Artist Profile on: Catfish Keith
Feature Article from Blues Revue Quarterly Issue #2, 1991
by Bob Vorel
Early on in the birthing of the first issue of the BRQ I had received a review copy of Catfish Keith’s latest release, Pepper in My Shoe!. The dynamics and intensity of this new release had me jumpin’ and wonderin’, “Why haven’t I heard of this guy before?” Then the clouds broke and the light of the “Catch 22” shone down (see Steve James’ profile in Issue No. 1) . . . and, well I knew Catfish had to be the next subject of the “On the Road” column. I was able to catch up with Catfish at the Eureka Springs, Arkansas Festival, where he drew standing ovations and more importantly, praise from his fellow performers. Spencer Bohren had only heard of Catfish on the circuit and made a point of stepping up to me and saying, “You’re right, Bob, this guy is great!” Robert Lucas came off stage, having preceded Catfish in the line-up . . . “Man, am I glad I didn’t have to follow this guy!” (Don’t worry, Robert, you held your own — and look for an upcoming profile on Robert Lucas). So, here is the profile interview — check this guy out if you haven’t done it already. — Bob.BRQ: Catfish, give us a quick bio’ and get us up to your involvement with “the music.”
Catfish: I was born in East Chicago, Indiana, on February 9th, 1962. My real name is Keith Daniel Kozacik. It’s a Slovak name. Earlier, I used to just use Keith Kozacik, but everybody spelled it wrong . . . and after they started to call me Catfish, everyone remembered who I was. I heard blues ever since I was a small boy. My dad would take me fishing and we would bring home this big mess of fish. My dad would put on the old radio in the garage . . . “Big Bill Hill, Comin’ Atcha’ All Night Long!”, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Otis Rush . . . they’d all be coming out of the radio while we cleaned fish in that garage. I picked up the guitar briefly when I was twelve years old, but got bored with the structured lessons and quickly put it down. Then, when I was about fifteen, I heard this woman playing guitar and singing at a party. She was making up the lyrics as she went along . . . it just blew me away. I started buying records out of the “cut” bin, and picked up this Son House album, and it really inspired me to pick up the guitar again. I really learned how to play and fingerpick on my own . . . I’d ask somebody: hey, could you show me how you just did that? I got a few patterns going, and put together a few songs . . . and discovered open tunings . . . that was a whole new world.
BRQ: And broke a lot of strings learning?
Catfish: I only had one guitar early on, and I remember my first concert . . . when I was eighteen years old, out of high school, the big concert, and I wanted to show people all the tunings I could play out of . . . all night I was replacing strings. I quickly learned that you need a couple of guitars to play open and regular tunings.
BRQ: So when did you actually get involved with the blues?
Catfish: Actually the first stuff I was playing was more the folk scene. I also played for the church in their folk masses. Then someone said, “don’t you ever sing?” And that was when the blues really kicked in. I tried to imitate the tunes as close as I could, but I think ever since the beginning I really was doing my own arrangements, my own way of playing a song, my own rhythms and even my own words in some cases.
BRQ: What have been some of your musical influences?
Catfish: Well, I’d have to say that it’s been varied. Louis Armstrong was clearly a favorite and guys that played with him like Jack Teagarden, and Lonnie Johnson is one of my favorite guitar players . . . He kind of bridged the gap between blues and jazz. Then some of the deep delta guys like Son House, Fred McDowell, Big Joe Williams . . . I’m really interested in, like when the blues got plugged in with guys like Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jesse Mae Hemphill. It’s just country blues electrified . . . and it’s neat to see people dancing to the music once you get a rhythm instrument going in there . . . you know, with a bass. I wouldn’t mind recording some stuff like that myself.
BRQ: You have a distinctive style. It’s very uptempo and lively . . . what do you think of your own style?
Catfish: I’ve always thought of myself as kind of a dance band . . . that’s what the blues was originally for . . . people would dance to the blues at house parties. I think my music has as much of that old Black dance music in there as it does Delta Blues. I think a song like “Buffalo Gals” is as much in the black fiddle tradition as in the white tradition. It’s funny how all the past singers were influenced back and forth. Like Howlin’ Wolf’s big hero was Jimmy Rodgers and he wanted to learn to yodel . . . and he couldn’t really yodel, all he could do was howl. So he made his own style out of that.
BRQ: Catfish, give us a quick discography and an idea of any future recording plans.
Catfish: Well, my first album came out in 1985 and was called Catfish Blues on the Kicking Mule label. And now my latest album is called Pepper in My Shoe! and was recorded in 1990. It’s on my own label . . . the Fish Tail Records label. Since I was selling so much off the stage and out of my trunk, I decided to put out the last recording on my own label . . . and keep the middle man out of it. I would like to get on a major label though, and find some good management. But . . . I’m not gonna sit around waiting for that to come . . . it could happen one day . . . but if you don’t make your own career happen people will never hear you. You’ve got to type your own press release, do your own bookings
. . . all of it until that time comes.
