My pal MikeWindy wrote an article about me and this blog for Jacksonville, Florida arts/politics/etc mag The Folio Weekly. Thanks for all the kind words from the folks in the article and from you, our viewers at home. This thing has been a slave labour of free love for around ten years now and it's been cool to see it grow. Now I know how Sally Field felt. Thanks y'all.
Rick Saunders wants to move you to explore the real thing
Written by mikewindy
Published August 14, 2012
I first met Rick Saunders while teaching a sculpture class at Flagler College. He wasn’t a student or lowly adjunct, like me, but a full-time employee, a security guard. I had attended six different colleges before I got my degree and have worked for three others since, but I never met any other security guards like Rick. It wasn’t just his pierced ears, stylish haircut or cool tattoos that made him stand out, but rather the conversations we had whenever we’d run into each other on campus. I soon found out that music was his hobby, and immediately after that, found out I was way out of my league in discussing music with him. I’d always have to look someone up online that he’d tell me about, usually finding what I needed on his blog realdeepblues.blogspot.com. Wasn’t I supposed to be the teacher? Lucky for me, I was getting paid by Flagler to teach sculpture and getting a minor in Deep Blues from one of the foremost experts of the scene.
Sometime in 2010, I was at an art event at the Hastings library, talking with James Quine. I brought up Rick Saunders. “Oh, yeah, he’s been online writing about music since you could be online writing about music, it seems,” Quine said. I told him I thought his blog was very cool and that Rick was really onto something. He mentioned that Rick had been an early supporter of his nephew, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. “Rick wrote the liner notes for Dan’s pre-Black Keys band, the Barn Burners.” I was dumbstruck. I had read about them on Rick’s blog and noticed Rick was 10 years ahead of most of us in realizing Auerbach’s talent.
By this time, I was no longer at Flagler and didn’t see Rick. I ran into his wife Leslie Robison who teaches art at Flagler and whom he calls “the smartest person I know” (she’s high up on my list, as well). I asked her, and she said flatly, “He won’t say it, but Rick’s kind of a big deal.”
Mark “Porkchop” Holder, one of the musicians Rick champions, said the blues is a religion and some regard Rick the way many churchgoers do their preachers. With reverence and awe. Which he in turn deflects right back on them like any preacher should.
More than anything, he is interested in musicians who go for it and lay it on the line. By “it,” I mean themselves, good or bad, but preferably both. He doesn’t click “play” to hear a song so much as to be moved by it. He talks a lot about being moved. If a song doesn’t move him, he’s not too interested. It took him a while to come to the blues because of that.
“The blues always eluded me. I rarely heard anything that didn’t seem precious/antique and important for its time but didn’t move me today,” Rick said. “Emotional content is pretty much paramount for me. Then one day, I read a small review in Seattle’s late Rocket Magazine of a Junior Kimbrough album called ‘Sad Days and Lonely Nights.’ I’m a big fan of really miserable sad music. The sadder it is, the happier I am. That was all she wrote. That album finally opened the door for me.”
So Rick, who’s 51, decided to open that door for others. He is the quintessential teacher. He doesn’t just write about a band on his blog; he posts videos, links to their Bandcamp.com downloads, interviews they’ve done on other blogs — anything he can think of to get you to check them out. He said he wants to be a one-stop shop for those who might not have the time to search out certain music. Since Rick and his wife moved to St. Augustine, had kids and Rick started working nights at Flagler, she said he doesn’t know a lot of people in town. But in other towns they’ve lived in, she said, he was always the guy most likely to hand you a mixed tape of music that may have come up in a previous conversation.
“He really wants people that he thinks are up to the same thing to connect,” she said. “I think that’s why he started the blog. He couldn’t just turn that off. It just so happens that now he’s connecting people all over the United States and the rest of the world.”
April Fecca, who founded and writes for the excellent music blog Now This Sound Is Brave (nowthissound.com), considers Rick a mentor. “Rick is definitely a hub, a connector,” Fecca said. “My music library and my list of friends/contacts have tripled since I met Rick. He believes that people are here on Earth to serve each other, and this is one way he puts that belief into practice.”
And so there is Rick’s practice. Culling through the Internet for things that move him. Emailing friends and posting on other blogs. Listening to CDs or watching documentaries labels have sent him. Laboring over the writing of a post. “It’s so hard, since most of the folks sending me stuff I’m friends with, so I really obsess over what I write,” Rick said. “I want the writing to be as good as what I’m writing about, so people will take the next step and take a look or listen.”
