INTERVIEW: ROGER STOLLE
Walking into Cat Head with “Dollar Bill” outside and the farmers at Yazoo Pass, Roger is on the phone negotiating a new set of teeth for one of his artists. "Manage isn’t quite the word,” he says, but ensuring prompt arrival to gigs worldwide, sure.
Stolle is tall and thin with rectangle glasses and a thin-lipped, beaming smile. Accustomed to the tourist economy and well-practiced in being a resource, it’s apparent that he appreciates whoever is standing across his counter.
“He is a scholar and student of the blues,” says Tricia Walker. “To me he has done more to properly develop and market the blues than anybody I’ve seen.”
Eager to learn, but immediately out to prove myself, I prepare to showcase my knowledge of the basics. It was at this moment I see his book sitting next to me by the cash wrap.
He’d written a whole book on this stuff.
How had I not taken the time to read it?
He’s looking at me.
I was nervous, but shouldn’t have been. He meets me with both empathy and energy levels starting to rise because, let’s be honest, he’s about to school me.
The onset of this interview was to better understand the origin of the blues, not knowing what a large question this would be to someone who has spent their lifetime studying the concept. I left with a broad understanding and full confidence that it’s not my job to explain. If you are interested in what we know of blues history, you should go straight to the list at the bottom of this article and read those books for yourself.
"They are not exaggerating one bit."
Instead, Stolle and I went on to discuss the marketing of the blues, our role in that as white creators, and the current state of the genre.
“There is the genre of music and there is the culture,” he says. “The culture is part of the genre of music as well, but I’m always trying to market the cultural aspect of it. To me, that’s what makes it real and authentic and interesting and, frankly, more fun.”
As a blues fan, particularly a white blues fan, I was curious to learn how Roger wades through the characterization blues musicians face to promote an authentic product.
“That’s the hardest thing because academics sometimes try to make it this thing, but at the end of the day people don’t go to a Juke Joint for yes, that’s an F chord. You’re going cause it’s a party and these guys want to entertain you and try to get a little money out of it.
The New Yorker did a piece on Fat Possum Records in the 90’s called “White Man At The Door,” and what they’re referring to is getting a rumor about a blues guy, seeking him out and, inevitably, a little kid would show up at the door and yell, “There’s a white man at the door!” The article was critical of how they were promoting these first guys that they had found.
I don’t know if T-Model was a part of that yet, but RL Burnside was and they’re talking about how they have lots of kids and are drinkers or if they’d killed people, as if they were making this stuff up to make them seem bigger than life. I remember reading it, this was probably about the time I was meeting these guys and thinking, Oh no they’ve left some things out! They are not exaggerating one bit.
T-Model would brag about it himself, and brag is probably the right word in his case, about being on a chain gang for killing a guy. For being married six times. He always claimed twenty-six kids, but he definitely had more than that. The kind of things that a middle class family would keep in the closet. The older guys, the worst thing was keeping whiskey out of T-Model’s hand and Bilbo away from ladies and other than that… It just was more fun and more historic.”
It’s easy to romanticize these tales because of their brash specificity, the way we do cowboys and the wild west. As my dad would say, “I hear people reflect on how it was a simpler time, but it was only simple for me.” When asked how to relish in, but not generalize these stories, Roger continues, “Now, it’s not always about fun things, rather it didn’t come from fun things. It’s fun, but it’s sort of, “Laugh to keep from crying.”’
“How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string?”
— Robert Palmer, Deep Blues
Roger and I had spoken previously of our disappointment in events attended under the guise of discussing “Delta Blues” from an academic angle only to find that the time hadn’t been taken to include any one person from the region. More often than not, the call out of appropriation is pointed towards people like Stolle and I was eager to get his input on the fact. I recall being told, “Well intended people who see something in another are always going to come in and culture vulture it,” and look to see if he was tensing up.
