ScottAinslie - Two Hands, One Voice
The DEFINITIVE Interview with dynamic bluesman ScottAinslie.
Ainslie has a recording output of five CDs over a 13 year period. These recordings show an artist with a strong sense of self, a musician willing to stretch himself in service to the music.
ScottAinslie and I sat down one blustery January day in Lafayette, La. and talked guitars and the blues over hot cups of Community coffee.
Playing The Guitar
Jim Pharis - When did you begin playing?
ScottAinslie - I started playing in 1967. I was 15. My older brother had a guitar. He played guitar for a year and a half or maybe two years before I started playing.
I would sneak up into his room and checked out his guitar when he was out playing football because I really wanted to play. But I did that younger brother thing of "dang, he got to it first, I’ll have to find something else".
Nothing really came of it.
Jim Pharis - Was your family musical?
ScottAinslie - My Mother had a piano but she wasn't musical in that sense. She was a note reader, she could read and she played a good bit when I was little. We used to sing and play and I would play it when I was little.
Jim Pharis - Were you self taught or did you take any lessons?
ScottAinslie - No, self taught. I watched other people play but I've never had a formal guitar lesson.
Jim Pharis - Oh, really?
ScottAinslie - I studied music theory in college and I've done a lot of unpacking, I've done a lot of headwork - became my own instructor.
Jim Pharis - Uh huh...
ScottAinslie - Along with the cats I got to sit with. What caused me to take up the guitar, even though my older brother had gotten to it first, was hearing John Jackson play.
John was a Black gravedigger outside of Washington, D.C. and a remarkable guitar player.
Jim Pharis - Can you tell us how you learned the fingerboard?
ScottAinslie - For me, when I started moving up the neck I was following the old masters. I moved up following, like, John Hurt. "Oh look, he's playing that, up there. But he's playing a D down here. Oh that is a D." Then you start to figure out where the three or four D chords are on the guitar, especially the high voicings.
Gradually that knowledge starts to string together. Especially when you start to want to build a guitar break for a song.
ScottAinslie - John Hurt, some of John Sebastian's solo guitar parts when I was really young were part of that. Then you get into Gary Davis' stuff and Robert Johnson.
When I first hit Johnson's music I'd been playing guitar for about seven years, I guess. A lot of it kind of folk guitar, folk and ragtime blues, John Hurt's stuff but not Delta stuff.
When I first ran into Johnson's stuff, I was transfixed but a little bit clueless about how he was getting the noises that he was getting.
I dove into it, then despaired at figuring it out and kind of set it aside for a while. I came back to it, like, two or three years later and went "Oh, I get it".
Jim Pharis - Because of things you'd learned?
ScottAinslie - Because of things I'd learned in the intervening time. Subsequent to that, I went out and started hunting down older blues guitarists and gospel guitarists. Black guitarists in eastern North Carolina and seeing how they handled the guitar.
I'd spent some time with John Jackson and saw how he handled it.
Jim Pharis - By handling it, you mean how he organized things?
ScottAinslie - Yeah, how he got around on it. The idea of taking a first position chord like a D7 chord and re-fingering it leaving your first finger out. Then moving it up the neck and letting your first finger be the nut, basically. Covering the fourth and fifth strings as you go up.
You get up high and say which of these strings can I play open? And that D7 in the key of A becomes a really, really valuable thing because you can open the two bass strings.
ScottAinslieYou have the low E and the low A string. You're only fretting four strings but you've got an A chord that spans, basically, nine frets. You've got this really high notes up here that are really cool, and a great bass note down there. How happy can you be? It's joyous!
The same thing with D chords. You can finger the top three strings in a variety of different places and pull D's or D7's out of it. You leave the fourth and the fifth string open.
So you start to leave barre chords behind, which are suitable only for comping jazz chords and playing in rock and roll bands. Playing solo guitar, I play a barre chord maybe once a set if I really have to. Otherwise I don't play them.
I'm fighting for open strings as a solo guitar player.
Jim Pharis - Are there particular keys that you play in more than others?
ScottAinslie Yeah, because of that.
Jim Pharis And those are well suited to your voice, typically?
