RUSTY ZINN INTERVIEW
The Blues Is Truth
May 5, 2004
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Imagine my surprise when I was asked to sit and talk with this guy. I mean RUSTY ZINN, one of my blues idols. This would be a blues fan?s dream come true. I was nervous and wanted to back out. After much encouragement and pondering, I decided, why the hell not?
A chance of a lifetime to get inside a blues musician?s head. I could ask anything, I was told, so I started compiling questions. I pooled some from Zinn fans that I know, and came up with some things I?d been dying to find out myself. Here it goes and remember?I am not a writer nor do I claim to be. I am simply a blues fan that just loves the blues.
We met at Amoeba Records in Berkeley. Some locals like to call it Bezerkeley and for good reason. We strolled across the street and had lunch. With the tape rollin?, we talked for three hours!! Every once in awhile I had to do a reality check and remind myself that I was sitting having lunch with one of my favorite singers, songwriters and guitarists around.
It?s all word for word pretty much. I had heard, and witnessed at one of his shows, that Rusty is ready to venture out a bit. A new sound away from the blues. This was most upsetting to me so we?ll start there?..
Mo: Tell us a bit about your new project, Rusty. First off, what label will it be on?
Rusty: Bad Daddy Records. It?s a little mom and pop label outta LA. The guy that runs it is a very successful marketing guy.
Mo: Craig Horton?s first CD and his new CD are on that label as well?
Rusty: Yeah, I produced his new CD, [as well as his first] which was recorded back in September and October . That will probably be out in June or July .
Mo: Are you going to tour with your new CD?
Rusty: Well, it depends. I?m not going to tour the way I have in the past. Full steam ahead. Obviously, to sell the record, the label?s going to want me to do dates behind the product. I?m not really interested in gettin? in a van anymore, driving straight across the U.S. and back, playing all these little clubs and all. I need a break from that. Probably gonna try to concentrate on festivals and showcase gigs. That?s our goal right now.
Mo: Blues circuit?
Rusty: Not necessarily. What I?d really like to go after are these music festivals. They have all kinds of music like roots type of music. Also, places like Great American Music hall, Slim?s [both in San Francisco] and those places that have all kinds of music.
Mo: On your new release, is there any blues on it?
Mo: Tell us a little bit about this new direction you?re going. What would you call it?
Rusty: I call it soul music. Not because it?s traditional soul music but because everything I did on there has a lot of soul in it. I think it?s the most soulful project I?ve ever done. It?s not a traditional blues record. I don?t think blues purists are going to like it at all [laughing]. I just have to be up front with ya?ll. I know I?m gonna lose some fans, but I?ll gain some new ones as well. The people who really love you, will stick by you no matter how your style evolves.
It?s really more based around my singing and song writing and there?re a lot of different influences. I?ve always wanted to let these influences come out in my playing and singing. There?s a lot of soul music, reggae, doo-wop. We really didn?t think about what it was gonna sound like. We weren?t trying to sound like this guy or that guy; we just played from our heart.
It?s a record where a lot of post- production is involved, which a lot of blues purists are against. I recorded the basic tracks for the project in September and October, then I went to Europe for three months immediately after that. So, I had three months to sit over there and listen to my rough mixes and think, ?OK, I want to change this, I want to add this, I wanna subtract that?. Then when I came home, I had several more months to listen more, to change my mind again, and go in and put a lot of attention into the production of the record which has been a real blessing. Every record I?ve ever done before, has been a rush job. It?s been, ?OK, you?ve got two days to record this and that?s it.? That?s no way to make a record.
Mo: Some of the best records come out like that.
Rusty: Some of the best records do come out like that but not for what I want to do at the moment. I feel like I?ve already made at least two great straight ahead blues records where we kinda shot from the hip. Where we really didn?t know what we were going to do going into the studio.
I think I captured that kind of approach you were talking about in the past. I?ll probably go back and do that again someday, maybe I won?t. I don?t know. My first record we did, [Sittin? & Waitin?] a lot of people don?t realize, but we recorded that in my living room in a house I lived in, in Oakland. Everybody was all in one room. We just let the tape roll and I just called out keys and we were just countin? stuff off. Nothing was rehearsed at all.
Mo: Well?I love that record, Sittin? & Waitin?. To me, Confessin? [2nd release] is more like that 50s rock ?n roll kinda sound.
Rusty: Well that must just be a coincidence. I don?t usually go in with the idea that I?m going to capture this sound or that sound. I think with Confessin?, I was able to touch the tip of the iceberg with what I?m doing now, that is to let a couple more other influences and styles that I?ve absorbed, I let them come out. Like, I had the gospel singers on Confessin?.
Before I was ever introduced to blues as a teenager, I was into doo-wop from my folks. My mom loved Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, so I heard a lot of that. soul music on the radio. Motown, Philly soul, Stylistics, Spinners, etc?.
I?ve always loved singing and harmony. I?ve always loved melody. I loved the Beatles as a kid. Crazy about the Beatles. I think a lot of people think that I?m some blues purist guy and really, I am, but what does that mean? I like my blues real.
Mo: Back to your new project?The title, you said, is going to be Zinfidelity Vol. 1, is that right?
Rusty: That?s what they?re gonna call it. Should be out in August .
Mo: Who?s on it?
Rusty: Mainly used my regular band I have. Bob Welsh on keyboards and second guitar??
Mo: Don?t you go corrupting him now. [Oops! Did I say that?]
Rusty: No, he?s corrupted me! Randy Bermudes on bass. June Core on drums on half of it. Walter Shufflesworth played drums on the other half. Two horn players, Issac Pena on trumpet who I think you?ve seen with The Dynatones, and the sax player, his name is Lester but I can?t remember his last name. I think his last name is Harris. Then we had another horn player that over-dubbed some horns recently. Let?s see?.who else is on there? Oh yeah, ME! I?m on there. My girlfriend, Angila Witherspoon, is singing back ups on there and her cousin TJ Williams, is doing some singing too.
Mo: Did you write the songs?
Rusty: I wrote about half the songs. A couple of them were written by Randy.
Mo: Randy writes, huh?
Rusty: Oh yeah. Randy writes fantastically. Not blues though, he?s not really a blues writer. He writes very dark lyrics. Very morbid and miserable songs [laughing]. I could never in a million years come up with that. I write more positive. Love songs.
I got into the reggae thing from Bob Welsh. Me and Bob used to live in a house together in Oakland. He used to have this record by this guy named Desmond Dekker. He was a Jamaican singer. It was like the very start of reggae and it was what they called ?rock steady.? Before the term ?reggae? was coined, they called it ?rock steady.? It was between ska and reggae. It was more like soul music. It was the way Jamaican people expressed soul music.
So he [Bob] used to play this Desmond Dekker guy around the house and I?d say, ?Hey, who is that? That?s reggae.? Bob said, ?No that?s rock steady.? I dug that guy?s voice. It was so soulful. It wasn?t anything that really like, nailed me, but I heard it and I liked it.
In the next couple of years, he got deeper into it. He started discovering great artists from Jamaica that were recording mainly in the 60s, early 70s. He started turning me on to these. It didn?t really grab me but some of it?like he played me some really early Bob Marley & the Wailer?s stuff that kind of sounded like a really strange adaptation of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. I really dug that. He knew I?d like that. He would play me things that he knew would get me. So I started to develop a little bit of a taste for it. He would give me a couple of records that he had doubles of and I started to slowly get into it.
