'The blues had a baby," Muddy Waters used to sing, "and they called it rock and roll."
These days, though, it's starting to look the other way around. Seventy years after Robert Johnson surrendered his soul to the devil, a growing number of musicians raised on rock, metal and punk are gravitating toward the blues.
With their music stripped down to guitar and drums, critically revered punk-blues duos like the Black Keys and the White Stripes whose first album was dedicated to Son House and included a portion of "John the Revelator" have helped launch a back-to-roots movement among musicians who once worshipped at the altars of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica.
And while he's currently focusing on his crossover from hip-hop into rap, even Lil Wayne (who grew up in the same New Orleans 17th Ward neighborhood as blues legend Johnny Adams) paid his respects with the song "Young 'N Blues."
Here in Colorado Springs, the blues are also undergoing a kind of rebirth: At 18, Grant Sabin isn't old enough to drink, but his whiskey voice and slide guitar runs are soaked deep in the Delta blues. At 25, one-time metal-head Jake Loggins fronts the city's premier blues-rock power trio, while Mike Clark 30-year-old frontman for the Jack Trades has opted for the more alt-friendly guitar/drums format.
Then there's John-Alex Mason. At 33, he's the elder statesman of the bunch a mere 50 years younger than B.B. King and, at this point, the most accomplished. A Colorado native, he spent a summer busking on Memphis' Beale Street, and was later named "Most Promising Emerging Artist" at the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival. His 2008 album, Town and Country, entered the Roots Music Report Blues Chart at No. 1.
Plus, in the blues tradition of passing along wisdom, Mason taught Sabin the Delta fingerpicking style favored by Mississippi Fred McDowell.
"Those were probably the most important lessons of my entire life," says the younger musician. "It completely shaped my style. He taught me the technique that I use every single time anybody sees me play."
It's the last Friday of an unusually mild February, and Mason is all packed for his sojourn to an even warmer climate. This will be his second time leading a couple van loads of local high school students through the various birthplaces of the blues. They'll fly to New Orleans for a few days, followed by five days of exploring Mississippi Delta juke joints, another five in Memphis and a few more in Chicago.
"The seminar is called 'Blues and Civil Rights History,' so we're using the music as kind of a lens to view American history," says Mason. "They're tied hand-in-hand: When you look at African-American history and you look at blues and jazz music and how it progressed, the civil rights movement had a lot to do with the music. And vice versa."
When it comes to lessons in civil rights, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a case study more current and compelling than post-Katrina New Orleans.
Cuban architect Andrs Duany once wrote that "New Orleans is not among the most haphazard, poorest, or misgoverned American cities, but rather the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities." It was difficult for Americans to watch Katrina unfold and believe that this was happening here and not in some distant country.
"And the unfortunate part," agrees Mason, "is that the way our government responded was as if it did happen in another country."
Mason takes on that issue in "Chef Menteur," a track from Town and Country that pays homage to New Orleans while taking umbrage with the federal government that betrayed it. Its title is both the name of a Louisiana gulf coast highway and a Choctaw word that translates roughly to "big liar."
"With the way that our former president treated the people of New Orleans," says Mason, "'big liar' just seemed to come out as a good way to write a song about Katrina."
Still, culture can always trump politics, even though it may take a while.
"Most people who are into roots music eventually make their way to New Orleans, with all the jazz and funk and R&B hits that came out of there," says Mason. "You can make a really good argument for the blues coming from New Orleans first, before it came from the Mississippi Delta. It's a place that's very near and dear to my heart."
The devil's music
Although Colorado has never been a contender for birthplace of the blues, Mason has overcome any geographic limitations. He was set on his current path by the Led Zeppelin and Allman Brothers albums in his older brother's collection and his godmother's gospel singing.
"She was a black woman from Alabama who settled here in Colorado Springs, and she's 50 years older than I am," says Mason. "So she gave me quite a different perspective on life and music."
But even though gospel helped give birth to the blues, faithful adherents don't necessarily condone its secular offspring. (The Blind Boys of Alabama's Clarence Fountain once told me that Sam Cooke was singing the devil's music and would have to face the consequences.) Did Mason's godmother, a congregant at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, condone his chosen repertoire?
"I think she's proud of me and my music," answers Mason, "but at one point I'd talked to her about singing on a record with me or doing a record together. And she politely said that she'd have to ask her pastor about that."
