By Monte Adkison (Reprinted by permission)
Labor of Love
Like yours truly, Mick Kolassa has focused his passion into a project that helps others. Known affectionately by his moniker “Michississippi Mick” due to having split his residency between Michigan and Mississippi respectively, Mick is a talented musician, songwriter as well as a current board member of the Blues Foundation. His recent philanthropic project involves assembling an exceptionally talented group of musicians and recording a CD of which 100% of the gross sales benefit two Blues Foundation programs, the HART fund and Generation Blues. This is a true winning proposition—I encourage you to do what I did, buy several copies of this disc that is a great listen and give as gifts to your blues-loving friends. Not only will you be sharing great original music to enjoy but you will also be helping deserving blues musicians in their time of need as well as the next generation in helping to keep the music we love alive.
BS: Your collaboration with and choice of Jeff Jensen to produce this project is spot on! How did this partnership come about?
MK: I first met Jeff when I saw him playing a duo with Brandon Santini at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale a few years ago. I was really impressed by his style and the way he and Brandon seemed to push each other. My brother-in-law, Ted Todd, and I decided to book Brandon and Jeff for a show in Spokane (where Ted lives and we had produced other shows). Over the years I have developed a friendship with both of them, and have often been invited up onstage to sing with them – often doing my own original songs. Jeff always told me I should record them. Jeff went on to produce Brandon’s album, This Time Another Year (nominated for a BMA as best album of the year), and also his own, Roadworn and Ragged, and I was involved with both. From there it was just natural to have Jeff produce my album. So the partnership just kind of grew organically, out of friendship and mutual respect.
BS: Your songwriting is strong on story telling—one of my favorite characteristics of good blues music. How important is that to you when composing music?
MK: To me the story in the song is everything. A lot of songs today – blues and otherwise – are just collections of rhyming words and to me that’s almost painful. A bad lyric can kill a great melody or hook for me. Songs ARE stories – they have been throughout history. I came up through the folk tradition, listening to older blues as well as British and Celtic inspired music. It was all stories! When I talk with young songwriters about their songs that’s the first thing that comes up – the story. OK your woman is gonna leave you, great, but tell me why!
If the lyric doesn’t tell a story then it’s just a bunch of words – might as well be doing madrigal! During the recent IBC week in Memphis I was onstage and sang a couple songs. A woman came up to me afterward and asked if I had ever acted. When I asked why she said “Well you just acted out those songs while you were singing them.” You can only do that with a lyric that tells a story.
BS: I notice that when you cover a song, you don’t make the mistake that many young artists attempt and that is to do it like the original, which of course, we know, never quite makes the mark or if it does, what have you accomplished? Your rendition of The Letter by the Box Tops is unique in itself. How did the decision to cover that song come about?
MK: I always have said that if you are going to cover a song you should own it. I, like most people, started out doing straight covers – that’s what garage bands do. But as I matured as a musician I realized that I wasn’t Joe Cocker or Wayne Cochran or Wilson Pickett so I should try to sing and play like me and not them. But even if I could do the songs exactly like so and so, I would rather hear the original than a copy, no matter how good the copy.
The Letter has always been one of my favorite songs, it’s actually the first song I ever sang in public. Joe Cocker took it and rocked it up (with a lot of help from Leon) and most people have done it in one of those two ways. But over the years I just always heard that song – in my mind – as a slow blues. I started messing around, just playing it for myself with an acoustic guitar and really liked the way it felt. Jeff and I worked on the arrangement after I had the basic feel of it down and we cut the song – with the idea that we were “bringing it back to Memphis.” At Jeff’s suggestion we brought Reba Russell into do some backing vocals and when we offered this up she just ran with it. Her angelic voice helped us to bring the tune back to Memphis by way of the church – I still love to just listen to her on that song. We’re really proud of where we took it and that, to me, is really emblematic of the way one should “cover” a great song – make it yours.
BS: I spent a summer in Oxford researching in the blues archives at Ole Miss in 1997. I went to a few local clubs like Blind Jim’s, Proud Larry’s, and Junior’s in Holly Springs and really enjoyed my first real juke joint experience. Are we in danger of losing those traditional Delta jukes that are essential to the soul of live blues music?
MK: Sorry to say that from mid-1996 to mid-1999 I left Oxford and lived in the Boston area, so we missed each other! But please come back – I did. We have lost a few jukes and picked up a couple but I do worry about losing them altogether. The atmosphere in a juke joint is special: small, intimate, a little dangerous (not really) and the music is as genuine as you can get. The ultimate juke joint in our area is Red’s in Clarksdale. “Fronted by the graveyard and backed by the river,” Red’s is on Sunflower Avenue right down the street from the Riverside Hotel. Red’s is open until they get tired of being there and often the band will be fronted by a very old bluesman who is steeped in tradition and never once set foot on a big stage. But these places can only stay around if the owner is willing to work way too many hours and for not much pay.
