Actions, Word & Bond : North Mississippi Allstars’ Chris Chew
I would like to preface this interview with a story from last Halloween. I had been watching an unreal throwdown at the Howlin' Wolf dubbed the "Dirty Zambi Ball." The name was fitting since we were all filthy from three solid days of Panic shows and lack of sleep. Chris Chew was on stage laying down some stone cold grooves as Col Bruce and some Dirty Dozen members tore holes in the ceiling. Folks were dancing on shaky legs carried by incredible music and punch drunk fantasies. One gentleman in particular was really getting down and attempting to air bass along with Chris. I watched as Chris starred at him. In a pure moment, Chris looked down at him and said something to the effect of "I know how to play my instrument, do you how to play yours?" It set the tone that this was Chris's proving ground. Right there in that late night smoke filled bar he was making it known that no one could stop him. The conversation that follows ended up opening my eyes to a softer side of Chris Chew.
[Editor’s note: Look for more on Chew’s principal band, the North Mississippi Allstars in particular, further conversation about Polaris, next month]
Jake Krolick: Most of our readers are familiar with your efforts as a member of the North Mississippi Allstars. Luther and Cody [Dickinson] have done some touring with JoJo Hermann and Smiling Assasins. What do you do when NMAS is off the road, for instance when the Smiling Assassins were on tour?
Chris Chew Well, I formed a community choir in Mississippi called the North Mississippi Community Choir. It basically consists of people aged 15 to about 35… There are many kids in this southern county; you know Black, White, and Mexican. It’s not really a racial thing. It’s just the fact that there’s so much talent in North Mississippi. Where we’re from which is Olive Branch, South Haven, Horn Lake and Hornando, in those four towns there’s just so much talent. You wouldn’t believe the kids that sing. I had a little girl yesterday at church. I think Courtney is nine and she had everybody in the church in tears. They are really something to see. I don’t knock education cause I have it, not everyone is not meant to go to college, I like to offer these kids something else that’s positive in there life.
JK: So how big a part is religion in your music?
CC: It’s about 99.99%! I grew up in a Baptist church playing guitar, bass and singing choir parts. My grandparents would only really listen to gospel so that was my first big influence musically.
JK: Which North Mississippi musicians have had the greatest influence on you?
CC: Well, my Granddad would listen to a radio blues show, so I really liked Muddy Waters and RL [Burnside]. Yeah I love RL!
JK: And now you play with Dywayne, RL’s son.
CC: It’s such an honor to play with him; he’s such a talented guitarist. He has added a great dynamic to the Allstars. I am surrounded by talented guitarists.
JK: How do you feel about the direction that Polaris took? I mean it has quite a mix to it… How would you describe it?
CC: Well, man it’s sheer rock n roll, you know what I mean. You can call it southern, what ever you want to put on the front of rock n roll but it’s pure rock. I have heard great things about it, but I have also heard bad things. I feel any band that stays the same won’t last long in the industry today. The industry right now is really hard. The strong will survive. It’s a big mixture of Southern rock, blues and gospel, a blend that we took to another level. Shake Hands with Shorty was covers of old Blues guys, 51 Phantom was more rocking, Polaris is rock, pop, r& b and some gospel. It definitely adds another dimension to us. We are already writing songs for the next record. The next records gonna be even different. I think it’s all about evolution in general. I saw Dave Matthews last night on TV talking about change and evolution. You just gotta have change or you get bored. If I sit there and play the same thing every night I get bored so I try to do something new. It challenges my mind and that’s why music is an art. It keeps you guessing you just never know.
JK: Besides those side-projects with gospel is there anything else you are working on musically?
CC: I’ll tell you I have done a few gigs. One was this past Valentine’s Day in New Orleans with Anders Osborne. We did a Beatles tribute. Man, I love gospel music. If I could spend all of my spare time with that I would and it would be just fine with me. I just feel at home playing gospel music.
JK: Have you thought about working more with Robert Randolph on gospel albums, maybe some more of The Word-style projects?