A few years ago, I went to Europe. I had 21 days of vacation. The first vacation I ever had in my life. I got the promoter, from this festival I was playing at, to fly me in early. I had a place to stay in Belgium with a very dear friend over there named Mark Thijs. They call him Tee.
He?s a fantastic blues singer and guitar player. I put him up against anybody in the U.S. He could kick anybody?s ass. The guy is so soulful, so deep.
When he picked me up at the Amsterdam airport, he?s got this early reggae playing on the radio and I?m going, ?Man, that sounds good. You like this shit?? He says, ?That?s all I?m listening to.?
I was stuck for almost a month at his house and all we listened to was that stuff. I really got deep into it.
There?re certain topics in reggae that I don?t relate to. Things that were happening on the island. I respect the fact that they?re crying out about these issues and I have compassion about them, but don?t relate to them. More of what I go for is the soul singing approach to reggae.
More people are into the political subjects that they sing about. The religious and social issues, and I listen to some of that too but I want to hear guys sing about the love of a woman. That?s the whole reason I got into music, to get women when I was a youngster [laughing]. But I might also add that in more recent years, I?ve become far more interested in political issues myself. When you?re a kid, you?re not really thinking so much about that. I was thinking more about playing the blues, getting high, and chasing skirts.
When I was a teenager, I was very shy around the girls. I got into this music because obviously the blues overtook my soul but, when it got to where I could play, I thought, ?Hey, this guitar might get me some chicks? [hearty laughter]. So, I?m actually very much a hopeless romantic type of person and I?ve always loved love songs. That?s why I love soul music so much. It goes back to listening to doo-wop, soul music through my folks, and them playing the Wolfman Jack radio show.
The kind of reggae I like is just another way of voicing soul music. That music started out being influenced by the blues when it was ska music. It?s just like blues. You?ve got the European influence, if you want to trace it back, and the African influence. Obviously more of an African influence, but they always say you can trace the scales and melodies back to European music styles as well. It?s the same thing; a mixture of these different sounds and styles and feelings. It?s like a good gumbo.
So reggae?s been my number one passion and it?s been very exciting for me too. I always think back to when I was a kid, getting into blues, that feeling. Several years down the road now I?ve thought, man?I?ll never get back that feeling again, where you?re just discovering this music for the first time. I?m feeling that with reggae right now. I?m still discovering new artists, new sounds. I?m sort of rekindling that kind of feeling I had as a boy.
But hey, ya know?blues is me. I?m never going to stray away from that. That will always be an integral part of the sound. Reggae owes something to blues because it really started as soul music. You wouldn?t have soul music without blues and gospel. There?re a lot of records particularly from the seventies, like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh that have straight blues guitar riffs and licks layered over it. It works perfectly.
The Jody Williams Discovery
Mo: I want to go to Jody Williams real quick. His comeback was just recently and it was decades ago that he was on the scene, before your time, right? How did you??
Rusty: I discovered him in my record collection. When I first heard Jody Williams, I completely wigged-out. The tone of his guitar was so piercing but muscular. Kind of a bitter/sweet tone that I really liked. He has this real sharp assertive tone, real strong and tough sounding.
Everybody listens to somebody. I don?t care who you are. Everybody starts out lookin? up to somebody, I could tell that he was really into B.B. King, T Bone Walker, and I liked the way he put himself into those styles. I actually went out and got a gold top Les Paul Gibson guitar just like I?d seen him with in pictures and I tried to capture that sound. Now, that I?m older, I realize that you can?t buy a tone, it comes from your heart, but I was more in the technical end of it at that time.
For years I would ask guys around Chicago about him, where he was and everybody had a different story. It was pretty much understood that he was alive but no one ever saw him. He got out of music and everybody knows the story.
I was in Chicago one year playin? the Blues Festival with Dave Myers. The next day I was at Dave?s house and this friend came over and said, ?Oh boy, you guys really missed out last night. At the Hot House, (this joint on the northside) Jody came and played and sang for Robert Lockwood Jr.?s Birthday!?
I wanted to shoot myself! I couldn?t believe I missed that. This was a once-in-a-lifetime deal. I guess his performance, even though he was a little ?rusty?---no pun intended---it was still strong enough and soulful enough that people really dug it. I think he got such a good response that I think he decided to jump back into it.
A mutual friend of ours, who ended up producing his last couple of records, named Dick Shurman, brought him out to one of my gigs out at Buddy Guy?s in Chicago in 2000, or somewhere around there. He brought him out and he wound up sittin? in. Actually, we talked on the phone before that, I remember now because when I got off the phone after talkin? to him, I was almost doing cartwheels [laughing]. We became friends.
Mo: I just love the songwriting on this record, Return of a Legend. You?re on the record doing the song.
Rusty: ?Brown Eyes, Big Thighs?.? When we did that song he says, ?Have I got the song for you, Rusty!? He?s a fantastic writer. He?s very witty
Mo: You toured with him didn?t you? Holland?
Rusty: We did one gig together in Holland.
Mo: I see he?s going to be at The Russian River Blues Festival.
Rusty: ?and I?ll be there. I think I?m supposed to come out, sing and play two songs, and kind of tip my hat to Jody. I think the idea is to show off the younger talent that has been inspired by him.
The Luther Tucker Years
Mo: So tell me about the first time you met Tucker. You just started out didn?t you? Weren?t you still just a kid then?
Rusty: The first time I saw him, I didn?t even know who he was. I went to see Jimmy Rogers perform because he was my all-time hero. I was 16 or 17. Tucker was playin? guitar with Jimmy that night. I was completely blown away. He played so dreamy, he played so beautiful behind Jimmy. All these beautiful chords. He played that flutter-picking.
Mo: Is that what you call that?!
Rusty: Yeah, that?s what I call it. It?s like a butterfly when you watch his hand. A blur. He just played so elegantly. Elegant is a perfect word to describe the way he played. I cut school the next day and I remember I sat in my room trying to play everything I could remember watching him do. Trying to capture that sound. I was so taken with the way he played. It was real sweet and pretty but it had that kick-ass quality, too [laughing]. I also loved the way he looked. He looked so cool. I?ll never forget?he came out and he had on white patent leather shoes and a black leather jacket and those high waist polyester slacks, and he still had an Afro. Nobody was really still wearing Afros back then. He just looked so cool.
I had an after school job and I would take every penny I earned---which wasn?t much---but I would take it and go spend every dime I had on records. Blues records. I was trying to find anything I could with his name on it. I would just get it. I would totally absorb the style.
About a year later, when I was about 18, I went to go see him at Slim?s, he was playing with James Cotton. It was fantastic. Tucker came out and opened the show and sang some nice blues. I loved the way he played behind Cotton. He played so beautiful. A mutual friend of ours, me and Tucker?s, who was playing second guitar that night, introduced us. The first thing I said to Tucker, and I?ll never forget this because I can just see the smile on his face, I said, ?You know the way you play reminds of Django Rheinhardt.? He was a gypsy?they call it gypsy swing?he was a Belgium jazz guitar player, and he only had two fingers. His hand got injured in a gypsy caravan fire. He was amazing. He played bebop and jazz and it was very bluesy because he would bend strings. He would do that kind of stuff that Tucker would do. [Fluttering.]
