Motivational seeker 

Grammy winner Alvin Youngblood Hart goes looking for that old-time electricity

Some things never change. Sure, Alvin Youngblood Hart may have released five albums, been nominated for two Grammys (winning once), and toured the world playing a mix of old-timey acoustic blues and Hendrix-inspired electric guitar, but it doesn't feel any different than when he started.

"I still have the same inspiration I had at 19," he says. "It really doesn't feel that much different. Every once of a while I have one of the guitars my dad bought me in 10th grade. I actually played it at Jazzfest last year, just to remember those roots."

Of course if he needs to remember, the 49-year-old can just talk to his parents, who not only are still alive and involved in Hart's life, but have a tendency to treat him like he's still 19.

"It will be the holidays and the wintertime lull in the music biz, and my mom will be like, 'Why don't you go down and put in an application at FedEx,'" Hart says with a laugh.

Raised in the Bay Area during the late '60s, Hart was exposed to music through his older brothers, who are six and nine years his senior. Though only 6 or 7 at the time, Hart recalls being fascinated by the people in bands around the neighborhood. He struggled for years, playing while working in the Coast Guard and learning electronics. (He's now a gearhead who futzes around building and repairing his own amps seeking the "perfect sound.")

Hart caught a break when he was spotted by blues legend Taj Mahal and invited to open a multi-night stretch. Eventually he released his debut, Big Mama's Door, in '96 to great fanfare. The album was inspired by the classic country-blues of people like Charlie Patton, Son House and Leadbelly, predating the O Brother, Where Art Thou/Americana craze by a few years. By the time it became popular, Hart had already returned to his love of the electric blues.

"Yeah that was some bad luck, but it was a good thing for people who were in the right place at the right time," he chuckles. "The funny thing was that all it was, was my version of [MTV's] Unplugged, because that's what was going on at the time."

These days he vacillates between the styles, sometimes playing solo acoustic, sometimes with a band. He enjoys the contrast. He's also just recorded a second album with the South Memphis String Band, an "all-star" combo with Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi All Stars and Squirrel Nut Zippers' Jimbo Mathus.

"It's just whatever nonsense we come up with there," he says, laughing while trying unsuccessfully to describe the band's vibe. "It's insane. That's all I can say about it, insanity. We have a good deal of fun with it, and a good deal of fun ribbing each other."

It's been more than a half-dozen years since Hart's last release, Motivational Speaker. He says he's still writing, trying to collect enough songs to stand up to his catalog. With the state of the music business, the process lacks some urgency.

"You play some empty rooms and you say, 'It's time for a career change,'" Hart explains. "Then the next day you're playing in front of 5,000 people and you're, 'Oh yeah, this is why I do this.' But you could also be playing for five people, if they really dig it."



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