Two years ago, Tim “Too Slim” Langford found himself living out a blues song he never expected to have to write. In late 2014, during a routine doctor’s visit, Langford was diagnosed with cancer, facing down uncertainty and possible death. After a successful operation and recovery period—and his fans donated generously to help defray medical costs—the down-to-the-bone guitarist, founder, and leader of Too Slim and the Taildraggers, turned back to the music that’s been rushing through his blood since he was 13 and started writing songs for a new album.
In December 2014, Langford found that he had a lot of time on his hands during his recovery, and he was kind of down; to pass the time, he started making some demos for some new songs. Even before his diagnosis, Langford had been planning on new record to follow up his highly-regarded 2013 release Blue Heart.“I’d been going back to some old blues rock records,” Langford recalls, and he wanted to capture that sound of that music, especially the music of Robin Trower. “Man, I really like the way that those Robin Trower records of the early 1970s sound,” he says.
Once Langford had the songs, the “idea was to go into the studio and knock it out in a few days.” Too Slim and the Taildraggers only rehearsed a little, and they played some of the songs—“Good Guys Win,” (“I hadn’t even finished writing the lyrics for that one,” he laughs.) “My Body,” “Get Your Going Out On”—for the first time in the studio. “It’s all about capturing the moment in time when you’re making a record, and you want to catch the band feeling the moment on the record,” says Langford. Plus, he says, “Blood Moon” was the first song he wrote of the album. In Indian folklore, the blood moon signals new beginnings and cleansing, so this was a perfect song to illustrate his new start, he says.
That album, Blood Moon, is Langford’s 20th album in the last 30 years, a testimony not only to his enduring commitment to making good music for his fans but also to his peripatetic creativity, always looking for the right lick at the right time, and always looking to produce music that both honors the long tradition of blues and rock that’s influenced him while at the same time putting his own stamp on the music; Langford operates cannily and deftly in that tension that makes for the best music in any genre: the pull and push between tradition and innovation. “Evil Mind,” the album’s opening track, delivers a straight-ahead driving blues rocker deep in the vein of ZZ Top and southern rockers like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The album’s title track delivers the sonic pyrotechnics of those early Trower albums; the song has that trapped-in-a-chamber blues riffs that make for a lumbering, steady, and crisp sound; Langford also throws in some licks on the bridge that comes out of Alvin Lee’s work, especially on Ten Years After’s Watt. At least two of the songs deal with his illness. In “My Body,” which opens with a haunting Santana-like riff, the singer pleads with death not to lay his body in the cold, cold ground. The driving Southern rocker, “Letter,” constitutes a thank-you note to his fans: “I’m gonna write me a letter to my friends/tell ‘em, thank you, friends, for thinking about me/you helped me when I’m down/instead of six feet underground.” Blood Moon was nominated for Blues Rock Album of the Year at the Blues Blast Music Awards this year.
For this record, bassist Robert Kearns, who’s played with Sheryl Crow and others, and drummer Jeff “Shakey” Fowlkes, who’s played with Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker, join Langford. “Robert is a fanastic bass player, and he and I just jelled right away,” recalls Langford. Fowles has been with the band since Langford moved to Nashville in 2012. “He’s a powerful drummer,” says Langford, “and he’s got a lot of personality. He kind of tells it like it is, maybe to some people’s chagrin,” chuckles Langford, “but he has a lot of studio experience, and he’s great to be on the road with.”
Although Langford co-wrote “Get Your Going Out On” on Blood Moon with Fowles, he does most of the writing himself. “Sometimes a song just comes to you,” he laughs, but that seldom happens, according to Langford. While he doesn’t have any set way of writing a song, he does use a variety of methods to get started or to keep writing once he’s started. He used to write down song titles in a book, and he’d go back and look at those to see if any ideas came to him.
“Sometimes,” he says, “people will say something that will make you think of a title, and sometimes you think of a riff that becomes a hook,” he points out. “If you get a good chorus and you have a good hook, then you’re one step ahead,” Langford laughs. His best-kept songwriting trick, though, turns out to be pretty straightforward: “You should be able to take almost any song you wrote and sit down and play it on an acoustic guitar.” Langford admits that he’s not a lyricist and that writing them is the hardest part of writing a song. “I really don’t like to write benign lyrics,” he says; “I like to write lyrics that tell a story or express a feeling or an emotion or some kind of reality that people can feel.”
According to Langford, great songs automatically draw you in in some way, either the lyrics, or the melody, or the recording of that particular song. “I think songs are memories for people,” he reflects, and people relate to them as the songs relate to moments in their lives. A song’s energy and its delivery also make it a great song, says Langford, recalling that ZZ Top’s “Lagrange” just “hit me in the chest.”
Langford’s musical influences run wide and deep. “When I was growing up, I associated music with a band or a musician and not with a particular genre of music,” he recalls. He liked Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pat Matheny, and B.B. King not because he liked rock or blues or jazz but because he liked the sound. It took him a while to listen to old-style blues, he says, but when he first heard Robert Johnson, he wondered how Johnson did what he did. If Langford could put together a supergroup, and he could select from musicians living or dead, he wants to include a range of members.