Unaffected, he says, “There are some people like that. Around here I would say that we haven’t run into that as much because there’s just no money in it for any of us. Believe me, I can tell you, there’s no money in it. I’ve even had some families certainly think I was taking advantage. They come in here and there’d be no customers most of the time. It’s like, Why do you think I’m selling all this? Or they come during a festival and it’s like, Okay yeah, but we pay all of our bills the next week. You know what I mean? That’s why we do festivals!”
Roger is originally from Ohio and self-diagnosed “crazy fandom” brought him to town seventeen years back. Since moving to Clarksdale he has opened Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, started the notorious Juke Joint Festival, written books and produced films on the Delta Blues, and led the charge towards the town offering live blues every night of the week.
"You've got to appreciate the things that come from the art of the Negro and from the heart of the man the farthest down."
— W.C. Handy
During an hour long tangent that I refuse to publish, Roger perked up, pointing at me from his hip saying, “Doctor David Evans in Memphis is an interesting character. He’s a musician himself who replicates what 1930’s blues sounded like, very nicely, but he’s another guy who recorded Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside before Fat Possum. Now the production is very much of the era, very late 80’s sounding, but worth seeking out. Jessie Mae Hemphill is probably his best stuff."
Stolle looks up and to the right, switching hips, and making sure his story is straight before clarifying, “Actually, Robert Belfour had one release before Fat Possum did the two albums on him. The first time I saw him he had a CD called “When The Sun Goes Down” or something like that. It was an obscure compilation from a little German independent label and had seven of his songs on there.
By way of sheer determination, Roger tracked down a box of those CD’s. He opened the package to find the cover art to be a photo taken in the late 80’s of the alley behind what is now his store. “How bizarre is that?! That’s what became of this weird compilation CD.”
“Muddy Waters, where’s that?”
Since I began experiencing the blues for myself, I’ve been confused and at times frustrated by the reality that we often have to be re-introduced to the blues in order to appreciate them. Take Jack White’s It Might Get Loud, for example.
Defeated, he tells me, “That’s a good example cause he’s one of the last guys who sold some records who exposed blues in some way. Segregation was such a thing. We think about it in such a modern ways of thinking, Oh you couldn’t sit at the same place at a bus station, but it permeated. Every white business was duplicated across the tracks by a black business. It was whole separate worlds. So as music was going on, unless you were in a city where it was on the radio, you weren’t stumbling onto it.
Here, most older white folks would say, “We didn’t feel safe going to those,” or whatever, but there was a whole time we just didn’t know about it. The Beatles arrive in ‘64 and one of the reporters asks, “What do you want to see while you’re here?” and they’re like, “blah blah blah and Muddy Waters!” The reporter goes, “Muddy Waters, where’s that?”
Succumbing to naivety, I confess to only now realizing the strategy of the re-introduction process through Europe.
“They introduced us to this black music and that’s really what this is about, but musicians didn’t think of it that way. They had no concept that white America would be interested in this, but some dude is boosting your ego and offering you a paycheck that’s bigger than what you can get working at a gas station or working on a farm.”
He recalls Fred McDowell working at the Stuckey’s back in Como, “He would disappear sometimes. He’d ask for time off and they had no idea he was going to Europe or Newport or doing what he was going to do, but he was famous.”
We talk about Gary Clark Jr. as Roger thumbs through issues of blues magazines and fidgets with the images taped to the wall behind him of his buddies, “It kind of miffed me a little bit, not him personally, but because they marketed him that way. He’s going to be on the cover of these magazines when T-Model Ford really should be.”
"I enjoy that in its own way, but not at all the same as a big, messy RL Boyce show."
The Wi-Fi at the shop had been switched to a different provider recently and the install guys had arrived. They had been looking at posters and trying on “Burnside Style” trucker hats for twenty minutes, before piping up to say, “We’re here to look at your router!”
In the last few minutes of our interview, I ask the looming question a lot of people like Roger are feeling, “Where do we go from here?”