ScottAinslie Yeah. One of the reasons in acoustic blues that we find so many songs in the keys of E and A, and so many blues in Dropped D and the open tunings is because you have these really important notes in the scale on the low open strings. You can actually have a low note and go do something else up high. That low note holds you up harmonically so you don't lose the harmony.
In the key of E, the only bass note that you have to fret is the B. That chord has the least number of measures committed to it!
That's part of the charm, and part of why, when you hear somebody play blues, you're thinking, "okay, where're the open strings and what key is it in?" It may feel like he's in E flat, but, the fact of the matter is, there's a capo somewhere.
Jim Pharis (laughter) Right...
ScottAinslie Or F sharp. A lot of Johnson's recordings were in F sharp or B. He's tuned up to the key of E and capoed at the second fret. On a 14 fret (neck joins body at fourteenth fret) guitar, it puts the 12 (12th fret) at the neck joint. If you're playing slide, you're done.
Rambling On My Mind is like that, and some of the other pieces.
But, once I figured out kind of what the deal was, that you're fighting for an open string, there weren't barre chords, that there were first position chords that have been moved up the neck, and understood the chromatic scale. That a D7 at the fourth fret is an E7 and got a nice walkdown in blues to the E chord, or that you take it up to the ninth fret and it's an A7 chord, that was really useful.
That starts to break the doors down for figuring out the licks and the harmonic language. It allows you to have those open string notes to support you as you go up the neck.
You can establish a barre chord just fine, but when you go from that to something else, all the strings on the guitar are gonna die.
Jim Pharis Right, right...
ScottAinslie That silence is powerful when you're comping jazz chords, or playing rhythm and blues in a band. I love that and I'll do it with open chords by damping with my left hand. Just shut the whole guitar down with my fretting hand if I need that silence. It's good to have both arrows in your quiver; I guess I want to say.
The one that tends to get left behind, especially by beginning guitarists, is this understanding that you can play three or four strings on the guitar, you don't have to play all six, number one.
Also, that you can let go of the chord and go off and play some individual notes and then come back to it. And if you do this in time, and with a little grace, you can do all kinds of things with the guitar.
Repertoire and How We Learn
Jim Pharis - You sometimes play Post-War (WWII) songs in the Pre-War, Delta style that you're known for. Are you taking these more modern songs and playing them with the vocabulary that you developed playing the earlier songs to make them fit into an acoustic setting?
ScottAinslie - Yeah. I did a really wonderful version, I think, of one of Sam Cooke's songs, Bring It on Home to Me on one of the records. And it's really bluesy.
What I did was take a rhythm and blues tune that had its roots in the blues but was pushing out of blues toward R&B and electric music in Sam's hands and just took it back and put it in the artistic language that it sort of came from to see what would happen.
It worked really great! It's really spare and worked great in a solo setting.
Jim Pharis - Uh huh...
ScottAinslie - I've almost always worked solo. I've figured out, so far, how to make a living as a solo (artist). So I'm looking for things that are going to sit well in that tradition. As a solo guitarist, it doesn't gets more complicated, more emotionally moving, and more interesting, in a lot of ways, than the 1920's and '30's and 40's when the blues guys were just pushing what two hands, a voice and a guitar could do.
I learned the guitar so I could sing.
Jim Pharis - That's what moved you the most with this (blues) music?
ScottAinslie - Yeah. In the 1960's I was wandering around waiting for someone to play a song I knew so I could sing. I realized after six months of that that's not how you should live your life! So I decided pretty quickly that if I wanted to sing, I should learn how to play.
Jim Pharis - I'm getting the impression that learning to play, for you, was a long process. Many people, hearing your current level of expertise, might assume that it was easy.
ScottAinslie - That's because of the notion of talent, as opposed to the notion of work and discipline. Of course, we call it play, but it’s serious play.
When somebody comes up to me after I play and says that I'm talented, I'm just a tiny bit offended. It somehow implies that God has graced me with this gift and that's not how it is. We all crawl over glass to get where we are.
You know the notion that it takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something? We hear this in popular psychology and sociology.
When you look at the cat's who've succeeded with this, they've put in their 10,000 hours.
