When asked what the advantages and disadvantages are of being a musician in New Orleans guitarist and lead singer Keith Stone responds by saying, “That’s a loaded question.” He is one of two natives of New Orleans in the group Keith Stone with Red Gravy. The other is drummer Eddie Christian who says simply being a musician in New Orleans saved his life.
Bass player Kennan Shaw originally from California says, “I’d been going to New Orleans for years just to decompress and to hang out and just take in the music, and eat the food. I had owned a place a very small little place with my ex-wife just before Katrina.”
Tom Worrell, keyboardist and producer of Red Gravy’s first album is from Iowa. He says being a musician in New Orleans means everything. “I owe New Orleans my entire career as I can call it, a career now and by a career, I mean something that satisfies me in a real deep way. It’s not necessarily about the money of anything. I’m just saying it makes me feel like I’m making a contribution, or I’m involved in something.”
Chicago, Memphis, St. Louis, Clarksdale and Helena, Arkansas all have reputations for being the home of the blues. But New Orleans is the only town whose heart not only pumps the blood of the genre, but that bloodstream feeds every pore of the body that is the Crescent City. Music isn’t just a niche in a part of the city even though Bourbon St. is the fulcrum. But music IS the city. It’s everywhere, and the musicians who play there live the life 24/7. It draws artist from around the world, and the groups that form there seem to be made up of artists, each one of whom could be called a band leader.
Keith Stone grew up on the streets of the French Quarter. He jammed with street musicians, working his way up to being in one of Bourbon Street’s most popular Show Bands playing the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest. “The good thing about having that many musicians (in New Orleans) is that it keeps you on your toes. It also keeps an influx of ideas. When you have one idea, it marries with another idea of the land. You get creativity, and so it breeds creativity. It becomes a Petri dish of creativity, but it can be a challenge at different times. We all play with different bands in this band. So, this is our project.
“This is our pet project. This is what we want to do, but to do that sometime if you live in any other city you might have to go and work a day job. Well, our day job is playing music, because you can start playing music in New Orleans in some places as early as 10 a.m., or you can get a gig from 12 to 4, and then you can be off, make a day’s wage, and you can go and play another gig later on, and you can go have a little fun with creating music in a way that maybe please you a little bit more than maybe pleases the tourists that come to New Orleans, and we love playing with them.
Kennan Shaw loves New Orleans “because nothing works quite the way it’s supposed to. Coming from California, and the last year I lived in Los Angeles, I’d tell people, ‘Look, when you get to New Orleans, walk off the plane, take a deep breath and drop your shoulders and just take your time. Nothing is going to be the way it is in California.’
“The truth is, and I’ve told people this forever, I moved to New Orleans for the New Orleans drummers. New Orleans drummers are heaven. It’s a unique approach to rhythm. The standard boom-pop, boom-pop you might follow in a band anywhere else is just at the heart. The heart beat is still there, but there’s different flavors and spices that go with that. Now, I’m so lucky to be able to work with some of the drummers I do including Eddie Christmas. I know who he was before I moved down here, and now we’re in this band together.”
Drummer Eddie Christman has toured with Gerald Levert and The Black Crows. He’s played on Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen’s Mo’ Hippa, Live in Australia record. During Mardi Gras season he seems to play constantly and still make his 7 a.m. church gig.
“I grew up in the church. I started playing drums in church and so that’s my background. I’ve had people tell me over the year that I missed my calling to be a minister. My mom taught at the Bible College in New Orleans for 43 years before she passed a couple of years ago, and I guess you could say I was scared to actually go that route. My mom taught at the Bible College. My dad was a gangster.
“They were married for a long time. My dad was from Natchez, Mississippi and my mom’s from Faraday. They both raised my mom’s siblings when my grandmother died, and I couldn’t understand how – it was pretty much like being married to Satan to have somebody who was really heavy into The Word experience get married and spend every day of her life with someone who disagrees pretty much with that.
“I’m the only boy. I have three sisters. I’m the only boy. Music is a gift from God, and Mom is my number one supporter, made sure I went to the best school in the city St. Augustine High School, went to Bible School of music and graduated.”
Keyboardist Tom Worrell played East Berlin with Solomon Burke just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He’s performed with Johnny Adams, Deacon John, Marva Wright, Mem Shannon, Walter Wolfman Washington, Johnny Sansone, The Wild Magnolias and Shebe Kimbrough and recorded with the Wild Magnolias, J. Monque’D, and The Professor Longhair Foundation Presents Piano Night at Tipitina’s CD.