So, I said that to Tucker, and he just got the biggest smile on his face and I think he loved me from that moment on, because he loved Django Rheinhardt. We hit it off really nice and I think he could feel how much I really loved him and his playing. I was young too and I think a lot of times it?s really endearing when a youngster really admires you. It really means something.
About a week later, after I met him, I called him because he had given me his phone number and I noticed he was going to be playing in Capitola, which is right near Santa Cruz. I was living in Santa Cruz at the time. I said, ?Look, I noticed you?re gonna be playing in my home town and I just wanted to touch bases with you and see if you could get me in the door. I was under age and I was always hustlin? ways to get in these clubs. It was actually a club I had been playing with a local band.
I showed up to the gig and it was after a gig I had earlier. An afternoon party I played at, so my amp and my guitar were in my trunk. So I?m hangin? out and I?m like happier than a pig-in-shit because I?m seeing Luther Tucker here in Capitola. He?s playing in his band and he?s not backing anybody up, this is his show. This was a real treat for me to hear Tucker express himself, the way he wants to.
So after the first set, we?re all standing by the door. The doorman knows me and he knows I shouldn?t be in there if I?m not working. I can?t remember his name but he says, ?Hey Rusty, what are you doin? here tonight?? I don?t even think he knew who Luther was but I said, ?I came to hear this guy here, this man here is a legend!? He says, ?Oh, you playing tonight?? I said, ?No.? Tucker says, ?You got your axe witchya?? I said, ?Well, actually yeah, I just came from a gig.? Tucker looks at the doorman and he says, ?He?s playin? tonight!? So, I?m like pissin? my pants.
He goes back up on the next set and he?s making comments over the microphone like, ?We have a celebrity in the house? and all this bullshit. My knees are shaking and I?m tremblin? man..
He has me haul my amp and guitar up in there and he got me up towards the end of the night. At that time, all I could do was play just like him. That?s all I wanted to do is sound just like him. I got up there and I probably quoted him up the ass. He had this big grin from ear to ear.
That was my first night being on stage with him. After that night, a very neat relationship started between the two of us. It was kind of like a father/son relationship in a way. I use to go stay with him and his girlfriend up there in Novato. I use to go stay days at a time. I?d cut school. My parents wanted me to go to college. I think I did a semester at the community college and I was never there. I was driving up north to go be with Tucker. He taught me a lot.
Actually, the first time he ever sat down with me, face to face, both of us with guitars in our hands, he taught me the tune ?Canadian Sunset? which is one of his signature songs. We never sat down much with him showing me stuff. It was really just me stealing shit from him [laughing].
We did a lot of gigs together. I was always welcome on his stage. We wound up doing dream-come-true gigs with me and him backing up Snooky Pryor, Jimmy Rogers, Billy Boy Arnold---all these great legends from Chicago. Through Tucker, I got introduced to a lot of these guys that he knew from Chicago as a young man. So, a lot of times, when he was unavailable for gigs, I would get the call when they would come to California.
Tucker really liked to party a lot. He liked to smoke dope. He liked to drink. He liked to do drugs but the guy had a heart of gold. He was a sweet person. He was as gentle as a puppy dog. Unfortunately, I think what really held Tucker back was his drug abuse. His habits just got in the way.
But at the same time, I know how he felt because I?ve been this way for the last several years. You get to a point where you feel like you?ve expressed yourself as much as you can within the blues idiom. Now really it?s endless. You can never stop learning and trying to get better at the blues, but sometimes musicians just feel this way. Tucker really wanted to do his own thing, musically. A lot of people, particularly the blues crowd, turned their back on him because of the fact that he wasn?t just a straight blues artist. He use to tell me all the time, he could tell I was very imitative of his sound, and I know he was very flattered by it but, he would tell me that it?s very important that some time in your life, you find a style of your own. It?s great to emulate someone but you have to find a style of your own. He didn?t say it in a negative way. Basically, I think what he was feeling was like ?Hey Rusty, I?m flattered that you?re going after my sound but you?ve got to find who Rusty is.?
He also told me that blues is great music but you always keep your ears open to other things. Always keep your ears open to what is going on around you musically. Anybody knows Tucker was essentially a blues guitar player. Any great music anyways is gonna come from blues. If it doesn?t come from blues, it ain?t about shit. Unless it?s classical music or something. All great American music comes from blues.
Luther liked all kinds of stuff. A typical gig for Tucker was blues, blues shuffles, slow blues, blues that was more on the funk side, soul material, reggae, he loved reggae. Tucker was crazy about reggae. He loved jazz. I had a little Toyota Corolla and we used to drive around for days listenin? to Django Rheinhardt.
The main thing about Tucker that I really loved was the fact that he was such a kind, generous person. What I have to say about Tucker is that Luther Tucker would give you the shirt off his back, if he had a shirt to give you. The guy had nothing and he was always willing to give.
I remember one time, he had a gig right up the street here at Larry Blake?s and I drove him to the gig. I was staying with him at the time. At the end of the night, we got in my little Toyota, and we were driving back across the Richmond Bridge. I was getting ready to pull out my $2 and he pulls out a $20 bill. I said, ?No, I got it.? He says, ?No, no, no, Take it.? I said, ?Tucker, it?s only two bucks [the toll].? He said, ?Keep it. You never know, you might get a flat tire, or something.?
I kept trying to give the money back to him and he put the money in my sun visor. That?s the kind of guy he was, though. Here he is living hand-to-mouth all the time and he was always the first guy to give you his last dime. That?s the thing that?s really missing in this day and age in the blues scene. There?s no brotherly love. It?s so cut throat. Not just in the blues necessarily but that?s the scene I?ve always been in. There was none of that with Tucker that I could see.
Mo: How long did you guys hang out together?
Rusty: Well, it seemed like an eternity but really it was only like 5 or 6 years. He died when I was 23. I was on the road when he passed away. You know when you?re young, you think these guys are going to live forever. You don?t think about these guys passing away.
Mo: Would you say that playing with Tucker, for the first time, was your most memorable moment with him?
Rusty: No, not really. I would like to think later on, when I got better. Some memorable moments were when me and him were playing together behind Snooky Pryor at Larry Blake?s. Fantastic because I really feel that I was a better player, a better musician at that point so I really feel like I had something to bring to the table. Even though I was standing next to my hero, the guy that really taught me, I felt like I was adding something to the music so I was proud. Those are more memorable moments for me. I feel like I almost became a peer of his because I could play. Some people might think that?s a bold statement.
I wish I could play for people like Jimmy Rogers and Luther Tucker now. I wish they could hear me now. I feel like back then, I was trying, and I?m still trying, but I think now I have bigger grasp of that sound and I think they would be more proud of me now. I think at the time they just liked the fact that I was sincere, that I was trying.
Mo: I?m sure they?re watching over you and are proud of you.
Rusty: I hope so. He was a lovely man and I spent every moment I could with Tucker
Record Labels Pros & Cons
Mo: Which project are you most proud of? Not including this new one you?re working on.
Rusty: Yeah, this new one will be my favorite. I?ve been able to put my heart into it. That would be Confessin?.
Mo: Why is that?
Rusty: Because I feel I was able to express myself as a singer, which I wanted to do on the first record [Sittin? & Waitin?] but didn?t feel confident enough yet. I recorded that Confessin? a few years later after I actually got out and played night after night instead of just backing a harmonica player. I really felt that with the second record, I went into the studio and I was more confident so I was able to put things down on tape that were a little more challenging, vocally and musically. Variety on there is what I really wanted. I like the variety with the gospel singers and all that. Wasn?t crazy about the sound. Sonically, the first record has a better sound than the second.
