09 September 2013

Come On In :: An Interview With OLD GRAY MULE's CR HUMPHREY

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I've told y'all about Old Gray Mule a bunch of times over the last few years. With good reason. They are one of the top outfits in the country that is carrying the sound of north Mississippi hill country funky, droney blues into the future. They do it with honor, getting their R.L. Burnside groove on, or that T-Model Ford rollin' tumble...they get up on it and give it a little Texas blues spankin'. Make it step right. 

This is Texas roadhouse / Mississippi juke joint music, but done Today. It's the sound you imagine you might hear down at that barbeque joint next to the guy selling sneakers, boots and sweet Georgia peaches all day out of the back of his Ranger. 

Y'all go sit down on a stained bench, eat a rib or some tamales and get comfortable with Old Gray Mule. Maybe you got an iced down Victoria or an ass pocket of whiskey. Just lean back and listen to the one you love, she's dancing in the dirt under the streetlights. As the midnight train rolls by OGM plays on.

Old Gray Mule is CR Humphrey on the guitar, from Lockhart, Texas located south of Austin and east of San Marco and New Branfels. He's joined by the drummer JJ Wilburn, a Memphis native who got his start playing with the masters of north Mississippi blues. Charlie was nice enough to sit down over a couple mornings and tell me how it's hanging :: 


Rick Saunders :: Ok CR, I got Pandora playing the Junior Kimbrough station...first song (perfectly enough) : Burn In Hell. Hey Charlie- Come on in!

CR Humphrey :: 
I've got Too Bad Jim in the background here so I'd say we're set!

RS :: 
So How's a kid from Lockhart, Tx aka The Barbeque Capitol of Texas come to play the raw dirty groove based sub-genre of blues from North Mississippi?

CR :: 
Well, I was actually born in Austin...lived in Houston, Georgia, Louisiana, Arizona, Arkansas, Oregon, Kenya for a winter and Malta for a winter...I just ended up in Lockhart. But I got interested in groove based blues fairly early on...the John Lee Hooker scene in Blues Brothers back in the early 80's, plus I had a teacher who showed the Lomax movie Land Where The Blues Began during black history month I guess in 4th, 5th , or 6th grade. I had no idea who any of those people were and didn't rediscover them for a long while. But my first LIVE experience of all that was one of the Juke Joint Caravans at the Rhythm Room in Phoenix...T-Model and Spam, Paul Wine Jones with Cedric Burnside, and Kenny Brown with Cedric...I think it was in 2005. Didn't see any of it live again until 2009 when Cedric and Lightnin' came through Austin and that nailed it DOWN for me.

RS :: You've got a seriously deep knowledge of the funk and what can questionably be called "world music" aka music from the rest of the world. How old were you when you went to Kenya and Malta and how do you think that influenced your musical taste and your playing?

CR :: 
I guess I got lucky...my mom was a music major in college and we had dozens and dozens of instruments laying around the house....from the piano to trombone to bassoon to flutes, concertinas and guitars and everything in between. She was a music lover and no real follower of one style or another and I ended up the same. I realized after high school that there were only two kinds of music: Good and Bad. And the bad music all seemed to involve being constructed for commercial purposes and had therefore been bleached of soul and feeling in pursuit of fame, dollars, or trend. 

My family also traveled a lot when I was younger. We went to mexico 2-3 times a year there for a while, when I flew air freight I was all over the Caribbean and central America from Mex on down to Nicaragua. I heard some DAMN good music in all those places. When we went to Kenya I was 28 or so and I first heard soukous there which is a very positive, happy, repetitive style. Also heard Tanzanian hip hop which back then was called Bongo Flava. Discovered Lebanese hip hop on a trip to Zanzibar during ramadan. Just got lucky with that stuff I guess. I love funk and funk is in everything good.

RS :: Your mom is an actor as well, right? She's had small parts in a few films. It sounds like your folks raised you to be curious and inquisitive.
How old were you when you started to play guitar?

CR :: She's been a few movies...she's in Bernie and has a few scenes with Jack Black and Shirley Maclain, she was in an animated movie called Waking Life as a tango dancer. My folks did leave me to my devices and since we didn't have a TV I had to entertain myself. My oldest friend David O'Hearn (who is on the new album playing bass on Lyrics By J-Dub) showed me how to play the first lick from Purple Haze when we were 12 and that was all she wrote.

