BluesWax Sittin’ In With
By Dan D. Harrell
Last week we joined Dan Harrell and Chris Cain as they spoke about the Blues Cruise, Cain’s influences, and recording. Let’s just jump right in with them again…
Dan D. Harrell for BluesWax: A person told me that Chris Cain has only two outfits – a full-dress suit and a set of bib overalls. Where did the overalls come from?
Chris Cain: Well, ever since I was a kid I liked them. And then I’d always see Elvin Bishop, and he always had them on. When I was in high school, I used to wear the white painter ones. What I like about these things, is that you can go a hundred pounds either way – it’s the male equivalent of a moo-moo. [laughter]
BW: You also don’t drive and you don’t have a computer. Why is that?
CC: Well, I think that’s going to change this year. After all these years of not driving, I’ve just about had it. If you’re not in walking distance of what you want, you’re out of the game. Now we want to just say, “Hey, let’s go to the beach” instead of, “Let’s take a walk to the Safeway.” [laughter] So I guess I finally woke up and [getting a car] is going to be a good thing. I’ll probably get a computer this year, too. It would be worth it just for the YouTube alone. Up to this year, my laptop has been an Etch-a-Sketch and my way of keeping data was a big pile of legal pads. But I’m digging it now. I mean, holy moly, when I saw the things you can watch, I think it’s a great thing.
BW: [laughing] So I can say you’re “leaning towards” joining the computer age?
CC: Oh, no, man, I’m going there! It’s such a helpful thing and there’s just no reason not to.
BW: Tell me a little bit about your parents and growing up.
[Walter Fields, a black man from Memphis, stayed in California after being stationed there while serving in the military. He met Georgia Cain, a woman of Greek ancestry, in Monterey. Chris is their youngest child.]
CC: Both my mom and dad were big music fans. When my brothers and I were little, my father would take us to go see performers like B.B. King. One time, on Christmas Day, he told me to go put my suit on and we went to the fairgrounds and saw James Brown. My parents were very eclectic, too. My mom liked deep blues, they both liked Ray Charles and Charles Brown and that stuff, but she also loved Jack Teagarden and stuff like that. [Leo “Jack” Teagarden, known as “Big T” and “The Swingin’ Gate,” is regarded as the father of jazz trombone.] And my dad loved stuff like Muddy Waters, but he also loved the funkier stuff like Johnny Guitar Watson and Motown. So they both were eclectic, and they both had a lot of records. My parents were really beautiful; like, my mom took me to see the Beatles on a school day. Mom was really eclectic; she also dug stuff like Country Joe McDonald and Led Zeppelin. It was extreme sometimes, but it was great. I was lucky to be around a lot of music because of them. I was really blessed by that.
BW: What’s your first memory of being “turned on” by a song or a performer?
CC: It would have to be some B.B. King or some Albert King stuff that I listened to around the same time in my life. I was just discovering all these records that my parents had, it was blowing my mind. And all of these live albums were coming out, like Live Wire, Blues Power [Albert], and Live at the Regal [B.B.]. I was a freshman and sophomore in high school when it really started blowing my mind. I was hearing [other] good music like Ten Years After and I saw Woodstock and that blew my mind. But then one day I sort of “discovered” all these things my parents had, that had been there all the time. That was a big, big thing for me.
BW: When did you first pick up a guitar and what was your attraction to it?
CC: It was my dad’s guitar, which I still have, and I even wrote a tune about it. I was eight years old and he was listening to music on the weekend, still trying to teach me to tie my shoes, and he showed me “Baby Please Don’t Go” in the key of E. My dad had like a whole repertoire of tunes. He had the guitar and a little amp and on Sunday he’d go into the garage and play all his tunes. And he’d make up his own arrangements for tunes that he dug. And I’d watch that and he’d show me stuff. He was great like that. I think that went better than the shoe-tying did. [laughter]
BW: When did you first start playing in band and for others? Who were you trying to sound like then?
CC: That was in mid-high school years. I saw Michael Bloomfield and lost my mind. I was like “Wow!” I thought, okay, here’s a guy who isn’t eight feet tall from Mississippi, but he’s playing things that are very soulful, and they are touching me. So [I thought] it can be done. I just went crazy over him, Peter Green, B.B. King and Albert King – and it’s been that way up to yesterday. Those guys were the first who just had me losing my mind. All the pals I grew up with were big shuffle guys, so anytime anybody had a killer shuffle out, we’d just go ape shit. The first time we heard Let’s Have a Natural Ball [Albert] – my mom got it for me – we all went crazy. Love the shuffles.