We have versions of juke joints, such as Ground Zero in Clarksdale and The Blues Hall in Memphis – and these are great places that I love that usually have amazing music and people, but you really need to spend a few hours at Red’s to know the difference. Roger Stolle and Jeff Konkel did a fantastic DVD a couple years ago called “We Juke Up In Here” and I encourage everyone to check it out – they’ve captured a piece of history that we might lose.
BS: For those that don’t know, can you tell us about the HART fund and Generation Blues programs that this disc’s sales support and also where is this disc available for purchase?
MK: The HART Fund is a program of the Blues Foundation that provides grants to cover medical and funeral expenses for blues artists and their families. It’s an amazing program and with it we do some special work. HART stands for Handy Artists Relief Trust, named after WC Handy and started when one benefactor provided a grant to get things started. Last year the Blues Foundation provided about $70,000 in grants to cover those costs. Generation Blues covers the other side of the spectrum, with that program the Foundation provides scholarships to young blues artists, under 21, to attend special blues camps and other programs, where they work with established artists to hone their skills and help us keep the blues alive. These programs are so important to me that 100% of the gross receipts from my new album will go to those two programs. You can learn more about these programs – and help them out – by going to www.blues.org.
My record, Michissippi Mick, is available in the usual places, or at least the digital download is. Amazon and iTunes both have the MP3 versions and CD baby has the physical CDs. With enough demand Amazon should stock the CD as well – we’ll see. Every dollar that I get for the album will be donated to those to programs – 100% of the gross. I also sell copies myself to people who mail me a check made out to the Blues Foundation.
BS: As the current Vice-Chair of the Blues Foundation, how exciting will it be to be involved in the Blues Hall of Fame opening? Can you update us on the progress of that?
MK: I can’t tell you what a thrill and honor it is to be working with the Foundation at a time like this. We should break ground on the Hall of Fame in a few months and be open sometime next year. The Raise the Roof Campaign has been quite successful – but we’re not all the way across the river, we still have a way to go. But we do have enough in pledges and donation to be able to start construction soon. To us it is critical that we get this done soon, so that BB King and Buddy Guy and Bobby Rush and James Cotton and so many of the people who are already in the Hall of Fame can be there to enjoy the opening, to see and understand how appreciated and important they are. If you check out the website you can see the plans for the Hall of Fame, it’s going to be a very special place!
BS: You recently had a CD release party in Clarksdale. Was that as much fun as I suspect that it was?
MK: The release party was crazy fun! Clarksdale has a special magic to it, and the party was held at the Bluesberry Café, which is a family run venue owned by Art and Carol Crivaro. Because of the family atmosphere the party was relaxed and a lot of fun. One of the regulars at Bluesberry is Watermelon Slim, and you just never know when he will show up or what he might do. That night he stopped the band just before a song to lead the place in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” to me (because it was my birthday) and that’s pretty special. Later, after we had done songs from the album and were joined by Carson Deirsing (a graduate of our Generation Blues program), we opened up a jam and Slim got up and sang like a madman, it was the best performance I have ever seen from him – and I’ve seen some pretty amazing shows by Slim. He sang and played harp beautifully then went out to his car and got a resonator guitar sat down and did a rendition of Little Red Roster that was great. Because the party was also a fund raiser for HART and Gen Blues, those good times generated about $1,000 for the programs!
We are planning a West Coast Release party on June 8th at Biscuits and Blues in San Francisco. Once again it will also be a fund raiser for the programs and I promise it will be a great time. I want to have more of those parties in more places to keep the flame burning for those programs.
BS: How did you assemble the band and the guest artists for this project? The magic is certainly evident and you nailed down some very busy, popular artists.
MK: The secret to the whole album is that I’m a pretty good singer and song writer but when you get a band like this one behind you it’s important to perform up to their standards! Start with Jeff Jensen, who is simply an amazing guitar play – technically impressive and he plays with such emotion and energy that you can’t help but be moved. Add to that Bill Ruffino, bass player extraordinaire and a real perfectionist, and Doug McMinn, who is a solid drummer who has played with everybody (and enjoys playing more than anybody I have ever met) and then add Chris Stephenson on organ (Chris anchors the band at BB Kings on Beale and just has an amazing feel for the songs he plays) and you have the core of a monster band. Brandon Santini (BMA nominee for Harp player of the year) adds harp to several songs and Eric Hughes, another Memphis staple, also plays harp on one. Then there’s Victor Wainwright, he’s Victor – an amazing man who happens to play the hell out of a piano and does so splendidly on this album. It’s important to note that Jeff lives at Victor’s house and Brandon used to, so this is as much a family endeavor as anything in that regard.
Rounding out the guests are Reba Russell, who provided backing vocals on three tunes in a way no other three people could match, and Redd Velvet, who sings with me on Blowtorch Love, and she does bring down fire from the sky on that tune. Another guest was Dedrick Davis, whose trumpet chops are well known in Memphis. Two other musicians I have to mention are Danny Banks (drummer with John Nemeth) and James Cunningham, an iconic Memphis drummer. Danny provided some backing vocals to some songs as well as some subtle percussion and James – who was originally tagged to be the drummer on this album but was forced to the sidelines when his Vespa was hit by an SUV – played cowbell and other percussion on a few tunes – notably WPD.
