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An Interview With Kevin Bowe on Songwriting, Blues and His Experiences with Etta James – By Bluebird

by GFats on August 24, 2012

with the Okemah Profits

Bluebird:

In addition to the recent solo album, Natchez Trace, which includes your band the Okemah Prophets, supported by a long list of talented guest musicians, you have written songs for a wide range of blues masters, one of them Etta James.

Can you tell us, here at the Boston Blues Society, about your experiences with Etta. Which songs did you write and record with her? What was she like to work with?

Kevin Bowe:

I got a call one day from a producer, I barely knew the guy, but we had talked on the phone before and I liked him. He said he was doing a record with Etta James and I should send him some songs for it, so I did. As a songwriter, you get calls like that all the time and it usually comes to nothing so I forgot about it. A few weeks later he called me back and said “I have a friend who wants to talk to you”….. and Etta comes on the phone.

First words out of her mouth… “Are you Kevin? Are you Kevin Bowe? Did you write these songs? Man you bringin’ it all back home boy, just like the Rolling Stones!”

What I remember is that she put the accent on the ROLLING instead of the Stones and I thought that was really cool. I said “Yes ma’am, yes I did.”

Her next question was “Are you a white boy?????” and I told her “not any more, ma’am, not any more”.

As an old Minneapolis punk rock Jew boy trying to age gracefully this was about as good as it gets. We talked for a while and at the end of the conversation she lowered her voice and whispered “listen – here’s my REAL phone number, the one I keep next to my BED….” which definitely scared me…but I wrote it down!

We got to be pals and I would go to her shows here and in LA, and she would always want to hang out and call me out from the stage. I opened for her here in Minneapolis, which was a great time. We talked about sex and drugs and rock and roll mostly. And aging. She was always very, very funny and self deprecating and sly-

Like many legends, I got the feeling that she had actually grown into this character she created for herself, which can be kind of an escape from something, but in the end it can be just a different kind of cage. But I loved her and I miss her.

She ended up cutting 4 of my songs on her Grammy winning Let’s Roll¬†album and she killed ’em all. One of them “Blues Is My Business” was used on a particularly violent episode of “Sopranos” and my mom LOVED that!

Bluebird:

What other blues musicians did you write and record with?
Kevin Bowe:

Let’s see, not all of these are blues but…. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang, Robben Ford, John Mayall, Shannon Curfman, Tommy Castro, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Shane Henry, Double Trouble, Leo Kottke, Joanne Shaw Taylor, Renee Austin, Delbert McClinton, Ana Popovic, Deb Coleman, Sue Foley, Peter Case, 3 Dog Night, Duane Jarvis and probably some others that I’m rudely forgetting.

One of the main things I’m working on lately is a huge voiced soul singer from Minneapolis named Alison Scott, the other is my own new record Kevin Bowe + The Okemah Prophets Natchez Trace.

Bluebird:

What type of blues to you enjoy listening to the most? What do you think the next generation of musicians should appreciate about blues music? And I don’t mean just guitar, I am talking about the form of blues music itself, since you are a song writer and musician, I’m curious about your take blues music, moving into the future. Some musicians I’ve heard love to say, ‘this has a blues-y riff’ or that ‘had a blues-y tone to it,’ and I wonder if blues music is getting diluted in new music. What do you think?

Kevin Bowe:

I listen to blues for the same thing as any other kind of music, and that’s songwriting, soul and vocals…. followed by everything else. I don’t much care about the guitar solos, I’ve heard enough of them for a lifetime and after Hendrix, BB King and Stevie Ray Vaughn then what else do you need? So I’m always looking for a great song with an interesting story or hook, some soul and a great singer, meaning an INTERESTING singer, not necessarily a proficient singer. That said, it is pretty hard for me to dig a track fully if the drummer isn’t good, but that’s the track, the version, the recording, not the song itself. Big difference. There are shitty versions of great songs and great versions of shitty songs but a great song is always a great song, it exists in the air, it doesn’t have to be PLAYED or even recorded to be great.

In response to your second question, I think the word blues is losing its meaning as rock moves further from its roots, very little rock and ROLL out there now, more just ROCK. And as rock moves further from its blues roots then ANY hint of soul or bluesiness can make a younger listener go “Oh, that’s blues”. So now the Rolling Stones are a blues band. I even heard a younger kid describe my work with Alison Scott as “blues” which it isn’t, her music is blue eyed soul more like Adele’s best stuff. But there’s another side to this semantic argument…. the blues police. I mean, overall people arguing over what is blues and what isn’t, is a pointless waste of time. But there are always some people that like to appoint themselves the “gatekeepers”, whether it’s “indie cred”, “jazz” or whatever. They can have that job, I don’t want it, it doesn’t pay well and mostly it just annoys people who are actually out there creating new work. I mean if you want to get into RULES then tell me, what’s the FIRST THING MUDDY DID WHEN HE MOVED TO CHICAGO AND MADE A FEW BUCKS????? HE BOUGHT AN ELECTRIC GUITAR!!!! Does that mean he “sold out?” No, it means he was looking to get his music over any way he could, any way that moved him and he thought would move others.

So I guess the idea is to learn as much as you can about the history of music you love, where it comes from etc….. but then give it the freedom to go where it needs to go. When it comes right down to it I never much cared what other people thought of my music, outside of my peers. Growing up in the Minneapolis punk scene taught me to pay more attention to what I thought, than what others thought and I guess that has helped me and hurt me too.

 

Mr. Manging Editor’s note, please stay tuned for further installments with Bluebird’s interview with Kevin Bowe

Kevin Bowe

www.kevinbowe.com

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