That’s what 20 years in the music business has taught Damon Fowler. “I play music and I want to create music. I do things I like and hopefully people like it. I’ve been lucky so far that people do like it. So, it’s allowed me to have the lifestyle of a musician and use the creative side of my brain.”
He pauses and adds with a dollop of sarcasm, “That’s debatable!”
He calls me back seconds after missing our appointed interview. Two young children can be heard in the background. He admits life is crazy, but that’s what happens when you have a wife, two kids and you’re juggling gigs as a bandleader, solo artist, and guitarist in a number groups ranging from George Thorogood to Dickie Betts.
“It’s a blessing,” he says about his children. “We inherited my parents’ house. It’s a cool house, good neighborhood and all that stuff, but it needed some work, and I had some time off this summer, so my wife put me to work, and I don’t think I’ve ever worked this hard in my life.”
He’s 40 years old, right?
“I am 40, Can you hold on a second? I’ve got my son with me.”
A minute later he calls me back.
“Alright, I’m back.”
“(Experience) has taught me patience, and it’s taught me there’s all sorts of different ways to work for the success of your art. It’s taught me to have an open mind and be patient. Every time I’ve ever made a specific plan and laid it out (and said) all right, this is going to happen, and that’s going to happen and we’re gonna execute this, that has never worked for me. Never worked! The only time its ever worked for me is when I’ve gone along with the universe, just taken what it’s given me and tried to make the best of it, and the next thing you know it turns out better. It turns out good.
“So, that’s what I’ve learned. It’s like everything. Any of the gigs I’ve done, how I got in with Butch Trucks and the Freight Train Band, how I got gigs with Dickie Betts and with Southern Hospitality most definitely was the kind of thing where we were just trusting our instincts a little bit. It’s all been just how it happens, being patient. Don’t push it. Don’t force it. Just let it happen.”
Songwriting is a perfect example of how patience works for Fowler. His best songs just pop into his head. “Just ride around in the car with the radio off, and it will come to you. When I’m not thinking about it, next thing you know, I’m humming something, and I come up with an idea. That’s the way it organically happens with most of my favorite artists. Know what I mean? There’s always the people who have the business plan, and then they go out for six months. ‘Oh, man, it’s the best thing I ever heard of.’ And you like never hear from them again.
“I like guys like Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson didn’t even have a marketable career until he was like 45 years old. He was broke. He was a Nashville writer, and he’d sold a couple of songs. He sold “Hello, Walls” to Faron Young, and I think he sold “Crazy” and “Nightlife.” So, he had a little bit of success, but he was never this pretty Nashville produced guy. So, they never let him in. And it didn’t happen until he said, ‘Screw it. I’m gonna move to Texas and hang out and regroup,’ and that’s when he found Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin Texas and that redneck hippy scene.”
An only child, Fowler grew up in Tampa listening to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and early rap. “I’ve been listening to everything. When you’re a kid you hear it on the radio, and your parents are listening to all of that stuff, and I think it’s all good. You have to keep an open perspective and an open mind.”
In his solo records Fowler has covered everyone from Leon Russell to country icons Merle Haggard and Billy Joe Shaver. He’s toured with George Thorogood, Dickie Betts, the late Butch Trucks and jammed with Derek Trucks when they were both 14.
“My uncle was in a country band. So, when I was a kid I would go sit in. I was in Florida in the late ’80s, early ’90s. In those days, Florida had a ton of honkytonk country bars. They were all smoky. They all had country fans in ’em, and in those days those guys would play George Jones and Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
James Taylor’s “Steam Roller Blues” was Fowler’s introduction to blues. He loved its lyrics about being “a churning urn of burning funk” and “a napalm bomb guaranteed to blow your mind.” “My uncle was doing it, and I saw the band doing it, and I thought the lyrics were cool.”
A week later, he was listening to B.B. King and was hooked. But he also loved Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Mama Tried.”
“Man, I loved Merle, dude.”
But Fowler doesn’t necessarily take the message – the truth as Willie Dixon would say – too seriously. “People go see a blues show a lot of times to go to any show. They go to have a good time and escape for a minute. I don’t like a whole lot of modern-day politics in my music. I don’t really want to hear about that. We all have our opinions, and hopefully everybody can come to my show and just take a couple of hours out of the day and not have a to worry about that crap, you know? People go to a blues show to be entertained. So, I think sometimes you don’t have to put all truth. It’s fun to write songs kinda like a story, like a book.”
