Upon connecting with Kirk Fletcher, I had to let him know that I think his latest release Hold On is fire. The playing is super clean, with no muddled notes or sound. From the opening track, Two Steps all the way through his tribute track to Cornell Dupree to the end of the album. Joe Bonamassa says Fletcher is one of the best guitarists in the world.
The accolades and nominations are pouring in for the guitarist. His stint as lead guitarist of Kim Wilson & The Fabulous Thunderbirds, in addition to his performances with Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton, as well as his collaborations with Charlie Musselwhite and others, have vaulted him to the head of the class of current trend setting Blues and R&B guitarists. In a free ranging discussion with Blues Blast, Kirk expounded on his world of music and career.
“Blues and soul are similar to me, you know? I don’t mean Soul music. I mean being soulful. When I hear Blues that are soulful, I can feel that.” So states Fletcher, the Southern California raised son of a preacher man, who spent a considerable amount of his formative years in Compton.
“You know, I’m actually from Lakewood, California, kind of a suburb, close to Long Beach. I spent a lot of time in Compton though. My father’s church was in Compton and I lived there for a lot of years. People took the Compton part and ran with it. Oh, he’s from Compton!”
And yes, he did dabble in other genres before settling on the Blues. I asked him about any connections to Hip Hop.
“During that time, I was plugged into it a little bit. I would do like, little guitar parts for people who had beats and stuff. I was in that scene for just a short while. Those were just the times. In the ’90s, everybody played guitar and had a MPC60 and did samples. I didn’t do anything major. I had friends that were really into it. My brother and his friends. I was more into songs; R&B, Blues and Gospel.”
Kirk started following in his brother’s guitar footsteps at age eight, playing in their father’s church. It was a Pentecostal Church of God In Christ, from where many a musician has honed his or her chops. Sly and Freddie Stone, Stevie Wonder, Natalie Cole and Michelle Shocked have all been members of a COGIC Church at one time or another.
Unfortunately Kirk’s brother passed away some years ago. Before he passed he took young Kirk to an L.A. music store, Guitar Works. It was there he met Robben Ford’s guitar tech, Jeff Rivera.
“Yeah, my buddy Jeff and I are still friends to this day. From the time I was about sixteen. By the time I graduated high school, I was going to Guitar Works every day. I mean, every day! I was also playin’ four and five nights a week in church as well as little side gigs. So I was pretty much a regular guitar player, whatever that is, you know, playin’ lot of music and practicin’ all the time.
“Luckily Jeff, Robben Ford’s guitar tech would hire me as an extra set of hands to help with the setup of everything. I got to see a lot of rehearsals, recording sessions and gigs around L.A. whenever Robben had something. Robben didn’t even know I played until later on. Robben and I are pretty good friend now.”
Another stepping stone in Kirk’s career was Al Blake, lead singer and harmonica player of the Hollywood Fats Band.
“Al Blake is very much responsible for exposing me to a lot of obscure Blues artists. The whole Blues spectrum, really. He showed me how to play in different positions and styles like Country Blues. The differences in styles between for example, the Jimmy Rogers/Muddy Waters style. The Luther Tucker/Robert Lockwood, Jr. style. And the Louis and Dave Myers style. He introduced me to so many other West Coast Blues artists and taught me about the interplay between harmonica and guitar. I could easily identify with the call and response aspect of it which is what we did in my father’s church.
“Today when I play, I try to let everything go and let the music take over. It comes from playin’ on the road. I try to be a pretty spiritual person in general without getting too religious. I let that flow through my music. And I’m a fan first. Of B.B. King, Albert King, Luther Tucker, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Dawkins. So I try to make it exciting for people as they did and do for me . I really try to impart that into my guitar playing.
“The mark of a good night is not how well I played, but actually how much I played for myself, how I got in the moment, even how I mess up. It’s like, I can break through and make something happen in the middle of a gig or something. I think where that started was when I began doing gigs under my own name, playing music that I like. When you are playing for an audience and they can feel it, it’s an earth-shattering moment. When I get to play with my heroes it’s earth-shattering too. When I was younger, being friends with people like Kim Wilson, Rusty Zinn and Billy Flynn was really advantageous. They understood that I was a younger cat and hadn’t had a chance to play with a lot of the older guys. There were like, ‘Cool man, we’ll make it happen.’
“I believe the first time I played with Pinetop was maybe at Antone’s Blues Club in Austin, Texas. It was one of those Blues Anniversaries and Kim made that happen. It was like the Muddy Waters Blues Band and different guitar players would come in and out. That was the kind of thing where the young musicians could play with the older ones. Clifford Antone was always doin’ that in his club. I think that’s where I got to play with Hubert Sumlin and Mojo Beauford in addition to Pinetop the first time.
