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Blues Revue Magazine
Complete Article from April/May 2003 Issue #81:
Back "On the Road" Again
by Christine M. Kreiser

The first issue of Blues Revue Quarterly (July 1991) featured a column called "On the Road," which profiled up-and-coming acoustic blues artists. We recently took the opportunity to catch up with Catfish Keith, first profiled in Issue #2.

Catfish Keith: A Fistful of Riffs
Hey Hey! Catfish at Carnegie Hall, photo by Dave Arcari
How many American bluesmen can say they've had a racehorse in the U.K. named after them?  Catfish Keith, for one.

When The Guardian reported in 1999, that a 5-year old gelding with the unusual name was turning heads on the English racing circuit, a British fan sent the story to the two-legged Keith across the pond.

"That was kind of weird, but cool, too," says the bluesman with a laugh.

But it's a good indication of Keith's popularity overseas.  When Blues Revue first spoke to Keith in 1991, he had never toured Europe.  In November of 2002, he wrapped up his 25th concert tour of the U.K.  Keith says it was 1991's Pepper In My Shoe!, his first release on his own label, that won him recognition there.  After talking to some British promoters at the King Biscuit Blues Festival, Keith and his wife, Penny Cahill, decided to launch Fish Tail Records in the fall of '91; a year later, he made his U.K. debut.

Though Keith recalls hearing Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters on the radio in the steel town of East Chicago, Indiana where he was born in 1962, discovering Son House eventually led him on a path to acoustic Delta blues.  Growing up in Davenport, Iowa, home of legendary jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, Keith gained an appreciation for the stylings of Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden.  Country blues and swing, therefore, are the front and center of Keith's repertoire.  He often covers classics by the likes of Bo Carter and Blind Willie Johnson, but Keith says his versions are "re-creations," not note-for-note copies.

"You have to have your own style within you.  That's the lesson I got from the old-time bluesmen and women I've known.  I think it's real important when you're doing this style of music that you make your own joyful noise with it.  Even though it has echoes of ghosts and voices from the past, it should be your own song.

"The artists I love the most are probably the most improvising.  They take a song that sounds familiar but create a whole new thing right off the top of their head.  Robert Pete Williams, John Lee Hooker , and Bukka White are great examples of that -- spontaneous human combustion that is right in the moment.  That happens to me, hopefully, every night.  Songs that I've been playing forever take on a new life; lyrics and phrasings change.  I love that part, that new expression it will make every night."

Like a number of contemporary electric blues players, Keith finds some of his greatest inspiration in the north Mississippi hill country.  In particular, he sites Jessie Mae Hemphill, whose haunting "Eagle Bird" appears on Keith's Twist It, Babe! album.  "Her style is from that tradition of the repetitive one-chord boogie.  A lot of those cats -- Mississippi Fred MacDowell, Junior Kimbrough, R. L. Burnside -- had that stripped down, soulful 'hypno-blues' that really captures your spirit and imagination.  It takes away everything but the voice and the guitar, the expression of the beat.  It's the music I come back to most often.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the guitarist whom Keith has often said is perhaps the greatest blues player ever: Lonnie Johnson.  The title track to his most recent album, A Fist Full of Riffs is based on the Johnson/Eddie Lang duet, "A Handful of Riffs."  Johnson's playing had such a "fluid quality," says Keith.  "just the whole package of virtuosity and that bittersweet voice makes him one of my favorite players.  It's great to see the breadth of a really full music career and see which way it could lead a talented artist."

Keith hopes to make a new studio album soon, and he's been assessing concert recordings for a live CD.  In addition to guitar workshops, he's made an instructional video and would like to do more.  And there's always touring.  But Keith isn't ready to slow down.

"I'll never forget the light bulb that went off in my head as a youngster.  I heard a friend playing guitar and making up a song off the top of her head.  I thought, you can make stuff up?  It was a real revelation, and it still is.  That's what continues to inspire me.  I love to play more than ever and love to travel.  It's a really good job." 

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