RS :: Do you play any other instruments or is the guitar it for you?

CR :: 
I'll play anything with strings, but right now that's guitar and bass. Have a beat up old Slingerland kit and Cedric gave me a couple lessons but I haven't gotten to where I'll play in public...or in front of anyone for that matter.

RS :: 
Speaking of drums, you've had sort of a revolving door when it comes to drummers. How'd you hook up with JJ Wilburn? Isnt this like a long distance relationship you two are having? The drummers you've had before have been great but y'all seem to have a real tight musical connection with him.Tell us about Mr. Wilburn.  

CR :: JJ is the damn BOMB! I met him June of '12 when he came through playing drums with Lightnin' Malcolm. Through a series of circumstances involving big dogs, pretty ladies, and a huge snake...he ended up staying at my house a few days. Well, my kids adopted him and the feeling was mutual and by the time he left he was part of family and I don't mean that as an expression. Anyhow I asked him to play drums on a couple tracks on Like A Apple and they sounded awesome, and it was purely intuitive, he'd never heard them prior to pushing the record button. So when the offer to tour Australia again came up, I asked if he'd be interested in going with me. 

So we hooked up for our first gig the Saturday night of Juke Joint Festival at Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale and with no rehearsal whatsoever we played an hour and a half set opening for Lightnin Malcolm and Stud. We just click. He's my favorite kind of drummer...a church drummer. He's inventive as hell, intuitive as hell, and a fine human being to boot. We keep it loose but tight at the same time I b'lieve. JJ grew up in Memphis playing drums in his dad's church from the age of 8. JJ's great uncle was Isaac Hayes. JJ's mother was Hayes' niece.

RS :: So it's in him. Where does JJ live? Whats his base? Where's he from?

CR :: He was born and raised in Memphis. When I met him he was living in Hickory Flat, MS with one of Junior's granddaughters. They moved to Potts Camp, MS (where Kenny Brown and Robert Kimbrough live) earlier this year when we were playing Juke Joint Festival back in the spring. He's now split from her and lives north side of NOLA in Covington, Louisiana and it's a DAMN good move for him, plus he's only 7 hours away now instead of 14.

RS :: And tell the nice folks who he's played with.

CR :: David Kimbrough, Robert Kimbrough, T Model, Duwayne Burnside, Garry Burnside, Watermelon Slim, Kenny Brown, Ralph Wallace (unknown Holly Springs badass oldtimer player who passed) Lightnin' Malcolm, Robert Belfour, RL Boyce, Sharde Thomas, etc etc etc and Duck Holmes, of course. 

Here's JJ Wilburn w/ DuWayne Burnside and Kenny Brown:: 

RS :: I see. So you prefer to play with amatuers.

CR :: HA! Yeah man, amateur! Shiiiiiit man, I never met a better drummer and person. He can play Burnside beats, he can play Kimbrough beats, but they cant play Wilburn beats...I'm lucky as hell and proud as hell that he plays music with me.

RS :: Magic. That's the beauty of music, that immediate connection, and if you can connect enough to converse...to LiSTEN...you're bound to make something really special.

How'd Old Gray Mule's Australia connection come about? It seems like you've toured there every year for as long as I've been following you.

CR :: That's it man, and he can TALK with those drums! He's the most dynamic player I've played with and that's not knockin' Cedric or Kinney who are masters at what they do, but I believe JJ is the master of what HE does. 

The first three albums were released through a not-for-profit indie label based in Adelaide and we were brought down in 2011 to play the Backwater Blues Festival and were hooked up with a tour by Chris Russell of Chris Russell's Chicken Walk. If it weren't for him we wouldn't have had near as much exposure down there. We're headed back under this time for the Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival followed by a month long tour with Chris again!

RS :: That label is Stobie Sound? How did you happen to connect with them? And isnt not-for-profit indie label an oxymoron? Any plan to record with Chris Russell? Y'all sound wicked together.