“Rick is always one of the first people I send our releases to,” said Jeff Konkel of Broke & Hungry Records (brokeandhungryrecords.com). “His endorsement of a record is incredibly valuable to a label like mine. He’s passionate about music, but he’s not prone to over-hyping a record. He just writes in an honest, plainspoken way that readers respond to. I’ve made some crucial connections through Rick that have helped my business and the artists I represent.”
Roger Stolle of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art (cathead.biz) in Clarksdale, Miss., can’t say enough good things about Rick, but tried in our email exchanges. “Rick Saunders ‘gets it.’ He understands the difference between culturally connected traditional blues and the more pop-connected mainstream stuff. I appreciate the fact that his Real Deep Blues blog is truth in advertising. He’s not just talking the talk; he’s walking the walk. Real deep (i.e., “real-deal” or, dare I say, authentic?) blues is a niche within a niche with a cult following. It is a historically relevant sub-genre that deserves promotion just as much as the more modern blues-rockers and soul-blues purveyors. This is a music without a publicist and often ignored by big-time media.”
“Without the efforts of knowledgeable and enthusiastic folks like Rick, fewer would know of this obscure but important blues music and culture,” Stolle wrote. “It takes a village to spread this word. Rick is mayor of one such village.”
Quine, a community advocate and photographer, is also an excellent musician who played on his nephew Auerbach’s first solo effort, “Keep it Hid.” He called Rick a pioneer.
“Rick is a music blog pioneer who helped inspire a whole movement and turned a lot of people on to real American music. You have to give him a lot of credit for that. He’s your classic man with a mission.”
It’s a mission that unites with Rick with others. The incredible slide guitar virtuoso throwback entertainer Ted Drozdowski of the blues duo Scissormen said he and Rick were brothers in a cause to bring real blues to the people. Deep Blues is the same to Drozdowski as it is to Rick: Music with real feelings that’s alive and well right now. Drozdowski said that the gatekeepers of blues want musicians to fit in this really small idea of what the blues are. “Antique, precious or super-slick,” as Rick says. There’s a line in the Scissormen’s “My Own Big Shoes” that says, “The blues ain’t dipped in amber.” It’s meant to move and be stretched by new ideas.
Aaron Frazer, of the band Charlie Patton’s War, stumbled on Rick’s site while searching for a certain kind of blues he wasn’t sure still existed. It does; he found it on the blog. “Rick’s blog in some ways restored my faith in blues, to see people still playing the blues, pushing its boundaries.”
Like many others, Charlie Patton’s War has benefited from exposure on Real Deep Blues. Frazer said on Bandcamp.com that a large number of folks who get to the two albums available for free download are getting there by way of Real Deep Blues. Rick put the band in touch with Chris Johnson, organizer of the Deep Blues Festival in Bayport, Minn., and Charlie Patton’s War was on the June 2012 festival roster.
Did I mention there is a festival named after Rick’s blog?
In 2007, Chris Johnson, whom Matt Latcham of the U.K. band Mudlow called an “avaricious fan of this new wave of blues music,” decided to have a festival. He asked Rick to help pick the line-up for the first year, and for permission to use the Deep Blues moniker. Rick obliged on both accounts.
There seems to be a real feeling of camaraderie among bands Rick and Chris support. “I think blues music is about where it’s coming from as opposed to a chord progression,” Frazer said.
Rick uses this metaphor: “It’s the difference between going into a thrift store and an antique store. If you’re looking for something cool and go into an antique store that smells like potpourri, you may as well turn around and walk out. If it doesn’t stink, it’s probably not good! I want something with a little rust on it. Something that’s been used, not all polished.”
You’ll find rusty gem after rusty gem of videos on Rick’s blog. Bob Log III in his crazy helmet mic, shaky VHS videos of R.L. Burnside or Robert “Wolfman” Belfour with T-Model Ford’s 9-year-old grandson Stud playing Johnny Lowebow’s drums. All of these artists, save Stud, are or have been on Fat Possum Records, which Rick and everyone else points to as the beginning of deep blues or “blues-infected” music. If you find yourself drawn to the music on Rick’s blog, you’ll make your way to most of the artists on Fat Possum’s roster.
From time to time, Rick intentionally writes posts about artists who don’t even fit his loose parameters of what the blues are.
“I know I’m pushing the envelope of what people consider the blues, but it’s my blues. You can have yours and I can have mine,” Rick said. “I’m interested in ideas and may even post about something I don’t fully believe in 100 percent, but I may kinda like what these guys are doing.”