Now, I think Mozart was given 15% more than the kid next to him by God, I really do. But his father was the foremost music instructor in Europe at the time. So by the time Mozart was five, yes he was playing, yes he was writing, and yes he understood music theory. He ate, drank and slept it his whole life.
So, to have a genius die at 30 and leave us all this great music, it wasn't an accident. He just put in his 10,000 hours before he was seven because his Dad was pushing him.
Child prodigy, all these things, it's work. And, it's time invested. That can be both encouraging and discouraging, depending on when you pick up a guitar. You pick it up at 50, you're not going to learn as fast as when you were 12. You've got a job, you’ve got a house payment, you’ve got insurance. You've also got less time to play.
Before you go off to college, if you're lucky enough to go to college, you've got time to pursue an interest.
Talent is a very dangerous thing to dangle in front of somebody. It gives people who aren't very good an excuse for why they're not very good. For people who are very good, it ignores the work that has gone into it.
It's a pass for the normal guy, and we're all normal guys. There are people that are quick at something but to become good at it is another thing.
Jim Pharis - Do you feel that when people aren't immediately good at playing the guitar they think that they can't learn to do it?
ScottAinslie - Yeah, and that's why when I start somebody on guitar I put them in an open tuning (laughs).
Jim Pharis - Well, it's hard to sound bad...
ScottAinslie - It's easy to sound good!
Jim Pharis - My take on it is, everything is practice. You can spend your time learning to do something that you want to do, i.e. playing guitar, or, you can spend your time learning to do something that's not especially beneficial, like sitting in front of the T.V. In both cases you're programming your mind and body.
ScottAinslie - Yeah. The brain works like this; we create neuro connections between things. When that neuro connection is triggered again, it's strengthened. The nerve bud actually expands and it creates an insulation between these two or three or five parts of the brain. So when you smell a certain smell, you're in the alcove of your Grandmother's house.
As you have these constellations build up in the brain from our experience, what we practice creates a neural pathway. For guitar players this means if you play it wrong, you're encoding it wrong.
So when you blow past that error the first time, well, okay. When you blow past it the third time, you've taught your brain that's how it's supposed to be.
So you have to go back and un-do that and play it correctly, even if it's the last thing you do before you go to bed. Even if you're playing it 1/4 time, playing it correctly will cause your playing to advance. As opposed to blasting past it and thinking, "someday I'll get it right." You will not get it right. What you're doing is learning it wrong.
Jim Pharis - Do you teach? If so, what do you teach?
ScottAinslie - When I teach I don't tend to teach songs, I teach technique.
Jim Pharis - Theory as well as technique or primarily technique?
ScottAinslie - Enough theory to make the technique work. I want people to understand the fingerboard. Your repertoire, as I see it, is your business. If there's a song that you want to know that I know, I'll be happy to show it to you but I want to give you the tools, the keys to the kingdom.
I don't want to parse it out one song at the time and string you along. I'm on the road a lot so it's hard to have weekly lessons.
I've been teaching guitar in guitar camps for 15 years, really teaching guitar technique, in the summers. Training people's fingers to do things. Creating muscle patterns and an understanding of the fingerboard that hasn't existed for them before.
It's in the context of a certain style of music or a certain group of things. I'll run over tunes, but I tend to go over them fairly quickly. I'm not teaching two songs per week and you go home with those songs.
It's more like, here's this technique, it's used here and here and here and here's this one. I think that that breaks down doors a lot faster.
Jim Pharis - I agree, you've got to know how to operate it before you can express yourself with it.
ScottAinslie - Yeah. These techniques and understanding the guitar will serve you no matter what song you want to play.
My advice to players is to divide your guitar time into play time, when you're playing to relax and for fun, and work time. Work time is when you're actually working on something new. Or something old that you've been blowing the whole time.
We all know people who've been playing for 40 years and are still playing the same stuff they were playing when they were 15. That's because they're playing guitar for fun and other reasons and not playing guitar to progress. They're not setting aside some of their guitar playing time for work. I think that you have to do some of that to keep your artistic life moving forward.
Scott and Ernie
Jim Pharis - On another topic, you've played some duet shows with Ernie Hawkins haven't you?
ScottAinslie - Yes, we've done some shows together. A lot of that is putting Gary Davis' music and Robert Johnson's music, these two lions of two different schools of blues, up against each other, cheek by jowl.
