There’s a yin and a yang to Anson Funderburgh. His electric guitar burns with Texas fire that Guitar Player Magazine compared to Otis Rush and Magic Sam. But his guitar can also soothe as the subtle support for Delta blues vocalists who have included Sam Myers, Nick Nixon, and Alabama Mike. Anson has that Austin strut, but his Delta creds are highlighted by being the only artist to have played all 31 of Arkansas’ King Biscuit Blues Festivals and is scheduled to make four appearances at the 32nd annual edition of that iconic Delta showcase on the banks of the Mississippi River the first week in October.
He will be the second annual honoree at the Biscuit’s Warmup Wednesday (October 4) following in the footsteps of Bobby Rush who took home the traditional blues Grammy months after accepting last year’s honors at the Biscuit. On Friday night, October 6th, he performs with his own band The Rockets, and on Saturday, October 7th he will be one of my guest panelists for the seventh annual Call and Response Blues Seminar at noon and will be a featured performer on Andy T. and Alabama Mike’s set Saturday night.
Anson is best known for his work with Mississippi vocalist Sam Myers. A veteran of the chitlin circuit who had accompanied Elmore James and Robert Junior Lockwood, Myers cast a towering shadow over Funderburgh’s band. He was blind and carried his harmonicas in two bandoleros across his chest. His soft-spoken vocal delivery was the perfect complement to Funderburgh’s slow burn on guitar, and his words hung heavy in the air in way that brought to mind a male Odetta or Nine Simone. The two worked together from 1986 to 2004, two years before Myers died. Collectively, they took home nine W.C. Handy Awards and recorded eight albums.
“He died the 17th of July and my daughter’s birthday is the 18th,” says Anson. My son was born in January 2nd of ’06 and Sam died in July of ’06. In ’07 I found out that I had cancer. So, I had a lotta things I was thinking about, you know? Thinking about my family, thinking about my two kids, my wife, my own mortality. Yeah, I probably was a lot out to sea.
“I took care of Sam because about midway through ’05 he couldn’t sing anymore. So, I finished up the year using John Nemeth. Some things I had done, and I just of kind spent most of my time either taking him to radiation or doctors’ appointments or just trying to figure out what was the best thing for us to do for Sam, and then when he passed away, my wife wanted me to stay home and be with the kids and I did do that. It was hard, not because I didn’t want to be with my family, but I didn’t know what to do. I sorta lost my feet with what I wanted to do.
I mean I put in 20 years into that with the Rockets, but my wife wanted me to be home. I wanted to be home, but I didn’t know how to be anything but a musician because that’s all I’d done all my life. So, it was a hard transition for me. I mean, most musicians, Lord have mercy, you don’t make tons of money. You kinda live off the feedback you get from other people lovin’ on ya, and enjoyin’ what you do. I really have been blessed. I’ve actually been somebody who’s made a living playing music. That’s a feat in itself.”
Funderburgh grew up in Plano, Texas, near Dallas. “I’ve got pictures of me holding one of these Roy Rogers guitars when I was three (in 1958), but it’s something I’ve always been drawn to. I’ve been playing in nightclubs since I was 15 years old I guess, a long time. My mother bought an old hollow-bodied guitar, just a round hole acoustic guitar from her co-worker at the school. She was a cook, and when the lady brought me the guitar, she brought me a box of 45s. In that box of 45s there was Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” “Hold It” by Bill Doggett and “Snow Cone Part I and II” by Albert Collins. There was some Wynonie Harris. There was some Jimmy Reed records, and when I heard “Hideaway” and “Snow Cone” I was home. Man, what a sound that was.”
“I mean, I was 10 years old, and there was a band down south around the Dallas area called The Nightcats. “Wine, Wine” with “Thunderbird, “Have you heard, thunderbird?” I think ZZ Top covered it, but anyway, there was a dance around the Texas area called the North Texas Push. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the coast down in the Carolinas where they dance the shag.
“The push looks like the shag. The man’s the only person that leaves the slot. In Texas, to dance this dance, the shuffles and ballads and stuff are just to shuffles that are 100 to 120 beats a minute which is Jimmy Reed, honky tonk. It was all those little shuffles. So, I grew up playing to all these people that danced this dance and “Linda Lou” by Ray Sharpe was like “Honky Tonk” were like anthems to the pushers, the people that danced this dance.
“So, I came to it a little bit of a different way. It always moved me, but I also came to it from playing to people having fun and dancing. It was a history lesson or just listening to the music, if you will. It was party music. It was just music to have fun. It was music to blow off steam and have a good time.
