What did a young girl find in the blues which makes it a lifelong passion?
The music was filled with intense passion and spoke directly to what was in my heart.
Your guitar style is pretty unique how has that been shaped and changed over time?
I started out with folk and classical music when I was about 10 years old. When I was 12 my dad began playing Old Timey country fiddle, and I backed him up with a flat picking style made famous by the Carter Family. Around this time a number of the early blues masters were being rediscovered and brought through New York City. It was then that I switched almost entirely to blues, playing Mississippi Blues strumming/finger picking styles for years. Eventually I began experimenting with slide, which has now become my main focus.
Your family background meant you came into contact with roots music during a classic period, what are your abiding memories of that time?
That would be enough to fill several books, of which I have written at least the first one: “When A Woman Gets The Blues”, available on Amazon. It has a chapter dedicated to each blues master I met in person. We are working on a second edition now. However I can simply say that meeting and spending time with musicians like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Skip James, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Bukka White, was a powerful inspiration, formed a lasting impression, and taught me more about blues, its passion and delivery, than anything else that could have possible happened.
Early on you met and learned from some of the real blues masters. How did your trip to California and beyond change you?
It was all part of growing up, becoming independent, and establishing that music was going to be the main focus in my life. There has never been any confusion about this, and I never looked back. It has been music, largely blues, and nothing but music ever since.
The other day I came across a vinyl record by Stefan Grossman and you are on there as Aurora Block, what’s your recollection of the album?
After we recorded that album the record company decided that they wanted to find an angle, something beyond just the straight ahead performances of Country Blues, in order to appeal to audiences. Their thinking was that Country Blues (in 1965) was a rare and obscure musical form which they felt would be difficult to market, so they decided to make the album into an instructional album with tablature. At the time I had some notion that the music stood on its own and that we didn’t need “a catch” to present it to listeners, but the label prevailed- and thus, in some misguided protest, I think- I asked to be called Sunshine Kate. Now, years later, teaching is a major passion for me, so if I had to do it again I would have just used my regular name. My name has long since been changed back at my request, and I am perfectly happy that it is a teaching resource. I have even met/heard from a number of players who credit that album as getting them started as blues guitarists. Moreover I know some people named Kate that have added “Sunshine” to the front of their names as a result of this. I’m certainly glad to know this!
You did make a series of records that took your focus away from blues, RCA ,Chrysalis quite big labels, was it what they expected of you that strengthened your resolve to be your own artist?
I have never been too good at fitting into anyone else’s narrative, and finding myself being squeezed into a stylistic approach that wasn’t my first love never did sit well with me. I am an independent spirit always well outside the norm, never “on trend” particularly, so it has been my journey to live outside the box. This has worked for me at times, but mostly has meant I had to endure much longer, almost never being considered “commercial” until a Dutch Label, Munich Records, licensed and released one of my original songs: “Lovin’ Whiskey,” and made it into a gold record in the Netherlands. Not only did this change everything, but it made a statement that acoustic music, sparsely produced music, rootsy music and blues in particular, were becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Having said that the album on Blue Goose is kind of funky and rootsy.
In addition to roots blues I also loved Motown and soul singing. To my total amazement I got a review from Peter Guralnick comparing my singing to Curtis Mayfield. At that point I began to realize that forging my own path just might yield some recognition, and that it really was something to work for.
You soon signed to Rounder would it be fair to say your career became more satisfactory at that point?
From the moment of signing I asked them if I should give them a “radio-friendly” album, and they responded, “No, we don’t release singles anyway, just give us an album that you think is beautiful.” I couldn’t believe my good fortune! Finally, complete artistic freedom and a label which valued it. Some years later they also said “Don’t change, the charts are coming to you.” Nothing could have been more wonderful and encouraging for me as an artist, and it was around this time that Lovin’ Whiskey (a song that did not follow the accepted music business formula but was outside the box in many ways) became a hit overseas.
Of all the Rounder albums which one’s give you greatest satisfaction?
That’s a question I am often asked: “Which one is your favorite?” But it’s something I can never answer, because I love them all for different reasons. A recording is a slice of your life, and a window into your soul, and each one has an important place in your life.