We played a few duets together. It's pretty hard to find a way into Gary's guitar parts with a second guitar part though.
Jim Pharis - Although he did record some with a second guitarist, didn't he? And he played as second guitarist on some of Blind Boy Fullers recordings.
ScottAinslie - Right, right. But Gary's guitar parts were, one could almost say, the zenith of solo guitar parts. You have a moving bass line that's very specific, you have all this complicated stuff on the high part, they're gorgeous. If you jump into that and strum chords, all you're doing is burying what's there. I mean, it'd be like putting a dress on Michelangelo’s David! Why shroud this thing?
Jim Pharis - Yeah...
ScottAinslie - The solution of that for Ernie and I was for one of us to capo way up the neck and voice things differently. But even that was basically unnecessary. So the shows became two solo guitar traditions with a few pieces that we could work together.
I love Ernie and his playing. He's a great, great cat and a very sweet guy.
Jim Pharis - He appears to be somebody who's primarily learned from a master of a style (Gary Davis). What I'm interested in, and what many of my visitors are interested in, is what's the most efficient way of learning?
It's interesting to me to see people like Ernie, and you with John Jackson, who've studied with somebody who's very masterful as compared to someone who learns from the teaching materials that are available today.
The difference of sitting knee-to-knee with someone compared to using media and music theory.
Music Theory and Learning From A Teacher
ScottAinslie - On my website I have a page Music Theory for guitarists. Just getting through that one page and understanding it, learning about scales and how chords are built, learning the code, is a really, really good thing to have a rudimentary grasp of.
It'll free you up to understand, as well as understanding the chromatic scale, how to move chord forms around, and what they are and is really useful.
It's headwork and everybody does that work at some time.
For me, when a tradition moves one person to the other, there may be a Youtube video now, but before 2000 or 2005, when a tradition moved from person to person, it was personal.
You were in the presence of somebody and you went "damn, I want to do that!" That was my experience, that was Ernie's experience, everybody that's been "bitten", it's been personal. You've been in the space of someone who plays.
I'd wager that if you want to play guitar, there is somebody within twenty blocks of where you live, or twenty miles of where you live (to teach you), you need to go find that person.
Go seek out people!
The problem with tablature, is that you're getting the finished version of a really complicated guitar part with every little jot and tittle in it. You don't get to grok the whole thing.
So you can spend six months getting four bars (using tab) into a piece, and because it's a really complicated piece, not understand that it's basically a G going to a C.
You can be lost in the details of the thing.
I did a class once, a right hand class, where I took Mississippi John Hurt's Payday and I transcribed just the bass notes, just the thumb part. Then I added one backbeat note and then a pinch, where the note falls on the backbeat. I just kept layering things onto this foundation. This is how we learn.
If you stand on the outside of a jam session, you're going to grab the key it's in, maybe a couple of chord changes and play quietly and figure out and get there. You're not going in and learning all of the melody and all of the bass notes, that's not how we learn.
So tab has been a boon to young players but I've seen people play and have no emotional understanding of what the piece is. And no way to back up into a part of it and go forward without having to start over. They've learned it like a player piano.
So, before I send somebody to the tab, I prefer to send them to the recordings first or to see somebody play something, or both. If it's not in your ears, it's not coming out of your hands. You have to have these sounds in your head. You have to listen to what it is you want to play.
Jim Pharis - Let's touch on equipment for a bit. What instruments do you own and which of these are your working tools and the ones that you love the most.
ScottAinslie - I'll try to get this inventory right. I've wound up with a bunch of wooden guitars. For years I didn't have anything but this 1934 National Duolian.
Today I travel with this '31 National that I've had since 1991, the pawn shop find from Columbus, Georgia (story appears in the January 1997 edition of Acoustic Guitar Magazine).
It's fairly indestructible and makes the noise that I need it to make. It's strung with medium gauge strings and the action is a little higher than you'd like for fingerstyle and a little lower than you'd like for slide. It's my go to guitar for all kinds of stuff.
When I fly, I fly Southwest, I take this with me. It goes on the plane, if I can possibly do it.