“I used to listen to country music, too. My father loved country music. He loved blues. He loved all of it. So, I mean you know, it’s kind of an interesting twist. I love music that moves me. George Jones singing a country tune can move me and so does B.B. King, and so does hearing John Coltrane.
How about Merle Haggard?
“Absolutely. I’ll be rolling down the hill like a snowball headed for hell. (Laugh) Are the good times really over? I love it. I mean true.”
Funderburgh is unusually shy and humble for a Texas guitar slinger who has played with Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Darryl Nulisch in his band and has production credits with John Nemeth, Nick Nixon and Andy T. His guitar work appears on CDs by Delbert McClinton, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Nick Moss, Barrelhouse Chuck and Eric Lindell.
“I feel very honored and very blessed and lucky that I’ve been able to achieve some of the things that I’ve done. I’ve been all over the world playing music, and I don’t read music. I know very little about music, but I know music. I just can’t speak the language of music. It’s kind of a hard situation to be in, and sometimes it makes it a whole hell of a lot more difficult than it should be. (It would help) if I had some sort of education. The fact that you don’t have the parameters sometimes can create limitations, but when you think about jazz music sometimes the more education, the more limitless it becomes. Does that make sense?”
I think that’s sometimes true, and sometimes just the opposite.
“Well, the catch for the jazz people is whether it’s a mental exercise or if it’s really an emotional piece of music. I mean, my only heads up is it has to be some sort of emotional piece of music to me personally. There’s no thought much about it if it’s sort comes out the way that it comes out. Yeah, that sort of is a twist.
“Somebody asked me in a press seminar, a guitar seminar that I did, ‘What do you think about right before you solo, or while you solo,’ and I said, ‘I don’t think about anything.’ I know it’s awful to say that and maybe that’s not very helpful, but if you’re thinking about it, now the music’s coming from your head and not from your heart.”
So, what in Funderburgh’s background gives him the ability to go from breathing to burning and from Texas to the Delta?
“Uh, (pause) I’m not sure, really. I’m not sure I know how to answer that to be honest with you. I’ve always liked both. I’m certainly more of an electric guitar player and I always have been.”
Catching up with Funderburgh on the road for a phoner is like trying to hold mercury in a sift on a roller coaster. He is one of the ultimate blues road warriors. “I’m up against it, but that’s ok. I’m always up against it. I mean, you need it done. Our last show was on Saturday (The interview was the following Thursday) in Calgary, and we drove and played last night. We had three days to get here, but I mean we were in Calgary, Canada. Now I’m almost to Minneapolis, St. Cloud, Minneapolis, and then I’m headed to Rochester which is about three hours away.”
He’s currently touring with Andy T. and Alabama Mike. He’s produced and played guitar on all of (the Andy T.’s albums). “There was Drink, Drank, Drunk, and then I produced The Numbers Man, and then I produced Living It Up. I produced those three with Andy T. Band featuring Nick Nixon, and then this one is called Double Strike. When Nick got sick half way through this one, we brought Alabama Mike on board to actually finish it, so and that’s why Double Strike has two singers on it.”
He doesn’t feel that Andy T. is following in his footprints as a southwestern blues guitarist teaming up with a seasoned Delta blues vocalist. “I don’t think so. I mean I just think both of those people were great singers. I had a great singer before Sam. His name was Darrell Nulisch, and we made two records together. H e was with me 10 years. So, I mean I think he and I agree that making great records depends on a great song and a great singer, and we both try to build wonderful foundations for singers to sing. I mean, I think we share that concept on how to make music. Do I think Andy T’s trying to do what Sam and I did? I don’t think so. I just think he’s found a couple of great singers. I mean Nick Nixon was a great singer.”
Is Funderburgh touring with some of the same people that are on Double Strike: Larry von Loon, Mike Flanigan, and Johnny Bradley?
“No, actually his bass player just left, so we hired Johnny Bradley, but on this record it is Jim Kramer that’s on the other records except for The Drink, Drank, Drunk and Larry von Loon. Mike Flanigan’s out touring with ZZ Top. Kaz (Kazanoff) and John Mills will be there to play horns. So, it’ll be fun. I think on my set with the Rockets I’ve got Big Joe Mayer from D.C. from Big Joe and the Dynaflows. He’s coming to play drums and sing for me, and I’ll have Christian Dosier from Austria on piano and the accordion, John Street on B-3, and Eric Przgoski on the bass and me on guitars.”
