It’s not that Mark T. Small doesn’t love his guitars; because he certainly does.
It’s not that Mark T. Small takes his guitars for granted; because he certainly doesn’t.
The sole reason that some of Mark T. Small’s guitars seem like they’ve been saddled with years or abuse and neglect is because the Massachusetts-based bluesman plays the ever-loving Hell out of his guitars.
That nightly process of vicious assault-and-battery is probably why Small is hard-pressed to name a favorite guitar of his.
“I try not to (have a favorite guitar he leans towards playing); I beat the heck out of ‘em. I think John Hammond said one time that when you’re doing a solo acoustic act, the trick is to make as much noise as one person can possibly make,” Small said. “So you’re beatin’ on that thing all night long. To really have an acoustic guitar sound good, you’ve got to hit it hard enough that the top vibrates to get that crisp, driving sound. So I give them a real workout.”
Given that, one might think that Small’s arsenal is comprised of bargain-basement axes made out of some kind of cheap plywood. However, that’s not the case.
“I have a little collection of Martins, some from the early ‘50s, that I use, but I try to force myself to switch off, because it’s very easy to fall in love with one and then think that the others don’t sound as good. You can get used to it (the sound of one particular guitar),” he said. “But I am a Martin guy. And for slide, I play strictly Nationals.”
Armed with just a couple of acoustic guitars and a handful of songs, it can take a lot of effort and a lot of ‘beatin’ on that thing all night long’ to fill up even the smallest of clubs. Don’t think that Small is not aware of that.
“When I play, I’m not just playing on the stage; I’m playing for the people in the furthest part of the room away from the stage, even if it’s in a big auditorium,” he said. “That’s who I’m playing for, the people all the way in the back.”
A few of Small’s well-worn six string troops, along with the guitarist’s visually and sonically impressive technique and chops, can be experienced on his latest release – the accurately-titled Smokin’ Blues (Lead Foot Music). The album took top honors in the Acoustic Album of the Year category at this year’s Blues Blast Music Awards.
“It’s two-fold; the first part is to get recognition from Blues Blast, which is wonderful. And the second is to have the support of the people that come out to hear me play,” Small said. “I was a band guy for years and then decided to play solo blues and I said, ‘I don’t care if anybody listens to it, I’m doing this for me and for the music.’ And to have it be received well is just wonderful.”
The songs on Smokin’ Blues run the gamut from Chicago blues (Elmore James’ “Early in the Morning”) to Memphis R&B (Rufus Thomas’ “Walkin’ the Dog”) to patriotic pride (“America Medley”). But regardless of their source of inspiration, all the songs on the disc were put through their paces on the road before being laid down to tape in the studio.
“Well, I’ve really honed my material by being a road warrior. In July and August of this summer, I did 40 gigs – some of them bigger shows and some of them in smaller clubs. And in these clubs, you have to earn the ear of the audience,” Small said. “And in order to do that, you have to pay attention and see what grooves work. You can tell if your solos start to get a little too long, so I’ve honed the structure of the tunes by just playing night after night.”
No doubt partly because he was so familiar with the material prior to recording it, and partly because he’s just such an amazing guitarist, but Smokin’ Blues has a warm, rich and immediate sound, making the listener feel like they were in the studio with Small and his guitars at the time of inception.
“As far as the recording of the CD, my goal was to make it sound like you’re sitting in a small room listening to me play. I don’t like using effects (in the studio), I play it just like I’m playing live,” he said. “I turn the mics on and just play. That kind of mind-set to me is all about the guitar. To me, the guitar is such a beautiful instrument, that to do anything to alter that is a crime. So I just play it like I feel it and leave it alone.”
It’s really evident by just hearing or seeing Small do his thing that a lot of his guitar technique goes back to an early love of bluegrass music and legendary artists like Doc Watson and Norman Blake. In the early 1980s, Small was a member of the Brown Country Band, a ‘newgrass’ outfit based in Indiana.
“I was attracted to bluegrass in my teens because those guys play just like greased-lightning. It just amazes me how fast they can play. So I kind of honed my chops in that genre of music,” he said. “But also in my teens, I was introduced to the blues and I just found it to be the best palette for the guitar.”