It might not go over in church, but there is a devotional aspect to the blues, which is evident when Mason throws himself into an Elmore James number or pulls out his Lowebow, a primitive cigar-box guitar named after John Lowe, the Memphis musician who makes them. Mason's is a double-neck with three guitar strings and two bass. It's like something Jimmy Page would have, if he were a Mississippi sharecropper.
"There's been a long history of making guitars out of stuff that's not normally used to make instruments, just out of necessity," says Mason, who describes his own as "a glorified diddley bow, which was an improvised instrument that could be broken down really easily and was used during slave times.
"Basically, it was a piece of bailing wire that's nailed at each end to the side of a barn or whatever. It would have a can underneath it that acts as a resonator, and you could play the instrument by picking out single notes while sliding a stick or a piece of glass up and down. And then when the overseer came by, you could just knock that can out, and it's just a bailing wire hanging on the wall."
Watching Jack Trades frontman Mike Clark onstage, you might never imagine that he's been playing music for just a few years. A landscape surveyor by trade, he came down with his own case of the blues three years ago during a road trip to Seattle with a guitarist friend.
"He showed me a few things, and I was pretty much hooked after that," says Clark. "Along the way, I bought a harmonica from a little thrift store and started playing blues songs or trying to play blues songs and just kind of stuck with it."
A year later, he hooked up with drummer Todd Bruington, who, unlike Clark, had been playing since his parents bought him a junior drum kit when he was 8. Clark first saw Bruington playing with the Corporate Ninjas "they were like a metal-meets-reggae funk band" and the duo has been gigging for the last two years.
They're anything but mellow, attacking the blues with an enthusiasm that's as contagious as it is convincing. Neighborhood complaints have forced them to go acoustic at a few gigs, but the louder electric shows are definitely the Jack Trades' strong suit.
"Some of the songs on our albums are straightforward old-school 12-bar blues," says Clark, "and then we have some that are real aggressive electric stuff. The White Stripes are one of my favorite bands, and so are the Black Keys. When I started listening to that stuff, I realized there's just a huge following for that kind of thing."
As for more traditional inspirations, Clark cites blues-rock guitarists like Peter Green and Rory Gallagher, and before that, John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf.
"The thing I like about John Lee Hooker is that it's really simple to play, and just the storytelling. And Howlin' Wolf just played with a whole bunch of energy which I would like to try to do."
Wasted days and nights
Jake Loggins needs to get out of town more. An established figure in the local scene since his teens, he now finds himself at a career crossroads.
"As far as Colorado Springs goes, I've peaked," says the young blues-rock performer. "I'm not gonna make any more money out of these bars."
So the Jake Loggins Band is starting to hook up with venues in Boulder, Denver and Fort Worth. Here in the Springs, the trio does Wednesday nights at SouthSide Johnnys, plus frequent gigs across the street at Oscar's and "just about anywhere that wants to pay my rent."
Loggins has other reasons to sing the blues: "My thing is, I don't drink anymore," he says with no trace of the self-satisfaction that often accompanies such statements. "It's been over a year since I've had a drink of alcohol, so I really don't have any business in these bars at all. I got a girlfriend and I don't drink, so I'm not chasing tail and I'm not out there getting blitzed."
And then there's the matter of making a record. Despite years of gigging, Loggins continues to avoid the recording studio.
"I just have a hard time paying everybody a whole bunch of money to wait around for that right moment," he says.
So how about a live album?
"I've been working on it. I listen to everything that we record, but it just embarrasses me. I'm just so critical. It's hard for me to impress myself."
Besides finally getting an album together, Loggins says his other main priority is to "go play for people that are actually taking money and time out of their lives to be entertained, instead of just playing for people that happen to be there chasing tail and getting wasted."
Still, Loggins remains upbeat and expresses nothing but reverence for the blues community here in town.
"You know, everybody says, 'Oh, it's Colorado Springs, you're never gonna do anything, nobody gives a shit in Colorado Springs.' I really beg to differ, because I know the community so well. I grew up in it, you know? They were there for me when my parents split up. They were my extended family."
