Featured Interview – Anson Funderburgh

Cover photo © 2023 Bob Kieser

image“I grew up in a time when if you couldn’t make people dance and they weren’t having fun you weren’t doing anything.”

At it’s core Blues is dance music. The physical release and communal synergy of people moving in time. People of all different identities and nationalities have latched onto this and made it their own.

Anson Funderburgh, the enduring Bluesman, understands this on a visceral, almost molecular, level. Driving his longtime band, the Rockets, with his inimitable guitar sound, Anson has a disciplined commitment to playing the riff, the hook of a song, which propels dancers into each other’s arms. Not as flashy or out front as contemporaries such as Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl or Jimmie Vaughan, all of whom he mentions with great admiration, Anson is instead the song guy, the vibe guy. He is the man who builds up his bandmates and shines the spotlight on the Blues as a living breathing community event. Anson’s musical brain was stamped early by the shuffle of his native Dallas Texas.

“When I first started playin’ music,” he recounts, “there was a dance here called the North Texas Push. It’s a combination of the jitterbug and the lindyhop. These people they dance to these songs, to shuffles that were about 120 beats per minute. You know the (starts humming the classic chugging shuffle) ta-dun ta-dun ta-dun ta-dun. Shuffles, people loved ‘em and they danced to ‘em. That’s what really got my attention, I loved to see those people dance to our music. It just always stuck.”

Anson came to prominence at one of the most vibrant times for Blues in large scale popularity, from the mid 1970’s to the early 90’s. Unlike the mostly regional popularity of the Blues in the early 20th Century, real deal Blues artists such as Funderburgh benefited from the international explosion of Rock and Roll. The British Invasion and Southern Rock gave the real Blues new vigor.

“The key back then,” Anson reminisces, “all those great bands were students of and played every kinda Blues. When it was a guitar song it was a guitar song. When it was a harmonica song we knew how to handle that. It was a cool time.”

The thing about Anson’s genius is that he keeps his music controlled and presses every bit of his creativity into the moment. Although Anson has occasionally sung over the years, he is not a vocalist. He is the great collaborator and partner, at times playing the leading man and at times the sidekick. Effortlessly moving between.

Taking his roots in North Texas Dance music and pairing it with the breadth of Blues knowledge now popularly available, Anson was able to succeed as a non-singing band leader guitarist in the vibrant Dallas music scene of the mid-70’s. Finding like-minded students of the Blues, Anson began to build what would be his lifetime’s work of connections and relationships. During this fertile time, Anson met his first great collaborator/front-man, Darrell Nulisch.

“Darrel and I were together from 1978 to 1986. I met Darrell from a friend of mine that’s no longer with us, Charley Wirz. He owned a guitar shop here called Charley’s Guitar Shop, he also started that Greater Southwest Guitar Show now called the Dallas International Guitar Festival.”

“I can’t remember the name of Darrel’s band at the time. But anyway that band kinda fell apart and we started doing Monday nights at Poor David’s in Dallas. That was in 1978 and that’s how we started the Rockets. I had a guy by the name of David Watson playing drums who was Doyle Bramhall’s nephew. And a guy named Mark Hickman. And then I eventually hired a piano player who I met in New Orleans, named Doug Rynack who’s on those first 2 Rockets records.”

Anson and Darrell created the blueprint that would guide the Rockets for 4 decades. A soulful, big voiced harmonica wielding singer and Anson’s wide open toned Blues dance parties. The Rockets released their seminal first 2 records Talk to You By Hand and She Knocks Me Out. Hustling all over the country, this early Rockets crew would get bookings in a city for a weekend, Thursday through Saturday or even sometimes Sunday. To promote record sales “we’d play what were called in-stores.”

Anson explains, “we’d go and set up and play for 30 minutes to an hour and try to get people to buy or records in record stores.” It was during one of these stints that Anson’s music and life would change forever by a new friendship.

“The old version of the Rockets played for the first time in Jackson, Mississippi at a place called George Street Grocery. We did an in-store at a place called BeBop Records and a guy named Pete Cushning came in. He came up to me after the performance and he said “man, I love that song “My Love Is Here to Stay.” I work with the guy who wrote that song.” I said “Really? You work with Sam Myers?” I didn’t even know Sam was still alive.”

