“Hey, what did you used to do for a living when you were a grownup?” That’s Tas Cru’s favorite quote from working his Blues in the Schools program.
“Yeah, people are walking out the door. His teacher was pushing him out the door, and he wanted to ask me a question. So, I never got a chance to answer him. I’m not sure I could have, but this is what the kid said to me. He was probably about 12 years old. He goes, ‘Hey, what did you used to do for a living when you were a grownup?’ That’s interesting coming from a 12-year-old’s perspective. It’s like what are they thinking? This is not something that grownups do all the time. I don’t see grownups acting like this.'”
Children and artists share a quality most adults lose in the process of functioning as “responsible” people in real life. Adults have a hard time thinking outside the box.
“I think in that box from time to time when I’ve had to,” admits Tas. “It’s tough to work that way (in a box). Some people can’t do it at all. The harmonica player on my record I’ve known him for a long time. He just can’t do it. He has a teaching degree and he tried, but he just can’t do it. I mean, he can’t live by the clock. He can’t live by a set of things that he has to do. He just can’t do it. He’s one of the most creative people I know, but fortunately he has a wife that’s willing to work hard and works to make money for the family because he just can’t get in that box even temporarily and do what he has to do. It’s hard for him. He’s a sculptor. He a harmonica player, He’s a singer. Dick Erickson is his name. He’s a pretty cool guy.”
Tas Cru’s real name is Dr. Richard Bates. Unlike a lot of white blues performers, he does not come to blues from a position of privilege. He was in Vietnam in the Navy and worked his way through to get a Ph. D in the education field, but he didn’t ride on that credential to advance himself musically. He went outside the box to become a bluesman, using what he’d earned as a professor to follow is bliss. He no longer responds to the moniker, Dr. Richard Bates.
Full disclosure, I mentored Tas Cru when he started down the blues road..
“Some of my biggest lessons come from stuff that wasn’t about math, and it wasn’t about English. It’s all about character. My whole life I’ve had to work harder than most everyone else to get things done, you know what I mean? That’s how I feel about getting on the Blues Blast cover. Why should getting on Blues Blast be any different, you know? Got to work hard at that, too. So, here we are working hard at it. So, anyhow, you gotta love the process, and I guess I love it enough to put up with the hardship and the bullshit. So, I’m still out there doing it.
“Was it Hunter S. Thompson who said, ‘Find something you love, stick with it about 10 years, and give it all your passion and energy. About 10 or 12 years later, you find you’ve an overnight success.”
He says the fact that he has called himself the master of the triple entendre hasn’t hurt his Blues in the School program but has positioned him strongly in a music career where words matter, but the Ph. D moniker does not.
He’s the 2014 recipient of The Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Blues Education. He’s released seven CDs in 11 years including Even Bugs Sing The Blues for children. In 2017 alone he played the Daytona Blues Fest, Carolina Downhome Blues Fest, Baltimore Blues Fest, Tinner Hill Blues Fest, Roundbarn Blues Fest, Memphis in May Beale St. Blues Fest, Blues on the Riideau, Jackson Blues Fest and the Wiregrass Blues Festival.
“The Ph. D credential itself doesn’t mean anything in that the degree was something I had to do in order to keep the job I had at the time, and I loved doing it. I learned a lot. Don’t get me wrong. I learned a lot about stuff, but I also learned what it means to have to dedicate myself to reading 16 hours a day in preparation to getting background on some work that I was conducting. I learned in the net process the importance of being honest and earnest with people when you work with them.
“My dissertation was on native American sovereignty in education, and when you work with native American people about political issues, they want to make sure you’re not bull shitting them, that you’re not just another white guy who’s come to get an interesting story, and write about it and to (claim) some initials after your name.
“So, those are the kinds of things you learn, and that’s what I’m talking about when I talk to you about education today. All the stuff that goes along with learning how to work hard, learning how to be respectful to people, learning about what is really behind the work that you’ve doing spiritually, meaningfully to other people. Those are the kinds of lessons you learn from that.
“Now, the other education I got is I have a master’s degree in English literature. I learned a lot about language from there, and that’s helped me as a songwriter. You know, to be a – you’re a wordsmith, Don. You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes as a wordsmith you gotta craft your language. You can’t say the same thing that everybody else has said, and hope that it resonates differently with people. Sometimes, you have to craft that language, and there are certain things you can do to make the word more musically poetic for people.”
