11 December 2015

ROLLiE TUSSiNG & THE MiDWEST TERRiTORY BAND :: The Great Big Ol' Interview

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Further down this page is my interview with singer / guitarist / family man/ songwriter/national slide guitar champ/ calligrapher/etcetc Rollie Tussing (ain't that a name?)

In the interview Tussing talks about how, among other things, he's always listening for that original fix, that beautiful lightning...that very......well...you know what he's talking about... that.... punctum...that thing that pokes your heart and makes you slump a little, and hold your breath for a second, eyes beginning to well, the song letting you believe for a brief moment that someone out there is like you...and though yes, I digress, I think that that moment is all any musician desires, for you the listener to take a sharp breath, and crane your ear.  Rollie Tussing & the Midwest Territory Band will roll away the years, and swing you into just that condition.

There is a timelessness in Tussing & band's music, and yet the sound is date stamped...just how that stamp reads is hard to say exactly, the old strong slanted cursive on the ancient paper envelope a little smeared, dusty at the edges, but light blue with the foreign words Par Avion in red, crisp, with a dark blue stripe and a tight, cool, still snap at the center. Foxed at the cut, it's opened by somebody trying to dig out the contents, the glue holding to the corners, the ornate border of a well-worn cart-de-visite of musicianers seen within.

Tussing's taut outfit blends a unique balance of country musics- early swing, old-timey and/or/ blues, whatever, and they filter that sound through (early) rock know-how without being rockish, or needlessly punkish. They rock without rocking. They play their own brand of genre-blending semi-early American music, primitive yet dextrous, combining old-timey stylings and forms with mid-century/modern sonics, never at any time sounding retro, delicate, or precious...or particularly modern for that matter. It just fits. They play their music natural, like it's going out of style.

Tussing's gravel and honey timbre is suited to whatever time and place he and the band put him in, from downtown side street to wheat field hoedown bonfire, spirit-ditch or hovel house, to whitehouse and art house. Sometimes at the same time. The drums, thoughtful and correct, bass the same, solid, listening, and joining with Tussing sonically, going anywhere from film soundtrack end roll song to bar brawl tussle boogie, down to saturday night church acoustic early rock action down a gravel road somewheres deep in the gloaming between southern Michigan, and northern South Carolina...it's old-timey music for today. The  music of Rollie Tussing & The Midwest Terrirtory Band music is honest, but it lies about its age. It's old-timey & modern without the historical yoke of either.
But enough jibber-jabber from me. Let's hear what this sounds like!

Below is my interview with 2001 slide guitar champ and all-around good dude, Rollie Tussing. 

RS (Rick Saunders):: What do you think it is about these old-timey melodies that attracted you, and hooked you so hard?
What's your early history with this stuff...was there one song that just clicked for you, that made you put away the rock and the roll or whatever, or has the older sounds always been it for you?

RT (Rollie Tussing):: I grew up in a very non-musical household. The only time the record player was ever used was around Christmas time. My mom would sit next to the Christmas tree drinking wine and listening to holiday music.
 No other time of the year was there ever any music except what one would hear on TV.

None of the 80s music I heard in popular culture appealed to me when I was young. I was intrigued by some of the music of the 50s and a bit of the big band stuff that my grandfather would talk about.

One day when I was about 14 years old I stumbled upon a Chuck Berry cassette. When I heard those first few notes of Johnny B. Goode it was like someone had flipped a switch. Suddenly a light was turned on in a place that had been stagnant and dark. It was liberating and I had knowledge of something that none of my peers had. Real honest to God Rock & Roll! Nothing I was exposed to up to that point turned me on as much as the music of Chuck Berry because nothing was close to being as good or even good enough. With my new found identity I devoured all of the music I could find quickly discarding the meaningless for the "good stock."