“Another time I was playing with Rusty Zinn at a Blues Festival that I think was in Wisconsin where I got to play with Pinetop again, one of several times. I talked to him about the old days. He told me how he started out as a guitarist but injured his hand in a knife fight which is why he switched to piano. I also found out that he loved McDonald’s as comfort food!”
As Kirk Fletcher seemed fully comfortable as we talked shop, I decide to take a fun turn with him. I ask him to briefly respond to guitar players I randomly name. Here are his responses:
James Armstrong- “I definitely know who he is.”
James “Super Chikan” Johnson – “Yeah. Absolutely. I just don’t know that much about his musical work and it’s not because he isn’t fantastic. It’s just there aren’t enough hours in a day to study all the great ones sufficiently.”
Freddie Stone – “Oh man! Know you done…Oh my God! Freddie Stone. I mean that’s like textbook guitar right there. One of the first people to bring that church, changa langa, scratch guitar amalgamation of Black music in Sly & The Family Stone. I listen to them probably every day. Freddie Stone is one of my all time favorite guitar players.”
Jimi Hendrix -” Oh man. Jimi Hendrix. It’s like I’m still learning stuff. It’s a never ending book with him. He’s been there for my whole life and I’m sure his music will rule in my head forever. He touches so many levels. When I was young, it was all about the fantastic guitar work and the sounds being so innovative and fresh, even in the ’80s and ’90s. And now, it’s like the whole package; the songwriting, the way he progressed from the chitlin’ circuit to the world stage. Amazing. So he’s like ground zero for me.”
Keith Richards – “Oh my God. Keith Richards is amazing. I mean his songwriting, his complete ensemble playing, the encyclopedic knowledge of all the music before him. He’s not some drunk, druggy guy. He’s a serious musician, a serious scholar of music. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him.”
Shuggie Otis – “Oh man, Shuggie Otis and Sly Stone are people I probably listen to everyday. Shuggie was and is so innovative and ahead of his time. He’s a serious Blues guitar player too. Him and Sly were a lot of the inspiration on my latest record too. Just trying things and taking your own path and not letting anyone tell you what to do. That’s what Shuggie did. He had the chance to let Quincy Jones produce his record, but chose not to. I figured if he could do that, then I better get going. Big inspiration all the way around.”
T-Bone Walker – “Aww man. Textbook. I mean, the guy deserves a lot of credit. The Father of electric guitar. There were people before him, but that single note style and bending laid the groundwork for B.B. King who is probably my favorite all time Blues guitar player. When you think about it T-Bone Walker was like the Black Elvis or Sinatra. I really like those pictures of him playing while doing the splits with Lottie The Body soaring over him.”
The gear discussion also comes up. Kirk reveals his current penchant for experimentation.
“At the moment I’m playin’ a lot of different guitars. It’s kind of a new thing. I’m trying to marry the beautiful Gibson warm sustain tones with others, for various reasons. So right now, I’m either playing a 335, a Les Paul, a Strat or a Tele. In the studio the Tele seems to work really well. I guess it’s kinda the ultimate roots guitar. A lot of my favorite tracks were recorded using a Tele or 335 so, I don’t know. A lot of my friends have played Strats and I don’t like all of them. Next week it will be something different out of those four. Amp wise, if I can, I usually use some kind of Fender reverb. Preferably an old Fender Super Reverb. I still have my Super Reverb’s in L.A.”
These days Kirk lives in Switzerland, but comes into L.A. several times a year. I asked, how he came to live in Switzerland.
“Man, my woman and playin’ a lot. I was already comin’ over here a lot to play and actually met my girlfriend several years ago here. We reconnected a few years ago. The timing was right. My daughter was in college, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ I like it. I go back to L.A. every few months so I’m really kinda back and forth. It does take some getting used to though cuz I miss my friends. The way of life in Switzerland is really cool. With the rail system going to so many countries, gigging and touring is easy.”
As far as the press accolades and heavy praise being heaped upon him, Kirk Fletcher keeps a level head. As January 2019 closes, he is in L.A. doing a few gigs in the wake of his appearance at the NAMM Convention. Then it’s back to Switzerland to get ready to hit the road in Europe followed by Joe Bonamassa’s Blues Cruise.
“Man, I don’t know about all the heaps of praise in the press. It’s nice to be recognized for what you do and I appreciate it. You read some of it and use it to get gigs, to make some sort of living playing music. I’m glad that I’m in a position to be talked about, period. Other than that, I don’t really look at it in a competitive way and I don’t think they mean it that way. I think what they mean is you are a musician that moves people. I think of all my buddies that I would put on that list; Chris Cain, Jr. Watson, the list goes on and on. The more known I get, the more I can talk about all the people I love. Hopefully, it’s a win, win for everybody.”
Visit Kirk’s website at:http://kirkfletcherband.com/.