BW: What do you think was special about Michael Bloomfield? [Cain did an album with the Ford Blues Band titled In Memory of Michael Bloomfield.]
CC: Oh man, you know because at that time, most guys barely ever went up past the tenth fret. They could barely do two choruses before they ran out of stuff. [Bloomfield] would just go on and on and on and on – and it would be exciting stuff just streaming off the top of his head and out of his soul. I saw him with Electric Flag – he had on a white T-shirt and a Les Paul guitar – and he was playing these solos that were just the most amazing, emotional and dynamic things. He’d really break it down. That kind of “musicality” he had was [great], and then I found out that he’s a great storyteller and musicologist, knows all the styles… I just thought he was the baddest mamba that ever lived when I was a kid. We used to sit in my pal’s bedroom and listen to “My Labors” and “Wintry Country Side,” and him with Mark Naftalin. One time, we got in my pal’s car and drove to Mill Valley; we were going to find these guys. [laughter] [I know] he wasn’t into the whole idolatry thing, but with him I was on twelve! I mean, I play guitar and I love guitar, but when I meet cats I love, I’m more of a fan than a player. And [Bloomfield] just set me off!
BW: Tell me a little about your teaching and the satisfaction you get from that.
CC: Anytime I get around guys or gals who love the guitar, you know they have that look in their eyes, like it was when I was a kid. It would keep me up at night; I’d get up out of bed to figure out something in a Doublemint commercial. So when I get with people who are really excited about the music and playing the instrument, I seem to learn as much by the end of the lesson as they do. It’s a re-discovering of the thing we’re doing or checking out, and it can be one of the really great things. There’s no sheet music or anything. What I normally do is ask [the student] if there is something they’d like to play. It’s the way I did it. When I was young, I’d sit with the album and imagine myself playing the solo on a song and just that would get me turned on. I’d think that if I could just play that solo note for note, I’d be so happy. That turned into a thousand sessions [for me]. So I tell [students] if they have something they like, let’s go there. Then at the end of [the lesson] they seem to be really happy, and I’m excited too.
BW: Do you do anything in particular to get ready for a performance?
CC: Normally, the only thing I might do is try not to play a lot of guitar before the date coming up because, then by the time I get to the gig, I’m kind of starved for the thing. It’s kind of like you haven’t had a steak for eight months and you’re losing your mind [wanting] it. That makes it feel fresh and desirable. I always try to do anything I can do to get to the place where the music will be as good as it can be. I also think that just paying attention to peoples’ faces, which I didn’t used to do at all, has really helped me. I’m doing my thing and they are right there, kinda with me on this deal, and I feel I’ve learned kind of how to play to folks. I try not to stay in my own little world like I used to – now I’m watching them. I missed all of that before. I’ve learned a lot of beautiful things just by watching people; they really blow my mind.
BW: What have you got to say about your current band?
CC: Oh man, I just love these guys. It’s been a year now since the other band came to an abrupt end and these guys came into the picture. They have become real close pals and they’re wonderful musicians. Steve Evans [bass] is one of those guys who will always make it way better when he’s playing. And Greg [Rahn, keyboards], what can you say about him. He’s fantastic. And Mick [Mestek, drums is so good. Those guys are sweethearts and I look forward to every time we plug in, because they are a joy to play with and be around. It just reminds me why I love playing the guitar to begin with. It’s the joy of playing with great musicians. It’s just the best thing about my whole life – having the camaraderie with other musicians that you respect and play with. It’s like going to war or something; you bond in that way, ya know.
BW: In addition to the overalls, you have a particular affinity for Elvin Bishop, don’t you?
CC: Let me tell ya, when I was a kid, Elvin in my eyes, was the most. If he was playing anywhere, I would always try not to miss it because you just knew that was going to be the greatest time in that town. Because he was going to bring it. It was like your favorite uncle coming to town – he’s funny, he plays his ass off, he’s very entertaining; it’s just all good-time shit, man. It’s not too serious, but it’s as good as possible. I saw him once for a fifty-cent donation at a Be-In, and it was probably some of the greatest guitar playing I have ever seen. I’ve always loved that guy – his way, his persona, his thing, man – I can eat that up like candy! I saw him play at these theaters where he said, “Lock the doors, we’re not going to stop.” And he’d play ‘til sunup.
