“I was 32 years
old at the time, so it made a huge impact on everything
I was doing,” he explained. “It allowed me to get
more and better gigs
– really helped my reputation. It’s sort of the
Grammy of the blues
world. The word of mouth it generated was incredible.”
In 2002, Catfish was invited to be part of a major package tour called
The American Festival of
, which toured through England,
Scotland and Wales, playing such venues as the Liverpool Philharmonic
. He recalls: “We played in these giant,
legendary-type venues – 40
different venues in 40 days.” With Catfish on the tour were
“Hideaway” Bridges, Angela Brown and Michael Roach.
tours the UK every October and November, and tours the U.S. most of the
rest of the year.
Ten of his independently-released albums are number-one independent
radio chart-toppers, including his 1984 debut for Kicking Mule records,
. Since then, he has released eleven solo discs,
culminating with the release of If I Could Holler
I visited with Catfish about his newest release to dig into what was
cookin’ in his process and how he captured this amazingly
performance in the studio.
This album has a really different feel to it, at least to
my ears. Was that intentional?
Nothing about the feel of this record was really intentional; my
approach has always been to take in a healthy list of tunes, both
originals and songs from the treasure trove, and see what works best.
Usually I don't know if new songs are really ready until I actually go
in and record them; a few weren't ripe yet, so we'll save them for next
time. I'll only try a few takes at most on any song; if it doesn't work
I just move on to the next thing.
The spirit I think I've achieved is a deeper, more hypnotic feel. More
dust and bones and highways – all life's joy and sorrow is in
style has become more pared down with age, and I think it has more "I'm
glad to be alive" energy in it. I feel so lucky to be able to do this
it really is a great life!
you’ve captured is something incredibly live and in the
is such a rare thing anymore. It’s extremely challenging to
life and vitality in a studio setting. How did you pull it off?
This album was recorded by Justin Kennedy in Iowa City, Iowa. He did
everything: recording, engineering, mixing and mastering. He's great to
work with; I really enjoyed his imagination and wizardry. He used a
total of eight mics to capture the live sound of vocal, guitars and
feet. Just around the guitars were three mics, one by the fretboard,
one by the lower bout and one right in front. I used six different
guitars, two were great acoustic guitars (a Flammang EL and a Collings
00 12 fret), four were various National Reso-Phonics, including two
Baritones, a 12-string and the Radiotone. Every guitar does its own
special thing. The 12-string has become an important new voice for me,
and the title song, "If I Could Holler," wrote itself on the 12-string
What exactly is a "Tricone," and how is that different
from other resonators?
A Tricone is a National that has three smaller resonator cones; it was
the invention of John Dopyera and was first produced in 1927. Dopyera
considered this his ultimate invention – I think he was
sound is distinctive – harmonic-rich with quite a bit more
it's the perfect guitar for slide. Add to that tone the baritone scale
length and low tunings, which are open Bb and Eb, the exact same
tunings as the traditional open D (Vastopol) and G (Spanish), just four
or five frets lower, and you got something really deep and mesmerizing.
When did you start really exploring the 12-string? What
was your initial attraction to it?
I always loved 12-string since I was a teenager and was knocked out by
Leo Kottke, Lead Belly, Blind Willie McTell and all that followed. Paul
Geremia really is a master on it. I had no resistance to it, but didn't
end up getting one until a few years ago. National made me one and an
ancient guitar-orchestra voice called my name.
Yes, guitar orchestra is really the right description.
It’s a sound you
can get lost in – so many layers and overtones and
there a learning curve to learn to coax just the right set of sounds
from it, or was it more intuitive than that?
Once you decide where to tune it and get it tuned up, the playing does
become intuitive. The 12-string is really in its own guitar universe.
Songs I play on it are very specific to that instrument – I
them on six string guitar. I still feel like a baby with it, but that's
the joy. It can be like riding a bucking bronco when you really get
going on it, but it's a delicate thing too.
You've mentioned open D and open G tunings, and I know
you've used a little DADGAD. What other tunings do you find useful?
I mostly stick to the sort of traditional tunings. On the acoustic
guitars it's standard tuning and dropped D, though I pitch these
guitars usually a whole step (two frets) lower. This way I can really
bend and twang and chime the strings the way I like without too much
pain. The 12-string is standard tuning, but pitched somewhere around C
(four frets lower). The Radiotone wood-bodied single cone National I
use for the DADGAD-type tuning on “The Cuckoo,” and
my Baritones are
Vastopol (Son House called this "Vestibule" tuning) or Spanish with
tone centers around B or Bb.
different steel guitars do you use? What does each of these guitars
give you that no other guitar can?
I have several Nationals; on this album four of them were used. My
primary slide guitar is a National Baritone Polychrome Tricone. It's
real deep and juicy, with the famous Tricone river-flow sustain and
harmonic richness, only deeper. I always leaned toward lower tunings,
and when Mac and Don at National let me play one of their earliest
prototype Baritones, I flipped out! I found what I was looking for, and
have used these as my preferred slide guitars ever since. This one has
got big fat strings (.068-.017) and is usually in Bb Vastopol open
tuning, played with fingerpicks and slide.
