Featured Interview – Lightnin’ Malcolm


Cover photo © 2022 Laura Carbone

imageAmbassador of Mississippi Blues, Lightnin’ Malcolm, is getting a big lift to his career from signing and touring with Tab Benoit’s Whiskey Bayou Records.  However, Malcolm is not new to the blues scene.  He has been releasing albums since 2004, was part of a duo with Cedric Burnside, played with the North Mississippi Allstars, has toured with such artists as Robert Plant, Jimmy Buffet, Robert Cray, the Black Keys and Gary Clark Jr., and won the Blues Music Award for best emerging artist in 2009. Malcolm was passionate about music from a very early age, and learned from some of the greats, including R.L. Burnside and T Model Ford.

“I’ve been drawn to music as early as I can remember–it was always on my mind.  When I was little, I would hear songs on the radio, and I would beat my sticks or spoons, and later I was practically sleeping with my guitar, playing in my sleep.  I also always wanted to get out and see the world, although I grew up in small villages.  When I was five or six, I would run away to the edge of town and then come back home.  I was already trying to go and see the world.  I loved music so much I was willing to cross the desert to find what I needed. I was so into Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, and when I got to meet a lot of the older blues guys in Mississippi, they liked me because I was so interested in playing that stuff and not many were.  Being around those guys taught me so much about life.”

While he has traveled the world, Malcolm has a special fondness for the small town of Clarksdale, Mississippi.

“In Clarksdale you can just smell it wafting through the street.  There is more blues than you can handle—it’s all over town, not just on one stage.  Clarksdale is such a magical little town.  It’s a rugged place with so many beautiful people with beautiful souls that gather there for this music.  It’s not like any other town in the world.  It’s got an other-worldly influence, and it has influenced the entire world with Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, and John Lee Hooker.  And it’s great to see what Kingfish is doing.  All the dots are connecting for him and he’s handling it and getting better and better.  I really salute him and guys like Jontavious Willis.  They don’t just play the old blues, they are it.  It’s there in their personality.”

Malcolm also learned some lessons about music from playing in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a Pentecostal church.  He noted that he wasn’t actually a member of any church but attended for the musical experience.

image“I went to it as a teenager and played guitar.  It was the best stomping music, and the women would start singing, and the spirit would take over, and it was just improvised.  You just found the key, and it taught me how to be open to feel whatever happens in the room, and how to improvise, but for every note to be sacred, and the vibe precious. It was all about the total release. Now, for me some of the greatest fun is getting the right group of guys together and just improvise.”

Those early influences contributed to his unique sound, which is most often categorized as Hill Country Blues.  That subcategory is known for few chord changes, finger picking cycling guitar, and strong percussive elements.  Together, these can produce an almost hypnotic groove which Malcolm has mastered, although he loves many genres.

“I love all different types of blues and all types of music.  I listen to some of all music, but my favorite is Bob Marley and trance music coming from Africa.  Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside was the closest thing to African music in America to me.  The raw rhythmic perfection– that’s what made me gravitate toward it and that’s why I live in the hills. The music in these hills is the closest thing to that.”

Malcolm is the type of songwriter who is constantly jotting down ideas for songs throughout each day.  He noted that the best songs seem to come to him all at once, effortlessly.

“Luther (Dickinson) says I’m a conduit and things pass through me.  That’s what is so exciting about it. Anyone can learn to play but learning how to write—that’s different.  I don’t think playing is a God-given talent—I think it’s more about practice.  But writing songs that come out of nowhere does feel God-given.  I call it like catching a fish—the hook is grabbed out of nowhere and you got one.  It’s always the ones that just came to me all at once–those are the ones the audience tells me means something to them.  But I’m writing all the time and have clipboards all over the place.  Sometimes I have to write when I’m driving and then I can’t read my handwriting later because I was watching the road, but I felt like it was too good to risk forgetting.  I try to maximize as much as I can in as few words a possible, cutting away all the nonsense.  When it really means something it’s best to get straight to the point. I’m starting to write more spiritual songs because I’m starting to think about what I want my son to hear that I might not be around to tell him.  How can I get as much wisdom and experience and pain into these songs, but have it also be something that is optimistic? I want my songs to be uplifting.  But I’m writing other stuff too—like comedy routines.”