I was very disappointed with The Chill. Very disappointed. It was a very negative experience for me, making that record.
Mo: Oh Wow! Why is that? Alligator?
Rusty: I have a lot of respect for Bruce Iglauer and I like him as a person on a personal level but making that record, we just didn?t see eye to eye about anything. I felt like well, here?s my third record. I was a better singer this time around than the last record but I feel I didn?t even sing as good. The vibes in the studio were so negative that it killed my spirit. I mean I played lousy, I sang lousy, and I felt like it was a waste of some really good songwriting. I wasn?t happy with the sound. We fought tooth and nail about the tones of the instruments, the way we were gonna record the record with microphone placements and stuff like that. I?ve got pretty strong opinions about the way I want things to be done.
The record labels always say they give equal treatment to every one of their artists. Well that?s a pile of bullshit because they always have their two or three top artists that they?re going to give more attention to than the others. There?s always going be that guy that they?re going to stick in a bottle and put a stopper on. That?s what I felt they did to me. They didn?t really give me the push that I needed and then swept me under the rug. Another thing was that Bruce was always telling me, ?Well, you?re just retro, that?s all you?ll ever be.? And I?d be like, ?Fuck that.? I have a lot to say musically and that?s bullshit. This is the millennium. I?m a musician for today. I?m not living in the past. I like to think that when I play blues that it doesn?t sound old, it just sounds classic. If something?s classic, it stands the test of time.
One time Jimmy Pugh, (Robert Cray?s keyboardist), he told me, he says, ?Rusty, the day you realize that you are contemporary, because you?re here now and today, then your songwriting and your music will just go where it takes you. You are contemporary. You?re still a young man.?
Bruce Iglauer has always paid me my royalties like clockwork and I respect and appreciate that about him, I just couldn't see eye to eye with him on an artistic level which made the recording of The Chill an unenjoyable experience. But I have no regrets. Every situation in life, especially the negative ones, should be learning experiences. I don?t consider them mistakes, if you don?t repeat them. If I knew then like I know now!
Mo: Tell me about your association with Black Top?
Rusty: That association was fantastic on an artistic level. I hate to use the word ?artistic? because I don?t think of this music as art. I think of it as entertainment. I always get into arguments with people about that because a lot of the old timers that I came up with, they say, ?We?re not artists, we?re entertainers.? That?s the old school way of thinking. But artistically, they gave me the freedom to basically do whatever the hell I wanted. He didn?t even give a shit what I was going to record. Hammond Scott booked the studio time, he?d come out with a checkbook, we?d just go in there and I could do whatever I wanted. He had enough trust in the musicians that they were gonna do a great job.
Now, the negative side of Black Top is that none of the artists, including myself, never saw a dime of our royalties. I don?t think a lot of those records ever sold enough for us to see sales mechanicals but our song writing royalties are ours from the first CD sold. We never saw a dime of it. I don?t have any negative feelings about it though as far as the way the music turned out. They?re [Hammond Scott, and his brother Nauman] very charming people. Very soulful people. Their passion for the music, they put that first. It was always a pleasure to make records with them. We had a lot of laughs. Good vibes. Just trying to track them down for your money was ridiculous. They finally went out of business and nobody ever saw a dime that I know of. Unfortunately, those records didn?t get well distributed.
When Sittin? & Waitin? was finally released, Black Top went temporarily out of business before they came back in business. That record really got the shaft, ya know. A lot of people?s introduction to my music was by Confessin?. Sittin? & Waitin? never got into the stores.
Racism in the Blues
Mo: What do you think of Living Blues [the magazine]? Wonder why we never see any ?white? covers and stuff like that.
Rusty: I think Living Blues is keeping the music from moving forward. I?ve never subscribed to the magazine but I?ve bought certain issues when there?s someone I was interested in that they had an article written on. The fact that they are discriminating against Caucasian people playing the blues, is horseshit to me.
You know what I always say it is? It?s just my opinion and I don?t want people to think I?m preaching the gospel and I see it a lot in society today, in all aspects of life, ?White Man?s Guilt.? I don?t know nothin? about ?White Man?s Guilt!!!? My feeling is that, blues, like anything else, has evolved into something different than what it started as. You can?t sing about the same things they use to sing about because it?s not relevant for today. Human beings don?t really pick cotton anymore, they have fuckin? machines to do it. Nobody?s plowing the fuckin? fields with a mule. Times are different now in a lot of ways. I don?t disrespect or misunderstand how it started and where it came from, but like anything else, it?s subject to change and evolution. Blues is a universal music now.
The thing is, is that blues is not really embraced by African-American people anymore. Not in a widespread way. I mean there?s always gonna be a couple of younger black people that take interest in it. I have a few friends like [Kirk] Eli Fletcher that have devoted themselves to the blues. The thing is, to me, my personal belief is?Jimmy Rogers said it to me after one time a guy came backstage, and I?m not gonna mention the guy?s name because people know him and I personally think the guy?s an asshole, but?[laughing] he came in backstage at this gig I was doing with Jimmy Rogers, it wasn?t even my gig. Jimmy had me sit in. This guy, he comes backstage and he?s all liquored up and says, ?Hey, Jimmy. This guy sounds pretty good for a white boy, huh??
Jimmy got really angry. He wouldn?t look the guy in the eye. He looked down on the floor and he said, ?Hey man. The blues ain?t got no color.?
Now who is Living Blues to judge me as an authentic bluesman? Hey! Jimmy Rogers is a guy who pioneered this music. Now, for a guy like that to make a statement like that, well that to me is the gospel truth.
So what Living Blues feels about white musicians, means absolutely nothing to me. What Jimmy said that night made me feel like I belong to this music. I didn?t choose this music, it chose me. I?ve received respect and accolades from my heroes. They all happen to be black cats. What does that mean? You figure it out!
When I first got into this music, I was a kid. I grew up in the woods. I didn?t have nothin? around me. I walked a mile to elementary school, there was no gas station, no supermarket. I didn?t do anything but split firewood and run around the woods with my dog. I was strictly an isolated country boy. I was pretty much closed off to the world. Blues records were my escape to another place. It would take me to another world, ya know? To another time and dimension.
When I first got into that music, I didn?t think about what color the individual?s skin was. I was just into it for the sound. The first blues festival I ever went to, when I was just like 16 or 17, was the Monterey Blues Festival. Well, I saw Clarence Carter there. I saw Sonny Rhodes. I saw Bobby Blue Bland. I saw Little Charlie & the Nightcats. Well, Little Charlie & the Nightcats sounded just as good to me as all that other stuff because I was young and I was just trying to grab onto anything that I could. If it had that sound that I liked, I didn?t give a fuck what color the guy?s skin was. The people that discriminate against white people playin? the blues, 9 times outta 10, are white people. It?s reverse racism!!
The thing is?those are the people, those people like the club owners, record industry people, promoters, Living Blues, they hurt the music. You have to allow it to grow. Everybody has the right to play blues. Another thing that they don?t understand, people like Living Blues don?t understand, blues has nothin? to do with poverty and depression and all this misery, it has nothin? to do with it. Maybe it did before! Jimmy Rogers told me that too. He said, ?Hey ya know, pickin? cotton in Mississippi has nothin? to do with this music. You either got it, or ya don?t. You either feel for this music, or ya don?t.?
