Any true student of the blues knows that it delivers life lessons in all its forms, but Tas Cru – an enigmatic guitarist and tunesmith from Upstate New York – takes those lessons to an entirely different level.
He’s a modern-day Pied Piper of sorts who crafts songs packed with seemingly innocent, wry observations about the foibles of living in the modern world, and he regularly targets youngsters, too, creating a new audience by cleverly drawing them into the blues world.
And as Blues Blast learned in a recent interview, it’s definitely no accident. He’s truly a teacher whose medium is the blues.
Based near Syracuse along the I-90 corridor, he’s a veteran road dog who entered the classroom after a stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He went on to earn a master’s degree in English literature and then a Ph.D. — penning his dissertation on ways to incorporate aspects of Iroquois culture into the teaching curriculum at a school whose entire student body was composed of children from the Mohawk Nation, a confederacy of five Native American tribes that span both sides of the Canadian border.
He also spent decades as a college professor, devoting his final years working with future music teachers and instructing them how to incorporate literacy – reading, writing, listening and speaking – into everything else they’d be doing in their classrooms.
That’s pretty highfalutin stuff — but it’s all past history today.
He made a clean break from his former life in the mid-2000s, when he adopted Tas Cru as his stage moniker and hit the highway as a full-time musician. The separation is so complete today that he no longer responds to his birth name.
“It just kinda happened,” says Tas, a self-described “blues eclectic” who plays acoustic, electric, resonator and cigar-box guitars – and a little harmonica, too – in formats that range from solo to big-band formats. “I didn’t really plan on it.”
His path to the blues and other styles of music came through a beloved uncle during his childhood. “He was a Korean War veteran,” Cru remembers, “and he came back home when I was a little kid. Something was goin’ on…PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), I think…but they didn’t know about that back then. He just couldn’t hold things together.
“He ended up getting divorced, and lived in a little apartment in the house my father owned next door to where we lived. I used to hang out with him. He’d be gettin’ all duded up on a Friday for a night on the town and be playin’ records. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were these blues records that he’d been exposed to when he was in the Army.
“After the war, when all the Chess Records stuff came out, he followed that stuff…Howlin’ Wolf and everybody else. I was just hangin’ out at the time, and it just stuck with me.
“After that, I played with a band with a kid down the street,” Cru says. “His parents at the time were in a band that was playin’ all the Sun Records stuff. When I first heard it, I kinda dismissed it. But as time was goin’ on, I was like: ‘Wait a minute! I heard that stuff before! That’s what my uncle was playin’…but just different!’”
Tas was a teenager when the British invasion — the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Zombies, Kinks, Herman’s Hermits, Animals, Yardbirds and others – overwhelmed American airwaves in the mid-‘60s, and it didn’t take long for him to realize that many of them were updated versions of many of the same tunes his uncle had been spinning years before.
One of the musicians he admired most during that era was Freddie King because of both his extraordinary guitar playing and his equally polished vocal chops. He also was drawn to Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt because of the subtleties they brought to the music – an ability he describes as being able to “rock it out and get cerebral at the same time.”
For years in his early adulthood, Tas played in cover bands, usually handling vocals on Bob Seger songs and other blues-rock material. He started turning toward straight blues – and writing his one songs — in a major way in the mid-‘80s.
“Rock music had really turned to shit back then…hair bands and all that stuff,” he says, “and I gravitated to women singer-songwriters. I actually got more interested in their songs because they had more substance to ‘em. I really started to reconnect to my past and put it all together when I started writing myself and rediscovered the blues form.”
He expanded his musical education for a spell in Lafayette, La., a hotbed where blues, zydeco, Cajun, country and more compete for attention on steamy Southern nights. One of the biggest lessons he’s ever received came when invited to sit in with Henry Gray, the childhood friend of Little Walter who went on to be a bandmate of Wolf, Lazy Lester, Buddy Guy and a host of others before passing in 2020 at age 95.
“I was on stage with him, and all full of fire,” Tas admits, “and Lil’ Buck Sinegal (the beloved Gulf Coast legend who played guitar for both Rockin’ Dopsie and Katie Webster) leaned over and told me: ‘Man, you know what? There’s one man on this stage that these people come to see – and you ain’t him!’”
