Sonny Boy Terry Interview (Part 2) by Abby Owen

Posted on 8/27/2010 by Abby Owen

To read Part One, if you missed it last month, click HERE

AO: Would you say that the harmonica is your first love?
SBT: Oh yeah, I’ve been playing for 34 years. I think more people should work on their technique, you know, and sometimes they don’t want to do it seriously.
AO: So is that what the little mirophone attachment thing does? That gives it more of a Blues sound?
SBT: What these are, are radio dispatch mic’s. Like this one here is an original 1950 Shure green bullet. This is identical to what Rick Radar would use on “MASH”. This is an original microphone.

AO: And that’s what they use for the harp?
SBT: Yeah, that’s what Little Walt and all the Blues guys from that era used. What it does is it compresses the sound because it’s like a radio type of tone. And you use a tube amp and you roll off all the treble when you play and it gives you that big fat sort of crunch.

AO: I didn’t know that and I’m sure a lot of people don’t know.
SBT: Yeah, you can kind of see how this is, you know, this is an Astatic, same thing just a little different. It has a crystal element. So they’re not like dynamic vocal mics that have a clear sound.

AO: So you just hold it in one hand and the harp in the other or is there a way to connect them or...
SBT: No, I put in front like this and then you cut off the outside interference as much as you can because that helps compress that sound and give you that fat tone.

SBT: Yeah, so you keep it about half an inch from the grill of that. It’s got a volume pad and you play it through a guitar amp or a bass amp. Tube amps help you get that fat tone.

AO: Okay.
SBT: Yeah, so it gives--creates that little warmth in sound and it takes a thin, a thin reedy sound of the harmonica, you know, (plays harmonica), and compresses it into a fatter...

AO: Fat, bottom heavy sound.
SBT: Yeah. That Blues, sound yeah. That’s what they do, and now I play with a digital delay pedal and an octave pedal which makes it sound even fatter, you know. So I juice my sound up a little bit.
AO: Well, how is playing a harp lead different from a guitar lead, or is it different?
SBT: Only thing I could tell you that is different is really the tone. And in the harmonica you go back and forth between the rhythm and the lead. In most bands you’re going to hear the harp has a fatter almost like a saxophone type sound. Whereas a lead guitar, it doesn’t sound quite as compressed and in Blues, they don’t really distort their leads as much, you know. So with harmonica you hear a fatter sound.

AO: What was your greatest influence or if you could pick one artist?
SBT: That would probably be Kim Wilson. But so much to the point where I’d realized, hey, I better get my own thing because there’s only one guy like that.

AO: Yeah.
SBT: So I really worked on getting my own thing and really drew from our immediate culture down here in Houston because then I was hanging around with guys like Albert Collins and Joe Guitar Hughes and Uncle John Turner. I was really exposed to the local Houston cats and these guys were pretty big names already. I spent a lot of time in the black neighborhoods like 3rd Ward, 5th Ward, you know, and Kashmere Gardens, Sunnyside, South Park, Acres Homes, Frenchtown, clubs like The Continental Zydeco Ballroom on Collingsworth, and then the Silver Slipper. I saw and played the real low down blues way before anyone was writing books about Houston Blues or Zydeco.

AO: And they embraced you?
SBT: Yeah, Never an issue. Never a problem. I saw some weird stuff but I never saw violence. I never saw anything like that.

AO: Yeah.
SBT: was like family. It’s still like family when I see those guys. A lot of those guys that are still around, they act like they’ve known me...they embraced me like family.

AO: Nobody giving you attitude, like, get out of here white boy?
SBT: No. More of the white guys do that stuff.

AO: Really?
SBT: Yeah, a lot more. Especially your white boy peers. They’re, they can be a lot, a lot more...

AO: Competitive?
SBT: Yeah.

AO: Tell us about your pilgrimage.
SBT: There was this production going on, Hill Country Harmonica. It was being produced by Adam Gassow. Adam Gassow is originally from New York City but he was a street musician. He played in a group with Satan and Adam in New York City and they were in the “The Rolling Stone” in write ups and also appeared in U2’s Rattle and Hum documentary. I think Adam is the first white guy to appear on the cover of Living Blues as well.

