“When you come from being a poor boy and just a wild-eyed dream of being a blues singer, and then you can actually go and do it, this goes along with what the American dream is really: that anybody can have a crazy idea and make it come true and really take it as far as you can take it. What could be sweeter than that? It’s fantastic.”
By most measures, Catfish Keith was the least likely candidate of anyone in the business to become a world class acoustic blues guitarist: a white guy from America’s bread basket in Iowa, the son of two teachers with advanced degrees. He was born in 1962, growing up just past Dave Van Ronk’s “great folk scare.” He in fact picked up the guitar at 12, soon tired of it and put it in the closet for two years.
“I was taking lessons from a guy that was a friend of a next-door neighbor, a World War II vet, and he said even for the ’70s (what he taught) was old stuff. I went through that period of sort of half-heartedly taking lessons from him, and then I just quit after about a year. So, the guitar stayed in the closet for about a year, and then when I was 14, a friend of mine was at a party. She had a guitar, and she was just making up songs, just making ’em up off the top of her head, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute. You can just make up songs?’ It was sort of a revelation.”
Keith’s mom taught English as a second language. His dad was a college professor and an administrator for a school district. “They never forced me to play sports. They kind of let me do whatever the heck I wanted to (chuckle) So, when I discovered music, it was a real magic thing for me, and they never discouraged me from any of that. They never said, ‘No, you must follow this path, or you must stay in school.”’
On the other hand, his parents never thought of playing music as being a career for their son. “I think they always wanted me to go to school and try to get a “real job,” but I think after 20 years of that, they realized I was really doing this for keeps. Yes, they did want me to go to school, and they had doubts that I would just be a pauper my whole life.
“By the time I started playing guitar in the early ’70s, that was kinda the music (acoustic folk blues) that really grabbed me and informed me, and so that’s still the music that’s most exciting to me, the kind of rediscovery period where guys like John Hurt, Skip James, Fred McDowell and Bukka White and all of those guys came out of the woodwork, and it still remains exciting to me. That music that it had a swell and about three or four comebacks after that. So, I think it must be here to stay.
“And I got excited about finger style guitar early on in my search for great music, and when I found out that guitar playing which sounded like three or four people playing at the same time was one person finger picking the guitar, a lightbulb went off in my head.
“When I got into people like Leo Kottke, John Fahey and even Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, I always wondered where did they get their music from? So, I kept digging and finding out about old country blues, and I took it back to the very beginning and found records by Blind Blake, Lonnie Johnson, Charley Paton and Son House and all those cool cats, but it really opened the world for me.
“I pretty much felt like I was the only person in the world that liked that music then, but it really wasn’t the case. There were a lot of people sort of on their own similar journey finding the music all over the world really at that time, and I would hang out with record collectors, guys that had old ’78s from labels like Yazoo, and I would really hone in on that music and start to learn and enjoy, and really at the time there was hardly any way to actually learn it. But I guess that really made me good at listening very intently, both ears and the rest of my body, and that’s probably how I really kinda came up with my own style of playing the music in the way that I do ’cause these really weren’t the resources at the time.”
What I find most interesting about Catfish Keith is that he can write an acoustic blues song that’s indistinguishable from most old folk blues songs without having grown up in that environment, a trick of the tale that other white artists like Rory Block and John Hammond have difficulty doing even though both of them grew up around storied blues artists as children. Could it be because Catfish Keith was already a young adult before he met his idols and could better learn from them and be able to overcome complete idolization?
“I’ve been in awe of everybody,” he admits, but “I’ve been lucky enough to be at my age at the tail end of the last living country blues musicians. So, in my younger days I got to hang out with and have meaningful relationships with Jesse Mae Hemphill, Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Henry Townsend. John Jackson and John Cephas.
“Knowing them gave me a connection with the culture of the music and a real feeling of being connected to it in a real way that just listening to records and learning that way you would not have. So, I feel very lucky to have all that, and when I write my music to my mind it’s the exact same thing as the old music really. When I take an old song, it’ll really be kind of re-imagined and recomposed because I just do it my own way, and when I write my own songs, they’re from that exact same wellspring.
“I can hardly tell the difference between some of my originals right next to my version of old songs. So, in other words, it doesn’t have a different quality to it. It’s from the exact same wellspring of inspiration. So, to me that’s what I hear and feel when I come up with my own songs. I’m fishing from that exact same pond. I’m pulling lyrics and themes right out of the Carter Family, Richard Rabbit Brown, Robert Petway and all these really great obscure artists.
“I never treated the music like it was in a museum. I always treated it as a live thing to be interacted with, and I kind of severely internalized all that music and culture. So, when I like music, it’s right out of that.”
He may have met his idols later in life than Rory Block or John Hammond, but it still was that personal connection that informs his work today.
“There are a lot of things you don’t get from a record. When I met Johnny Shines, I was 25 years old, and my buddy Mudcat Ruth, a harmonica genius, called me up and said, ‘Do you want to back up Johnny Shines?’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Wow!’ I went to this festival in 1987, and got to play guitar with him, backing him up on stage, and I got to spend some time with him, and to hear his music. Your hair stands up, and it’s so deep and the guitar to me is the best of any of the original Delta bluesmen, just not really recognized as some others, but in his prime there was nobody better, but when I got to meet him and hang out with him, he was just so sweet and gentle and soft spoken and kind and to learn just how to be a human being is really so much of being in the world and everything.
“So, I got lessons from him and Honeyboy Edwards. They didn’t call him Honeyboy for nothing. He was the sweetest guy you ever met, and there are just so many touching times that we had together, and with Jesse Mae Hemphill, she knocked me out. She was so special for a lot of reasons because her music was from that Mississippi Hill Country tradition that really only had male models before that: Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, but she took that hypnotic one-chord modal background and made her own unique and beautiful style from it and wrote her own songs.
