live as well as everyplace I have lived or traveled to in my life.

It’s no different in the States. There are MANY, many poor and needy people there. Some are newly poor, having lost their jobs because of downsizing, being laid of or the business where they worked closed down, due to the worldwide bad economy.

Then there are those who have been poor all of their lives. For them, even though they are used to poverty, it is tougher when there is less money floating around amongst the middle class. So they have to hustle more, and find more ways to maximize their meager resources.

Doc: Yeah, Tondy, it’s definitely tougher out there. Use to be, we could make enough money by hustling a few odd jobs, doin’ a little body work and playin’ in the streets for tips. But now we gotta step it up a notch. We’re havin’ to hustle more gigs so we can keep the lights on.

One thing that helps is having Marilyn in the band. Heck, we didn’t use to have to have a band! Money was flowin’ enough I could make it on my own. Now we gotta have a band! Imagine that!
It takes a handful of us to get decent gigs. Havin’ Marilyn is a big help, too.

Tondeleo: Why exactly is that, Doc?

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Doc: Well, first off, she’s easier to look at than the rest of us. Ain’t nobody want to LOOK at a bunch of old guys playin’ music! They hear us and want to LISTEN, but they ain’t wanna look! But with Marilyn, bein’ a girl and all that, they wanna look. And if they look, they will stay an’ listen.

Another thing is it makes us look not so rough. We are not a pretty bunch of guys. We ain’t those little skinny boys with pretty hair and nice shiny instruments. We is all workin’ men and none of us is pretty and none of our instruments is shiny and pretty. We gotta have SOMETHIN’ that looks good!

And then there is this, Tondy. It means we can sing more songs. Like, I can sing “Stand By Your Man,” but it’s kinda creepy if you think about it. Well, not really, cause the words ain’t about ME standin’ by my man, it is just about a woman needs to stand by her man, but you get the idea. When MARILYN sings “Stand By Your Man,” it’s a different story. She sings it like she means it, and she belts it out way prettier than I do.
Same with “Your Squaw is on the Warpath.” That’s a old Loretta Lynn song about her husband cheatin’ on her an’ then comin’ home drunk and wantin’ more of what he’s already had. Well, I ain’t singin’ THAT one! But Marilyn can. They’s a lot of songs what is better with a girl singin’ them. She does “Your Cheatin’ Heart” better.And a lot of the Patsy Cline songs better, like “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

It works better for back up singin’ as well to have a girl voice in there. An’ Marilyn plays harp and flute what she learnt at school band and a little bass guitar if we need it. Mostly when I am playin’ bottleneck.

Havin’ it not be all white people is good, too. That adds a little flavor to it. We always been a mixed band, and that helps a lot. We all grew up poor and moving around from place to place, and we all learnt from blacks and whites when we was growin’ up. Now when it all comes together, it is better. We always had a black drummer. We got Welch Simmons from Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. We also got K.I. who comes from up to Pittsburgh. He pays drums, sax and is good on bass, too.

On lead guitar we got Buttermilk Wade who looks like a black man but is Asiatic. Least he tells people that. You can ask him if he is really from the far east, and he will tell you his people is from Eastern North Carolina, and if you go any further east than that, you will drop off in the ocean, so what can I say?

Back to havin’ a girl, it just adds somethin’ jse_P1170312good to the group that ain’t there when it’s just the men. The ladies don’t think we’re as scary. They stand around more and listen, and the men stand around more, too. 

The old ladies like her and I think they kind of feel sorry for her with all these old men, so they take her under their wings. They sing along more when she is singin’. That makes it a better show, too. Helps to have a girl. If you ever get a band, Tondy, get a girl in it. Helps a lot.

Doc’s 51 Chevy Panel Truck Gets to Park by the Nice Cars at the Mini Car Show

Monday, August 20, 2012 11:50 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas
Tondeleo: Doc was so very excited that at the mini car show at the party he and the band played at last weekend, no one made fun of his car. He is self conscious about the old paint and faded lettering on it. It looks fine when he is at home and among other rural people, but when he takes it to the suburbs or the city, people point at it, and sometimes they take pictures of it, and he is not certain what to do.jse_P1170243
Doc: Tondy, those people at that party was first class. Like I told you, I was gonna park my poor old truck back in the back after we got it unloaded, but the man whose house it was came out and told me I could park it right out there in the same line as the nice cars and hot rods that was bein’ shown off there.

