When Elwood Blues takes the time to stop the car and ask if you need a ride, the correct response is to open the door to the Bluesmobile and hop inside.
That’s exactly the response that C.C. Rider gave to the man in black.
Part encyclopedia, part intrepid roving reporter and always a champion of roots-related music, the Harvard-educated Rider has become a mainstay on the weekly syndicated radio program, Elwood’s Bluesmobile.
“It was just luck, just kindred spirits, I guess,” is how Rider describes her presence riding shotgun in Elwood’s Bluesmobile. “I was offered this opportunity, and gosh, I’d be silly to turn it down. I mean, I get to share the music that I love and be part of an institution that I have listened to and been a fan of for quite some time. I’m a fan of Ben Manilla and his production company in San Francisco and it was like the wind blew in and they came with it. I feel so blessed.”
The way Elwood describes her, Rider is a blues scholar, one of the young generation that is tasked with not only helping to keep the blues alive and well, but to make sure that the sacred music can grow and perpetuate, too.
“Well, it’s not something that I’m doing alone. Really, it’s the musicians (that are keeping the blues alive and going). I’m just lucky that I have the radio waves to propagate what is their art. I just did an interview with a great young woman named Valerie June and she’s amazing. I can’t even believe this woman. But really, it’s up to them to keep the music alive. I just spread it. I’m happy to be able to give these wonderful artists a voice and to be able to play them on the radio, nationally and internationally.”
And, as Elwood puts it, C.C. Rider is the venerator.
“Well, they call me the venerator because I do focus on the older stuff, the stuff that laid the foundation and maybe slipped through the cracks. Stuff that we shouldn’t forget about, stuff that made The Rolling Stones, that made The Beatles, that made the greats who they are,” she said. “But also, the venerator continues to celebrate the old in the new. The Carolina Chocolate Drops, for example. People like that are keeping roots music alive, and we venerate them, too. So my role in the show is to bring it back home.”
Whether it’s at high rates of speed through the streets of the Windy City, or at a considerably slower pace through the dirt roads of the Magnolia State, one thing’s for sure; if you’re going to take a ride on the Bluesmobile, you’d better be ready to travel. And Rider recently did just that with a trip to the heartland of the delta blues.
“I was lucky enough to start my year off with a trip down to Mississippi and it was absolutely life-changing … just spectacular. There’s really no state like it and it’s not surprising that all that great music has came out of there,” she said. “Jimmy Duck Holmes is a great friend of mine and I was lucky enough to get to sit in with him down there. He gave me some guitar lessons and taught me the old cross-note tuning. He’s a dream; just a great man.”
The Blue Front Café in Bentonia, Mississippi – in the heart of Yazoo County – is where Holmes hangs his hat and plays the blues and Rider soaked up all she could while visiting the legendary establishment.
“It was so wonderful to be able to stand on those floorboards where such great men stood,” she said. “Bentonia, I felt especially akin to when I went down there. I mean, just driving through the back-roads of Bentonia listening to Skip James’ “Cypress Grove Blues”… it’s really wonderful, just a great place.”
Rider, who is also a freelance journalist and does some voiceover work for animation projects, also got another treat on her trek down south – an opportunity to see up-and-coming (that is if you can call an 81-year-old an up-and-comer) bluesman Leo Bud Welch at the hallowed Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale.
“I interviewed him for an upcoming show and he’s just a fascinating man. His manager Vencie (Vernado), we have to thank so much for bringing Leo to us,” she said. “Sabougla Voices is a great album. He’s just so cool the way he hunches over his electric guitar … just amazing.”
When she’s not out beating the bushes and traveling up and down the blues highway – playing music, visiting Watermelon Slim in his Clarksdale home, tracking down long-lost musicians or exploring the mystical origins of the blues – Rider calls Cambridge, Mass., her home. That is for now.
“Well, I’m all over the place, really. I’ve been living in Cambridge for about six years now, but I’m getting ready to go back to New York. Back to the big city,” said. “But really, I’m an itinerant, I’m a traveler. Whichever way the wind blows, I’ve got a bag on my back and am ready to go.”
As most people are, Rider is a product of the environment that she was raised in, and growing up, she heard plenty of blues music playing in her childhood home.
“It’s always been around in my house, but it was more like Stevie Ray Vaughan and the legacy of the old stuff. But then I heard the version of “Catfish Blues” by Skip James and I’m getting chills thinking about it right now,” she said. “It really changed my life and changed the way I thought about music and about emotions relating to music. Whatever was coming out of him and his guitar and his voice was an authenticity that I couldn’t find anywhere else, especially in any of the pop songs or Top 40 being played on the radio. It was just a man and his guitar and he was able to make the most fantastic, complex compositions with his hands and his voice.”
And once she was hooked, boy was she hooked.
“I branched out and began to discover many of his contemporaries and those that came before him. I just became enamored with it and couldn’t let it go. There’s just nothing like the blues. For all of the sadness that comes along with it, blues is really an uplifting style of music. It’s a music full of hope and full of laughter. Everyone likes to laugh and everyone likes to dance and that’s at the root of this music, too, and I think we forget about that sometimes.”
Another thing that we forget about sometimes is just how much in common that the real-deal blues has with punk music. On the surface that statement may seem far-fetched, but according to Rider, when you look a bit deeper than just the surface …
“I had a little Squire Telecaster and was I was jamming out with power chords and was interested in punk music (when she first heard Skip James), interestingly enough. I liked punk music because it was so raw and un-produced, really authentic music. Then when I came across Skip, I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa!’ He didn’t even need an amplifier and look what all was going on there. That’s real punk music. But the blues musicians were really the first punks.”
Thanks to Rider and programs like Elwood’s Bluesmobile, blues and roots-related music still has a place to call home and a comfortable place to hang its hat. That’s important, because as most fans of the genre know, blues is not at the top of the food chain when it comes to mainstream music and its place on the public airwaves.
“We have to remember that the blues is the foundation of all commercial music. I mean, from rock-and-roll all the way down to hip-hop. Hip-hop is the new blues. It’s talking about the African/American experience and the struggles of everyday life and moving forward from that,” Rider said. “I do believe that hip-hop and rap is the natural extension of where the music (blues) was going. But blues as a form is never going to go away. As long as we have voices to sing and fingers to play and real human emotions, we’re going to be singing the blues.”
Whether she knew it or not, Rider actually began prepping for her gig on the Bluesmobile many years ago in elementary school, in fact even many years before she was first bitten by the Skip James-induced blues bug.
“I used to do little radio shows by myself as an elementary school student on this little tape recorder I had. I’d play songs and insert commentary on there, but nobody ever heard them,” she laughed. “So this is a nice extension, a way to get some of the angst out. But really, it’s just such a pleasure to have this gig and to be a part of this community.”
Photos by Matt Sukkar and Alex Moore as marked © 2014