When I drive, I've got a jumbo Froggy Bottom, the Model G, with Koa back and sides and a 130 year old piece of German Spruce for the front.
When I was working my way back into the world of wooden guitars, I found a little Gurian that I bought. A classically inspired, deep bodied, small bodied guitar. A great guitar.
Then I got a Larrivee', because I wanted a bigger guitar that had a little more power to it. A maple bodied Larrivee' that is really heavily built. Not my favorite instrument.
Then I got Michael (Millard, owner of Froggy Bottom guitars and one-time Gurian employee) to build this guitar for me and it instantly eclipsed every wooden instrument that I've ever played.
Michael's strength as a guitar builder is that he asks a thousand questions, more than you can ever answer about your musical life and then he builds you an instrument that does four of the five jobs you'd pray for a guitar to do. No guitar will do all five, you know.
Jim Pharis - Right...
ScottAinslie - And do them better than anything else you've ever had and then get better over time. Five or six years out, this is an amazing guitar.
Another Frog became available from someone who had it since 1977. The same old German top, a little narrower body, and kingwood, which is a version of rosewood, Brazilian rosewood, but it's not the classic look, it's a little more orange.
This guitar has been played lovingly for 35 years. The guy who had it has arthritis in his shoulder, so he wanted to trade it in for a smaller bodied Frog.
When this guitar became available, I bought it.
So I was able to buy that and it's a lovely guitar, with a cutaway. I haven't had it out of the house but I've recorded some stuff with it. It likes light gauge strings rather than mediums.
Anyway, I have four or five wooden guitars now and a couple of electrics, a Paul Reed Smith and an ESP, a Japanese knockoff of a Strat. I've got a MusicMan 210 which is a nice tube amp. I've never played out live with them (electrics) but I've recorded with them and like to play with them around the house.
And I've got two Nationals. I've got the original 1934 Duolian, carbon steel and two coats of roofing paint. That was my first National I bought in 1979 and I have this one (1931 model).
I had one more pass through my hands which I sold to Les Thompson, who was a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Jim Pharis - Do you prefer vintage nationals to the new ones that National is now making?
ScottAinslie - I do, with a caveat. The neck joints on the new Nationals are infinitely more stable. A vintage National is like a Jaguar: you should only own one of these babies if you can do some work on them yourself. They're temperamental.
Jim Pharis - Do your nationals have any unusual modifications. Are they straight restorations or are they "souped up" in some fashion?
ScottAinslie - My Nationals are both vintage 12-fret instruments.
They’re set up differently from the 'orthodox' set-up. There were an inventor's instrument and in my estimation, unlike a Stradivari, they are meant to be tinkered with.
I have a standard aluminum speaker cone, with an ebony biscuit and a bone saddle. A lot of hard materials up front in the sound chain. The instrument has great clarity and sustain.
When I tried the Quarterman Cones, which everyone was raving about, I actually lost sound, which is the opposite of what we expected.
I called Paul Beard, a great builder of resonators in Hagerstown, MD and we spent forty minutes on the phone puzzling about getting this unanticipated result with the Quarterman.
We decided that with a typical maple biscuit and saddle, Quarterman introduced a harder cone and improved the sustain and tone, but that with my particular set up (harder biscuit, harder saddle), I'd accomplished the same basic result with the softer cone.
Increasing the hardness of the cone crossed some invisible rubicon: we'd crossed the point of decreasing returns.
The other critical thing about Nationals and other resonators is the angle at which the strings break over the saddle. If it's too steep (acute), the cone and tone will literally be compressed by the excess downward pressure. If it's too flat (obtuse), the cone will not seat well, may rattle or buzz, and you'll lose sound transfer.
There is a fairly forgiving sweet spot, but anyone buying one of these should carefully examine the gauge strings, the string break over the bridge and the height of the bridge.
The ball ends of the string should always be below the tail piece. If the strings are threaded under the tailpiece with the ball end on the top, it's a sure bet you'll need a neck reset. Also, if the saddle has been cut down to nothing, you'll need a neck reset and on these instruments, it is difficult to find someone qualified to do it. Forewarned is forearmed.
Jim Pharis - What kind of strings do you use?