CR :: Nah a not-for-profit indie label is truth in advertising! And yep that was Stobie Sounds. It's weird man, somehow Stobie, CW Ayon, Mississippi Gabe Carter and I all stumbled on each other at the same time through the damn'd interwebs when Stobie was making a tribute album to Big Joe Williams. Coop and Gabe were both on it and I wasn't . As for recording with Chris, it's an inevitability, but I have no idea when. Our tour schedule in Oz this November is looking very very busy. We're hitting all states but Northern Territory and Queensland this time, even heading down to Tasmania so I doubt we'll have the time to hit the studio unless it's one of those miracles....which seem to happen fairly regularly. Fingers crossed man.

RS :: How's playing Australia compared to Austin, or The Shack-Up Inn? Do you find that people are people or...? 

CR :: Oh there is NO comparison man! The Aussies are awesome. They show up early, pack the place out, go nuts, buy merch, and enjoy themselves! It's like America pre internet when folks still went out and had fun. Shack Up is like that too, especially during JJF.

RS :: Tell us about your set up. Do you use a few different guitars set up/tuned differently or are you a one guitar guy? What about amps? Do you use pedals? How long did it take you to arrive at the sound you were looking for?

CR :: I use two guitars. One is tuned standard but dropped a whole step to D, and one 5 string tuned to Open F. You'd have to pry both of them from my cold dead hands too man, I'm never letting go of either! One of 'em is a Frankencaster I put together out of parts and the other is my yellow Squier. I love cheap guitars because they're hard for crackheads to pawn! As for amps, in the States I play a late 70's Bassman Ten which is a violently clean amp and I have to use pedals with it to get it to drive. Down Under I have a 64 Bassman head that's been stuffed into a Fender Princeton cabinet so it's a single twelve combo. 

As for pedals, I have my overdrive, a univibe and an octave pedal to get the low end. And it took FOREVER to find my sound, but I've got it now, I'm happy with it and feel like it is adaptable to a variety of styles. Malcolm and I have been trading sound ideas back and forth for awhile and I have some stuff he suggested and he has some stuff I suggested...pretty cool to have a peer to share guitar secrets with.

RS :: You've worked with Lightnin' Malcolm, Cedric Burnside, the sons of Junior Kimbrough. How did you get together with them? And will you be doing another Junior Kimbrough birthday party this year?

CR :: Lightnin' and Cedric I met by going to every show they played in Austin. I met David Kimbrough when we brought him, and his brother Kinney down to play TC's in Austin with us at our first album launch...still our best Austin show too. We did two Junior Kimbrough birthday parties but when TC's shut down, the vibe just wasn't there in Austin anymore so we quit after two. Wish we could throw em every year, but haven't found a place in Austin that feels right. Plus David lives in AR now, and Kinney is in MS so logistically it's difficult as well.

RS :: Kinney played drums on one of your last albums, too. How do you approach a new album? Do you record songs all in one go, or when you feel you've got something ready? Also, you had some drama occur while finishing the new album, No Sleep 'til Memphis. What happened?

CR :: Kinney played on the second album "40 Nickels For A Bag Of Chips". No two recording projects have been the same so far in terms of planning or execution. Since I haven't had a drummer who was permanent (until JJ Wilburn) it was largely dependent on who was available and how broke I was. The album w/ Kinney was recorded in less than 2 hours, Like A Apple was recorded over the course of about 5 months whenever folks were coming through town. 

This last one No Sleep was recorded in the middle room at my house so we wouldn't feel rushed, but we got rushed anyway And yeah there was some drama during post production which has NEVER happened before basically involving the complete mental meltdown of the guy who was mixing it. Ultimately my oldest friend and his brother were able to salvage some rough mixes from the session, and I combined them with two tracks we recorded in Leland, MS with Jimmy Duck Holmes and an unreleased track from Like A Apple in order to have enough to release for this upcoming Oz tour.

RS :: What was it like recording with Mr. Holmes? How did you arrange it so far as meeting him and getting him to play with y'all? The track Howlin' that you did with him is such a standout on an album of standouts. It's one of my favorite tracks that he's done as well.