It is to Tas Cru’s credit that someone of the caliber of Bruce Iglauer at Alligator Records would noticed the difference in his writing from the great unwashed. He didn’t sign him, but he gave him some sage advice.
“Words matter and you got to put some thought and feeling into that. I drive around and listen to Bluesville all the time, and this is what I say. Unless the song is there to support a great virtuoso guitarist, harmonica player, singer, whatever, and the words don’t matter because I’m not really listening to that. I’m listening to the virtuoso instrumental performances or vocals performance, that’s fine, but it’s not that, the words should mean something. There should be something you connect with, you know, and I do find that lacking unfortunately.”
Tas Cru told one journalist in 2012 that he favored simplicity over virtuosity. I asked him how difficult was it to go from studying for a Ph. D to dealing with what I call the receiver. In other words, when I’m writing for the four or five different publications I write for, I write for a different receiver in each of those publications, and he’s writing for a receiver in blues that may not have a Ph. D and in some cases not a GED.
“Yeah, I don’t find it difficult when writing to not be erudite in my language. I think you can create layers of dimension that people with different backgrounds and different educational experiences can find an avenue to relate to what you’re writing. I don’t think you have to exclude someone because they’re not smart enough to get your song. There are times when I sing a lyric like that I really want the audience to understand what these words mean, and sometimes I’ll be very direct about it and talk about it.
“It made my heart melt down at Daytona Festival when I saw Toronzo Cannon do the same thing. He got up there, and he’s starting to sing his songs and he’s saying ‘I want you to pay attention to these words. You’ve gotta listen to these words. They really mean something to me, and I hope they’ll mean something to you.’ And when he did that, I was going, ‘Yay! Way to go, Toronzo. All right, cool way.'”
His song “The Chicago Way” is a perfect example.
Tas Crus told interviewer Michael Limnios in 2012, “Inspiration can come several ways. My songs are stories. Many of them start with a lyric idea. I may hear or read a quirky statement and think, ‘What is the story behind that?’ Then I think of how such a story might play out in my own life and go from there. Also, there may be a topic that I want to write about and will craft a story to address that topic. Sometimes though, I simply hear a musical hook that I want to build a song around and go from there. I am a big fan of early blues writers who used double entendre.”
He says today, “You can’t confuse intelligence with education. There are a lot of people out there that are highly educated that are the dumbest mofos I’ve ever met and vice versa. A lot of people that don’t have education are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. You can’t confuse the two.”
In his promotional material for his Blues in the Schools programs he says, “To me, there is nothing more important that I do as a blues performer than blues education! Blues is a uniquely American music that along with gospel and jazz is one of America’s most precious gifts to the world. Blues is the musical foundation for all forms of pop music with its influence spanning seven generations.
“Children in schools throughout the globe learn about their culture’s artistic heritage and creative achievements. American children deserve to know about their culture’s rich musical heritage that is the Blues and how the world has embraced it as a creative art form.
” I am blessed to have had so many opportunities to work with young and old across the country as we educate each other about what it is that makes us love the blues.”
Tas Cru’s latest CD, Simmered and Stewed is a perfect example of his simple but smart lyrics combined with stellar and versatile guitar playing. On the CD he redoes songs from earlier CDs released regionally. It sounds incredibly eclectic.
“Yeah, yeah. That was something Bruce Iglauer commented on. He didn’t think that was a good idea.”
I told Tas that although it’s not a good idea, I like it in the same way people liked The Beatles. If it’s good, that doesn’t matter. That said, you have to understand Bruce Iglauer’s perspective. He’s the only guy other than his mentor Bob Koester at Delmark whose still in the game as an indie label owner after almost 50 years.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, I understand him, and I agree with him. Well, he was talking about the effect of the eclectic nature of the album, His quote to me was it sounds like it’s two different albums. There’s some real raw sounding bare bones kind of stuff. Then, you’ve got these lush arrangements.”
One of the cuts, “Fear I’m Falling,” sounds like an Otis Taylor trance blues. “Yeah, that’s one of my favorites on that album. That didn’t get a lot of airplay. The one that’s putting gas in the tank is the cut right at the top (“Dat Maybe”). And I think a lot of it’s because it’s three minutes and 10 seconds long. Plus, it’s easy for a deejay. You gotta make it as easy for them as possible.”
As for redoing old songs? “It was fun. Some verses of these songs were never released on an album that was distributed nationally or was promoted nationally, so I didn’t really feel that it would confuse anybody much or not very many because they hadn’t really heard those versions, the earlier version. Plus, I think it came to an awakening at that point to record before.