From Chuck Berry, I discovered Memphis Soul, 70s rock of Zeppelin and Bowie... Shortly after graduating high school I found a VHS tape of a Les Blank film called "The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins" and all bets were off. I had never heard such music. Never in my wildest dreams could something so honest and genuine exist.                                                                      
There was a  period of time in the late 80s where if you were to be a
 good guitar player you had to play a lot of notes, very fast over a lot of different chord changes. A ton of teenage male guitar players were trying to be Yngwie or some such thing. That style of playing never appealed to me. Late one night I was listening to Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsys. I was playing "Machine Gun" over and over just amazed by the nuance and character of his phrasing and the way he could effortlessly convey an idea musically when I realized that the song consisted of one chord! "E" just "E" 12 minutes and 33 seconds of "E"! He never repeated himself, the music never became tedious or fatiguing. That realization for me was the antidote to the garbage being forced upon musicians, artists and human beings in western culture. Hearing Lightning Hopkins for the first time was like tasting that antidote in its purest form, distilled to pure truth and beauty.

 To this day I am still looking for that original fix; the first time I heard Chuck Berry, had an epiphany with Hendrix or that 99.9% pure dose of Lightning. It's just right, it's beautiful, honest and makes my heart sing.

RS:: Tell me about the history of this current band, The Midwest Territory Band. The drummer is wicked, you've got a pretty wide palette musically with these guys...geez...is that an accordion?  Is that a banjo? ...tell me about this outfit. They're terrific.

RT:: The core of the band is Jim Carey on percussion and Serge Van Der Voo on bass. We have a couple of guests that perform with us live sometimes (Mary Seelhorst -fiddle and Michael Billmire- organ and accordion).

A few years ago I left my home on the west coast for the mid-west. The culture shock and sadness of that move overtook me to the point of a near nervous breakdown (or whatever they call it now). I didn't think I would ever find like minded musicians of a caliber I was used to or even a venue to play in.

I knew of a band in Michigan called "Orpheum Bell". They had the aesthetic and sound that was right up my alley. At the time, Serge was the bass player. I had communicated with him a couple of times via the internet but had never met him. Anyway, one night Serge and I got together to play some tunes and it clicked instantly. He understood the tunes I was throwing at him in an instinctual way, add to that the fact that he is a phenomenal musician with years of experience, I knew I had met someone special.

 We played a local house concert together as a duo and decided to find a percussionist. I knew a few drummers in town, some were very good at what they did, but I didn't think I would be able to find anyone with the right rhythmic sensibilities. Most of the cats here are rock or pop drummers.

 I had known Jim for almost 20 years. We had previously never played
music together. Through the urging of a couple of friends, I invited him over one night to play some tunes.
I have been collecting vintage/antique percussion for a few years. I have some really wonderful artifacts. I've noticed little to no interest in these items from drummers over the years (1910 Ludwig & Ludwig bass drum, Low-boy, various trap "noise makers", sisal cymbals etc.) . Many drummers that I would show this stuff to would not care or just not know how to use it properly. When Jim came over and saw the trap-set I had he flipped! He went to the car and brought out all this prewar trap stuff like temple blocks and cowbells. We spent the evening playing tunes and talking antique drums... I knew I was with the right guys at that point.

Michael Billmire - Serge had worked with Michael in Orpheum Bell.
When I wanted to add some ambient organ sound to a couple of tunes on the record Serge recommended Michael. On the day of recording, Michael brought in an accordion and a suitcase pump organ.
This portable pump organ was used in children hospitals and orphanages around Detroit. It was abused for years and left for dead. Some of the reeds were badly out of pitch. We tried it on "Elder Green" but it was just too much out of tune. Michael ended up playing accordion on that song. The organ part he worked out was so beautiful that we asked him to record it as a solo. That recording ended up as "Elder Green Reprise" and is my favorite song on the whole record.
He was able to play the pump organ on "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down" it was just out of tune enough to add a very deep textured harmony.

