Thursday, February 5, 2009

Liberatore: Elvin Bishop's Grammy nomination is long time coming

Veteran bluesman Elvin Bishop, whose album 'The Blues Rolls On' is up for a Grammy, has gained accolades from critics and blues fans throughout his 45-year career.
For the first time in his 45-year career, Marin's Elvin Bishop is up for a Grammy Award. I'm betting that true blues aficionados agree with me: It's about time.

Bishop has at long last gotten the attention of the Grammy people, who nominated his "The Blues Rolls On," on the Southern California label Delta Groove Music, as best traditional blues album. In terms of name recognition, he's more than aware that he's up against some formidable competition from Buddy Guy, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker Jr. and 95-year-old Pinetop Perkins.

"In the recording academy, there are 12,000 people who vote and 11,000 of them neither know nor care anything about the blues," Elvin told me matter of factly. "They just check off a name they've heard. That's basically what it amounts to."

Win or lose, Elvin plans to make the most of the experience. He's going down to the Staples Center in Los Angeles for Sunday's 51st Grammy Awards show with his wife of 22 years, Cara, and their 20-year-old daughter, Emily, a junior at UC Berkeley.

"I played on the Grammy show three years ago, but this is the first time I've been up for an award," the 66-year-old singer-guitarist-songwriter-bandleader-master gardener said from his San Geronimo Valley home. "Anybody you can think of in the music industry will be there. You schmooze around and see people you ain't seen in years and go to parties and stuff. There's nothin' to it really."

While pop stars like Jay-Z and the Jonas Brothers, Kid Rock and Lil
Wayne, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift soak up all the TV time, the blues and the other Americana awards are treated like the red-headed stepsisters of the Grammys. They're handed out long before the cameras go on.

"Blues is not a very important category to them," Elvin conceded. "The blues awards are given out in what they call 'the pre-tel.' That stands for, 'You're not going to be on TV.'"

I first met Elvin in the mid-'70s, just as his "Fooled Around and Fell in Love," the single from his Capricorn album "Struttin' My Stuff," shot up the charts and was a top 40 smash.

But Elvin's a blues musician, not a pop star, and he understands that the blues is bigger and more important and more enduring than any awards show or hit tune.

Not many blues musicians go to the University of Chicago on a National Merit Scholarship as Bishop did before joining the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the group that introduced young rock fans to the blues in the '60s.

And beneath his aw-shucks persona and Oklahoma-farm-boy-in-overalls image is an intellectual's appreciation of the history of the blues as an American art form that has been passed like a torch from generation to generation.

That's the concept he very effectively conveys on "The Blues Rolls On." One way he illustrates the tradition is by including among the album's dozen tracks the song "Yonder's Wall," featuring singer/guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks, son of the bluesman Lonnie Brooks, whom Bishop has known since the early '60s.

Four decades ago, Bishop recorded "Yonder's Wall" when he was with Butterfield, who learned it from the 1950s Chicago bluesman Elmore James, who picked it up from Arthur Cruddup, who had recorded it in the '40s.

"The concept of the whole thing is how the music flows from one generation to another, and I thought that was a good example of that," Elvin said.

Furthermore, he cited a line in the song, "Your man went to war," as yet another illustration of its enduring relevance from decade to decade and from singer to singer and, unfortunately in this instance, from war to war.

"These guys are singing about four different wars - World War II, Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq - and the words still hold up," he pointed out. "The blues rolls on."

As part of the package, Bishop enlisted several generations of blues musicians as guests on the record, with B.B. King and James Cotton the elder statesman.

Before listening to this album, I'd never heard of the up-and-comers John Nemeth, whom Bishop calls "a monster talent, a guy to keep your eye on," or a family band from Tupelo, Miss., called the Homemade Jamz. It includes 14-year-old lead singer and guitarist Ryan Perry, his 11-year-old brother, Kyle, on bass, and their little sister, Taya, on drums. She's all of 9-years-old. Talk about the younger generation.

"They're the nicest family in the world," Elvin said. "And they're on their way to success."

In keeping with his theme, Bishop had them record "Come On In This House" by Junior Wells, one of the elder bluesmen who mentored him when he was just starting out.

Adding to his impressive guest list are Kim Wilson from the Fabulous Thunderbirds, George Thorogood, Warren Haynes of the Dead, zydeco stars R.C. Carrier and Andre Thierry, Marin's Angela Strehli and Tommy Castro, guitarist Mike Schermer and young Derek Trucks, considered by Bishop "the best slide guitar player who's ever been."

In addition to his Grammy nomination, Elvin's a multiple nominee at the Blues Foundation's 30th Blues Music Awards on May 7 in Memphis.

"The Blues Rolls On" is up for album of the year as well as contemporary blues album of the year. The title track is nominated for song of the year. And Elvin is in the running for contemporary blues male artist of the year.

But first there's the Grammys on Sunday night. I asked Elvin what it would mean to him if he actually won.

"I don't know," he said after a moment. "It couldn't hurt anything. It's like a guy pitching a no-hitter. For ever after, it's there."

Paul Liberatore can be reached at

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