ScottAinslie - I have long used and endorsed John Pearse's strings. I use their Medium Gauge 80-20 phosphor bronze mix on the National and my Froggy Bottom Guitar.
I use their lights on a little 1933 Gibson L-50 archtop that I just got.
JP - How do you amplify your instruments onstage?
ScottAinslie - In the Froggy Bottom, I put a K&K in it (the Pure Mini Model). I didn't want a battery in the guitar because of possible damage while flying. I put condenser mics in front of the Nationals.
They're so much louder than any wooden guitar, in order to simplify my life on stage, I use a pickup to bring the guitar up to that volume level and leave the mics open.
When I do my own sound, I'll stereo mic the guitars. I have two condenser mics on clips, one for the lower bout and one for the neck joint. On the Nationals, the resonator and the F holes, where the bass tones come out.
Then I'll add the pickup on the wooden guitar to bring the mid-range and basic volume up, leaving the mics open so you get the sense of air in front of the guitar. This means I don't fiddle with all the knobs when I pick up a new guitar.
So I sound balanced with both the guitars having the same presence in the room at the sound check.
JP - Do you run the K&K through a pre-amp?
ScottAinslie - Yeah, I run it through a L.R. Baggs to bring it up and then run that into the board. It sounds great. I've been very happy with the pickup.
Both because it doesn't add very much mass, there's no battery in the guitar, and I don't need phantom power to make it work. If I do use phantom power it's to power the pre-amp so that I don't burn up my battery, which is great.
I've had an Aura (Fishman) before that I was carrying and I liked what it did for the sound, but with the K&K's, because they're providing 40% of the sound and not all of it, it was an extra piece of gear that I didn't need.
JP - Are there any feedback concerns with it?
ScottAinslie - No, because my monitor levels aren't crushingly high, I don't have a drummer onstage. I just need enough monitor to hear what's going on, and usually I'm playing rooms that have enough bounce in the house so I have a pretty good idea of what's going on in the room.
JP - When you do your own sound, what do you use P.A.-wise?
ScottAinslie - I use a Mackie powered board, the 808. It'll power monitors if you need them, as well as mains. I've got Electro Voice speakers that I've had for years and a couple of tripods for them to go up on and a mic stand with three clips.
A vocal mic and two clips for the guitar. It's a very simple setup. Three trips to the trunk of the car.
I play guitar and didley bow, this one string cigar box guitar, usually a gourd banjo, and I have the wooden guitar as well. When I tour in a car I tour with four instruments. When I fly, I work with two.
JP - I believe that you normally play with two fingers and your thumb?
ScottAinslie - Yeah, thumb and two digits.
JP - Was that a conscious decision or did it just evolve over time?
ScottAinslie - Well, my ring finger winds up with string schmutz on it when I play from either muting or grabbing chords. But my working fingers are these two (holds up first two fingers). I learned this from figuring out John Hurt's music.
Jim Pharis - What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn a song that has a complicated guitar part with vocals over it?
ScottAinslie - I figured out a big chunk of Gary Davis' Samson and Delilah. I figured it out by ear and took it to Tom Chapin, who had visited with Gary once or twice as a kid while Davis was still alive.
I said "hey look at this", and Tom said "that's great! Can you sing it?" I said no and Tom said that that was my assignment for the next time that I saw him.
What I had to do is to go back and slow the guitar part down and figure out where important words fell with stresses on the guitar. Then figure out where the other words fell and just lock in the word/hand stuff so I had the high points.
ScottAinslieI knew where the phrases started and then I filled in the holes and started figuring out where the important beats were, where the start of lines are, where the backbeats start, you got to know that.
Just line it up in time then you can bring it up to speed after you understand what's going on.
Jim Pharis - So you learned the guitar part first, then the vocal line, then sync it? Is that your normal practice method?
ScottAinslie - Yeah, that's what I do. The guitar stuff just requires full on attention. If it's vocals first you can blow off a lot of the guitar part and just play the chord changes.
This loses a lot of the detail. If you want to get the detail, you have to get your hands to make the noise.
Then go back. It'll be in your ears, you'll know where it's supposed to be. Just back it up and figure out where the phrasing happens. Where the string beats are, then line the syllables up with the chord changes.