He told me, he said, ?A millionaire could have the blues.? Especially now?these phony white liberals?what do they think? Robert Johnson probably never picked cotton in his fuckin? life!
Have people ever seen that picture of him in his pinstripe suit and his Stetson hat? That guy was tryin? to make some pocket change so he could go out and have a ball and get a piece of ass. I mean, they totally miss the point. It?s about music, it?s about touching people with your music. Do you have to suffer to play blues? No, I don?t believe that at all.
I?ll tell you one thing?my fianc?, Angila, her father, Jimmy Witherspoon, he hated that kind of racial bullshit. He hired white guys in his band all the time. He raised Angila, and the rest of her brothers and sisters, to believe that everybody?s equal. He always said, ?I don?t want to be poor. I don?t want to be miserable. When I?m broke, I don?t feel like singing the blues.?
I know when I?m going through tough times, I don?t wanna sing and play, hell no! I want to lock myself in a room and commit suicide. Drink myself to death, ya know [laughing]. Maybe after the fact, you sit down and you could look at the situation and it?ll inspire you to write something.
Another thing is?who are these people to judge me because the color of my skin? I didn?t make myself, right? I didn?t choose my skin color. The thing is...how do they know what burdens I?ve carried in my life? They don?t know. They?re just judging you by the color of your skin. They don?t know what kind of pain and suffering I?ve been through or haven?t been through.
Most of the compliments that I?ve received on live shows across the country, all over the world, have been from African-American people. There are African-American people that do discriminate against white guys playin? the blues. There are fuckin? assholes of every color and every age group. A lot of these people don?t realize that as long as there?s discrimination in this music, it?s gonna pull us apart even further. Anytime you say, ?You can do this, but it?s ours or theirs,? well, that?s a pile of horseshit.
One night, me and Angila were laying up in bed watching TV. We were watching this special on the Food Channel about soul food during Black History Month. This lady, you could tell, she was very militant, and she was sayin?, ?Our food.? Angila was like ?Screw that. It?s not our food. Soul food has European influence in it.?
It?s a mixture of things. That?s what blues is too! Just like I said, it?s like gumbo! People totally miss the point of what this music?s all about. What this music means to me is making people happy. Havin? a good time and bringing people together of all color and all races. I?m not into white pride, I?m not into black pride, I?m into HUMAN pride. I?m into everybody comin? together and lookin? out for each other. As long as these people discriminate within this music, it?s never gonna grow the way it should. It?s never gonna prosper the way it should.
That fact that Living Blues won?t put a white artist on the cover just because he or she is white, that really makes me angry. They?ll put an artist on there that I personally think is a lesser artist than certain people. Some people might take that statement I said as being racist but you know what? Take it however you want to. Certain people will always look for ways to take statements in the wrong way. I don?t give a fuck what color your skin is. If you?re good, you?re good and you deserve to be on the cover of a magazine. I?m not sayin? I disrespect where this music came from?I know where it came from, I know how it started. This is 2004 though, not 1924.
My whole life I?ve been in relationships with black women. They?ve never had a problem with me being a white guy playin? blues. Like I said, I didn?t make myself. I know what I feel in my heart and in my spirit and my belief is, I have my own religious beliefs, what I believe is, is that our body is just a shell for our soul anyway. Just a shell. Just open up your heart, open up your mind.
Mo: Have you ever experienced problems getting a gig because of your skin color?
Rusty: Oh sure. Sure. I?ve experienced racism within the music from white and black people both. That?s why I don?t say any one side is fucked up. There?re assholes in every race and every age group. It?s just pure ignorance. I take a person for what he/she is as an individual. My whole life I?ve tried to live with the whole approach, ?do unto others?.? That?s the greatest thing you can do in life is to ?do unto others?.? When you?re young you haven?t really experienced much of that and I was just grabbin? onto anything I could.
I went to see Steve Freund when I was a young man, before I ever new him and became friends with him, I really admired him. I admired him as much as I admired Luther Tucker and Jimmy Rogers. I admired Rick Estrin, Little Charlie, Junior Watson. I admired all those people. They all had a sound that I wanted to capture and it had nuthin? to do with color. What the fuck is black & white, anyway? I?ve never met a person in my life that was black and I?ve never met a person who was white. I?m pink!!
Mo: Good point, Rusty. Anything else you want add on to that about personal experience?
Rusty: It really hurts my feelings when people are like that. The reason it hurts my feelings is not because I might be out of a paycheck or out of a gig, it?s hurts my feelings because I see stagnation of growth within the world and within society. That?s what hurts the most.
Mo: What do you think of the phrase, ?Keep The Blues Alive?? Do you think blues music is threatened of disappearing?
Rusty: I think in a way, at the moment, in the public eye it is. The blues never dies. I believe it?s the bases of all American music. Blues seems to come and go in waves. The 60s was a big blues boom. The 70s, it kind of petered out and then maybe in the mid 80s, a guy like Stevie Ray Vaughan had a hit and it kinda got revived. It stoked interest in all these older artists. It had a good ride and I noticed in the early mid nineties it started to slowly fade.
Do I think 2003 was the ?Year of the Blues?? I think that?s the biggest pile of horseshit I?ve ever heard. Another thing I think about that ?Year of the Blues? thing is, I was very disappointed in it because everybody thought this was going to stoke the blues fire and kick it up another notch and really to me, it hurt it.
What really hurt my feelings was the fact that I really love Martin Scorcesse. He?s always been one of my favorite movie directors. I?m a huge fan.
Mo: Jumpin? right into the next question I had. What did you think of his ?The Blues? series?
Rusty: From what I was told through the grapevine, he had a lot of ill advisors. I think they focused way too much on a lot of mediocre, shitty rock bands playing tribute to blues. If you see the Ken Burns series on jazz---why is it in jazz, they always let jazz stand on its own two feet? Blues, they always have to say, ?Well, so and so was inspired by?.? They always have to show the public that some dumb fuck that can?t fuckin? play or sing for shit, was inspired by blues. So people get this misconception of what blues is.
I wish they would?ve focused more on artists that have been out there for years, workin? their ass off on the road, devoting their life to this music. It wouldn?t have been any skin off their back. The show was going to be viewed anyway. It wasn?t gonna be at the movie theater or anything. It was on PBS for cryin? out loud.
It was gonna be viewed. I mean, I don?t give a fuck about hearing most of the rock acts they had playin? on there. It was horrible. The one thing I did like was the thing on J.B.Lenior. Not that I thought it was a great segment but just because I love J.B. Lenoir. He?s one of my favorite singers and guitar players of all time. It was neat to see footage of him.
But I tell ya what?I feel asleep every night. I watched the first three nights, and then in the middle of the week, I gave up. I couldn?t take it.
Is the blues dying? It is as far as the blues clubs, all across the country, they?re going outta business. The people aren?t supporting it like they use to. Blues festivals don?t have the same kind of budgets they use to. It?s been affected by the economy to an extent, yes.
My theory is that all those people that were going to hear the blues during that big wave during the 80s and early 90s, all those people are middle-aged people that have families now. They don?t want to go out. They don?t want to get babysitters. They have their home theater systems, DVDs, computers, that?s the age that it is. What this music needs is a younger generation to grab onto it again. I don?t see it happenin?.