 My first week after moving back to Michigan I was at a house party and Mary Seelhorst happened to be there too. I have known Mary for years and have always respected her playing. We decided to play some music together that night. We went into the 100-year-old barn and started to play. The sound of her fiddle was intoxicating. I wrote "Sisters Waltz" and "Michigan Stomp" later that week strictly with Mary in mind. Mary is definitely the 4th member of the band. I hope to record with her more in the future.

RS:: You mentioned your vintage drums, which I would have gone nuts for btw, what else you got, and when people ask what kind of music you play, what do you tell them?

RT:: Serge plays an early '60s German upright bass and my main guitar banjo, uke, and various other instruments.
is a 1952 Gibson ES-125. We are starting to stretch our palette with some different instrumentation. The next recording will have

The question of what kind of music we play has been a tough one. It's something we talk about at length and cannot come to any consensus. I was calling it "jug band jazz" but the guys in the band hated that. They hated "ragged folk" too (I liked that one.) In the midwest when you say anything is folk it means that you strum a Taylor guitar and sing songs out of a journal that you keep.
We have been described as bluegrass and rockabilly but those two things are the furthest from what I think we do. I have been telling folks that I collect 78s and all the music we play is heavily influenced by my record collection. Anything from turn of the century parlor music, pop tunes of the 20s, blues, Albanian sacred music, polish fiddle tunes, hot-jazz, and rural country, right on up to early rock & roll.
We have not come up with a brief "elevator talk" description yet.
When we get in the studio again the music that we will record will hopefully be even harder to categorize/label.

RS:: Well played. As it should be. There's a real fine jazz DJ in Jacksonville who calls jazz "the music of surprise." And for me that's what all music I love is about. I may have an idea of what's going to happen in a song I'm listening to, but if done well I hear something new each time I listen. That's something I get from your stuff, a good element of surprise yet a good sense of familiarity. I think that kind of balance comes from immersion in music. If I came over to your house and I asked you to play me five songs that turned your head, that influenced you, what would we listen to? Also, who of the moderns do you like? 16 Horsepower/ Wovenhand? Gun Club?

RT:: You are too kind.  I may steal the "music of surprise" for future use.

5 songs?
 I have 3 different top 5 lists running in my head at all times (of course). One is, the stepping stone stuff. Artists and songs that have sent me in a different direction/on a different path like Chuck Berry, Lightning Hopkins, John Fahey, Dexter Gordon, Benny Moten, RL Burnside, etc. The tunes I would select from those artists might be kind of boring, passe or too well known to be interesting.

The second list is the 5 songs that I am thankful  they were recorded and that  "we" get to hear the greatness that was captured again and again.

The third is stuff I have found in my own collection of 78s/LPs. This is esoteric stuff that for the most  is not available anywhere else except my basement, or if it is available on CD/LP it is pretty unknown. This is the stuff that makes me cry and writhe (in an uncomfortable with the beauty I am experiencing way) on the floor when I hear it.

List #1: "The Mundane" (In no particular order).
1. Johnny B. Goode - Chuck Berry
2. The Entertainer - Scott Joplin (from the movie "The Sting" as played by Marvin Hamlisch.)
3. Machine Gun _ Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsys
4. In Christ There Is no East or West - John Fahey
5. Alan Lomax -Any of his field recordings. It is better than food.

List #2: "The Great Recordings" (In no particular order.)
1. Insane Asylum - Willie Dixon & Koko Taylor
2. Diga Diga Doo - Oscar Aleman
3. No Woman, No Cry - Bob Marley & The Wailers (Live)
4. Rumba Negro - Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra
5. Sing, Sing, Sing - Benny Goodman (Live at Carnegie Hall)
(5.5 Good Morning Blues - Lightnin' Hopkins)
(5.5 & 1/2. Playin' With The Strings - Lonnie Johnson & Eddie Lang)

List #3 "The Game Changers/Esoteric Weird shit" (in no particular order)
1. There are several Kabuki recordings in my 78 collection. I have no idea of the artist, or anything else. They hurt every time I hear them.
2. Pearly Dew - Lena Hughes
3. Moses Williams - Which Way Did My Baby Go (He's from Florida!)
4. Harry Partch  - And On The Seventh Day Petals Fell In Petaluma
5. Nick Lucas - Side By Side

I could go on and on...