I have a custom wood-bodied single-cone National Estralita Baritone
that I consider my Sister Rosetta Tharpe guitar, it's used on "Rock
Me." It's played without picks, and has medium strings (.056-.013).
It's so pretty with cowboy rope binding, figured anigre top and walnut
back and sides, and the strings are real bendy and snappy. I can
achieve unique effects with this guitar and hopefully get the spirit of
Sister Rosetta flying out with pure guitar-splanging joy.
The Radiotone Bendaway is a cutaway, single cone, wood bodied National.
It has found its niche with me for sort of frailing-style, mountain
banjo-influenced pieces like "Blotted Out My Mind" and "The Cuckoo."
Lots of percussive snap, but also dark, hollow and a little spooky.
Finally there’s the National custom 12-string Style One
are so many wild and uncharted tones in it, it was a challenge to
capture on record, but the result seemed to have a hypnotizing effect.
What is it about a guitar that makes you want to wrap it
up and take it home?
Vintage guitars were my first love, so a new guitar with classic curves
and great workmanship is a great start. Then there's the search for
another unique voice that could be useful or just fun. I like a new
guitar in vintage style, that way you got a lifetime ahead with a new
guitar. I've worn out several guitars, so it's better to start brand
new for me.
Let's talk nails. How do you do yours, and why did you
decide to go with flesh instead of picks?
I use different techniques for different approaches. For the slide and
National guitar, I almost always use fingerpicks – a big
thumbpick and metal fingerpicks on two fingers. On acoustic,
fingerpicked guitar, I play without fingerpicks, using fake nails on my
thumb, index and middle finger of my right hand. They are glue-on
women's nails, filed down just right, and they give me the extra
strength I need to twang the strings and achieve all of the harmonic
effects I've made part of my style. I can't do these effects with
fingerpicks on, so the fake nails became necessary to get the sound
night after night. The sound is a combination of flesh and nail.
You have a bag of tricks up your right sleeve that is the
of anybody who's ever watched you play. How much of your technique was
discovery, imitation or invention?
The guitar is wonderful in many ways. One is that it's been re-invented
again and again. I achieved my own style from absorbing many of my
heroes' sounds and making my own expressions from that. Discovering
ways to make sounds fly out of the guitar is a thrill. Many ways to
play might come from other genres or instruments. The way that I play
harmonics, for instance, could be attributable to Harpo Marx, or the
way string bends are made could go back to that zither player in The
or to Lenny Breau. But all of these ingredients are put into my own
sort of acoustic blues style. These ways of playing helped expand the
range of sounds for me and offered more colors to the musical palette.
I suppose at that point it becomes invention.
do you go about writing music? Your originals sound utterly timeless.
Is that an intentional thing, or is it a matter of the water you swim
I don't know if "writing" is really the right term. Often, I'll have
the seed of an idea from some old song that's been on my mind. Instead
of going back to an old recording, I'll just write new lyrics, and
before you know it, you got your own song. I guess they're timeless
because the sources are. My favorite music is still the genius,
classic, old-time country blues and roots music; the heartfelt, solo
expression of the quirky, weird, oddball solo musician.
Your arrangements of old blues songs honor the originals
and yet shine
new light at the same time. How do you approach making these songs your
My approach is to soak up the music until its part of your own spirit,
and then make your own version of it. Not much note-for-note copying,
just inspiration, transformed. Also, using the musical base as a
springboard for improvisation. Once you have the language of the style,
then you can speak it in your own voice.
Let's talk about some of these songs. How do you keep
replenishing the library? Where do you keep finding these little gems?
There’s a deep pool of quality songs that never seems to run
dry. I am
amazed by the power of it. I feel I've just scratched the surface, even
after 30-odd years of playing and 11 albums. The focus and drive just
keeps going deeper. I just get into a zone and sort of hypnotize
myself. I'm just lucky others seem to want to come along with me.
You made a wonderful solo guitar CD a few years back, A
Fistful of Riffs, which proved your mastery of your
instrument. Any plans for another solo guitar project, or other
experiments in the works?
I never really planned to make an all-instrumental record. It's only
one aspect of the music. I do love the sound and twangy depth of the
different guitars, and there will probably be a few instrumental pieces
here and there, but I like my records to have mostly songs [with
vocals]. I'd like to try a little dubbing, maybe play and sing
harmonies myself, add some guitar parts. Mostly, though, my vision has
remained steady: getting the most music out of one guitar, one voice
and the rhythm of the feet.
You tour the U.S., Mexico and the United Kingdom
frequently. Where else can our readers catch you in 2008?
My wife (and manager/sound engineer) Penny and I are out on the road
about half of the year; we're in Mexico right now, and will play in the
UK and Europe this fall, and around the U.S. this summer. It's been a
blast. This is the revelation/vision I had at age 15, and it's very
gratifying to have been able to realize it. Here, over 30 years later,
we're living a great life through music.