I could not believe it! There was all kinds of cars that you could tell was big money. All of ‘em was well built, and looked good inside an’ out. Shiny rims, good chrome, and motors that you could eat off of, if they didn’t mind you getting’ a little ketchup or barbecue sauce on ‘em. But my Chevy Panel truck looks like somebody already got ketchup and barbecue sauce on it. Well, somebody DID get ketchup and barbecue sauce on it.

They was a silver ‘53 Studebaker, and a couple ‘48 Chevys what sat right on the ground. A ‘36 or ‘37 Chevy, a 55 or ‘56 Plymouth, a 32 Ford… I can’t remember them all. But they was all beautiful.And had good paint on ‘em too!

jse_P1170228And then there was my poor old Chevy panel truck! It was dirty and dusty, and the motor ain’t never been cleaned and it ain’t never been waxed, neither! 

But they let me sit it out there just the same! And the other guys what had nice cars came over and talked to me about it, just like I was their equal!

One guy even could tell I need a new radiator! He could tell just by lookin’! That radiator what is in it is from about 1955, and is getting’ green on it here and there. That’s how he said he could tell. He said I need a ‘luminum one and it would run more than $500! Well, guess who AIN’T gonna be able to get a new ‘luminum radiator? I’ll give you one guess, and his name is none other than Doc Stevens!

Sometimes Home Made Guitars and Old Equipment are the Best Ticket for Respect.

11:34 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas
Tondeleo: It has been a few months since I have been able to post a blog for Doc. I have been busy with work and travel. 

Last week, I was able to get a few days in the Washington, DC area, and visited Doc and Marilyn. As you may know, Marilyn got married last September to David, and they moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Fortunately, she was visiting Doc when I was there for a few days.

Doc: Tondy, we just played a few jobs where there was people with a lot of money and nice cars and they was real nice to us. 

One was a lady’s 80th birthday party. Her grown kids threw it for her. They had a car show at it and everything. When we pulled up in my old Chevy panel truck, I saw all those nice cars with pretty paint and shiny rims and chromed out motors and thought, “Uh oh. They are gonna make me park out in the back!”

But once we got all the ‘quipment outta the back, the guy whose house it was asked me to park my old truck right out there with all those nice hot rods! I was really surprised, cause this truck ain’t never been waxed and only washed maybe twice in the last couple of years. But he let me pull it right out there in the line with the nice cars! And people took pictures of it, just like they did the other cars!

jse_P1170285Then when we was settin’ up, I found out there was a good handful of guitar players and musicians there, too! All I had brung with me was the homemade guitars. I don’t know why. I brung my two favorites, which I made a long time ago, and two smaller ones what I keep in the truck. You need smaller guitars when you’re playing out on the streets, or travelin’. You ain’t got room for full size ones. 

It’s cheapest just to make ‘em yourself outta old parts and boxes. I keep the one what is made from a tackle box in regular tuning and the other little one in a open tuning for slide guitar and blues. The lady who lived there took pictures and sent them to us in a e-letter. 

I figured those guys with all that money was gonna laugh us off the property when they saw those old home made guitars what was made outta trash. But NO! They was real nice about it. People was even takin’ pictures of ‘em. That made me feel real good.
jse_P1170304We had Marilyn down for the weekend, and Buttermilk Wade was on the lead guitar, and Lump was on the harp and K.I. on the drums. That is pretty much our line up these days. We are lucky to have a good handful of musicians to pick from and who can be available. 

The people there was real nice and it was a good party and we all ate a lot of food. They had a little bit of everything there. Nobody got too drunk, and there was no fightin’ which is always a mark of a classy party.

But we was all amazed that people kept asking about those guitars and takin’ pictures! Well, I know this: If we’d had nice guitars and good equipment, and nice clothes, ain’t nobobdy woulda been takin’ pictures!

Oh yeah – the other thing is that when they see those crappy looking guitars and old amps, they figure we’re gonna sound like garbage. So when we don’t sound like garbage, they all are surprised and then they think we are good. Those guitars sound GOOD though, Tondy, they was just cheap to make, that’s all.