You won a whole truck load of awards during the 90s that must have been satisfying. Would you have benefitted do you think from a bit more competition in that period?
There has always been competition, and there has never been a time when winning an award was easy. It’s always a big deal, and never anything to take for granted. I struggled for years to get any recognition at all, so I never viewed it as a given. I hardly even believed it when I heard I had won something. Some of these awards were for my songwriting, which was considered “Adult Contemporary”, always an area with strong competition.
Are you aware of being an artist that younger players look up to? If so what percentage are female?
I have been made aware, through letters and in person, that some consider what I do an inspiration. I have never assumed anyone would feel this way, so I just count it as a huge unexpected perk. The first time I heard something of this kind was at a show years ago where a woman told me that her musician friend wanted to be like me, complete with the long hair, the boots, the foot stomping, and throwing her head back while singing. I was in disbelief to think that anyone could admire my humble little self enough to want to emulate me. I wasn’t even aware that I threw my head back when I was performing. Son House always did that, so I must have absorbed it from him without realizing it. It just must have seemed like the way it was done. So yes, this is very touching. In fact I now have much more focus now on passing on whatever I can to the next generation as well as to my contemporaries, as I am more and more aware that there truly is a hunger to know more about the early music and the people who created it- i.e. Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and others. To whatever extent I can pass on my personal recollections of time spent in person with these musical giants, I feel inspired to do so.
How did you come to add your name to the Stony Plain roster?
My dear friend Maria Muldaur has always been a supportive presence in my life, someone I looked up to while growing up in Greenwich Village, and her advice to me has always been spot-on. She was the one who referred me to Stony Plain Records, which has now become a cherished home for me. They completely understand and value roots music, and they stand out as one of the very best labels supporting the music today. This is all part of the process by which I believe we will collectively make “alternative” music into “mainstream” music. Stony Plain is a leader in this field.
Was it the historical dominance of male blues players which made you want to delve into the untouched sphere of female blues musicians?
When I first immersed myself in blues in the 1960’s, women’s recordings were far more scarce than today, where we now have a treasure trove of reissues and collections appearing on youtube. There could be so many reasons for why it was once so scarce, not the least of which would have to be society’s disapproval for the idea of a woman leaving home, family and perhaps children, to live the life of a traveling blues singer, riding freight trains, appearing in speakeasies and bars, and essentially being completely untethered and independent. I have written much about this in my liner notes and spoken of it often in interviews. There were also many dangers that would have been unique to a woman traveling alone or even with a companion. So of course I want to help shine a light on the brave women who risked all to become professional singers, and even on some who never had the opportunity to create a career, but simply recorded a few terrific tracks and then disappeared into obscurity. Imagine what those same artists could have done if they had received the support from friends, facility and society. I want one of these women, who had to eventually give in to the pressures of society to fulfill the woman’s expected role and abandon the life of a touring artist- to look down from heaven and note that a song she recorded (a song that might have all but disappeared over the mists of time), was being sung and talked about lo these many years later. I want to inject these worthy names into the national consciousness, where they deserve to be.
Is it an easy thing to do or are a lot of these girls and their repertoires on the verge of being lost? I’d guess a lot of them are regional as well. Please tell us how you find the material.
When recording a tribute, my husband, engineer and coproducer Rob Davis and I search extensively for rare music. The internet has made this possible, and we spend days just listing and creating a wish list of wonderful songs. I eventually pare it down to the material which will sit the best side by side on one recording- encompassing different tempos, tunings, subjects, and keys.
Are there any particular stories about the artists that you uncovered?
Yes, of course- I learned about the tragic way in which Bessie Smith died, and also performed in a venue built directly over the jail cell where the teenaged Frankie Silvers (star of Mississippi John Hurt’s beautiful ballad “Frankie And Albert”), was held until she was hung for “murder,” something that would now very likely be considered self-defense. There are so many moving and wrenching stories behind the music and the artists, and there is no time like the present to discover and learn about them.
I’m guessing that like the male performers these ladies weren’t always saints. You seem to have had a lot of very positive reaction to this series of albums?