He learned that early on from his uncles. “When I was a kid, my mom and I lived in my grandparents’ house. I was an only child and my grandparents ran a septic tank business out of their house. I had uncles that worked for them, and it was a family business, and the oldest uncle was in a country band. He played guitar and he wrote songs and stuff, and it was like the late ’80s and early ’90s bar circuit stuff – what was popular in the day.
“He played a lot of that stuff, and on Sunday at my grandparents’ house, they had a pool and a little deck, and my uncle would set up a p.a. system, and his friends would all come over and hang out by the pool. I saw that at an early age, and my cousin plays drums. He’s close to my age, a little younger. In those days we would just hang out. We thought everyone did that on Sunday. Some people throw a baseball around. At our house, we had a Sunday jam.”
Fowler’s grandmother bought him his first guitar when he was 10. “The guitar she got me I was happy with. It was an Ibanez acoustic. I loved it. I’ve still got it. I have an acoustic guitar she got me, and then the next year for my birthday I got an electric guitar which was an American made Fender Stratocaster, and I still have that in my house.
“She went and bought all my uncles and my mom Gibsons. She got my uncle a J130. So, that’s what they did that year, and when she was buying these guitars, I was with her in the store. So, just to get me out of her hair – she was spending big money on these guitars – she just handed me a little Ibanez and said, ‘Here, man. Just sit over there.’ She said, ‘I’ll get that for you. Just be good.’”
Fowler has asthma and never played sports. He just hung out and played guitar as much as he could. “My Uncle Bobby would show me stuff and (friends) would show me stuff.”
He played everything. “I think you do yourself a disservice for not being open-minded. I like music. I don’t try and put it in a box.”
In his late teens he met Rick Derringer of “Rock ’n’ Roll Hoochie Coo” fame. Fowler was pretty much clueless about Derringer’s history with Jonny Winter.
“Rick is a really cool guy, fantastic guitar player. I was doing these gigs, and I was trying to get a gig at this club. The owner was also a booking agent and booked this other place that was north of Tampa by about an hour. It was really well known as a typical redneck place you go out on a Sunday, and there were a lot of bikers, rednecks.
“My cousin played drums, and we had a bass player, and so in order to play the cool club in Tampa, we had to play this other club a couple of times to make friends with the guy and prove we could hold our own. So, when we went up there, we ended up being the club’s favorite band. We started going up there all the time and just playing one Sunday a month.
“So, Rick Derringer was coming for a Sunday afternoon gig, and we had to do two sets, but Rick didn’t want to do two sets in a row. So, the club said, ‘Hey, man, why don’t you play a set and Rick will play a set? You guys play another set, and Rick will play the last set.’ I said, ‘Sure, man,’ and to be honest, I wasn’t really that aware of Rick’s music at that time.
“I was becoming a fan of Johnny Winter at that point. My uncle had given me (the record) Nothin but the Blues (1977), and it’s got Muddy Waters on there. Bob Margolin plays guitar and they got Willie Big Eyes Smith on drums. It’s a cool record. It’s Johnny’s record, and it was around that time that I got the record, and I thought, ‘That’s cool.’
“And I knew there was some kind of connection, and this was before the internet was really popular. You couldn’t just look it up, you know? So, I was aware of him. I knew about “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo,” and I knew he had something to do with Johnny Winter. So, we did the show. He brought me out for the encore and let me play a song with him. I was just a young blues kid, and I didn’t know in his early life he was this young blues kid. He was with the (rock band) McCoys.
“He was just open to me and really nice. Hey, man, good job, and good luck kinda stuff, and any time he would come to town after that, he’d call me and invite me to come out and sit in with him, and so after that, I did a little more research. Holy shit, you know? So, when I was graduating high school, I had this every Friday night gig I was doing in Tampa, and we were developing a little following and, wow, man. He produced the record (Riverview Drive 1999) for me, and it really helped me, and so, it was right.”
Fowler played guitar like a veteran from the start, never sacrificing mood or tone for speed. That, plus patience and some just plain luck have served him well. At 14 he was playing with Derek Trucks who was also 14 and, as the nephew of Allman Brothers’ drummer Butch Trucks, had an inside track with that band.
“We would open for Derek Trucks at Skipper’s. A stream of light from heaven just skimmed down on Derek Trucks as a musician. At 15, that guy was almost as good as he is now. That guy is fantastic. You know, musicians are awkward, especially when you’re young, and Derek was shy, and I was super shy. But Derek was always kind, very kind, and he would get me up to jam. I still run into him, and we still talk about those days.”