CR :: Yeah man, that's one of those miracles I was talking about that seem to keep happenin'. I met Duck when he came to Austin for SXSW in 2011. Coop and I were his roadies and he offered us a chance to play at The Blue Front. So we played with him there in Bentonia, MS the Friday night of Juke Joint Festival, and our paths crossed a few more times in between. JJ and I had a three night run at Shack Up with Lightnin' and Stud this past June and I asked Duck if he'd be interested in recording a couple tracks with us and he suggested we meet up at Studio 61 in Leland

It's another of those things where folks just click. We recorded 3 tracks, all of 'em improvised, with Howlin' being phenomenal. It was very hard to listen to that song the next day and realize it had been recorded the day before, it sounds so ancient. Duck came down to Austin to play Antone's with us for the CD launch party and damn if we didn't end up being his band for the night. Improvised our way through a two hour set and it looks like we'll be doing more of that after we get home from Australia in Dec.

RS :: It does sound ancient...yet modern at the same time. Timeless. IT's like T-Model said, "Like a apple on a tree, hangin'."

So let's talk influences. Have you always played strictly "blues" (whatever that is) or did you start out on the rock? You don't seem to be a strict blues purist by any means, and that shows on the new album with tracks like the groovy blues atmospherics of Rose Laccoon, and the raps on My Lyin' Ass.

CR :: Naw, not at all. I've played everything except modern country at one point or another. Not necessarily played it all live, but EVERYTHING has been played at my house. But real down home old school blues and black power era funk always seem to end up in whatever I'm playing. Gotta say though in the interest of full disclosure I am a "strict blues nazi purist" when it comes to MY definition of what blues is, and what hill country blues is more specifically, but usually just keep that to myself (and edge out the back of the club when what's going on up there doesn't match up).

So for my style of music in Old Gray Mule you have the usual suspects of RL, Jr, Wine Jones, T-Model and Spam era T-Model, plus some Tinariwen style west African drone, P-Funk, Bootsy, old school hand clap foot stomp gospel, and the guys who broke me into the whole genre Cedric Burnside and Lightnin Malcolm.

RS :: 
What is your definition of what the blues is?

CR :: Here's one of my favorite Kinney Kimbrough quotes:

"Everybody talking about this kind of blues that kind of blues or some other kind. Ain't but one kind. And either you feel it or you don't, either you can play it, or you can't."

So to me blues is timing, dynamics, and subtlety. If you can play with those three things, you can communicate what you are feeling. If you can communicate what you are feeling, then you are including everybody in the music and at that point the folks listening become participants not spectators. If you get them to move, if they are seeing things in their mind's eye, if you change their feelings from bad to good then you can play it. When I'm around folks who can play that way, it's a damn religious experience. If the music is just a vehicle for them to show out, I'm out.

RS :: And I'll be right behind you, Charlie. Like Rev. Thomas Dorsey said , " The blues ain't nothin' but a good woman feelin' bad. You got a good woman, and she feelin' good, get her to feelin' good. Say Amen somebody." Feelin'. Not playing show and tell. 
It's about that feeling, that vibe, not necessarily a strict 1-4-5 pattern with repeated lines...the usual, often boring stuff people think of when they think of blues. You're anti-Blues Hammer weedlyweedly souless bluez wankery. That's my biggest gripe, too.

CR :: Blues IS feeling. It's like anything else, as soon as you confine it within a structure it stops living. It's like seeing a lion at the zoo, and a lion out in the wild. The zoo lion is predictable and safer, without those bars you feel danger. You FEEL. 

There's always a place for swagger and showing off in blues, but from where I sit that cannot be the main focus. One of the things that attracted me to this style other than the absolute funkiness of it is that to me it comes across as very unselfish. It's about dancing and sweating out the bad shit.

RS :: 
Exactly. Blues is freedom. You listen to a groove like John Lee Hooker's Homework. It's not a strict blues by any means. But I'd imagine you could play that anywhere in the world and folks would get down. They couldn't help themselves. It's in 'em, and its got to come out.

CR :: 
Yep. Exactly. Just like jazz used to be.

RS :: 
 Could you talk about the cover art for the new album- your nod to the late, great T-Model Ford. Tell me about that and your thoughts on Mr. Ford.

CR :: The album cover is a straight up tip of the hat to T Model and Spam. In my opinion they were the most powerful blues duo ever. I was lucky enough to play with T a few times, matter of fact the first gig I ever played in Mississippi was at Club 2000 in Clarksdale opening for T. Been to his house, drove him around, sold his merch for him...stuff like that. Can't say we were close friends, but I loved him very much. We dedicated the last album to him, and when we saw him last April at the Juke Joint Festival, you could tell he wasn't gonna be around much longer...so one last tip of the hat. And T passed during the post-production of this album. 