Mo: I?m a firm believer in the power of radio. I think, people don?t realize it?s out there. If they knew it was out there, they would buy it or go to a show.
Rusty: To me, there?re not too many guys who are fresh and exciting. I think it needs that too. But that?s just my opinion. I?m hard to satisfy because of all the top-notch people I?ve seen and worked with.
Mo: Do you know of anybody? Name one.
Rusty: Well, a guy like Eli Fletcher is a fantastic guitar player. Bob Welsh really attracts me. These guys don?t sing, unfortunately. You have to sing and write songs to really say something. The blues, rhythm & blues, soul, all great music is about telling a story. We?re not jazz musicians. It?s not an instrumental music. A lot of people forget that. It?s not about how many notes you can play on your instrument. I am so sick and tired of these guitar shredders that get out there and play a million notes. They ain?t sayin? shit to me. That?s just my opinion, who am I?
Nobody?s singin? worth a shit anymore. It used to be in the old days, people sang! I mean really sang! Unfortunately, nowadays, in any kind of music, it has nothing to do with talent. This country, and the world in general, is so into mediocrity. Me and Angila watch American Idol every week.
Mo: Don?t tell me that!
Rusty: They vote people out that can sing. There was this young lady that got voted out that could sing her ass off. There were like two or three other worthless motherfuckers that couldn?t sing their way out of a wet paper bag! That just shows ya right there what I?ve always believed---the general public doesn?t know shit. That?s sad because some of those folks are the people I rely on to eat [laughing].
Mo: Well, I think your guitar playin? tells a story. I love guitar playin? that actually tells a story. Never the shredders, though. They don?t take their time.
Rusty: I always say that to play guitar is like makin? love to a woman. Take your time and every now and then, you just sock it to ?em. I like that approach with every instrument. I don?t just listen to the guitar you know!
Mo: Let?s go to your singing. I just love your voice. The ladies love your voice. I?m sure everybody does but especially the ladies. Have you been singing your whole life?
Rusty: Kind of closet singing, yeah. Never in public or anything for years. When my parents would leave the house when I was a little kid, I use to put on Smokey Robinson and Temptation records and lip sync in front of the mirror. They had that Big Chill soundtrack record with all that Motown stuff on there. I would try to sing along with that.
Mo: Did you ever take singing lessons?
Rusty: Never. Never took lessons in my life. I was actually forced to become a singer professionally. I was playin? with Kim Wilson at the time, workin? pretty steadily with him and making a very decent living with him. He was kind of taking a hiatus from the Thunderbirds at the time and when he started firing up the Thunderbirds thing again man, I was strugglin?. I said to myself that I did all I can backin? up people. I better start singin? and tryin? to get my own gigs goin?. I?ve never looked back since then.
Mo: Well, Rusty, don?t ever doubt that voice. It?s half the show. Guitar being the other half.
Rusty: I used to be insecure about my voice. That?s another thing talkin? about the Living Blues type devotees, these people all have these preconceived bullshit notions that to be a blues singer your voice has to sound like a gravel road. But really, if you listen to J.B. Lenoir, Little Walter, they have a high pretty voice. I like all kinds of voices, but it?s like comparing apples and oranges. No one voice is better than the other.
Mo: Who?s inspired you most?
Rusty: Musically, in terms of different periods of my life, if I look back obviously Luther Tucker was a huge inspiration to me to begin with. Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers, that kind of sound. The fact that me and Jimmy were so close, I got to work with him a lot. He was a huge influence on my singing and guitar playing. When I was much younger, I was really taken with Junior Watson and Little Charlie [Baty]. I use to hear them a lot. They played that more jump blues style. The blues which I really don?t like anymore. When you?re younger, you?re feeling it less with your heart and soul and you?re looking more at the technical aspect.
Sam Cooke has been a huge inspiration to me in my singing and the phrasing in my singing, the way I sing melodically. Another guy who?s been a really huge inspiration to me has been Jimmy Cliff. He?s considered a reggae artist but I consider him a soul singer and songwriter from Jamaica. I love his songwriting. It?s extremely uplifting commentary.
Mo: A question from a huge fan of yours, named Lenny. I know we touched on this but, do you like doo-wop?
Rusty: I?m a huge doo-wop fan. Eugene Pitt & the Jive Five. Dion & the Belmonts. He was one of my favorite singers. When it comes to doo-wop, I?m more into particular songs than particular artists. Some vocal groups may have one song that I?m crazy about and I may hate the rest of their output! I really, really liked Eugene & the Jive Five. They had a hit called ?My True Story.?
When Curtis Mayfield had the Impressions, I loved that group. They backed up Jerry Butler and Gene Chandler on a lot of great doo-wop records. Another group, a local harmony group that a lot of people don?t know about, and I really admired, is a group from Oakland called, ?The Right Kind.? Remember Frank Samuels? He had a group with that guy Cal Valentine, who was another one of my heroes, a great guitar player and singer. They were with this guy Bobby Reed who played bass and sang, he still sings in church, he?s strictly a gospel artist now. That was a group who kind of blended blues, doo-wop and soul and mixed it all together.
Mo: Tell me about your first gig fronting your own band.
Rusty: Probably was at the Ivy Room [in Albany]. The Ivy Room was a vehicle for me to try out my show in.
Mo: Oh wow, it?s been home to you for a while then.
Rusty: Yeah, it?s been home I?ve had arguments with agencies I?ve been with. Stuff like, ?You can?t play the Ivy Room no more,? but you know what? I could headline the Oakland Auditorium and I?d still play the Ivy Room. That?s my home. I?ll never turn my back on them.
Mo: That was your first gig?
Rusty: As a singer, yeah. Up to that point I was traveling behind other people. And at the Ivy Room it was like, OK, I need to get out there and start building up a repertoire of songs and work on my vocals. That was the place that gave me the opportunity to do that.
Mo: Who was in your band?
Rusty: Oh, I had a great band. Ronnie James on bass. Richard Innes on drums and I think maybe Steve Lucky was probably playin? piano and organ. For four years I had a band with Bob [Welsh] and Randy [Bermudas]. That was the longest I had ever held a steady band.
Rusty: He approached me on a gig, around the mid-90s he introduced himself at one of my gigs and said he wanted to take guitar lessons. I was living in San Francisco at the time.
Mo: He wasn?t playin? guitar at that time?
Rusty: Oh, he was. He?s been playin? guitar his whole life but he wanted to learn to play this traditional blues shit and he could see I was deep off into it. He knew I had learned from the masters of the music. He wanted to tap into that. The guy could already play guitar, there?s no doubt about that. After a few lessons, this guy started showin? up to the lesson and showin? me shit. I just said, ?I can?t take your money no more, man.? We became friends and he just became a monster. Then he started playin? keyboard?wait ?til that guy starts singin?.
Mo: How was it being the child prodigy? The kid on the scene. You had a lot of people take you under their wing.
Rusty: I never saw myself as being the ?child prodigy? just because, usually a child prodigy is just a flash in the pan.
I always had to pinch myself whenever I would meet a new hero of mine, not only standing next to them on stage, but becoming friends with them. Unfortunately, after each time, year after year, I took it more and more for granted. Lookin? back on it, all the people that I knew that have since passed away?I?m blessed. Even if I never get to the career plateau that I wanna reach, I think I could die tomorrow and I could say that I?ve lived a pretty heavy and fulfilling musical life.