“Pete brought Sam out that night. Got to meet Sam and he got up and played with us. It was awesome, I mean it was just great. All of us became really good friends with him.”

Mississippi native, Sam Myers was a singer of great passion and conviction, a bellowing harp player, a skilled songwriter and a drummer. Having contracted juvenile cataracts at the age of 7, he was legally blind. Having a great talent for music he won a scholarship to the American Musical Conservatory in Chicago where throughout the 50’s and 60’s he became a go to drummer on the Blues scene, having served as Elmore James’ drummer for over a decade. With a major hit on his tune “Sleeping in the Ground,” by the 80’s Sam was an established act based back in Mississippi.

ImageAnson, being the committed Blues devotee that he was and still is, was enamored with working with this living legend.

“I had started talking to Hammond Scott (co-founder of Black Top Records, Anson’s label),” Anson recalls saying, “you ought to make a record with Sam Myers. Hammond said “well does he have a band?” I said well I don’t know but we could back him up.”

The resulting 1984 masterpiece My Love Is Here To Stay is a high water mark in the 80’s Blues catalog. Collaborating for the first time, Sam and Anson launched a 2 decade partnership.

“That record turned out great,” Anson, a very modest man, rightly boasts. “Sam, he sang so wonderful on it and he played the harmonica so great, it was so big.”

“I made it a little bit different so it wasn’t just a Rockets record. I hand picked a few people that I felt would make it different but make it great. I used to think to myself: man, Sam this guy he’s the real deal he’s an old guy. You know, man, he was only 48 years old when we made that record. I thought he was the oldest thing I’d ever seen.”

“After we made that record we started taking Sam and doing some special shows. We had played the San Francisco Blues festivals and some bigger shows like that with Darrell and Sam, just havin’ him as a guest. It gave us a way to promote 3 different records. We could sell the 2 Rockets records and then we could sell that record too.”

After 8 years on the road grinding it out, Darrell Nulisch was ready for a change. The Rockets formula had been set so the natural next step for Anson was to reach out to his new friend.

“You know man, when Darrell left the band in ‘86 I just called Sam and asked if he’d be interested in join up with us. He said of course. He moved to Dallas from Jackson and he was in Dallas till he passed away in 2006. So he was with me 20 years and Darrel was with me for 8 years.”

Just like that, the Rockets seamlessly transitioned. Nulisch went on to a fruitful and remarkable career. And Anson and Sam moved forward to define and refine their music into some of the most influential and effective Blues music of modern times. Sam and Anson became family, brothers in arms, writing songs together and crafting a body of work that ruggedly stands the test of time. They developed a process and mixed often long forgotten Blues covers with roiling originals.

“Most of the time we did half and half,” Anson remarks about their cover to original mix on albums. “Usually we’d do some older obscure songs. Then we wrote songs too. Sam might have an idea and then I’d put a little part to it, make it sound a little different then the same old stuff. Then we’d rearrange the vocals, mess around with it with a tape recorder. Put the verses in some kind of an order where they made sense. Yeah we worked really hard to make the originals sound different and not just like the songs we were covering.”

Sam Myers and Anson Funderburgh are a legendary team. The 2 men found a common ground and a brotherly love that endures and held them fast as Sam suffered from throat cancer and passed in 2006.

“We were a pretty good team man. He was like family to me. We’d be off the road and we’d come to my mom and dad’s house on Sundays and eat lunch. Sam loved my parents. It was a pretty happy little deal. Not to say we didn’t have moments, we didn’t agree on everything. But you know what I’m saying, (chuckling) you don’t always agree with your relatives but somehow you manage to get through Thanksgivin’.”

Sam Myers was a character. An enormous personality and physically imposing, Sam filled up the room. Anson was, at times, the perennial younger brother goading Myers and keeping him on his toes.

“He’d just make up words,” Anson mischievously reminisces. “I’d always tease him about the words he’d come up with and he’d always call me a mother-expletive, can’t print that, but ya know. He’d say “Man, you’ve pissed me off to the highest degree of piss-tivity.” Boy he dressed in those suits, he looked good. He liked being Sam Myers and that’s good man. I miss those days, I do.”