“Can it be an all-guitar band?” he laughs. His group would include Duane Allman, Keith Richards, Paul McCartney, Lightning Hopkins, Freddie King, Jimi Hendrix, Butch and Jaimoe on drums, Berry Oakley on bass, Clapton—he was a big influence—Lowell George, Neil Young, George Harrison—his slide playing is some of the best work he’s ever done—Jeff Beck, and Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others, but he quickly adds CCR and old Black Sabbath and AC/DC as influences.
Langford grew up in Spokane, Washington, not exactly the blues capital of the United States, but he found his way into rock and roll and the blues along several paths. “I was always into music,” he says, “and I had an older cousin, Steve Springer, who turned us onto the Beatles, Cream, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Stones; he’d take us to shows, too. I saw ZZ Top in concert, and I said this is what I want to do,” laughs Langford. He started playing when he was about 13; he borrowed a friend’s acoustic guitar, but it was hard to play, so his guitar teacher told him he’d need to get a new guitar. “My mother bought me a Stratocaster when I was 15,” he chuckles; “I didn’t even own a real amp.”
Eventually, he sold the Strat—“Man, I wish I still had it,” he laughs—and bought a Gibson ES-175 so he could play in the high school jazz band. Back then, Langford was playing jazz and rock, but the blues was his passion. “I was really into Otis Rush, Freddie King, and Albert Collins; Robert Cray used to play here all the time. Back then—in the early and mid-1980s—Stevie Ray was turning the blues world on its ear and starting a whole new resurgence.” Langford saw Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and Charlie Musselwhite at different times at a local venue called Red Line BBQ. Langford got into the blues right away, he says, but he had a hard time finding people who wanted to play with him initially. “I’d go these open jams and get up there and want to play blues, but nobody in Spokane wanted to play blues.”
When he started Too Slim and the Taildraggers in 1986, he wanted it to be a blues band; we had a four-piece band for a while, but then I wanted something more like ZZ Top, so we’ve been a trio for a long time now.” The name “Taildraggers” came from that old Howlin’ Wolf tune, “Tail Dragger.” “We were sitting around trying to come up with a name for the band, and we heard that song; somebody said that we should call ourselves the taildraggers and since I was leading the band we should call it ‘Too Slim and the Taildraggers,’” he laughs.
In the thirty years that the band has been playing, in various incarnations, it’s never failed to get the attention of fans and critics. Too Slim and the Taildraggers has sold over 100,000 albums, and their popularity in Europe continues to grow. The band’s last four studio albums—Blood Moon, Blue Heart, Shiver, and Broken Halo—have reached the top 10 on the Billboard Blues Chart; Langford has received the Lifetime Achievement and Hall of Fame Award from three blues societies in the Pacific Northwest. The band’s success arises not only out of its tireless commitment to touring but also out of its enduring commitment to writing and playing music that makes memories, that hits fans in the chest, and that leaves them wanting more.
For Langford, music is a journey. “I always want to make my next record better than my last one,” he says, “and I always want to be working on a new album.” He thinks of music as a spiral: you get into it and then you get out of it, but then it always comes back in a different way; you always learn something.
Musically, he says, “I’ve gotten to the point where I want to play my old music and want to sound like myself. I’ve reached a point where I want to play what’s right for the song; play what’s unique and has a certain melody and arrangement.” Since many of his older records are out of print—Burnside was his label, and they went out of business—he’s thought about taking some of his favorite songs from those albums and re-recording them. “I’d love to give them a new twist and put out a Too Slim Revisited album,” he chuckles. Langford says ideas are “still popping into my head now” and that he always wants to be working on a new album.
Langford has some thoughts about the state of the blues in America today: “I don’t know, man; it’s a bit watered down, to tell you the truth.” He acknowledges that the issues arise out of the state of the music business itself, which today is so different than when he started. Today it’s all about finding radio play for a few artists, and the history that lies behind the music is often forgotten. “Man, history always has to remain in it somehow; anybody playing this music today needs to know where it came from,” he says.
Music is a bit of family affair for Langford as well. His wife, Nancy Davis Langford, whose dad, Barry Davis was a “phenomenal jazz pianist,” did the art for a lot of his album covers, (Carla Ciuffo did the art for Blood Moon). “We met in 1993 at a festival where I was playing, and then we’d see each other again at different venues; pretty soon we ended up getting married. She’s been doing some art for my albums ever since.”
With his energetic creativity, Too Slim Langford won’t be hanging up his guitar or his pen any time soon; he’s met the enemy face to face, stared it down, and is telling the stories of his encounter and his victory. His gravelly voice and his never-waste-a-note guitar playing wrap themselves around his lyrics to deliver a blues rock experience that strikes us in our hearts and shakes us to our bones, leaving us always waiting with bated breath for the next album.
Visit Tim’s website at: www.tooslim.org.
Interviewer Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. writes about music and music books for No Depression, American Songwriter, Country Standard Time, and Wide Open Country.