“Well the cultural connection is breaking in a lot of ways. Back in the day little kids used to play diddley bows or cigar boxes trying to emulate the adults cause that was the popular music! You saw your neighbor or your dad or your grandfather playing and you saw that he was getting the ladies, he was making some money, he was the center of attention, and that’s what you want to emulate. Well, now it’s not who’s in the room with you. Now it’s who’s on the TV or your smartphone. Hip hop is the thing in African American music and, frankly, white music, too. In Clarksdale if you ran a club that was a rock club or a country club, you’d make more money than a blues club cause you’d have the locals and it’d be year round. Fortunately, no one’s figured that out so we’re doing the blues.
When you lose certain guys, like T-Model Ford, he was self-taught, in a vacuum, at 58 years old and lived until about 93. He heard these records, he heard what people were doing and he just thought, Well, I have to play all of those parts. So if you listen to him, he’s really playing both the rhythm and the lead. He has a grandson who played drums for him and he wanted to teach him guitar, but he just didn’t want to do it. That could have been it right there.
The continuation of someone like Bilbo Walker, he’s got kids everywhere that he took care of, but they were just singers. So his really archaic, weird mix of Chuck Berry meets Muddy Waters guitar just went away. He was the one guy that did it.”
I check on Roger’s pug, Ayler, as he continues, “Robert Belfour was one of the last of the old school Hill Country guys, but he’s gone now, so now you have RL Boyce. I love RL, though the truth is he only has like six songs, which is all he really needed. He’s used to playing yard parties. Basically, by the time he’s done with those six, everybody’s so drunk that he can stop and something else will happen. Usually they’ll set a sofa on fire or some tires.
Here's what Robert Johnson sounded like, seems to be as common an approach as any and to that Stolle says, "That's impressive to watch someone play like that and I enjoy that in its own way, but not at all the same as a big, messy RL Boyce show."
‘“Now a days we’re sort of in this era of, “This is what you need to do.” When blues has been popular and commercially recorded, it’s going through a filter. As opposed to either field recordings or done in hotel rooms. Paramount records didn’t have any idea how to produce those records. They just said, “go” and “stop.” The Chess Brothers recorded such great stuff, but they absolutely said, “This is what we want,” and put certain musicians together that wouldn’t naturally play together; so it’s not as natural an evolution. Cedric (Burnside) needs to be trying to get these Grammy nominations, and he’s got two now, but it definitely changes how you’re going to approach a record cause it really is a business.”
"The past is never dead. It's not even past. All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity. Haunted by wrong turns and roads not taken, we pursue images perceived as new but whose providence dates to the dim dramas of childhood, which are themselves but ripples of consequence echoing down the generations. The quotidian demands of life distract from this resonance of images and events, but some of us feel it always."
- William Faulkner
The strength behind Roger’s unwavering curiosity is one of the traits I am most thankful to have found. For him, there is no denying the history that he lives within and is upfront about taking his time to understand the role he wishes to play. Whether it’s fear or pride, Stolle, much like myself, has had seasons of being nervous to engage with aspects of the community before coming to a place of, I need to be open minded about this. I now understand why they’re doing it and this stuff is going away.
“But the other thing is,” Roger explained, “I looked in the guest book of one of the shacks and there was this one dude who had written, ‘It’s like I can feel the ghosts of the people who lived in this building,’ and he was making it all positive. Some people just really don’t understand that’s what they’re dealing with. You don’t have to be judgmental about it even, just be factual.”
Roger Stolle’s Recommendations:
Father of the Blues - W.C. Handy
Notes on Negro Music - Charles Peabody
Deep Blues - Robert Palmer
*PRE-ORDER Mississippi Juke Joint Confidential - Roger Stolle
Hidden History of Mississippi Blues - Roger Stolle
Conversation With The Blues - Paul Oliver
White Man At The Door - The New Yorker
Moonshine and Mojo Hands - Roger Stolle
King Of The Blues Singers - Robert Johnson
M for Mississippi - Roger Stolle
Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins - Les Miles