Someone less comfortable in his own skin would never push a stick into his own spokes on purpose, but here’s how he gets everyone to buy into his blues: He can write. It sneaks up on you when you’re reading his blog, because he’s reposting a lot of other people’s work, but over time, you recognize what’s his and it hits you like a Mudlow song.
After meeting Rick on the Too Bad Jim Yahoo discussion group, Mudlow’s Latcham sent Rick some of their recordings. “It was great to hear someone describe our music so accurately,” Latcham said. He’s written liner notes for two Mudlow albums since, including their 2012 release, “Sawyer’s Hope.” I read the second one to my wife, and after a long stunned pause, she said, “That’s gorgeous.”
His writing is like a good rant; it reads like it’s pouring out of him in real time. But he agonizes over every bit of it. That’s a hard thing to do in any field — to make hard work seem easy. It’s why people think great plumbers are ripping them off.
Drozdowski was one of the first music writers on the national scene who was publishing articles in Boston and Denver in the early 2000s about the new breed of Fat Possum blues artists. He’s been published in Rolling Stone and Guitar Player, blogged for Gibson Guitars and recently wrote the book notes for Freddie King’s 2012 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He breaks Rick’s writing down the way only a professional music writer can. “Many people can’t write about what music sounds like. Rick, like Robert Palmer, is good at translating the aural into the emotional.”
Not the “Simply Irresistible” Robert Palmer; the musicologist and clarinetist who wrote the book “Deep Blues,” which, along with its accompanying documentary, Rick Saunders cites as extremely influential.
Palmer described a set by Otis Rush, performed in the late 1970s in a small bar on Chicago’s North Side: “That night at the Wise Fools, during one 40-minute set, Otis focused all his extraordinary talents. His grainy, gospelish singing carried the weight of so much passion and frustration, it sounded like the words were being torn from his throat, and his guitar playing hit heights I didn’t think any musician was capable of — notes bent and twisted so delicately and immaculately, they seemed to form actual words, phrases that cascaded up the neck, hung suspended over the rhythm, and fell suddenly, bunching at the bottom in anguished paroxysms.
“The performance, if you could call it that, was shattering and uplifting all at once, the way the blues is supposed to be. I had heard bluesmen play and sing with comparable intensity and technique, but Otis Rush had something else — an ear for the finest pitch shadings and the ability to execute them on the guitar, not as mere effects, but as meaningful components in a personal vocabulary, a musical language. He was playing Deep Blues.”
This is the bar that Rick feels obliged to reach.
One key to great music writers is that many are good musicians as well. Drozdowski and his band have gigged all over the U.S., including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Palmer played clarinet on “Silver and Gold” with Bono in 1985. Rick’s been a drummer since around age 6. He’s played in lots of bands, but hasn’t played regularly since having kids and working nights.
He does, however, play the occasional gig or sits in when invited, like with Mudlow in St. Paul. “We asked him to join in on maracas and he eagerly accepted,” Latcham said. “As an accomplished drummer, we knew he wouldn’t let us down! It felt so right to share that with Rick, and it remains a highlight of our trip to the States for me.”
Rick also played with Chris Cotton at the 2007 inaugural Deep Blues Festival. In the handful of videos of this set available online, Rick’s drumming speaks for itself. But Rick has written a lot about Cotton. In his June 2008 post “Chris Cotton: The Man Who W/S/Could be King or How You Can Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Chris Cotton,” he tears into the blues tastemakers, calling them “the clutch of dudes who care more about what gauge of strings their god Robert Johnson used on ‘Terraplane [Blues]’ than they do about being moved.” Ultimately, he puts the responsibility in the listeners’ ears: “Cotton would, should, could be king. His coronation is up to you.”
This may be the biggest lesson of Rick’s blog: We should take back the responsibility of developing our own taste. Don’t filter it through someone else’s ideas to make sure it fits our personality or meshes appropriately with our existing playlists, politics or religious beliefs. Define our own blues.
Ron Thomas Smith (aka CuzN Wildweed), who is finishing a documentary on Hasil Adkins called “My Blue Star,” summed up Rick and his blog: “His blog and other online posts have been heavily responsible for pulling the Deep Blues family of artists and fans together and keeping us connected. Rick is a tireless promoter of music and an insightful writer in the merging genres of Blues and Punk Rock. Rick is also an amazing musician himself, which is why he has such a deep love and understanding of music and what it takes to make it. He doesn’t just talk it. He walks it. Rick Saunders is the real thing! I love and respect the man and I’d whup anybody’s ass that said anything bad about him!”
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