As far as moderns?
Man, I am kind of embarrassed. I had a 16 horsepower CD a long time ago. I have no idea about Wovenhand (I will be youtubing shortly), and a boss of mine was really into Gun Club.

I blame my ignorance on the fact that I do not get out much, and when I do it is to play a gig or to convince my wife that I need to go see a show. I pretty much keep up with the bands that I know are playing a lot and the bands they play with. Living on the West coast was so much fun. I got to meet so many bands and musicians that I still follow today. My favorite was the Dickel Brothers.( I have no idea what happened to them but they were fantastic.) McDougal, Sassparilla and Hillstomp are the bands I keep up on. Here in the midwest there are a few folks that I follow religiously,  Todd Albright, Dooley Wilson, John Roundcity, The Potions ... I've been playing some shows with Lac La Belle and the Detroit Pleasure Society. Love those guys! Great Stuff! Not sure any of them would show up in a Google search.

RS:: I'm not sure where you live in the great mid-west but I'm wondering
what your local music scene is like. Is it growing? Stagnant? Do you have many places to play?

RT:: I am in Ann Arbor, Michigan which is about an hour outside of Detroit. I can't compare the scene to that of Portland because they are so different and the SE Michigan scene would be non-existent in a comparison. There are some great venues and musicians in this part of the country, though, and for the most part, they are ferociously loyal to each other. Detroit has some wonderful things happening.

The main thing that I look forward to is the happenings at Lo & Behold Records in Hamtramck (Polish ghetto inside of Detroit) This kid named Richie owns this joint and he hosts some of the most amazing events at his store. It's not Greenwich Village of the '60s but it is a place that like-minded people are drawn to. Richie really attracts some great artists and musicians from all over the area. His monthly "Folk and Blues Night" has become legendary.

The town that I live in (Ann Arbor) is a small college town that used to be cool and filled with hippies before I was born. Now, it's filled with luxury condos and chain restaurants. There are only a couple of venues and one does not get to play them very often. If I am not gigging I busk as much as possible and it's a great town for that.

Then there is the winter... nothing, the gigs just dry up for 2-3 months. Feb and March are so very tough gig wise.
In spite of that, I do believe the scene is slowly growing. For 20+ years people have been leaving this area. I have seen that in the past couple of years people moving here or deciding to stay because there is a lot of potential. Outside of Ann Arbor property is cheap. I notice more and more folks buying houses or land here because it is cheap, centrally located and has some of the infrastructure needed to live a creative life.

RS:: I'm interested in your design sense. It's striking...your calligraphic skills, and the like. Who does your art, is it all you?

RT:: I do 90% of the art/design. The last record was under the art direction of a Detroit guy named Geog Innis. He took a photograph that I took, had a line drawing made, then he did a lino cut and had my friend Tony Berci print out all of the album art on these 90 year old printing presses. It was a pretty satisfying process to witness.

As far as the penmanship? That grew out of a desire to teach my children how to write in cursive. I had always admired the hand writing of my older relatives. Even before I could read I would stare at letters, lists and notes that they had written. It was beautiful and foreign. It wasn't until I had children and heard that the school system was getting rid of the penmanship curriculum that I taught myself penmanship. My own handwriting was horrible but I wanted to teach my kids to write. I went to the library and checked out as many books on penmanship as I could. Every chance I had I would write and study various letters and what drew me to them.
It was very important to me from the beginning of the endeavor to  not seek out any "calligraphy" resources. I wanted to learn functional penmanship from that was taught in public schools from about 1880 to 1950. Folk art!
... I just wrote a couple of paragraphs concerning my "aesthetic" and deleted them in favor of a quote. A while back (a year, 2?) you posted a link to my time-line of a film called "When the Song Dies" and it was a pretty damn profound movie for me. There was a couple of quotes buried in there by the folks in the film that I have written out and posted on the wall of my "parlor":

