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Published: 2004/07/30
by Andy Tennille

Used with Alvin Youngblood Hart

Courtesy of www.mojomusic.com

A walk through the used record bins of some of the country’s finest music stores with musicians, both famous and infamous.

Alvin Youngblood Hart is an old soul. You can hear it in his music. His acoustic blues simple and raw has the fingerprints of Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt all over it; the electric stuff sounds like the great blues album Hendrix would have made if he lived past 27.

Alvin is part of a dying breed the American bluesman. The fraternity suffered a devastating loss in 2001 with the death of the great John Lee Hooker and the rest of the late bluesman's generation of BB King, Buddy Guy, Little Milton, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Taj Mahal are all well into their 60s. Keb' Mo and Corey Harris are popular choices for torchbearers of the younger generation and both are great musicians in their own right, but Hart's music offers a genuine authenticity that is rare in 21st Century blues music. Hart didn't grow up in rural Mississippi, though he did spend several summers there visiting his grandparents. The log cabin that his grandfather built is pictured in the liner notes of Hart's terrific 1996 debut album, Big Mama’s Door. Hart was born in Oakland, California in 1963, but his voice sounds as old as the Delta hills.

In fact, Hart worked at both Rasputin's and Amoeba Music in Berkeley before he started making records in 1995.

"Working at Rasputin's in Berkeley was the worst job I ever had," Hart said as we stepped into Amoeba Music down the street. "And I've had some pretty bad jobs. They used to get mad at me because I used to just put all the old records out on display. You know, stuff like Albert King from the 1950s. My manager would come over and say, Can you maybe put out some Debbie Davis?' So I jumped ship and came down here. Cool thing is that all those old records are always here. I remember stocking them when I was workin'."

As we make our way around Amoeba, Hart arrives at the used video section and turns to me holding a Joe Walsh guitar instructional tape.

"I came along after the instructional video era, so I never made one," Hart said with a grin. "But I would have if I had the chance. I have a ton of them at home and watch them all the time. I just bought a Robin Trower video off Ebay. But we're into watching Rocky & Bullwinkle in my house these days. It entertains the kid, but I enjoy it because I understand the Cold War political stuff."

We wander over to Used Blues and are greeted by a vinyl copy of BB King's Live in Cook County Jail.

"I think I bought my first copy of Live in Cook County Jail for $1.99," Hart said. "It's a really powerful album. If you ask most guitarists what they love about BB King, most of them will save his tone. To me, he was just a cool guy."

Hart is an avid vinyl collector his home in Memphis is crammed full of records the guitarist has purchased during his travels and touring. At Amoeba, Hart crouches down to search the vinyl stored in boxes underneath below the bins.

"If I had been around making records during the vinyl era, my stuff would probably be down here," he joked. "I still have almost every record I've bought since 1970. Sometimes it's just the cover of the album that gets me interested. I can't resist getting it just to check it out. I guess one good thing about the arrival of CDs is it made a lot more space in stores for more music. That, and I think CDs are generally more accessible."

The influence of folks like John Lee Hooker, Freddie King and Mississippi John Hurt on Hart's music is obvious, especially when watching him wander the blues section. As clichs it sounds, Hart's face literally lights up when talking about these men, his heroes.

"I'll tell you a funny story," he says as he flips through Hurt's catalogue. "I've always felt a real strong connection to Mississippi John Hurt's music, kind of like it was speaking to me. A few summers back, my mom was at the John Hurt Festival and met his granddaughter. Apparently, my mom and her have a common cousin, so he and I are distantly related. I was blown away when I heard that, man."

Just as he finishes telling the story, Leadbelly's "Midnight Special" is piped over the store's PA system, which elicits a warm smile from Hart.

"They get points for that," he said, looking back to the front of the store.

Although his sound is firmly rooted in the blues, Hart counts jazz guitarists Grant Green, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery as influences.

"Wes Montgomery had such an outrageous approach to playing the guitar," Hart said. "My parents listened to a lot of his music when I was growing up, so when I heard him again when I was older, I was like, Yeah man, I remember this guy.'"

Hart is also a fan of Roland Kirk's revolutionary 1969 album Volunteered Slavery and Sonny Rollins' concerts from the 70s.

"When I was around 16 years old, I went to see Sonny Rollins at the Roxy," Hart recalled. "After the show, I'm standing out front waiting for my ride and I got propositioned by a prostitute. I was pretty young at the time…I think I walked up and asked her what time it was."

Hart's love of music even stretches to heavy metal, probably a result of being influenced by punk in the 80s.

"I was a few years ahead of the punk scene and few miles away at the time, living in the Midwest," Hart said. "We were into the MC5 some. We didn't call it punk, but all the punk guys I knew who couldn't play loved it. We all loved Iggy and the Stooges. Later, I got into Thin Lizzy, UFO...Rank & File was a cool band, man. I really liked Sabbath and saw Ozzy in '81 with Motorhead opening. AC DC was big for me too. I watch "Let There Be Rock" at least once a month."

One of the biggest supporters of Hart's musical career has been the Allman Brothers Band, who asked him to serve as an opening act on their summer tour in 2000. Hart was surprised to find that when he met the legendary Georgia band, they were already familiar with his work.

"Warren Haynes is up on everything man," Hart said. "He already had my record when they asked me to open for them and said some really nice things about it the first time we met. I opened for them at a gig at the Fillmore, and Dickey didn't make it. Warren was walking around backstage asking every guitarist in the house to sit in with them. Steve Kimock sat in for a few tunes, and Duane Betts played a couple songs too. When I walked up, their manager was on the phone trying to get someone named Neil over to jam for the second set. I never found out if it was Neil Young they were looking for, but I don't think it was Neil Diamond."

Alvin’s Picks of the Day

John Lee Hooker, No Friend Around
Rocky & Bullwinkle videos
BB King, Live in Cook County Jail
Anything by Mississippi John Hurt
Wes Montgomery, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery

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