RS :: So, i'd like to finish up with a quick track by track run down of the new album...maybe you can tell us a little something about each song?

CR :: Song by song eh?

Funkyard Dog/Stay With Me

Funkyard Dog is just a lil' instrumental jam, kinda Memphis-y, threw a little Born Under A Bad Sign bassline in there at the end. Then there's a churchy interlude, and we go into Stay With Me. Stay With me is my version of a gospel song called Walk With Me. I heard a lady named Lorraine Madden sing it acapella one time, and it stuck in my head something FIERCE. Believe I sent you that vid a long while back. Anyhow, Meredith Kimbrough sings it, and it's beautiful.

Back In The Day

This is my T Model tribute song. We were lucky enough to debut it in front of him back in 2011 at a gig in New Mexico, and he seemed to enjoy it. He was rockin' out playing air guitar on his cane and just beaming for the whole song. My buddy CW Ayon is singing on this one

Molly Dell

This is RL Burnside's tune Alice Mae reworked to be about my wife. And it's my first time singing on my own album so y'all be nice!

Do Like Henry Ford -
We recorded a few tracks in Leland, MS with Bentonia, MS blues legend Jimmy Duck Holmes. He's got a juke style like nobody else and a voice I wish I could emulate. I've played with him a few times, and seen him live a bunch as well and what struck me about this session and the gig at Antone's where JJ and I were his band for the night....that unlike his one man gigs, when he plays with us the sunglasses come off, he closes his eyes, tilts back his head and sings his heart out. It's amazing. He is in my opinion the greatest living bluesman and I'm proud as hell to have recorded with him

Cryin And Crawlin

My take on an RL Boyce style groove with some light hearted lyrics thrown in like he might have done. RL is another under appreciated talent, and I wish his albums would come out!


To my ear the absolute standout on the whole album. Completely improvised, first and only take. Duck is incredible on this song

My Lyin Ass

Our version of Lightnin Malcolm's badass tune. We extended it, added a rhythm break, bass, and two rap sections Manateemann on the first and dR.K@0s on the second. Groovin tune

Lyrics By J-Dub (NBY)

This was absolutely spontaneous. We didn't even know the mics were on, so this is just JJ, my oldest friend David O'Hearn and I jammin' out. JJ is riffing lyrics about a phone call he got from his girl the night before...couldn't hear himself because he wasn't wearing headphones...we couldn't hear him over the drums. It was just a fun jam. Cedric Burnside and his crew were sitting in the front room watching us play while we were all waiting to go to the gig at Antone's that night. Kind of a miracle tune. It's about 4-5 Junior Kimbrough songs rolled into one

Rose Laccoon

This was a song I wrote in Adelaide Australia one morning, after some good friend had to go home. We were staying in a mansion that had been built in the 1800's and we'd played a show there a few nights previous but the stage, sound and lights were all still set up so when we'd finish a gig, a bunch of folks would come back to the mansion with us and hang out all night long. We'd play music, drink beer and just chill. The first night I played this at the mansion it was about 4 and it's so calm a song that this girl named Rose Laccoon curled up by my feet and went to sleep with the biggest smile on her face. So the song got named for her. Lightnin Malcolm is on drums for this one and it was recorded during the sessions for Like A Apple On A Tree, but was unreleased. One of my favorite night songs to play.

RS :: 
Thanks for taking the time to do this, Charlie. I really appreciate it! Anything else you'd like to say to the good folks who might read this?

CR :: 
Good Lord, Rick...thanks for the interest! And backatcha. As for a parting shot I'd like to say I'm the luckiest man I know, and I deeply appreciate everybody who's bought a record and come to a show. Wish we toured more and got to meet more of y'all!

RS :: 
Thanks, man. Anything JJ wants to throw in here?

CR :: 
Man he's still asleep! Don't want to speak for him but I've heard him say more than once how grateful he is for the love we get at shows and after shows. It's a very positive vibe out there y'all and we both appreciate it!

OLD GRAY MULE will be touring the hell out of Australia and its surrounds
starting at Wangaratta Jazz and Blues fest Nov 1-3 and going non-stop til Nov 28, 2013. You can find the tour schedule HERE.

Go give these guys your money. You know they deserve it.

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