Playing pop tunes on acoustic guitar is one thing, but the way Small sees it, a whole new world – one that most people can find a home in – opens up when you start banging out on the blues on a flat top.
“James Taylor is a great guitar player and a great song-writer. But for me to do a song like ‘Going to Carolina in my Mind” … I’m not going to Carolina in my mind. But I can relate to things like ‘her daddy must have been a millionaire; I can tell by the way she walks.’” he said. “You know, everybody can relate to that. And I think because of that, this music (blues) is just wonderful for doing whatever it is you want to do on the guitar. It provides such a great palette for expressing yourself on the guitar. You can just step out and do what you want.”
Playing the blues on an acoustic guitar is by no means something new or revolutionary; it’s something that’s been going on since the dawn of time itself. But where Small has managed to separate himself from the pack is with the way that he incorporates the finger-picking styles of icons like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins with the approach of Hall of Famers like Rev. Gary Davis and Charlie Patton. The blend of those two camps creates the ‘Mark T. Small’ style of acoustic blues.
“I use about six different styles of guitar in my live show and I pick songs where I can combine those styles and get the place jumping,” he said. “You can generally tell pretty quickly when you try them (songs) out if you’ve got a live wire. To me, the groove is number one. It took me a long time to realize that, but it really is all about the groove.”
“I try to make every song my own. It’s important for me to make it my song. So you take a tune like Blind Boy Fuller’s “Step it up and Go” (off Smokin’ Blues). He finger-picked that on a National and I love the way he does it, because it has that boogie-woogie line in it. So to make it my own, I flat-pick it in that boogie-woogie kind of style. Generally, when I start fooling around with a song, it usually comes out how my interpretation of it is going to be. Sometimes I’ll pick up a set of finger-picks and noodle around with a song a little bit and then I’ll pick up a flat-pick and instinctively, I’ll go in the direction that best fits my style. I try not to copy anyone because I have so much respect and admiration for these old blues guys.”
One legendary father of the blues that Small can’t seem to get enough of is the late, great John Lee Hooker.
“Yeah, you take a guy like John Lee Hooker; he wouldn’t even change to the next chord until he felt like it. He didn’t care about structure or anything like that. He cared about how he felt. John Lee Hooker had the best groove ever, in the whole history of mankind. He would play just one chord and blow the roof off the joint with just that one chord. To me, the blues is the only music that lets you just bear right down and dig into the guitar. You can be improvisational. Unless it’s a ragtime piece or something like that, I never know what I’m going to play. I just jump in and hang on. It’s like magic.”
When it comes time to whittle down a list of potential songs that he wants to add to his repertoire, Small approaches the task like he might approach a good buffet at a local restaurant.
“I look at the whole thing like a good, good plate of barbecue. The song is kind of the meat and the guitar is the sauce. I don’t care whether it’s chicken, or pork or ribs, it’s the sauce – the guitar – that I like,” he said. “So I look for something that has a great groove. Being a road warrior, I’m constantly checking things out to see what gets people shaking a leg. But it’s got to have a great groove and be something that I can express myself on the guitar with, using those old techniques from the bluegrass days and from the days that I fronted an electric blues band.”
In the late ‘80s, Smith fronted an electric Chicago blues styled band called the Lonesome Strangers, and the group was a fixture on the east coast blues scene for well over a decade. These days, while he hasn’t turned his back completely on an electric power trio, when he does plug in and turn up, it’s more for relaxation than anything else.
“I’ll throw a band together for a gig occasionally; I love to play the electric guitar and it really is kind of a relaxing situation after playing solo. My solo act is very guitar-intense, so between the singing and the playing, I just don’t have a second to not pay attention or to not be into it,” Small said. “And in a band, of course, you can kind of step back and maybe take a drink of water and have someone else step up for a second. In a solo show, there’s no room for anything except for just leanin’ on it.”
Even though he had a successful band dynamic going with the Lonesome Strangers, Small was more than a little intrigued with the prospects of just sitting down with an acoustic guitar, all by himself.
“I was playing in the band and going through the whole ‘school of hard knocks’ that goes with that scene, but the whole time, I was also playing Scott Joplin ragtime tunes and old-time fiddle tunes and acoustic things that were also important to me, because I wanted that completeness to be able to pick up the guitar and play for an hour without singing,” he said. “The whole time that I played electric, I thought this (playing solo acoustic) is where it’s really at. The completeness and artistry of just one guitar was something that I really loved.”