“We really kinda became friends and bonded when I did some festivals with her in Eureka Springs, King Biscuit, Davenport and other places, she would just wack ass. She wore all these sequins, had jewels in her teeth, and she just was bigger than life to me. For her to go from being really very poor in a very little local place, Senatobia in the Hill Country, to really be a blues star all over the world. That was really an unprecedented thing. It just made her feel so validated and to just take her gift that far was just an incredible thing, and to be with her as she was doing that was so much fun, and she was so full of life.
“She even gave me a name. You know how they call Fred McDowell “Shake ’Em on Down” she laughed at that song that I played, and she would say, ‘Where’s Pepper in My Shoe at?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m right over here, Jesse Mae.’ And she was so much fun, and I really adored so much of the real deep quality of that music first by knowing her on a personal level, and there’s nothing more special that those kind of connections, and so for me to be able to be here 40 years into picking up the guitar and be able to take it all over the world myself and still remain just as true to that signal that inspired me is a phenomenal thing, and it is a true magic thing.”
Catfish Keith has recorded 17 records, all acoustic blues from the masters with originals sprinkled in.
“In the earliest days, being a young fella, I would do a record all in one day or maybe two and just kinda blaze through it with all the youthful testosterone, but now that I’m a little older, I’m a little more deliberate about things, and I think about it a little more, and also use my energy in a day when it’s kinda in its peak. I love recording at its peak summertime because you have the power of the whole world becoming ripe with the power of the sun that goes along with music, and I’m a big gardener, too. I love growing all kinds of flowers, and my vegetables that are grown in Iowa. So, all that’s kind of flowering at home as well. So, that’s a great time of year to make a record. Late July is great.”
For many blues artists, an idea may come to them in a flash. They’ll be driving along, and they’ll get an idea. They’ll stop and write it down, but there are usually many iterations between that gestation and what you finally hear on the record. But Catfish says most of his original songs come almost fully formed out of his head.
‘When I write my music to my mind it’s the exact same thing as the old music really when I take an old song. It’ll really be kind of re-imagined and recomposed because I just do it my own way, and when I write my own songs, they’re from that exact same wellspring. I can hardly tell the difference. So, in other words, it doesn’t have a different quality to it. So, to me that’s what I hear and feel when I come up with my own songs. I’m fishing from that exact same pond. I’m pulling lyrics and themes right out of the Carter Family, Richard Rabbit Brown, Robert Petway and all these really great obscure artists.
“Not too long ago I had these songs by Rev. Robert Wilkins in my head and this particular song I was dreaming, but I had this melody that was very much like one of the early Robert Wilkins songs. So, I’ll take the spirit and feel of something like that and the song kinda writes itself really, and that happens a lot in a lot of different ways. So, they’ll kinda stack up, and I’ll have lyrics laying all around the house, and I’ll find something that I wrote quickly, forgot about, but I try it out, and it’s like, hey, that’s pretty good, and we’ll try that, and in the studio when I do the actual recording.
“Mostly I write a song without ever even having a guitar in my hand. I write the whole song kind of in my head. I’ll write on an airplane or train or just sitting somewhere, and I’ll have the full melody and guitar notes and lyrics. They all happen pretty quick when I write a song. If I’m not done in half an hour, it’s very unusual. So, when songs pop out, they pop out fully formed like that, and I very rarely change any lyrics.
“(When recording) I’ll try four or five passes at a song maybe tops and if it’s not working, I’ll just leave it and go to the next thing ’cause sometimes songs are not quite ripe yet, or really ready which is ok if you only find that out when you actually record if it’s really ready or not.”
He talks about his most recent album, Mississippi River Blues and his current recording process.
“Well, here’s what I do. I get the recording date first which should be far enough in advance for some frantic planning, but really there’s a period of two or three or four months of kind of intensive crafting and preparation, but what I’ll do first is just lift out 100 songs I still want to do, and then in that process it gets a little down a bit, and also in that process I’ll find a bunch of songs that I’ve written and I’ll fully craft those.
“I just spend a month or two or three or four before the album and make sure every day I go, or what I can, I go and have sessions where I’m just kinda crafting these songs. A lot of songs I’ve known forever anyway. So, anyway, so some of ’em are already there.
“I have to work at it, the arrangements I like, but it’s really fun. It’s intense, and I love making records, and when I go in the studio mostly it’s solo. That’s what I plan to do again, make a solo record.
“Mostly, it’s me fooling around tuning the guitar, and it’s me getting ready, but I take about a week, and I do intensive three or four hours every day for about four or five, six days and within that time I have a record. That’s how we did Mississippi River Blues, and that’s how I’ve done a lot of the records.
“I’m a night owl, so the early part of the day is 10 or 11 in the morning for me. Recording – we’ll be done by two in the afternoon, but that way I put my strongest part of the day into making the music, and I think it makes for a better record, and it’s just a thing you learn after 50 or 60 years.”
What’s the average number of takes?
“It’s one or two, but sometimes it’s four or five. But if I don’t have the song within 20 minutes, and I’m kinda worn out trying on it, I go on to the next thing. So, that’s why within one week of doing three or four-hour sessions, we have more than enough for one hefty record, so it’s a great process, and I really enjoy doing it.
Catfish was looking out over the ocean in Mexico when we talked. “I’m not rich or anything, but we own a house, and we tour the world all the time. I make a reasonable living and can do anything I want really and it’s an amazing freedom, and I still love playing concerts, love playing music, and man, we are living the dream. It’s true.”
Visit Keith’s website at: www.catfishkeith.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.