To see Ted Drozdowski play slide guitar so easily like he does, one might think he was a tad bored, like a kid who really ought to have skipped a grade or a dog too long chained to a doghouse. In the dusky bars and blues clubs he frequents with his two-man band the Scissormen, the mutton-chopped Drozdowski keeps himself, and everyone else in the vicinity, awestruck, using ashtrays and beer bottles and pint glasses as a slide, fretting guitars with clenched teeth—a veritable up-yours to conventional guitar playing. He talks with a great rush of excitement about the blues he loves, a new live Scissormen CD and the accompanying 90-minute Robert Mugge documentary, Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues. Drozdowski’s not really bored; he’s just rebelling against “boring” with every bone in his body.
1. Your introduction to some of your favorite blues artists came through Robert Mugge’s 1990 documentary ‘Deep Blues,’ and now you’re the subject of a film of his.
Yeah, it’s a really odd thing; it’s very circular. ‘Deep Blues’ was amazing for me. I was already a huge blues fan, but I just wasn’t aware that people were playing blues that was this idiosyncratic and raw or of the people who the movie documented in North Mississippi and the Delta, even in Memphis. I just fell in love with those players. And having seen them perform in that movie, within a few months I made it my business to go down there and actually meet and see these people in the flesh, right where they normally work in juke joints and places like that.
It had a profound impact on my life, and then to actually find myself in a Robert Mugge film 20 years later, it’s pretty amazing. A pretty transformative thing that I didn’t see coming. Just like I had not seen R.L. Burnside becoming a friend and Jessie Mae Hemphill and Junior Kimbrough; it’s just one of the kinds of things that happens if you’re willing to pursue musical adventures.
2. Why is blues the genre for you?
I’ve been a fan since the ’70s actually. My first guitar hero was Clapton and it was stuff like Cream but also material like [Derek and the Dominos’] “Bell Bottom Blues,” which has a beautiful, really buttery guitar solo in it with elegant string bends. And then, of course, I got into Waters. So I always felt the blues, but I never felt that I could really play it—at least not in the way where I felt that I had anything legitimate to offer as an artist.
Discovering the raw electric blues that was still alive in the Delta and Mississippi hill country in the ’90s really excited me because I’d already been in bands for quite a while at that point and was playing psychedelic rock, and this music spoke to me in a more direct way; it was more related to Pink Floyd than B.B. King in some ways. And then to be specifically encouraged by R.L. Burnside to play it, it was like he opened the window and then he shoved me through.
3. In ‘Big Shoes,’ you say that blues started off as an underground movement and in many ways still is today. Can you elaborate on that?
It’s unfortunate that it’s come around that way because in the ’80s when Stevie Ray Vaughan was alive and Robert Cray was having radio hits and Buddy Guy returned to recording, the blues were really a revival. It was very fiery and John Lee Hooker became a big star and it looked like the music was going to rock it out, but Stevie Ray died and he was apparently more of a spearhead that anybody knew at the time. After he died, it just seemed that the interest in blues as a commercial medium faded once again. It will still be in blue jean commercials and stuff, but people don’t flock with those kind of numbers to the shows and radio programmers don’t seem to be terribly interested in playing it anymore …
With the death of Stevie Ray, blues ended up going underground again and now many, many blues clubs are out of business. Blues record sales account for less than one half of one percent of the market whereas during the Stevie Ray era they were about two percent of the market. Radio outlets have diminished radically for blues so it’s kind of hard times for the music these days…It gets driven home when you’re out there touring that the music is no longer at a pinnacle of attention anymore.
4. You’ve said that there are pockets of people across the country who are more open to the blues. Where are these places?
The Boston and New England area has become a big market again. Minneapolis is absolutely amazing. In the Carolinas people are really enthusiastic about the music again. Ohio, definitely, and other parts of the Midwest, like Missouri, St. Louis. And the Pacific Northwest, too.
5. How does one write a blues song?
For me, it’s either something that I’ve been inspired by from my travels to Mississippi or my studies of the music. I might take a bit of mythology and write a piece or there’s very personal stuff. For instance, there’s a new song on the album called “R.L. Burnside.” That song is literally the story of the night that R.L. Burnside and his band and I all had dinner and they were hanging around at my house having a couple of drinks and R.L. decided he wanted to see a movie. So he went over to my music collection and he pulled out an Amos ’n’ Andy film. I’d actually wondered before if I should throw that movie out because it’s white guys in black face talking in dialect, but I thought it was culturally valid to hang on to that…I was a little nervous about it, but we put the movie on and from the very first joke, R.L. just started laughing. He howled through the whole movie. Afterwards I said, “You’ve seen this movie before, right?” And he said, “Oh, yeah.” When he was a boy, he and his friends would save up their allowance for weeks and weeks at a time to see a movie, and they would ride their bikes all the way to Memphis, which was like 35 miles from where he lived. They’d see the movie and they’d ride back home at night and when they’d see headlights coming down the road they’d throw their bicycles into the ditch and hide because they were afraid that it was the Night Riders. So me hanging out with him and having that experience, basically that’s all chronicled in that song.
6. What’s your favorite live music venue?
Mine is a festival, not a specific place. It’s the Cognac Blues Passions festival in France. An absolutely amazing place; it’s so beautiful. It’s held on the gardens at the mayor’s mansion, and you get to stay in this beautiful old town of Cognac, and it’s just a wonderful festival because you get to stay there a whole week. You play a show a day, and you get to meet with all these other artists and everyone has communal meals together. The people are just so open and excited about the music, and it’s just beautiful music played for wonderful people in a beautiful setting.
7. What advice would you give to songwriters just starting out?
I would say to try to find something that resonates with you personally and to try and express an idea of your own. Even if it’s an idea based on story or mythology, try to write a song in a way that you’re using your own language. You know, don’t use the word “mojo,” and don’t write about big-legged women. Just try to consciously avoid the clichés. To always have your own voice is the primary thing. If you write something and it doesn’t sound like you, if it sounds more like a song that’s just borrowing stuff from what’s been done before, crumple up the piece of paper and throw it in the trash and start again.
8. Who are three songwriters who most influenced you?
R.L. [Burnside], Tom Waits and Son House.
9. Is there a topic that you haven’t covered in a song yet that you want to?
There’s kind of a million of them. One thing I’ve been struggling with is writing a song about my grandmother who came over from Poland as an immigrant and who pretty much raised 13 kids singlehandedly and at the end of her life she decided to just kind of give up and stop taking her insulin. She was married to a violent drunk and just really held the family together. Her name was Anna, and I’ve been struggling to write that song about Anna.
10. What made you choose BMI?
I chose BMI because I had been a member of [the other performing rights society] for 15 years, and they had not done a damn thing for me, including paying me any appreciable royalties for any of my work. I put out an album in 2008 called ‘Luck in a Hurry’ and literally got nothing for domestic airplay. My only airplay was foreign, and we got played on well over 100 stations and I just thought that was ridiculous.
At BMI, people were immediately interested. Even before I actually submitted an application, Clay Bradley called me because he found out what I did through [Executive Director of Media Relations] Kay Clary. I came in for a meeting, and immediately I started getting airplay royalties for ‘Luck in a Hurry,’ which was three years old at that point. It was still getting spun and they were tracking it and finding it and I started getting checks so the difference between [the other performing rights society] and BMI has been like night and day for me.