“On The You Keep The Money album where l say, ‘I wish I knew then what I know now,’ that kind of thing, and I just don’t feel those songs weren’t recorded well, necessarily played well or arranged well, and I really felt they were good songs and I really wanted to do it right. Plus, by the time I got to Simmered and Stewed and did a couple more of those songs like that I had run out of physical product on those older albums, and I wasn’t going to re-order them anyway because they didn’t represent me as well as I really wanted to. Then again, I didn’t know then what I know now. Hopefully, I wish I knew what I know now.”
My favorite cut is Tas Cru’s complete makeover of Jackie Wilson’s soul classic “Higher and Higher.”
“Jackie Wilson’s the bomb. No doubt about it. I learned a long time ago you’re gonna cover somebody’s song, don’t do it the way they do it. Do your own thing and learn to sell it to an audience. You gotta make sure they understand that this is you that’s doing it in your way. They can crash and burn on the them, too. Some people just get so pissed off about the version you did, sacrilege, you know? I had one reviewer who said “Higher and Higher” was so far from the original that Jackie Wilson must be rolling in his gave listening to that music.
“I had the honor of being invited to Alexis Sutor’s event at B. B. King’s club down in The City. It was that Hurricane Maria fund raiser for Puerto Rico. There’s a video out there of it. The Interdenominational Choir was there, a 36-piece choir directed by Frank Hanks. I knew they were coming, so I asked Alexis, ‘Would it be cool if I did a song with the choir,’ and she said, ‘That would be great because I’m looking for stuff for the choir to do.’ So, we performed “Higher and Higher” live with that choir. I’ll tell you what I could barely get through the song. To listen to those folks sing just brought me to tears. I’ve always had a great love for the song. I heard it in that kind of gospel and spiritual way rather than just as a secular song the way that arrangements of Jackie Wilson stuff.”
The title cut of Tas Cru’s next CD due sometime next year is “Memphis Song.”
“I don’t know when it’s gonna come out. I’m taking my time with it. I’m in no hurry. I’m probably about 80% there to having it done. There’s a title cut about something you and I have talked about that you know I’ve experienced and you’ve seen other musicians’ experience. I’ve had a couple people last year in Memphis for the first time, and they talked to me afterwards, and they told me that this is a very common experience.
“They went down to IBC, and they’re all pumped up and thrilled about being in IBC and being around all these people that love the music, and all that stuff, and then they got back home, and they found themselves playing the restaurant gig or the bar gig where the loudest the audience ever gets is when the home team scores a touchdown and being that kind of ennui you know, being like, ‘Wow. I went from Memphis to this again?’ And feeling really displaced.
“Well, this “Memphis Song” is all about that, people feeling really displaced and the idea about it is that the person is now away and is longing to go back to that physical place where everyone is so spiritually connected to the music and actually Victor Wainwright is playing on that song along with his guitar, my young friend Pat Harrington, they’re playing on that, too. So, that’s what it’s called. It’s gonna be all new stuff. All new originals, and it’s gonna be a little bit more in keeping with the blues. I’m not gonna do as much. I have a tendency to go kind of like in an Americana kind of way sometimes. I’m not doing that on this album.”
With Tas Cru, it’s not all work and no play. “When somebody says ‘Why don’t you sit on the side and be my guitarist for this gig,’ I love that. Oh, I don’t have to sing the songs. I don’t have to find out what the load-in time is, and find out what the backline is. I don’t have to do any of that. I don’t have to talk to the audience. All I have to do is just play guitar while you do all of that. Ok, I love that, I rarely get to do it, but I know the feeling.”
One of the most fun parts of the blues business is what is sometimes referred to as playing the dozens where you say the opposite of what you mean as when soul singers say something is “bad” and they really mean it’s “good.” Or when a blues guy calls you a mofo, and you know you’ve made his inner circle. Tas Cru and I have a long history of busting on each other as in the exchange below.
Tas Cru: You just came up with something that could be the epitaph on my gravestone: “Tas Cru, he kept showing up.”
Wilcock: Yeah, I guess they’re gonna put it up on both of our gravestones. Maybe, we can get a two-fer.
Tas Cru: Oh, Don, I don’t think in the wildest fantasy I’ve ever thought about sharing the same epitaph with you, let alone side by side.
Wilcock: We don’t have to tell anybody. You’ll be buried on one place and I’ll be buried somewhere else, and nobody will know the difference.
Check out Tas’ website at: www.tascru.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.