Mo: Every musician experiences a down time. A lull. Uninspired. Have you had any of those?
Rusty: I?m kinda goin? through one of those right now but it?s not from being uninspired. What I?m most uninspired by right now is how hard I?ve been hittin? the road and by the scene in general. The scene?s been petering out and it?s depressing. I?ve been purposely tryin? to stay at home. I haven?t gone on the road at all this year. That?s been a choice. I?ve been wanting to stay home so I can work on writing songs. I?m still very inspired by music. I listen to music all day, everyday.
Actually, there?re two things I?m really inspired by right now. One is working on my new project which has been fantastic. It has been so spiritually fulfilling for me. I?ve never felt this ever before on a project because I hate the studio. I can?t fuckin? stand it. I?ve had so much fun on this project. I?m having more fun on the postproduction than I had cutting the basic tracks.
Another thing I?m inspired by and interested in right now, is producing a project on my girlfriend Angila [Witherspoon]. She?s a fantastic singer. She came up singin? in church and so she has that heavy gospel influence. She writes real fresh. Real soulful. She plays piano too. She?s actually very humble about her playing. One of her cousins is Billy Preston. She tells me one day, kind of nonchalantly, ?Everything I learned on the piano, I learned from Billy.?
Really lookin? forward to getting? her in the studio. We?re gonna be doing some stuff together as well. We?re writing some songs that we adapted as duets. So, on the next record you might expect some of that. We?ll be cuttin? demos for her for her solo project. A lot of people want her to follow in her father?s footsteps. I just try to tell her to follow her heart, musically.
There?s so many daughters and sons whose parents were legendary artists, etc?and a lot of times they?re just living off a name. She has something to say on her own. I want to capture that. I don?t feel her strong points are in blues music and I just want her to do what comes naturally. It has this jazzy, gospel, soulful feeling to it. It?s all blues-based anyway.
I?m not only making music with the lady I?m in love with, I?m making music with a woman who?s really talented.
Mo: Back to the question?has there been a moment where you had no inspiration to play, can?t write a song??
Rusty: Oh yeah, that?s usually when my world?s crumbling around me. We all go through series of depressions when we have a downtime and negative points in our life. I?ve had plenty of it. I always like to think of myself as a very positive, spiritual person. I had a very long stroke of bad luck back in the summer and it just seemed like one thing after the other was happening. A lot of horrible things happened to me. I was homeless for about two months after this flood happened in this cottage I was living in, all this horrible shit was happening, I lost a lot of personal belongings. That flood actually changed me a lot because I use to feel I was more of a materialistic person. It made me really realize, it doesn?t matter how much money you?ve got, how many things you have, if you don?t have people that love you, you ain?t got shit. I have so many wonderful people in my life that care for me. That opened their hearts and homes to me, and those people got me through that period.
At one point, I was almost kind of living out of my van. I had this big Ford van I use to travel across the country in and somebody had smashed the window out of my van, in a very nice neighborhood I might add. I lived in a funky neighborhood in Oakland for six years and I never got my vehicle vandalized.
Anyway?somebody smashed the window out and stole everything I had. My laptop computer, musical equipment, CD player?everything I owned was in that van. I went back to the house I was staying at and I was calling the police and insurance company, my friend?s wife commented, ?I don?t know how you do it. You always keep a smile on your face. You?re always laughing, you?re always positive.?
What am I gonna do? I always look at that shit as a sign from a higher power anyway. It?s like it?s saying, ?Hey, I could?ve made this worse for you.? Shit like that is an eye-opener. To make you appreciate what you have. What you really need to appreciate is love in your life.
Yeah, I would say during those times, I was feeling very uncreative. It was during that time, that I kinda had deadlines to get original material into the studio. I was having a tough time and I was feeling very uncreative, very depressed, low energy. I feel most creative when I?m happy.
Mo: That goes against everything that you hear about the blues being inspired by depression and hard times.
Rusty: I think the pioneers of that music would tell you the same thing I?m saying. That to really perform at your best and be at your creative peak, you want to feel healthy and happy. I used to have a serious alcohol problem (I haven?t had a drink of alcohol in about two and a half years now). I?ve never felt better in my life. I?ve never felt more creative.
Mo: To be honest with ya, Rusty?there were a couple of times, about two years ago or so, where I went to see you and your shows were crap. Sloppy. Very disappointing coming from you, Rusty Zinn. I hadn?t seen you in awhile and I was so excited to finally....
Rusty: ?.Guzzlin?. I also had a lot of rotten shit goin? on in my life. I went through a very ugly divorce after a very negative marriage. I had a lot of other negative things in my life, career wise too. I had some people who were representing me who I felt were doing nothing for me. In a way, I felt like they were holding me back.
For the fact I was drinking so heavily, that destroys you. The day I got sober man, was an enlightening day. A lot of positive things came into my life at that time. I actually was able to face a lot of my problems in life. I did what I guess you?d call a ?spring cleaning.? I took a lot of negative shit outta my life. I?m stickin? with it.
Mo: Is songwriting easy for you?
Rusty: Sometimes it is. I have a song I wrote called, ?Put Your Hand In Mine.? You?ve heard that one. I?ve done it a few times at the Ivy Room. It?s that kind of reggae flavored song, a love song. People love that song. They think that?s the greatest tune I?ve ever written. I wrote that song in like twenty minutes.
Mo: Were you drivin? down the road?how do you come up with ideas?
Rusty: I had met Angila. I met her like on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and I wrote it that evening. I don?t even think I was necessarily thinking about her when I wrote it, but I was just buzzing after I met her and I was feeling ecstatic. I just had this great idea. It?s like when you hear novelists say they get writers block. Sometimes the ideas just flow freely and sometimes they don?t. I?d say, nine times outta ten, I end up crumpling up the paper and throwing it in the garbage.
Mo: Well, you do write some great songs, Rusty.
Rusty: I appreciate it because that?s really what I feel is important, especially in the music we?re talkin? about, the blues. What?s really lacking today is good songwriting. There?s really no fantastic songwriters anymore like Percy Mayfield, Jimmy McCracklin, and Lowell Fulson, all these great lyricists like Willie Dixon. Ya know, Rick Estrin?s a great lyricist. A lot of people think everything he writes is all based around novelty and cornball humor, well?that?s bullshit. That guy wrote this tune for me called, ?Come Get These blues Up Off Of Me,? it?s on Confessin?, and that song stands up poetically to anything to me. It?s as heavy as any blues song I?ve ever heard.
Mo: Yeah, you guys collaborate a lot on song writing, I?ve noticed.
Rusty: Yeah, we enjoy writing. We didn?t collaborate on this last project because my songwriting is kind of finding its own niche. It?s completely different. Our minds, we don?t think the same way. Rick has this real graphic sarcasm, like a pimp mentality [laughing] to writing songs. He has this ?street? way of thinking. That?s not how I think. I?m really well more suited to writing a love song. But actually, he also wrote a great love song that ?Lady?s Choice? [The Chill], he had written that. I was just thinking of this, and it?s funny you should ask, and that we were just talking about this, because I was thinking that I might try to hook up with him in the future and see if I can bring out another side of him.
We still hang out together whenever we can.
Mo: He also helped you with the song, ?Dying on the Vine? I noticed. I just love The Chill. It has some real good songwriting.