BW: When I saw you a few days ago, you were playing a solid-body Gibson Les Paul. What happened to your E-335 [which I’ve never seen him without before]?
CC: My [Gibson E-335] guitar, Melba, has frets that are worn practically off from playing so much. I kept hesitating to get it fixed, because I just didn’t want to play another guitar. So now it’s gotten to the point where it’s totally unplayable. So I’m playing all these Les Pauls now, and [it’s been a struggle]. At the gig a few days ago, I really missed Melba so much. She’s in for new frets now and I don’t know how long it will take, but I really miss her.
BW: Do you remember on the cruise when Jimmy Johnson scolded you for leaving your guitar lying around unattended?
CC: Oh, hell yes! He said, “I think you’re drinking too much, look where you put your guitar. You need to put that away right now.” He sounded just like my dad!
BW: He actually took it out of your hands and put it in the case.
CC: He is such a sweetheart. That gentleman, what a joy. He’s got such a twinkle in his eyes. He’s so happy and has such wonderful stories. He’s just a very kind person. I feel so blessed that I got a chance to spend so much time with him. That really made the trip for me. Him and all the musicians – getting the chance to sit and talk with them, and just enjoy their company.
BW: Tell us about the relationship with the Ford Brothers and playing with them. [Five of Cain’s albums have been released on Patrick Ford’s Blue Rock-It label and he’s performed on several of their CDs.]
CC: Those guys have been like a family to me. [At points in my career] Patrick has given me the opportunity to make a record after long stretches of not having one, so I could at least stay in the mix a little. They’ve always been so supportive and kind to me. I saw them when I was a kid and was totally knocked off my chair. They’ve been a family that looms large in my life. They’ve been so kind; they’re just wonderful. I love ‘em.
BW: Is there anybody you’d like to say something about who I haven’t brought up already?
CC: There have been so many musicians and people who have been so kind to me, like Roomful of Blues and Tommy Castro, who I’ve known forever. Folks like Little Charlie Baty who I’ve got to meet. And then I hear about Michael Burks [who died on May 6]. That knocked me over. There’s a zillion guys who I could go on and on about. I mean, like Lonnie Brooks and the folks in Chicago. They, and a million guys, have been so encouraging, like pals – just sweet, nice folks who made me feel like, okay, maybe I’m on the right track. I could go on for days about the people, man.
BW: Every time I see you, you seem very humble and happy. There’s a joyous-ness about your performances that I think everybody gets into when you play. Where do you think that comes from?
CC: You know, I’ve had people working with me in the past who didn’t seem to enjoy the gigs, they were just hired guns, and I think I got a little lobotomized and there wasn’t joy there. But then, all of a sudden, that kind of turned around to where now every time I get the guitar out of the case, I feel like it’s all good. And now, it’s total joy for me. I just love the feeling now.
BW: What’s on your agenda for the rest of the summer?
CC: I’m going to play on some tracks for a record that Chester Thompson [Tower of Power, Santana] is making. He’s such an amazing organist and piano player. So I’m looking forward to that. The band and I are going to be working more frequently, piling up some new material to play for folks and trying to make it as good as possible for the new CD that we hope to make soon.
BW: When you’re not working, traveling, or practicing, what do you like to do?
CC: I’m kind of a homebody. I just like relaxing here at the house. I don’t really have any hobbies or anything, sometimes I wish I did.
BW: Whose music are you listening to these days?
CC: I’ve been listening to a lot of Ray Charles, always, but these last few evenings, I’ve been listening to a little George Benson, the Cookbook record with Lonnie Smith and those guys back in the sixties. I just fell in love with those fellas. Every time I hear those tunes I can’t believe anybody can play those kinds of things. It knocks me over like a streamroller.
BW: Anything else you’d like to say to our readers or your fans?
CC: Whenever I travel and meet people who dig the music, I just feel lucky. I appreciate anybody taking the time to listen or come say hello. I don’t take it lightly. I appreciate [BluesWax] taking the time, too. Thank you.
After reading Part Two of Dan Harrell’s interview with Chris Cain, be sure to check out this week’s Photo Page where Dan shares some of his personal photographs of Chris.
Dan D. Harrell is contributing writer for BluesWax and president of The Write Answer in San Jose, CA, specializing in writing, public relations, and marketing consulting. Contact him by commenting below or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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