Anson has produced all of his Rocket records. Perhaps embolden by his work on My Love Is Here To Stay, Anson has developed over the years into a empathetic and effective producer. Working with artists such as Jose Ramirez, Andy T and Alabama Mike, Breezy Radio and many others, Anson is an accomplished producing force in the Blues industry. A producer’s job is sometimes hard to define. Anson, true to form, keeps it simple, respectful and soulful.

“I like to try and get people relaxed. I try to not change them a whole lot. People have their own ideas and everybody has their own personality playin’. You figure that people who have played for 20-30 years they have their own styles and their own personality. Each personality is what it takes to make good records, I think. So I kinda let people be themselves and I try to keep ‘em relaxed and not tense. I like to make live sounding records with a lot of room mics and things.”

Anson has a formidable Rolodex of contacts. Being an industry lifer and one of the most gracious people you could hope to meet, Anson has many trusted compatriots he brings to his production jobs.

“I have people I really trust in the studio and they bring their own thing to a project,” Anson says while describing ace keyboardist Jim Pugh who he uses extensively. “When I use the guys I like to use, I mean shit they play it 1 time and 1 or 2 takes and it’s a done deal.”

Anson describes his influence on a project.

image“I have my own style and my own thoughts and I’ll share ‘em with people if I think we’re gettin’ way off track. But I really want people to be themselves. I think that’s important.”

But, recording can be dicey. It’s hard to recreate music such as the Blues in the sometimes antiseptic recording studio. The Blues are about interaction, connection and especially spontaneity. But sometimes the artist gets stuck.

“If something gets just completely crazy I might say I don’t think it’s gonna work. Let’s come back and try it tomorrow. I try to keep us moving forward and not have people get down. You can work on a song till you work the life out of it. In the music we’re talkin’ about you want it to be very spontaneous. Sometimes if you play something 15 times it’s not as spontaneous as it should be. I just try to keep us from wasting time, keep us focused and keep us out of the ditch. Keep us from being stuck in the mud somewhere.”

In addition to his work as producer, in the past decade or so, Anson has also reveled in another roll outside the Rockets: hired gun. Being one of the preeminent Blues guitarist in the world, Anson has lent his six string prowess to many projects.

“I feel like I’ve worked for a lot of different people and not just the Rockets anymore,” Anson describes, “I’ve had to do different things. It’s all related to what I do, it’s just me doin’ something a little different.”

One of Anson’s most interesting and seemingly incongruous collaborators has been Eric Lindell. With influences that range through Funk, Soul, Punk, Folk and Blues, New Orleans based Lindell is the epitome of the modern day genre defying artist. Recently touring as just a duo, the 2 musicians met in 2012 on the Delbert McClinton Sandy Beaches Tour.

“Eric and I are just really good friends. I feel like he’s helped me grow as a musician playin’ with him the last 10-12 years whatever it’s been. I played on one of his records, Matters of the Heart. I was always worried about playing on his stuff. I told him “you know I didn’t want to do this but I’ll just try and see if it’s something you can use. Because I’m more of a Blues player, your songs are a little bit more like Delbert’s. It’s a little different then what I’m used to playin’.” He said “that’s what I want, I want your sound on my stuff.” So that’s kinda what we do and man it’s been a blast.”

Anson Funderburgh is a calm, affable man. Unassuming, gracious with his compliments and modest, Anson ended our conversation with a request: “Well man just make me look good in the eyes of the public. I’m a hillbilly, man. Bucky, I’ll love yah for it.”

Anson doesn’t need anyone to make him look good. By disregarding the ego that can at times tarnish an artist’s work, Anson has built a monumental legacy of music and integrity. It is his nature and his gift to be open and collaborative. It seems effortless and clearly Anson couldn’t do it any other way. By constantly serving the music he has elevated his collaborators and has kept his loyal audience dancing and having fun.

“I don’t know, we didn’t have any kind of a plan or anything. We just did it, you know? It just kinda happened. Man, we had a lot of fun.”

Anson Funderburgh is back on the road with various shows. Check out his schedule of performances here: https://ansonfunderburgh.com/home

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