CC: Next spring I am gonna record an album of the North Mississippi Choir. I am gonna have Robert on a few traditional songs like "At the Cross." Just turn Robert loose on a couple tracks. I think we might try to do some more Word stuff next year. While we were in Austin all of us were sitting around in the back saying we would like to start the Word back up. But yeah, like I said, I am gonna have Robert down in the spring and just cut him loose. He plays great pedal steel and I got a kid in my church who’s 13, I mean he’s like Frick and Frack with Robert, but on lead Guitar.
I also got a little band Called "Big Chew and the Crew." I play a couple shows at Ole Miss playing some of the fraternities. One thing about frats they just like dance music, it could be the worst music ever, but as long as they can dance to it, they like it. It’s something to do. It’s going out as Chris Chew and I work hard at what I do.
JK: I remember a late, late night at the Dirty Zambi ball last year … That was a hot night of music.
CC: Thank-you, I really work hard, my word is my bond, but my actions speak louder then words. I want to always leave a good impression on folks that come out.
JK: I can fully respect that. Who do you look up to as far as bass players today?
CC: Man, I love Les Claypool he’s great. I really like Chris Wood. I really just got into Chris last year I have seen him play a couple of times. He’s just really talented. My foremost base player is Fred Hammond. He’s definitely an icon in my eyes. If I could be a fourth as good as he is by the time my career is over I will feel like I’ve accomplished a lot. Hmmmm, I also love Schools (Dave Schools) he taught me a lot about stage presence and just how to place the notes in different places. We used to talk a lot, but I haven’t talked to him much lately because they have been off. I want to let people rest. He told me that thirteen years ago he was doing the same thing I am doing right now, just touring around constantly. I love it we are growing and the word about NMAS is spreading.
JK: Yeah, you guys are doing really well. Speaking of the jamband scene, besides bass players are there other acts you follow?
CC: I really like Karl Denson and his thing, and I really like, Tishamingo, outta Athens. They’re really some good guys. There are those southern Florida boys, Mofro. Man, but Robert Randolph has just blown up … I tell him all the time just stay focused cause sometimes that limelight will knock you off track. Robert and I have some really heart to heart talks. I love the guy like he’s a brother. I gotta say that I got three of the greatest guitarists out there as well Luther, Cody and Dywayne. I would put these guys up against any guitar player.
JK: Did you ever have a chance to work with DJ Logic?
CC: We haven’t, you know the first time I saw Logic, I won’t lie, I just didn’t get it. Then the second time I was like "Wow this is different." By the third time I thought it was great. It was in a little pub in New Orleans and that’s where I really started to enjoy him. The next time I saw him, he had his band with him, and that was just off the charts.
JK: Do you have other passions in your life beside just religion and music?
CC: One day I really wanted to teach, when I wasn’t on the road as much. We were doing little things like summer tours or something. I really had thought about teaching kids. Plain and simple, kids our the future. I have a little 8 year old (almost 9) little girl and just watching her grow and listening to her talk, I mean I was 13 before I was talking like she’s talking now. My uncle’s a coach and my aunt is a teacher. They tell me about 45 kids getting crammed in a class room without even enough desks. That touches me and kind of hurts my spirits, but it will work out. I guess it all happens for a reason. I do some public speaking in my aunt’s classes when I am home. I try to tell the kids that music is great definitely a way to express yourself. Stay positive in what ever you do. Because that outlook will take you a whole lot further.
JK: So why did you guys not do the King Biscuit Blues festival this year?
CC: Well, we will never do that festival again and I’ll tell you why. I guess it was about 97 and we were down at that festival playing a small stage. In The middle of a song some sound guys from the main stage walked over. Their dad was playing keyboards with us. This is no lie; they walked over and unplugged the keyboards, in the middle of a song, and took it off the stage. I mean IN THE MIDDLE OF A SONG! We said that day we wouldn’t play that festival again and we haven’t. That’s why we won’t ever play it again.
JK: You guys have a big tour coming up with Steve Winwood. Do you think he’ll invite you up on stage with him?
CC: Man I want him to invite me on stage because he doesn't have a bass player. Yeah, I really hope he invites me. I just like a band with a bass player. It's all about holding the groove down.