"What draws me back is intonations of mortality. I get comfort from these old, old things, because they (for a short while at least) they removed me from the futility of existence - if you like...It's not all lament. I hope to think there is fight in there. I think there is optimism in there"

Earlier today, while my 9-year old daughter had her swim lesson. I Started to re-read "Shane". They made us read it in 8th grade or something but I don't remember liking it. Anyway, within the first couple of pages is a quote that mildly echoes the previous:

"All trace of newness was long since gone from these things. The dust of distance was beaten into them. They were worn and stained and several neat patches showed on the shirt. Yet a kind of magnificence remained and with it a hint of men and manners alien to my limited boy"s experience." 

RS:: So what's coming up in the next year or two? More recording? Touring? Any big gigs? What do we need to know about?

RT:: I am in the process of writing /collecting songs for a couple of new
recordings. I hope to do a solo parlor guitar record. I have been wanting to do that for a long time. The band is actively looking for a 4th member,  a horn player would be ideal. A clarinet or trumpet to take us in another direction.  Regardless we are going to record another record late this winter. Most of the songs have been written.  Our goal in the next two years is to have a body of recorded works. Branch out to the south and east coast for a couple of short tours and get to Europe.  Europe is definitely on our band bucket list.

RS:: Thanks so much for your time, Rollie. It's been a pleasure to get to know you! Last question:: You could jam with and do a show with any three people living or dead- who do you choose, and why?

RT:: Thanks a lot Rick. This has been a lot of fun and I really do appreciate you taking the time and energy. Thanks for wading through my self-indulging answers too.

This is the hardest question yet. It's hard to only pick 3!

The first dude that I would love to jam with would be Charlie Patton! I have a hard time creating a mental image of this cat in action. There is a lot of talk about what he looked like (a couple of pics) but I can't really get a picture of him performing. There seems to be  alot of mystery and discussion about the way he actually played certain songs (guitar on his lap, bottle neck or pocket knife), how he held the guitar, what some of the lyrics actually are etc. I know a few folks that have spent a lot of time trying to learn his guitar parts. Out of those few the ones that sound the closest to me are the ones that admit that they are not sure. The ones that are positive they know... they just don't sound right. I woulds love to sit down with Patton and soak it all in.

Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers:
Mainly I would want to see these guys perform in their time and place. The legendary broken furniture, fires, drinking and fights must have been a magical thing to witness. My fantasy would be to take the place of guitarist Norman Woodlief just for one gig early in the Ramblers career.
Harry Partch: I hope there is enough time in this life where I can say what I want to say musically. Blues, jazz, country, rock, jigs, reels, foxtrots, ethnic folk musics and more are all languages I want to explore and use as a tool to express myself. One could spend a lifetime exploring and immersing themselves into a sub-genre of a genre and still not fully master it.

Going off the rails here...
Rollie Tussing's calligraphic skills. 
I guess what I am trying to say is that I wish/hope that at some point in
my life I can take all of my influences (musicians I have met and played with, My record collection, artists, authors, nature, my family...) and combine them into something beautiful. Some way of musically expressing the joy and melancholy that I experience from all of these things.

The free nature of expression and the relief of suffering is the ultimate goal.  I believe Harry Partch was able to do this in his life.
I like to create in a medium that has constraints and certain rules need to be followed or intentionally broken (like blues or haiku). So, whatever my ultimate expression could be would probably be very different from Mr. Partch.
To have Harry Partch compose a piece of music with me in mind and conduct the performance while I played the piece. That would be an unbelievable experience.
Unfortunately, he died a long time ago. I am thankful and in awe that such an artist existed and had some level of notoriety and respect.
Thank you again, Rick!

RS:: There you have it. I coulda asked a dozen more questions, easy.
Go buy the album. Just do it. Best twenty bucks you'll spend on vinyl all year. Cheers!

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