A man who seems all business and seemingly gruff on stage because he doesn’t smile much, Cru’s quite the opposite – outgoing and easily approachable — during meet-and-greets between sets and after his shows. “I do feel bad,” he says, “when someone wants to talk before a set and know, as a musician, that there are certain things I’ve gotta be doin’ – like tuning up, making a set list or whatever.
“The person’s usually excited, and it’s hard to make that break. I just have to come out and tell ‘em to please understand…”
As difficult as those separations can be, Cru’s transition to his new life proved to be a great decision almost from the jump. He released his debut CD, Gravi-Tas, when in his mid-50s in 2008 followed quickly by Gristle ‘n Bone, which was included by Downbeat magazine on its list of best blues albums of the year. The editors also praised his songwriting, stating that he possessed “the soul of a poet.”
“I loved the academic life,” he says, “and I learned a lot — especially the importance of being honest and earnest with people when you work with them. I separated myself from it, but I still bring to the table my love of language and writing in what I’m doing now.
“I believe that words matter. And without being too cute, I try to make the lyrics mean something more than being a vehicle from one guitar solo to the next – which sometimes I think is goin’ on. The songs themselves are not all personal, not all autobiographical. Some are observations. Some are built around a turn-of-phrase from somebody that catches my ear.
“During the COVID thing, I was doing a Blues in the Schools program…some creative stuff with this music teacher who had a group of kids who wanted to explore songwriting. It was really a cool thing for me because I had to coalesce all of my thoughts on that in order to present that to somebody else.
“I summarized it for them: ‘I hear it all the time from interviewers: What comes first, the music or the words?’
“Basically, it comes in three ways: Sometimes I’ll be noodlin’ around and hear a musical line and go ‘I like that! What can I do with that?’ A good example is a song that SiriusXM has been playin’ for the past year and a half called ‘That Lovin’ Thing.’ It was a ‘like’ that I built a song around.
“Sometimes, it’s a lyric,” says Tas. “I’ll get an idea of something I wanna say in an interesting figure of speech, and that’ll turn into a song. Sometimes, it’s a concept…somethin’ I’m thinkin’ about.”
A 2014 Blues Foundation Keeping the Blues Alive Award honoree as an educator and 2018 Blues Music Awards nominee in the emerging artist category, Cru believes that feeling is more important than virtuosity when it comes to playing an instrument. “I like listening to a virtuoso player myself,” he notes, “but I can only do it for so long if there’s no feelin’.
“I’ve seen several highly regarded virtuoso players live, and they don’t do anything for me after the third song.”
While all of his original material is rooted strongly in the blues, he frequently incorporates influences from other genres into his diverse alignments. “Growing up and being surrounded by everything from Wolf to Johnny Cash to the Beatles and Stones and Jeff Beck, it’s only natural,” he says. “But I kinda turn my back on progressive rock. If I don’t hear a melody or a groove, I’m not there long.”
That musical stew is evident when you listen to his recent CDs. Simmered & Stewed, which earned the BMA nomination, was imbued with a Gulf Coast feel. Memphis Song — which followed and included contributions by keyboard master Anthony Geraci and rising guitarist Gabe Stillman — was a soul-blues love song that celebrated the city, and Drive On — which incorporated sax player Terry Anthony (Mel Waiters/Annika Chambers) — carried the feel forward while heading in an entirely different direction.
In addition to receiving airplay worldwide, all three discs captured album-of-the-year honors in the Syracuse Area Music Awards. And Broke Down Busted Up – which debuted in early September and features fiddle goddess Anne Harris and Mary Ann Casale, a gifted mandolin player in the lineup – changes things up once again. Drawing from diverse influences, it delivers a “quasi-acoustic” mix of thought-provoking tunes that bound together by steady grooves.
“Broke Down Busted Up really was a plan to do something different,” Tas says. “I really wanted to go earthier from the pandemic side of things, when I was playing a lot of acoustic guitar during the whole thing. And then, when I got to know Anne a little bit more, I went: ‘Hmmm, I wonder if she’ll jump on this project?’ – and she did!