Nature and nurture
Born and raised in Jasper, Texas, Loggins moved to the Springs at 16 with his father, a bluesman named Lobo Loggins, who used to play lead guitar for Percy Sledge. Asked how his playing differs from his father's, Loggins answers without hesitation: "He's the real deal. He's just one of those Southeast Texas guitar slingers; he would play from Corpus Christi all the way up to Forth Worth.
"The truth is, before I started playing guitar I was kind of a metal-head," Loggins confesses. "I was kind of the typical angry little guy who listened to a lot of metal. My first concert was Metallica my dad took me when I was 13. But once I really started getting into guitar, I got into people like Stevie [Ray Vaughan] and Jimi [Hendrix], all those cats. And then I started getting under the surface a little bit. You know, all the West Coast blues players and the Chicago blues players and the Southeast Texas blues players. All the guys that are monsters in their own styles out there."
Loggins and his father relocated here back in '99, leaving behind a mother, a brother and a crumbling West Texas economy. He says they spent three years sharing a futon in his aunt's basement. ("It was great for bringing chicks there," he says dryly.)
Being here took some adjustment: "After living in Jasper for 16 years, I moved up here and I'm this little redneck white-trash kid going to a District 20 school. It was a total culture shock, man. And I had no friends, you know, I would hang out with my dad and help him run cables at the gigs and carry all of his band's gear. And my reward for all that was to get up there and play with him for three songs. He had Iron Butterfly's old drummer, Len Campanero, and John Farrell from John Lee Hooker's band. I mean, I was getting to play with the best guys in town."
These days, Lobo Loggins is the morning man at a country station in Paris, Tenn. Loggins says it's the only radio station in a 150-mile radius. But he still hears his father's name a lot from older blues fans.
"It's weird," he says. "I play a lot like my dad, but at the same time I'm completely different. Me and my father are like Jeremy Vasquez [guitarist for Denver's Shuffletones] and his dad. He's a young guy second- or third-generation, like myself and I've watched him and his dad play together. And it's like, 'Yeah, that's the guy's father.' And with me, it's like, 'Oh, you're Lobo's kid.' It's like this stuff gets passed down through genealogy, through your blood."
Mardi Gras mambo
It's Mardi Gras in Manitou Springs, and Grant Sabin is playing to a throng in the intimate confines of Kinfolks Mountain Outfitters. Although it's just mid-afternoon, the beer has been flowing freely, and the crowd is suitably enthused. A lanky, college-age kid keeps trying to coax his diminutive companion into dancing with a strange combination of shaking and stomping that bears almost no rhythmic resemblance to what's happening onstage. She responds with a stoicism appropriate to solicitations from someone moving like Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies.
Onstage, Sabin is running through Robert Johnson's "Come on in my Kitchen" in the same open G tuning the bluesman used on Alan Lomax's field recordings.
"I got my first Robert Johnson CD the same week that I saw John-Alex Mason play for the first time," recalls Sabin. "That was a huge week for me. And I listened to that album until it literally didn't play anymore."
For their Mardi Gras gig, Sabin and bassist Andrew Koken got decked out in clown makeup.
"The year before, I did the makeup myself and I looked something like Alice Cooper if he'd decided to play Ronald McDonald," says Sabin. "I saw the posters and thought, man, if I didn't know the kind of music it was, I really wouldn't want to see that show."
So this year, he opted for the sad hobo clown look, figuring that the resulting "bulldog face" would better capture the essence of the blues.
Sabin was 13 when he made his first recordings with friends who veered considerably more toward rock. He describes it as "kind of a juvenile sound," and seems more proud of recordings that were made of him at an age when other kids were still forming their first three-word sentences.
"If you saw videos of me when I was 2 years old, I already had that whiskey voice," he says. "I mean, there's videos of me singing 'Old McDonald' where it sounds like Howlin' Wolf."
Sabin recorded his first album a couple years after the rock band broke up, by which time he was completely devoted to his chosen genre.
So how exactly does a 16-year-old go about getting the blues?
"The blues is a language, it's a feeling, and really anybody can have it," claims Sabin. "You know, I wouldn't say that the blues really is the blues at all. It's just a cure for the blues."
Besides, he figures, some problems are just about ageless: "Son House always said that there's only one kind of blues and that's between a man and a woman. And I mean, no matter how much experience you've had at the age of 18 or 16 or whatever, you're gonna have enough. It just takes one and you've got the blues."