Rusty: The song, ?The Chill,? is another song that I wrote in about twenty minutes. Really, the only part that Rick put in there, wound up becoming the title. He came up with the very last line which is: ?I can?t pay my heatin? bill and I look at my woman, and I begin to feel the Chill?.? That?s deep imagery to me! That titled the whole song right there. So, I had written this whole song, and I was like, ?Hey man, I?m having kind of a problem with the refrain of this last verse.? Sometimes he writes more or less of a song, vice-versa?we just never know.
Mo: Who came up with that intro in the title song, ?The Chill?? Not your typical blues intro.
Rusty: That was mine. That?s actually a gospel approach. It just builds the tension. If you go to a black Baptist church, you?ll hear a lot of that. Iglauer hated that intro, at first anyway.
Mo: ?Big Eye?? Tell me about it.
Rusty: ?Big Eye? started out as some words scribbled on a paper by this guy, Byrd. You know Byrd Hale? ?The Byrd of Paradise.?
He?s been a long time friend of mine. He had this thing and it was almost like a poem, in a way, and it didn?t really make sense and where it was goin? didn?t?it was almost like he just threw down some ideas on a piece of paper and then someday maybe he?d make a song out of it. He just said, ?Hey, take this and see what you think. Maybe you can make something of it.?
I just love that line though, ?No matter what you do, the Big Eye?s watching you.? It goes back to a higher power. I don?t think a lot of people realize that I?m singing about God. So I rewrote that thing and Rick pitched in, too.
Mo: I?ve got to say it again. Great songwriting on that album. I just love it.
Rusty: That?s why I think it?s such a waste of good songwriting and I think that at some point, I?m probably gonna revisit some of those tunes and put a different twist on them. They?ve already created a life of their own. A lot of those songs have mutated into different sounds on stage, anyway.
Rusty Zinn, The Producer
Mo: I want to talk about Rusty Zinn, the producer.
Rusty: The first thing I ever produced was a Dave Myers solo project for Black Top records [Ting a Ling 1997]. That was really easy to produce because that?s home to me. That Chicago style blues. That was real natural.
Shortly after that, I produced a project on the Dynatones which wound up being titled ?Shake That Mess.? At the time, Jackie Payne was actually the singer of the group. We eventually had to take his voice off (he was isolated on all of the tracks) and put the new singer?s voice on because Jackie had left the band in the middle of making this recording project.
That record was a real challenge for me as a producer because I?m going from producing a five piece Chicago blues unit to recording a band with four horns, B-3 Hammond organ, guitar?ya know what I mean? It was all of a sudden; I had to listen to more things at once.
As a producer, what I?ve been into is trying to get a different sound out of an artist. I don?t try to change the artist stylistically or artistically. I might have ideas. When I go into a production session, I?m thinking about making a really good soundin? record. I?m talkin? about the way all the instruments sound individually, the tones, the way the mics are placed. I?m a firm believer in blending the best of the old and the new.
I don?t subscribe to that idea like a lot of the blues purists do, they want everything to be just like it was done in the 1950s, well, that?s a pile of horseshit. But then again, a lot of the stuff that?s being used today is a pile of horseshit, too. So, I like to blend the best of the old and the new. Bring them together, ya know.
Producing a guy like Craig Horton, a lot of times I?ll work on trying to help an artist like that with his phrasing and his timing. When you have somebody else producing you, if you feel good about him/her as a producer, man, they can really bring some great shit out of you. If somebody produces me, they?re gonna bring shit outta me that would never come out without that producer. It?s kinda like when you say that you can see another person?s problems better than they can see it themselves. It?s just like that.
Mo: That Craig Horton CD, In My Spirit, is a masterpiece, I must say.
Rusty: I hope you like the new one too. Craig?s a real soulful artist.
Mo: Do you like producing?
Rusty: I want to get more into it. The next project I?m probably going to be producing is Angila Witherspoon.
What Every Fan Wants to Know
Mo: What do you have in your CD player? What did you listen to on the way here?
Rusty: Peter Tosh, Legalize It.
Mo: Did you ever have a dream as a kid?
Rusty: Oh yeah. My dream was to be a blues man. I?ve lived it too.
Mo: Can you tell me about a ?gig from hell??
Rusty: I can?t think of any particular ones. I try to block those out. A gig from hell, and there?s been plenty of them, is a gig where nobody in the room is listening and the club owner could give a shit about you. That happens. It?s really great to be playin? for people who came to see ya. They?re right there with ya for every note.
Mo: What do you get out of the audience?
Rusty: I feed off of them. It makes me sing and play at another level. It brings it up a notch. I get that feedback off the audience. Now, if they?re more quiet, and mostly sit, and they?re listening, I dig that to a certain extent, but I wanna see people dance. Havin? a good time, smilin?, laughin?. That?s how I react to music.
That whole approach to listening to music, a lot of people listen cerebrally. I listen to music with my heart. That?s why I always loved Jimmy Reed. That music is blues but it?s still like pop music. The guy had hits. Rock & roll people liked him. He?s a blues man but it?s just happy music. Makes you want to dance. It makes you horny too [laughing]. That?s important, ya know.
Mo: What do think when you see people singing along in the audience?
Rusty: Some places they sing along and some places they don?t sing at all [laughing] but?if they sing along, that really makes me feel like I?ve achieved something. If you go to a Jimmy Cliff concert for instance, his fans know all the songs and they?re singing along to the chorus of all of them. That says that he?s really achieved something. A lot of times you?re playing in rooms where a lot of people don?t know you. You feel like you have to win them over. When they?re singing along it?s like, ?Hey, this person is a fan of mine.? It?s rewarding, ya know.
Mo: Did you ever cover ?Mustang Sally??
Rusty: NO! I never even thought that was a good song, you know what I mean? I love Wilson Pickett but that?s the worst song he ever recorded. ?Midnight Hour? sucks too.
Mo: If you could play with anybody, dead or alive, who would it be?
Rusty: Jimmy Cliff.
Mo: If you could talk, or meet, anyone you wanted, who would that be?
Rusty: I?ve got to sit and hear stories already with so many of my blues heroes, I?d like to sit down and talk with Jimmy Cliff. There?s another Jamaican singer that I would love to meet someday. A guy named Alton Ellis. He?s gonna be performing at The Sierra World Music Festival. I?m gonna go check out the show. Jimmy Cliff, Alton, I?d really like to meet those guys. This whole reggae thing is something new to me and I?m really feeling it. I love it.
Mo: Do you think blues will ever go mainstream? [We both agreed that I was talking about blues being played on FM radio.]
Rusty: Not anymore more than it already has. It goes back to this country, and the world in general, everybody?s settling for mediocrity. The music is too deep for most people. The blues is The Truth and people are scared of The Truth!
Mo: Another fan wants to know where you get your wardrobe because you be stylin?!
Rusty: There?s a place in Oakland, on Broadway called H. Jons, I shop a lot there. A shoe store right near there called Hill?s. There?s another place in Richmond called, The Clothing Broker. These are the kind of places where musicians, pimps and drug dealers, anybody that likes colors, are gonna shop[laughing].
Mo: What is the one thing you want people to know about Rusty Zinn, the man?
Rusty: I want people to know that I?m a peaceful man but I don?t put up with no bullshit.
Mo: I want to thank you, Rusty, for pouring out your heart and soul to me. I feel deeply honored to have had these last three hours with you. You just don?t realize. I wish you the best in your new endeavors and I?ll be seeing you soon at one of your shows!
...da Blues Traveler