Jim Pharis - When you are learning a song by one of the old masters, do you try to learn the guitar part 100% accurately like the recording is?
ScottAinslie - It depends on how big a hurry I'm in to get the piece on stage. Basically, I want to know what the tradition gives me. What the master gives me. I want to understand that guitar part.
Over time I've come to understand that my guitar parts move. I mean, I was raised with rock and roll and soul music and rhythm and blues. I wasn't raised with early country music and early blues. So of course the guitar parts are going to move if they're to be authentic to me.
They're going to have to sound like me and not just like Robert Johnson.
But, I don't presume that I know better than the cat that I'm learning the song from. So I want to get as much out of that original version as I can. Then I'll make decisions about what'll work and what won't.
I try to not let my inability to play a song stop me from playing it if I really want to play it. I'll just adjust the song and go on with it. I don't want to be stumbling over a guitar part that I can't play.
On the other hand, I don't want to blow off the tradition and think I know better. Because I'm standing on their shoulders and I want to honor my teachers, so I do want to know what they did, as best I can.
Jim Pharis - Are there songs that you love the melody or guitar part for that you don't perform because of the lyric's content?
ScottAinslie - Yeah, there are plenty of blues tunes that I choose not to perform because they're misogynistic.
Jim Pharis - Anything by Bo Carter, pretty much.
ScottAinslie - (laughs) Yeah.
I don't sing the N word. There are things that I don't do because I want to be a force for good in my world.
Jim Pharis - At times you change lyrics, at other times you just say, I'm not going to do it?
ScottAinslie - Yeah, sure. There're songs where you think part of its pretty cool then you think, I ain't singing that.
I understand it, in its context, but no one in the audience would understand it. Being slave to a tradition that's gone by is, I think, foolish. Being informed by it and knowing what it was and bringing it forward, especially if you want to play acoustic blues, without creating misunderstandings or doing harm is the best situation.
Jim Pharis - You interviewed Johnny Shines, who was a running buddy of Robert Johnson's. Did he give you any indication that Johnson was playing any music other than what he was known for?
ScottAinslie - Yeah, and it's not just Johnny but other players and audience members. When you get around these guys you find out that they were like walking jukeboxes.
They played what you wanted to hear. The problem was that they could not record that stuff. The record companies wouldn't let them record it.
So we have a very skewed idea of the bluesman and the musical lives of these performers. There are reports of Johnson being a fan of Bing Crosby's early stuff.
When Robert was a teenager in the early '20's, the oral tradition was still entirely local. By the time that he was 19 or 20, records became part of the oral tradition.
So he would have heard Lonnie Johnson, the piano players in the delta, Jimmie Rodgers stuff.
Jim Pharis - He was then in the transition from purely oral tradition to having access to recordings?
ScottAinslie - Yeah, to wider things.
Jim Pharis - One thing that kind of ties into this is Drunken Hearted Man, which you cover in your instructional series and Lonnie Johnson's Nuts About That Gal, which uses the same rhythmic figure.
ScottAinslie - Lonnie uses that figure a lot. He also uses it in The Broken Down Levee Blues, which is the song I sing of Lonnie's to illustrate his influence.
Jim Pharis - Who do you listen to?
ScottAinslie - I've been listening to Roddy Crowell, Steve Conn, Sam Broussard, John Scofield's new 'Piety Street,' and a wide variety of African music: Boubacar 'Kar Kar' Traor from Mali, Jean Bosco Mwende from Central Africa, field recordings of African palmwine guitarists, and the old heads: John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Skip James, Reverend Gary Davis, and field recordings of prison work songs...things like that.
I'm fond of solo musicians, naturally. I've always worshipped at the altar of what two hands and a voice can do.
Jim Pharis - Any contemporary players playing traditional music that you're especially impressed with?
ScottAinslie - I'm going to refrain from endorsing or singling out any one. I'd leave some deserving soul out out of ignorance. I am not a voracious listener. I value silence. So I don't have, or aspire to have, an encyclopedic knowledge of who is playing what. I do like a good song, especially one that fits in my mouth, and they are rare.
Jim Pharis - Thanks for taking the time during a busy tour to talk with us.
To find out more about ScottAinslie, including tour dates and instructional materials, visit cattailmusic.com.
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