AO: Satan and Adam.
SBT: Yeah, Adam Gussow and Sterling McGee. It was an older black guy and a younger white guy playing together. So it was unique in that sense and they were street musicians. They played for tips. They busked, you know. And then they started getting festivals and this, that and the other. He has since become an author, wrote a biography about his experience. “Satan’s Apprentice”, is what he called it. He’s a great writer. He’s now an English professor at University of Mississippi in Oxford and he’s awesome. Very renowned. If you go to, Adam Gassow is the foremost online, YouTube harmonica teacher in the world.

AO: So your connection to him was what?
SBT: I wanted to produce another harmonica show here and I was looking for someone to do a clinic, and then I got an email from Roger Wood who wrote the book “Down in Houston” and the book “Texas Zydeco”. He also wrote “House of Hits”, the book on Sugarhill Studios here in town.

AO: Okay, yeah.
SBT: Anyway, Roger was an author and he knows Adam and he forwarded me the Hill Country thing and I said what do you think, Adam? Would you want to come to Houston. And then we started exchanging emails and we worked that out. So I made friends with Adam. I go, I’m thinking about coming to the Hill Country thing, because Billy Branch, a famous Chicago Blues harp player was there and, and Johnny Sansone from New Orleans, a great harp player/song writer guy. These great players were there, some Hill Country Blues musicians and some Delta guys, some guys from Chicago, pretty much the whole broad spectrum. Adam was gracious enough let me play too. It’s Foxfire Farms, out in the middle of nowhere. It was Waterford, Mississippi so it was in the Hill Country. It wasn’t in the delta. But when we got to Mississippi late Friday afternoon, we needed to get to the Delta Blues Museum because they were closed on Saturdays, and we really wanted to do the Hill Country thing on Saturday, they weren’t closed but we got there at around five and it just so happened they were staying open late and so we got to go to the Delta Blues Museum which is where Muddy Waters cabin is and it was pretty neat. We did that and then we went to Sonny Boy Williamson’s grave.

AO: Right.
SBT: This is way out in the middle of the cotton fields, you know. Way out in the middle of nowhere. It was not an easy thing to find. It’s just a little gravesite. It looked like...

AO: Is that the Sonny Boy the first or the second?
SBT: The second, yeah. The other guy was more in Tennessee, I think.
AO: Okay.
SBT: This guy was more in Mississippi. So this was Rice Miller. Or they called him Aleck Miller. So, we went to his grave, because of course harmonica players do it from all over the world. You know, Blues people do it. Everybody goes to his grave. It was not easy to find. I mean it’s way out in the sticks. So we went there and then we went to the Crossroads, you know, Clarksdale. I’d been there before.

AO: Do they have a little tourist shop there, a gift shop thing?

SBT: They do at the Delta Blues Museum, sure. They sell all sorts of memorabilia. We had a ball, like we were in a buddy movie or something.

AO: A “Bucket List”, (laughs).
AO: You want to do any promotion here and say, tell us what gear you use and why you like it?
SBT: Yeah. Lone Wolf Harp Company. He makes the delay pedals and the octave pedals. It’s a guy out of New Orleans.

AO: It’s not a big corporate thing? It’s a guy doing it?
SBT: Yeah, it’s just a guy that really loves what he does.

AO: I can appreciate that. Well, what’s next for you now that the harmonica festival is over with?

Photo from The Texas Harmonica Festival
[Adam Gussow and Sonny Boy Terry "cuttin' heads" on a bluesy version of theRolling Stones' "Miss You". Photo by Ricky Bush]

SBT: I just played on Rich Delgrosso and Jonn Richardson’s new record.

AO: Oh, that’s right, you did tell us that.
SBT: And Tony Vega asked me to play on his new record. So I got that going and then I’m starting to work on my own album.