Finally, Adam Hill and James Bennett were the engineers on this, and Dawn Hopkins did an amazing job of mixing – bringing out things in the mix that are just so special. Topping it off was the masterful job of mastering by Brad Blackwood. I can’t stress enough how important those four people were to the sound on this album.
BS: As a fellow sexagenarian, I can’t help but smile when I listen to “Time Ain’t on My Side.” We have seen a lot of changes since our first transistor radios. Care to comment on the changing technology and the nature of the music industry?
MK: The changes in technology are a blessing and a curse in many ways. The blessing of the new technologies is that more artists can record and get their music out, there is much less of a need to get the attention of a label – but that also means that there is a lot of music out there that sounds a lot better to the artist than to fans (remember, none of us have ugly babies!). Without guidance from seasoned pros it is easy to put together a record that is mixed poorly and with songs that aren’t quite ready for prime time – as I talked about earlier. All in all it’s a net plus to have more options and to provide more opportunities for new artists, but there is a need for some guidance out there in terms of how to put it all together.
Another aspect of technology that has really turned things on its ear is the internet combined with the slow demise of radio – it’s getting harder to find blues on the dial and people have yet to figure out a way to make internet radio a profit making enterprise in any meaningful way. That makes it harder for people to learn about new artists and new recordings, and that’s a real shame. We also have the problem that internet radio doesn’t pay the artists as much as broadcast radio – and some of the streaming “services” don’t really pay anything. For a young artist to find out that their song has been played 1,000 times and that they’ll be getting a check for $1.75 is hard to comprehend – you spend between $5,000 and $30,000 to make the record but your chances of ever making that back in sales or airplay are pretty slim. It’s tough out there for a bluesman (or woman).
Finally, it’s not technology but some other changes along with the technology that are beginning to concern me. I am seeing more bands and performers who are doing shows that are just devoid of emotion or energy – guitarists who are playing great riffs during their instrumental breaks, but what they are playing is just a string of musical clichés that are totally unrelated to the song, and singers who hit all the right notes with the perfect tone but really don’t understand the songs they are singing. Some of this goes to what we talked about in terms of the storytelling aspect of songs. The Blues is not just a musical genre but a cultural phenomenon and I would rather hear an unpolished performer really sing and play the blues with feeling and understanding than a technically perfect rendition with no soul or emotion whatsoever. When you are singing “5 Long Years” and sing “have you ever been mistreated?” that’s a question from the heart, not just a bunch of syllables to speak in tune! Make me believe it and you’ll have my attention.
BS: You have a professional career as a marketing consultant; you are an avid angler and marine environmentalist. In addition, you play and write music and are on the board of a major charitable corporation. When do you find any spare time and what would be your ideal way to spend a relaxing weekend?
MK: Well, I’m actually on the boards of two major non-profits, so I do keep myself busy, but mainly because I just don’t know how to do something halfway. Fortunately I love the things I do, so whether I’m listening to or playing blues with or for people, fishing in the tropics or working on conservation issues or – more and more – working with the Blues Foundation to help it achieve its goals, I’m doing the things I love to do. There will be a lot of time to relax when I can’t do these things anymore so I’m just putting that off. If I had any spare time I would need to find something to do!
BS: Tell me about your favorite guitar.
MK: Great question, I guess the answer has to be “my next one.” It’s as hard for me to pick a favorite guitar as it is a favorite child. I have a Gianinni Craviola, a Brazilian guitar, that has been with me for over 40 years – it’s a good friend with an amazing deep tone and just feels good, but it’s a straight acoustic so it’s limited in terms of where and how I can use it. I also have a little Fender acoustic electric that I have been using a lot and as it gets older its tone is really starting to develop. I have two electric guitars that are absolutely prized possessions; one is a Delany guitar that was made especially for the Blues Foundation – it’s a Matt Murphy model with the Foundation logo burned onto the pickguard. a beautiful guitar that is a joy to play. I also have a cheap Strat that has been autographed by a lot of people, including Hubert Sumlin, Robert Lockwood, Willie Smith, and a number of other blues legends, many of whom are no longer with us. That’s a special guitar.
BS: What are your pet peeves and joys in the music industry and what advice to those of us out there who love the music and want to help keep it real and alive?
MK: I’ve already talked about some of the peeves – songs that don’t tell stories and musicians who play the music but not the song. My greatest joys come from hearing a young artist who can really play, and finding out that they are bigger fans of the blues than I am. When I hear a kid like “Kingfish” Ingram, Carson Diersing, or Logan and Cole Laymen – all of whom have been part of different youth programs, including Generation Blues, I know that in the long run the Blues will be in good hands.
Thank you, Mick. I wish I had met you when I was studying in Oxford. Maybe in the future we can sit on a porch and share some stories and fond blues memories? Bless you brother, for all that you do for the music and the people that make it.