A quarter century after jamming with Derek, Fowler would end up playing with his uncle, Butch Trucks, and his Freight Train Band. “I started doing those gigs for a couple years and had a fantastic time. I would ride around in a vehicle with him, and he would tell me all these stories, and he would talk a lot. He was a good guy.”
In 2018, Fowler played slide guitar on tour with another Allman Brothers alumnus Dickie Betts. “I think Dickie Betts is like the Keith Richards of the Allman Brothers,” says Fowler.
Fired by Gregg Allman from the Allman Brothers allegedly for his drinking habits, Betts is rarely given the credit he deserves for contributing to their early sound and is always overshadowed by the messianic reputation of the late Duane Allman.
“If you do the research, most of their hits, the songs people know, were songs that Dickie wrote like “Statesboro Blues.” I know Gregg wrote “Whipping Post,” but for the most part, “Rambling Man, “Blue Sky,” “Elizabeth Reed.” It just goes on. Dickie was the guy.”
Rolling Stone magazine has characterized Betts as bitter toward his former bandmates in the Allman Brothers. Fowler doesn’t think so. “You know, I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him about that. My experience when I’ve toured with him, he doesn’t seem bitter at all. He’s gotta a lotta love for those guys, and he’s been nothing but great with me. I’ve never heard him say one word about any of that stuff. We did a gig in (The Allman Brothers’ hometown) Macon, and it was like going to the Super Bowl. I mean, we got there two days early, and there were already people camped in the parking lot, tailgating and stuff, you know.
“In certain circles, man, people have tons of love for Dickie and the Allmans, any of the Allmans. (Dickie’s son) Duane (named after the late Duane Allman) is actually the guy that called me for the Dickie gig. Duane’s a good friend of mine and so is Devon (Allman, Gregg’s son). Actually Barry Oakley, Jr. (son of another Allman Brothers alumnus) is the guy that got me the gig with Butch Trucks.”
Fowler has recorded eight albums under his own name and tours both solo and with his own band, but he’s defined as much by his work with other more high-profile artists as he is on his own. “I’m juggling a lot of stuff. But it’s been good. It keeps me fresh. I don’t want to be the guy that goes out on tour and plays the same thing every time. I like going out with a big band. I like going out with a three-piece band. I’ve also been playing acoustic gigs. I’ve been flying out and doing solo with George Thorogood.”
His favorite Thorogood number is “The Night Time.”
He sings, “I wanna be with you in the nighttime, da, da, da, da.
“Last year in fact right before I started the Betts gig, my trio did basically the entire Canadian tour with George Thorogood. It was fantastic. The first night of the tour was in New Hampshire at a casino, one of Thorogood’s favorites. We got there, the band greets us, and they’re all the nicest dudes. The manager comes up to us and says, ‘George does this every time he plays here, but you are the opening band. The soundcheck is “Under My Thumb” by the Stones. He wants to come and sing it with y’all.’
“So, I’m holy crap. I better learn it really quick. So, we learned it, and Thorogood came, and we played “Under My Thumb” with George in front of no one. It was killer!”
In 2011, Fowler teamed up with Victor Wainwright, J.P. Soars, Chuck Riley and Chris Peet to form Southern Hospitality and released Easy Livin’ in 2013 on Blind Pig Records. It was a hard groove that surfed the tall waves where rock and blues meet and was produced by Louisiana’s bayou master Tab Benoit. In 2014, Benoit produced Fowler’s Sounds from Home CD, and he co-wrote five of the songs and produced Fowler’s latest LP, Whiskey Bayou Session for Fowler’s own label, Whiskey Bayou Records.
“Tab Benoit is a real natural. He’s very low pressure. We kind of speak the same language as far as what kind of music we listen to and stuff like that. A lot of people don’t know this, but Tab can sing like George Jones better than anyone I’ve ever heard. He’s got a studio in his house, and he’s recorded a bunch of George Jones tunes, and he plays pedal steel very well.”
In 2005, Fowler was in an auto accident that caused him to lose part of a deltoid muscle in his left arm. He required skin grafts on his arm and head. It put his patience to the test, but it taught him new lessons, too.
“It made me listen more. It gave me a break. I ended up staying home and laying around on the couch just listening to records and changing my perspective a little bit on music. It changed my singing a lot. It made me want to sing better. Made me want to write better. I’ve always loved guitar and in my teen years and 20s I kinda looked at it as a sport. But I don’t do that anymore. It’s more about the songs.”
Visit Damon’s website at www.damonfowler.com