Just a few years into the New Millennium, Small decided the time was right to make his move.
“In 2006, I started working on my solo show and I thought to myself, ‘I don’t care if anyone likes it; I don’t care if anyone listens to it; I don’t care if anyone hires me, this is what I was meant to do.’ And oddly enough, my success just accelerated after making that decision. I started getting jobs opening up for some big acts and clubs that hired pop musicians started hiring me and people started showing up.”
Not all of those ‘people that started showing up’ were well-versed in the blues upon entry into those clubs, but Small made sure that was not the case upon their exit from those clubs.
“A lot of people said, ‘I don’t know what this stuff is, but I like it.’ But I think seeing one guy playing some fancy guitar can get their attention and make them say, ‘What the heck is this? That guy’s working hard and that looks difficult.’
Smith’s forceful guitar style is well-backed by an aggressive brand of vocals that captures as much attention as his picking does.
“I have always loved Johnny Winter’s singing, ever since I was a kid. I was fortunate enough to have opened for him about three times before he died and his growl … I just related to him so much with his growl,” Small said. “Of course, I love all the old blues guys. The cool that John Lee Hooker puts out on a song like ‘I’m Bad like Jesse James” is amazing. I like that kind of tough-guy vibe that guys like Hooker have … just sit there and take a stand. There was a saxophone player years ago that was a mentor of mine – he died of cancer awhile back- and he told me that what was important was to take a stand. He said, ‘Start strong, end strong and go crazy in the middle.’ That’s been the premise for the way that I play my stuff.”
The New England area has long been a hot spot for blues of all shapes and sizes, and although the scene there today may not be as heady as it once was, according Small, if you want to see the blues, you don’t have to search too far.
“In places like Newport, Rhode Island there used to be clubs on both sides of the street, all the way down the road, which was amazing. But that’s stopped. What has happened is some mid-level – 300 or 400 seat – venues have popped up, like the Narrows Center for the Arts (Fall River, Massachusetts) that have folks like Johnny Winter, before he died and James Cotton and Marcia Ball, some really great acts,” he said. “Some of these smaller-type venues have acts that you might not normally see in some of these areas (in New England). So, on one hand there are less clubs, but on the other hand, some of these venues have taken their place where you can see guys like Albert Lee in an intimate setting.”
In today’s world of bigger, flashier and louder, it can be a bit of an uphill task to leave your own mark with so much media begging for our attention. This is especially true in the world of music, where playing the blues is not at the top of the totem pole these days.
“Well, if I can get into a place – that’s the tough part, getting into a place when you say, ‘Hi. I’m a guitar player and I play the blues.’ They (club owners) go, ‘Well, we like to have fun in our place.’ So that’s the tough part, getting in, but when I do get in, I’ve been absolutely shocked playing these college towns to these young kids that you would look at and say there’s no way this person’s going to like this music and then have them come up and buy CDs and tell me that they don’t know this music, but they love it,” he said. “Because of those things, I do this history newsletter that identifies the different styles of playing and some suggested listening to go along with it. It talks about the history of the music, where it came from and who to listen to.”
History lessons from a book are one thing, but as most teachers will tell you, the manner in which the lesson is delivered has as much to do with its impact as the information itself.
“I think my secret weapon is the guitar. Seeing a band playing is one dynamic, but to see one guy sitting on a stool blazing away … I don’t know, but I think they look at the guitar work and it forces them to sit down and listen,” Small said. “It’s a wonderful thing. The most rewarding thing for me in my solo act is to have some kid with his baseball hat on sideways – and who probably has rap and hip-hop on his iPhone – come up to me and say that he wants to know more about this music. That’s just amazing. And for me, it’s really all about the music. It’s not about me. When I’m on stage, I never talk about me. I talk about the music and its history and where it came from and where to go to learn more about it. I’m like the Catholics converting the Indians out there when it comes to the blues.”
Editor’s Note: Mark Won the awards for Acoustic Blues Album Of the Year. To see a video of his smokin’ performance at the awards show this year, CLICK HERE
Visit Mark’s website at marktsmall.com
Photos by Gary Eckhart © 2014