AO: Have you got material for it already?
SBT: Got songs? Yeah, I’ve got enough to get started.

AO: Yeah?
SBT: Yeah, all I want to do is record what I’ve got.

AO: Sift through it?
SBT: And then round it out, you know. I just want to get started. I don’t know if I want to go with another label or self produce. More than likely I’ll probably self produce and see if anybody wants it.

AO: It’s kind of the way things are going these days. Gotta do it yourself.

SBT: The thing is, you’ve got to be able to get your capital back if you make it yourself. My first album I produced on my own and made up my own imprint and I did really well with it. Then I started the “Live At Ms. Anne’s” record and at that time I got word that I could probably get it put out on Doc Blues Records which is a Blues label out of Austin. And then they decided they wanted my other record, too. And a little arm twisting they got me to let them reissue my first album plus the live, so put out two albums at the same time which did real well for me and, you know, got me in the game internationally
because they put that record out everywhere. They did real well for me. That meant, you know, it got reviewed and played all over. I did a European tour on it and then I was doing interviews for people in Australia, all over...Alaska and Colorado and stuff. So that did real well for me. And the next one, if I do it right I think, especially if it’s got good songs, it should do well.

AO: Yeah.
SBT: People care about good songs. I mean, you hope it’s still a business of ideas. There’s a lot of jamming going on out there, you know, which is cool but...

AO: You almost have to have a song with a good hook and story or something that draws people to it.
SBT: It’s got to be a good song, with a good groove and good story telling.

AO: One more question for you, what would you like your fans to know that hasn’t been asked of you yet?
SBT: Getting out there and doing the IBCs and everything, it’s really a business of connecting with people. I mean, because it’s not that big of an industry compared to rock’n’roll or country. So, I think, it’s really a mutual support system where everybody supports each other. If you don’t win an IBC, don’t go home crying in the corner. You get out there and you socialize and you get in there with everybody else, because it’s not just about that kind of stuff.

AO: You have to love it to stay in there and keep doing it.
SBT: And have a healthy attitude about it, you know it is really crucial. I mean, I’m a grown man. I’m married. But traveling recently enriched my whole life. That’s really important so is making sure you’re always connecting with the people in the audience. I would never turn down somebody asking for an autograph. It’s no big deal for me. Whatever it takes to thank our fans, you know.

AO: Right.
SBT: I just love all kinds of really gritty American music from Woody Guthrie to The Carter Family, the whole broad spectrum. Pete Seager to all those Blues guys. Bob Willis, Lightnin’ Hopkins... I love the Houston stuff. I really try to keep my focus on the Houston sounds because otherwise I end up sounding like a second rate Chicago guy or whatever else. I try to do the Houston thing as much as I can, you know.

AO: And people are finding out that there is a Houston sound?
SBT: It is interesting how artists influence those around them. So you do end up with these regional sort of feels. Texas takes from everywhere. Texas takes from Chicago Blues, Delta Blues, this kind of Blues, that--and they take from all different kinds and, of course, we have a huge Latino population so you hear that too.

AO: And country.
SBT: And you hear that too. Even in Blues you’re going to hear a little more twang in the guitars down here, you know. So it really takes in the whole broad spectrum of American music. Texas music almost defines to a certain degree American music.

AO: Houston’s a very metropolitan city. People probably don’t get that. They think Texas, they don’t think metropolitan.
SBT: They think we’re all cowboys.(laughs)

I don’t know about ‘cowboy’, but after meeting and getting to know Terry a bit more I can surely say he’s got the ‘down-home’ thing working for him. He is one of the most grounded and happy people I’ve met in this business, and just a really nice guy. He is a well-known fixture in the Houston Blues scene, but hasn’t let it go to his head. I, for one, will be happy to hear what he has up his sleeve for his future projects and I wish him all the best.

Copyright 2010 Abby Owen - All rights reserved.
Interview photos by Brian Smith - Copyright@2010 - All rights reserved.
All other photos used by permission, courtesy of Sonny Boy Terry, all rights reserved.

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