“Mary Ann came onboard a long time ago as the backing vocalist on my You Keep the Money album. She’s got a great voice, and some great song ideas, too – including (the title tune) ‘Memphis Song’ and several other songs on that album. She’s had a big role on several of ‘em, creating backing and crafting parts. She co-wrote three of the numbers on the new one, and sings lead on two.”
Cru’s role as an educator continues today through programs targeted for adults and – prior to COVID — frequent Blues in the Schools performances. You can draw a parallel between what Cru did with his Ph.D. dissertation and what he’s been doing in recent years to attract youngsters to the music.
His shows are chockful of life lessons delivered through song – especially the idea of thinking outside the box, a skill that, he notes, is often abandoned in childhood. And he also uses his platform to impart a little knowledge that all true blues lovers already know: that the music’s playing is the seed from which all forms of popular American music grows.
Especially for children of color, that idea reintroduces them an important contribution from their own culture that – more often than not — has been obscured because a great many African-Americans in recent generations have turned their backs to the blues because of its inherent ties to slavery and all the suffering and oppression that accompanied the creators in their musical missions.
Whatever his subject, Tas is never preachy when he delivers his message in a relaxed, frequently humorous manner – something evident when you give a listen to the two CDs he’s recorded with youngsters in mind. He released Even Bugs Sing the Blues in 2009, drawing his inspiration on the works of Eric Carle, the author-illustrator of several beloved children’s books, most prominently The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Cru’s second kiddie pleaser, Doggone Blues first appeared in 2016. Each song describes a pooch who’s definitely a character, and all of them live again in his own series of books now, too – something that came about following the success of one of the last Blues in the Schools shows he performed prior to the pandemic.
“I did it in England, and all of the kids were from different countries in Africa,” he says. “English was a second language to them, and it was a writing program. I asked them to pick a song off Doggone Blues and then write the back story to it…who this dog was, where he came from and all that. They’d never done anything like that before, and I had to model it all for ‘em.
“I had so much fun doin’ it, I couldn’t stop! I ended up writing a series about one of the dogs from one of the songs, ‘Bad Dog Bubba.’ I’ve got three books that I did during the pandemic that I self-publish.”
Entitled Bad Dog Bubba, The Doggone Blues Band and Muddy the Waters, they’re illustrated by Heather Brown, they tell the story of the title pooch — a bloodhound who lives with a musician in Louisiana – as he tries to convince all of his furry friends that the blues is cool. “They’re not into it,” Tas chuckles, “especially his girlfriend, a Russian wolfhound who’s into Tchaikovsky.”
Despite early roadblocks, they quickly begin exploring the music together, form a group and experience complications that they have to handle along the way – most prominently, a newcomer pooch who tries to cash in on their success. Available through Amazon and far more than simple picture books, they deliver a fun, easy-to-read story that unfolds quickly in 21 chapters across the three volumes.
Even though Tas’ latest CD is still fresh and gaining traction, he’s already outlined plans for his next one. “It’s gonna be 180 degrees different than Broke Down Busted Up,” he says. “I’m gonna go full-on blues-rock on the next album…full-on, crankin’ guitars with simple arrangements, simpler songs…electric bass, drums, Hammond organ, maybe piano, guitar, drums – that’s it!
“I’m gonna call it Riffin’ in Blues based on the idea that all of the songs are guitar-riff driven. I’ve got a bunch of them layin’ around that I’m workin’ up. I’m not gonna get crazy or goofy with ‘em. I’m just gonna full-on BANG – and I’m curious to see what happens! I know l’ll have a good time. I like to get on stage and rock it off, so why not?”
Cru just returned to the U.S. after a ten-date run in Germany. But like many people in the industry today, he’s still planning on holding off on major touring until next year, restricting his appearances across the Northeast until then.
“You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” he says wistfully about the past 20 months or so. “It’s time to appreciate it. Let’s live like it’s the 1920s when they came out of their pandemic. Those of us who want to live life to the fullest,
let’s do it!
“Life is short – we know that now. We’ve known it all along, but we got a wake-up call.”
Check out Tas’ music, his children’s books and where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.tascru.com