I think I tapped into a part of my own life that was ready to be accessed. At one point I realized that spending time with Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and others was a rare and fleeting moment in American history, and that I had the great fortune of being in the right place at the right time. I began to feel it would mean a lot to me to start documenting and celebrating the times and the music, and I think it has sparked a lot of interest. These tribute series have become a life’s mission for me. After dropping out of school before finishing the 10th grade and running away from home, this is essentially my Phd project, not from a University degree but from life. There appears to be a lot of interest in these projects, and I plan to keep going at least until I have completed six tributes in the “Power Woman of the Blues” series just as I have six tributes in the Mentor Series.
Why stop after a trio of recordings?
From the sleeve notes on Prove It On Me you are very protective and passionate of/about your subjects.
Have you ever thought of turning the project into a book?
This is an interesting idea. Somehow, some way, I think I could be talking about a Grant to do something that large and comprehensive. I have already starting looking around but haven’t made the right connection yet.
Tell us how you came to decide on some of the main tracks for PIOM.
I research thoroughly, then choose material for variety, subject, tempo, tuning, key, attitude… attitude is a big deal for me. I love a strong attitude. I call it the “Get over it!” message. That’s what I love about songs like “Prove It On Me.” No apology, just “This is the way it is!” Regarding attitude, another song that writers comment on is It’s Red Hot. The original is a smokin’ hot instrumental with off the cuff speaking, and well placed sassy remarks. But I kept hearing harmonies and hearing words like “cooks up chile, spicy beans and rice,” and “play that red hot pepper rag,” and “there’s nothin’ like this pepper that I got.” So I added that in to the song, and it’s interesting how many reviewers comment on those words and their attitude, without realizing that I wrote them.
Your album is a true solo effort from vocals to percussion is that the way you really like to work?
I call my solo productions “The Rory Block Band.” My first efforts were about singing my own harmonies, overdubbing layers with additional guitar tracks, then that led to tuning my guitar way down and recording bass parts, creating percussion tracks, and playing slide solos. The end result seems to hold together well, maybe the way harmonies blend from singers in the same family.
It’s a brilliant summation of the historical music played in a contemporary style, do you alter your writing so that it fits in thinking here of ‘Eagles,’ which you admit is pretty personal in more ways than one.
I rarely if ever have a plan when writing music, it’s just about what’s there in my head at the time. I had no idea if Eagles would fit in or not, but there have been a number of writers saying it is a seamless fit. I’m glad of course, but most likely it comes from being immersed in the music that I love for so long that the style nuances are simply a part of my musical vocabulary.
You’ve always gone down well in Europe, I recall seeing you play in England several times in the 80s and 90s, it was a time when roots and blues music was expanding its horizons into the mainstream over here. As an American who has been hand in hand with the blues for so long do you have a take on how audiences in different places react to performances?
Honestly, what I see is that people are the same around the world. Music belongs to everyone. There are cultures, trends, styles, and beliefs that differ, but ultimately we’re all from the same seed and we resonate with the same emotions.
I expect you’ll be out on the road first opportunity you get. You don’t seem to me like an artist who likes to be still for long.
As I write this we are still in quarantine due to Covid 19. Thus far all the tour dates from April, May and June are either cancelled or moved to August. As such we are now doing two House Concerts from home per week, broadcast on Facebook Live every Tuesday and Friday at 7:30 pm, Eastern Standard Time (United States time). After each live broadcast Rob posts the shows on social media and people continue to watch pretty much indefinitely. This has turned out to be a surprisingly real and intimate way to reach out to viewers around the world, and it doesn’t feel artificial or unreal. I find myself feeling incredibly grateful not to be forcibly separated from the fans but to have this way to connect that is a win-win for all of us.
That said let me end with an acknowledgment of the suffering and terrible loss that this pandemic has caused. I start each broadcast with a brief statement of why we are here, and that we know there is an unthinkable level of loss and grieving that has been endured, and will continue to be felt, by countless people around the globe. That said we know we gather to be strong, to comfort each other, and to add a spark of hope and even a little joy, when it is so deeply needed. We do it to send love.
Interview by Simon Jones