Malcolm had a unique start to his adulthood, hanging out and touring with older bluesmen.  While that experience led to wonderful influences on his music, it could sometimes be hard on his body, and he had to be aware not to let the lifestyle have a detrimental effect on his health.

image“Growing up playing with the old cats, it was just a given you were gonna ‘get lifted’ on some moonshine before giving yourself over to the music—like a tribal custom.  And, we had the most amazing jams.  I learned to be one of the best at ‘playin’ while drinkin’.  People hiring me actually loved to see me ‘get lifted’ and play all night, and I’m a workaholic, so I had to learn to be careful.  My hero, T Model Ford, the most responsibly prolific drinker I knew, also gave me the world’s simplest advice.  He said when you are out here doing something, if you are the boss of it, then everything is good, but if it bosses you around, that’s no good.  Alcohol hadn’t gotten to the point where it bossed me around, but I decided to stop drinking and haven’t had a drink in over five years.  I’ve seen it derail so many people’s careers.  It can take away your ambition and be a gateway drug to foolishness.  The advice I give young people is if you don’t mess with it, it can’t mess you up.  If you don’t touch it, then it can’t touch you.”

Like many other musicians, the constant touring has also taken a toll on his interpersonal relationships.  And any relationships always had to come in at a distant second to the music, at least until his son was born.

“I belong to the road, and it would be hard for anyone to get close to me.  I was engaged to the music until I had my son.  I try, the older I get, not to overanalyze or over-define what each relationship is.  I try to just let it be what it is.  It may not be what everyone else thinks it should, but the most natural communication is when you forget what everybody else is doing and just find your own way of functioning. Especially if you have a child.  And we must keep ourselves positive for the child’s sake, but it’s always a work in progress.  Having my child brings color to what was previously black and white.  Everything means so much more now that I know what unconditional love is.  It makes me strive to be the best I can be.  I have to focus on trying to get the best out of me for his sake.  I want to make him proud.”

Malcolm enjoys playing as a one-man band, but also finds joy in collaborations with other artists.

“Playing by yourself is great fun, but I really love the telepathy of jamming with somebody—bouncing something off somebody.  Playing with Cedric Burnside was special—the duo was a special kind of entity all in itself.  We can sing together and write stuff and we might not play something for ten years, but then we play it, and it seems like we play it better than ever.  And, while it was my dream come true to have had the chance to play with so many older blues legends, what I would love now is to have the chance to play with R&B artists like Anthony Hamilton.”

imagePlaying as a one-man band can put a great deal of pressure on the artist, who can often experience a difficult time holding the attention of an audience.  However, Malcolm continually meets that challenge and often has audience members tell him how his music has had a significant impact on them.

“Sometimes you’re tired, traveling all day, trying to make all the shows, but then you’ll walk in, and you’ll hear someone say they drove six hours to see you tonight.  I know I did that a lot as a kid, being a fan, seeing RL Burnside or T Model Ford, and I try to never forget that. I learn by watching the crowd’s reactions and always try to do my best and keep it honest.  I remember the real reason I started playing is the raw enjoyment of the music and sharing it—seeing people gather together and dance and be happy.  That means more than any career ambition.  I want to reach as many people as I can.  I’m so thankful to be playing for the people,”

Malcolm recently signed with Whiskey Bayou Records, a label launched by Tab Benoit and Rueben Williams. The album, Eye of the Storm, will be released this Fall and features Benoit playing drums on three songs.  The other major player on the album is world-renown drummer, Brady Blade.

“Brady and I are always spontaneously explosive, and when Tony Hall (of Neville Brothers and Dumpstaphunk) also stopped by and played bass, it was like getting the keys to a Ferrari.  There are a few songs on the album that probably wouldn’t have been on the album, but they are on now because Tony showed up.  It’s so great having guys like them—you get the riff started and they just take it from there.  And Tab is also super-intuitive.  They knew right where I was going to go. I’m so thankful that Tab has brought me out on the road and wanted me to be on their label and Rueben does great work too.  I’ve known them both for decades.  I’ve learned a lot from Tab.  He gives it his all every night, playing from the heart, which is what I try to do.  We both play drums in a similar way too, and we think the same, in terms of rhythm.  I’m very proud of the new record.  The title track, “Eye of the Storm”, was a song that had been in my head for about twenty years, waiting for the right time.  I didn’t even have a name for it at first.  The studio had just gone through a hurricane and my session was the first one after the hurricane, but it’s about more than just that.  There are all kinds of different storms going on these days. So, while I like all the tracks, that one might stand out a bit.  We did the tracks in one take, keeping it organic and honest.  Honest is more important than perfect.”

With his unique brand of high-energy, hypnotic music and talented songwriting abilities, Lightnin’ Malcolm is sure to be around for many years to come.  You can find out more about his new album and his tour dates on www.lightninmalcolm.com

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