BluesWax Spotlight On
The Man, His Festival, His Legacy
By Kim O’Brien
Dutch Mason never aspired to become a national blues legend. He simply wanted to be a musician. But as his health began to fail, thanks to a life lived hard, he began to consider his legacy.
First, there’s his son Garrett, named after a Toronto club owner who became a close friend of Dutch. Garrett started playing guitar at the age of four when he picked up an old guitar with a single string on it. His father promised to get him more, but with his life consisting of crisscrossing Canada, he never got around to it. Indeed, Dutch, like a lot of musicians, had to sacrifice time with his son for his career.
But according to Garrett, “Dad did teach me a lot about the structure and the feel of the blues, and about arrangements and stuff I use all the time.” Garrett was also surrounded by the other players in Dutch’s band, widely regarded as among the best in the country. Rick Jeffery, Dutch’s superlative harp player, spent hours with Garrett, taking music in general and blues in particular. Wade Brown, lead guitar player and one of Dutch’s best friends, also took Garrett under his wing and showed him the way of blues guitar.
They obviously did something right, Garrett first appeared on stage at the age of 13 and has hardly looked back. Garrett gives the impression that he’s quite surprised by it all. But that belies the endless hours of practice he puts in.
“I lived a very sheltered life – we [he and his mother] didn’t have a TV. There was no Facebook, no Twitter,” he relates. He credits the absence of these distractions for his early development as a guitarist. His mother was less than impressed by the direction her son was taking. Garrett laughs, “Yeah, my mother told me, ‘Don’t ever be a musician,’ but it didn’t take.”
His prowess as a blues artist was noticed early – his debut CD, I’m Just A Man, won a Juno Award [Canada’s Grammys] for Best Blues Album in 2005. Traditionally, Garrett has also been the opening mainstage act at the event named for his father, The Dutch Mason Blues Festival. This is Dutch’s second legacy, and it is attracting the best blues artists in the world.
The Festival held its inaugural event in 2005, but it had its genesis a few years earlier. David de Wolfe, a local music magazine publisher and promoter put together a big blues event with acts from points far and wide. The Dutch Mason Band was his headliner.
When the successful mini-festival was over, according to de Wolfe, Dutch said to him, “You should put on a big blues festival every year!”
David replied, “If I did, I’d name it after you.”
“Nah”, said Dutch, “you’d lose your shirt. Who’d come to see me?”
Time passed and neither of them thought much more about it. Then two very special things happened. First, deWolfe saw a documentary on TV about Garrett Mason. That re-sparked his interest in a Dutch Mason Blues Festival. The second event was even more special. Dutch was to be awarded the highest civilian honor a Canadian civilian can receive, the Order of Canada, in the summer of 2005.
“Oh my God, Dave,” Dutch said to de Wolfe, “they’re trying give me a medal. Why?, I’m just a bum in a wheelchair.”
De Wolfe saw the opportunity and again talked to Dutch about a blues festival in his name. With the national recognition his Order of Canada would bring, and a CD nominated for a Juno, de Wolfe was convinced the time was right.
Dutch told David that he was concerned that the number of die-hard, pure blues fans could be numbered under 4,000, not enough to sustain a festival.
But they had an idea. Borrowing the sentiments from the Muddy Waters song “The Blues Had A Baby and They Named the Baby Rock ‘n’ Roll,” they devised a festival that would feature great blues artists, and those artists who had crossover success, or rockers who were heavily influenced by the blues.
Their commercial radio airplay would attract people who heard them on the radio but who might not be dyed-in-the-wool blues fans. At the Festival, they would be exposed to local, national, and international blues artists. The idea was these people would get bitten by the blues bug and become true fans.
In the meantime, de Wolfe helped organize a special reception for Dutch on the day he was invested with the Order of Canada. The following weekend, the inaugural Dutch Mason Blues Festival was launched in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Dutch performed. More importantly to him, he performed with Garrett. Dutch was very proud of his son. In an odd twist of fate, both Garrett and Dutch released a CD in 2004 and both were up for an East Coast Music Association award for best blues CD. Dutch told CBC Radio, “I hope Garrett wins. His CD is way better than mine.”
With the festival’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll is Where Blues Came From” mantra, none other than Bo Diddley headlined the two-day festival.
A year later, the Festival outgrew the Dartmouth site and moved to the town of Truro, where Dutch lived until he passed in 2006.
For deWolfe, holding the Festival in the town where Dutch lived out his life and where Garrett grew up meant coming full circle. DeWolfe had originally met Dutch when he sneaked into Sullivan’s Monterey, a local club. Dutch got him through the doors and let him watch. He watched every night for three weeks until the manager got wind of it and had him barred.
“They reminded me of John Belushi in Animal House,” remembers deWolfe. “They were out of control. They’d hoot, holler, and fight – not argue, but really fight – between sets. Then when it was time, Dutch would yell out, “Okay boys, enough of that foolishness, it’s time to play again.”
DeWolfe’s genuine affection for Dutch became clear when I asked him to share some of his favourite moments from the seven years the Festival has been running.
His response was immediate. “Wheeling Dutch out front to watch Garrett and his band finish their set. It meant a lot to Dutch to see his son perform at ‘his’ festival.”
Since its inception, many great artists have found their way to Dutch’s festival, including James Cotton, Jimmy Vaughan, Robert Randolph, Colin James, Ronnie Hawkins, Wayne Baker Brooks, Zac Harmon, Robert Cray, Jonny Lang, and Bonnie Raitt.
One of deWolfe’s other fond memories is when Bonnie Raitt took the stage and said, “I’ve been hearing a lot about this festival from my friends, and I can see why they like it so much.”
DeWolfe is also proud that after Dutch passed away, James Cotton stepped up and became the festival’s official ambassador. Several years ago, Cotton invited deWolfe to a blues festival in Texas. David thought that would be great so he could “see what a real blues festival looks like.” Cotton replied, “You’ve got a real blues festival right here.”
Others agree. The Dutch Mason Blues Festival was named Nova Scotia’s Festival of the Year in 2009 and was elevated to Signature Event status in 2010. And Dutch’s concern about the number of blues fans was unfounded with the festival now pulling in 25,000 fans for the weekend.
This year’s Dutch Mason Blues Festival runs August 10, 11, and 12 and features, among others, Delbert McClinton, Shirley King, and of course, James Cotton.
Kim O’Brien is a contributing writer at BluesWax.
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