BRQ: Is that Catfish Blues album still available?
Catfish: Oh yeah! You can get it through Kicking Mule or through me at Fish Tail Records . . . there are even a few vinyl sides still left. Pepper will be out soon on CD.
BRQ: What about the new album you talked about.
Catfish: This summer I’ll be working on getting my third album recorded and that should be out sometime over the fall or winter. I’ve got a large repertoire that I really want . . . to get some down on a new recording. Man, I know so many tunes . . . I can’t even remember all the tunes I know.
BRQ: That sounds like another one of those famous quotes, maybe even a song title. Have you been doing much writing?
Catfish: Lately I’ve been getting up in the morning and just playing guitar for an hour or so . . . and usually come up with a song in that time. They’re definitely steeped in the country blues tradition, but they’re modern songs . . . applicable to today.
BRQ: On the Pepper album, and even more so on the Catfish Blues album, you show a really strong affinity to Island music. Could you comment on that for us?
Catfish: I had a friend from down Trinidad way that would sing “Brownskin Gal,” and then I heard Joseph Spence . . . I proceeded to go down island myself . . . hung out with some of the island musicians . . . the thing is the incredible rhythm that they have in the calypso and reggae . . . all the different traditions they have in the island music, also the sacred music. From living down there for 2 or 3 winters, well I picked up some of that flavor. It’s just as much a roots music as the American blues . . . and very close in many ways.
BRQ: Tell me about the last year; what kind of venues have you been performing and maybe some of the immediate plans for the future.
Catfish: Things have been getting better every year . . . and I’ve been playing professionally and making a living . . . well, it’s more of a life-style than a living (laughs) . . . you’ve got to enjoy the playing cause the money isn’t gonna amount to much . . . anyway, the nice thing is that I’ve been able to play some of these major folk and blues festivals, and I’ve been getting inquiries from Europe . . . sounds like some people want me to come over there. I just want to become as much a world musician as possible cause I think the blues is really becoming a world music . . . it seems that a lot of Europeans have been a lot more hip to our American music than we have been for quite a long time. The next big thing I’m doing is to go to the Snowbird Blues & Jazz Festival, Snowbird, Utah, and I’ll be on the bill with Lonnie Brooks and Koko Taylor. I’m starting to get to the level that I’ve always wanted to be at.
BRQ: Getting back to your distinctive style . . . do you predominantly play slide guitar?
Catfish: No, I guess it seems that way because the slide guitar is a flashier performance, but I really like to play fingerpicking style on my old Nick Lucas Gibson.
BRQ: There is an interesting trend towards the acoustic side of things . . . and I would like to have you comment on this statement. I can’t interview Son House or Furry Lewis anymore, and you don’t play like those guys, and nobody should expect you to, but there is a real life and excitement that comes through on your most recent Pepper album . . . I think that it is a new atmosphere or effect in the blues. There’s a light heartedness with the harmonics that you play; the texturization and colorization that you bring to the music . . . and your lyrics . . . it’s up and happy and very people related.
Catfish: I think people want to have a good time . . . the most fun I’ve ever had was when I’ve been on stage playing, and the people are dancin’ and movin’.
BRQ: Your music strikes me as being very danceable.
Catfish: Yeah, on my live shows I like to have a good surface to stomp my foot on . . . I’m even thinking of putting a pick-up on the board to make it even more a part of the mix. Getting back to influences, I think I ought to mention some of the living performers that have had an effect on me, not just in the music but also in just how to live . . . how to relate to people . . . be gracious, how to take care of your own business. Guys like Johnny Shines . . . playing with somebody like him made me really feel what it was all about. His music had always made my hair stand on end . . . but to sit next to him and get to play for an audience . . . Oh Man! Then there are guys like John Hammond and Paul Geremia; they’re like my musical fathers, cause I’m like a young Cat, and they’re more about my Daddy’s age. So I feel like I’m a third generation blues man.
BRQ: Where did you pick up your harmonic style?
Catfish: Well, I’ve seen a lot of people play with different harmonic styling, like Greg Brown here in Iowa City. He used to make a kind of harmonic with the end of his thumb and the end of his fingerpick. Then I saw Hawaiian style players using a palm technique. Then I saw a jazz player named David Winters, he played in lounges in Santa Cruz. He was kind of placing the harmonic with his first finger and twanging it with his second finger while playing a bass figure with his thumb at the same time. I saw that and I thought, that’s a good way to do things. So I woodshedded on that for seven or ten years and it really expanded the range of the instrument.
BRQ: So, here is the traditional last question . . . Do you want people to get in touch with you directly for bookings, etc.?
Catfish: Oh yeah! Call or write to Catfish Keith, Fish Tail Records, PO Box 2561, Iowa City, IA 52244 (319) 338-3614.