Funderburgh is the only artists to have played every King Biscuit Blues Festival since the first one in 1985. It’s that kind of thread with a heritage that sets this festival apart. The festival’s lineage goes back to 1941 when Sonny Boy Williamson became the first black band leader to have his own radio show, King Biscuit Time on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. That goes back further than the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, it’s almost as old as the Grand Ole Opry, and it makes Sun Studios look like a newcomer.
I asked Funderburgh what it is about him and the Biscuit that gives him that cache, making him the only one that’s played all of them. His answer was predictably humble. He says there were others who did the gig every year as long they were alive. “The rest of ’em just died. I mean, Robert Lockwood Jr. did all of them, Sam did all of them. Pinetop did a bunch of ’em. I think he missed a year or two because of some sort of hiccup – I don’t know exactly. I don’t wanna say. In my mind, I think he had trouble and had to stay home or something or maybe it was help. I don’t remember, but Frank Frost did a whole bunch of ’em ’cause he was there. I don’t know if you remember, but Frank actually had a club in Helena for a while.”
He was with the Jellyroll Kings. They played there a lot.
“Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. I think Frank Frost played a bunch of ’em, too. I’m friends with all of those people. It’s kinda become a big family in some ways at least for a certain amount of ’em. I’m just one of the lucky ones that have been able to be a part of it. I don’t do the Rockets a whole lot in the states anymore. I do some fly-in festivals, and I do the King Biscuit, but most of my touring with the Rockets anymore has been in Europe. So, I guess they feel I still have enough of a draw that helps ’em out, that people still want to see me there. I think people plan on seeing me there.”
It wouldn’t be King Biscuit without Anson.
“Well, it would, but you know what I’m saying. Stuff goes on, but I certainly am honored to be a part of that family that does get to come back every year. I think the thing about King Biscuit is there wasn’t any other festival that has a legacy, and people don’t forget. In other words, the people that go and the people that put it on remember who their friends are, and who the great acts are, and they want to see them again, and it’s like old home week.
“I have great friends there: Bubba, Sterling, they’re all close friends of mine, Jerry Pillow, I mean I love Jerry Pillow and Ray. I miss Ray Galloway, the gentleman that died, In the early days, they were really the pioneers. I guess is the way I’d say it.
“The very first one I’ll never forget it. It was on that little trailer that looked like you could sell hotdogs out of it or something. It was kind of a foldup stage, and that’s where we played and Robert Jr. played guitar. Johnny Shines played guitar. Sam played drums and Pinetop played piano. Now, that was one cat that was there. It doesn’t get any better than that. Just blues. Just straight ahead. I’ve seen so many great people there. I mean we’ve lost so many great pioneers of the blues. Buddy Guy’s played there. Albert King’s played there. I mean there’s tons of people that were awesome. I think in my opinion, it’s probably a real challenge to keep finding and having people play there.”
Yes, there’s a challenge, but I think that’s one of the things the Biscuit does very well is look at the past, the present, and the future.
“You have to look to the future ’cause we can’t just live in the past. If you do, it stops. So, you’re absolutely right. And they have done an awesome job of doing this, of promoting this kind of music and letting it sort of grow.”
Anson Funderburgh is just one of nine artists scheduled to appear at the Call and Response Seminar in The Malco Theatre on Cherry St. three blocks from the main stage. Roger Stolle hosts the first hour with his guests Robert “Bilbo” Walker, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Libby Rae Watson, and Lucious Spiller. I will be hosting the second hour from noon to 1 with Anson, Larry McCray, Sterling Billingsley and Veronika Jackson.
Funderburgh is not quite sure how to handle Warmup Wednesday, a whole day dedicated to him. “Last year they honored Bobby Rush, and Bubba wanted to honor me this year somehow. I don’t exactly know what all is gonna happen, but I know I have to be there around 4 o’clock on Wednesday, and we’ll just have to see what they’ve done. I don’t know I ’m not really good about all that stuff. I’m more shy than that. I don’t know about being honored. I’m just happy to be in the mix. I don’t need to be honored on nothin’. I just don’t wanna be left out. That’s all.
How is he going to handle Warmup Wednesday when everybody comes up to him and the focus is on him as person and not just his playing?
“Uh, (pause) I don’t know. I break down and cry when you say that.”
Check out Anson’s Facebook at: www.facebook.com/anson.funderburgh