He shrugs about his credit as the producer of Red Gravy’s Blues with A Taste of New Orleans. “(the title producer) is a misnomer in a certain way because now it appears the listing of a CD if it’s self-released it often was self-produced. Producer usually means they pay for it, and back in the old days of the music business a producer was somebody with connections. One of the first producers I worked with was Dick Darnell. He was John Denver’s producer and Sugarloaf and all these different people in Colorado. That’s who I worked for, and that’s what he did. He did production deals where he’d get a band and have them live in a car or something on peanut butter and bread and take half the advance from the record company and go buy a Subaru with the hopes of getting them a record deal.
“So, a producer can be a charlatan. It can be legit, but it’s lost a lot of clout. Everyone has home recording here. Everyone has – I mean. The way I looked at it with these young people well, that I produce, I’m trying to actualize what they’re hearing. I’m not trying to eclipse or add to it in a way that doesn’t belong there.
Tom’s production on the Red Gravy CD shows the kind of eclectic gumbo of blues and R&B one might expect from the New Orleans band.
“We worked a lot of it up in what they call preproduction. We worked a lot of it up in a kind of rehearsal. I would bounce ideas off everybody, and they would come up with ideas as well, and then we would kind of go from there, but I mean it takes a lot of faith for someone to allow you to do that.”
On the part of Keith?
“Keith and everyone else. They’re all highly accomplished musicians. I think we may have a slight credit writing on a couple, but Keith primarily is the writer. I am primarily the main arranger and definitely the producer in that I have the last call. Ok, that was correct. Or we have to do this phrase again. They’re basically all trusting me to hear things.”
Keith Stone’s first paying gig was opening for Rufus Thomas in a band called Slu Foot Blues Band. He left New Orleans to become Pastor Stone for a large church in South Carolina, only to return to the Crescent City after Hurricane Katrina to found a non-profit organization that recruited thousands of volunteers and raised millions of dollars for Katrina relief and recovery. In 2011, he capped off his ministerial career officiating the funeral of New Orleans icon Coco Robicheaux.
Perhaps nowhere in musical history is there a story of redemption so powerful as that of the musical community’s response to the unparalleled devastation of that horrible disaster.
Kennan Shaw: “The first time I went back to New Orleans after Katrina was as soon as the airport opened. No one knew what state property was in. So, I had gone down in 2004 right after the storm and kind of went through that. It was horrifying in a sense that the stages of grief everybody was working through, and they were already up to here, and you’d go out and talk to people who had lived through the storm, and they’d go home and just sit and stare at the wall for a while because you couldn’t really take in what they had been through. So, there’ a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder that goes on in that city anyway.
“When I first got down there, there was a few people that I know, and I called them and told them I’m in town now and looking for work. I’d get a call to go do a gig, and I’d show up at the gig, and it would be me and somebody I’d kind of known and two guys I’d never met before, and we’d just play, and that’s kind of how you get into any of it down there.”
No one was prepared for horror that was Katrina, but if any of the four members of Red Gravy could say they had been pre-hardened for the jolt it would be Eddie Christian.
“All my friends were in and out of jail, came from parents strung out who were staying with aunties and uncles. It was like 13 other countries. My oldest daughter is second year in college. My second youngest is a junior this year. I tell them all the time the difference when I was a kid and some of their friends been there. Some of their siblings been on drugs and shit. Some of my friends had to do that. By the time they were teens in and out of jail for stealing and shit like that.
“My mom made sure that I did not get caught up. When everyone was going here, she said no, you can’t go there. We’d go to church five or six times a week, man. I hated that as a kid. I thought I was missing out on everything. I’m always about being positive even when somebody says, “Man, my daddy is fucked up.” I say, ‘You know what? Your daddy is really not that bad. My dad is actually worse than what you’ve got going on. You’re alive and well. Somebody didn’t wake up this morning.’ This is what I mean, but you really don’t want to eat it. Somebody doesn’t have any food. So, I look at it from that perspective.
“My sister before me, my parents had her, they were trying to have a boy, and they had a girl. So, she got all the bad shots. My daddy would treat her like a boy. He would take her to shoot guns, (doing) cocaine and all that kind of stuff. My mom had no idea. She went to the doctor for one of her regular checkups, and she was three months pregnant. She (mom) had no idea she was pregnant. Now, she was pregnant again.
“They finally had a boy. My dad was very supportive of my music. He didn’t want me to follow his route. People in the neighborhood – we say in the hood – had respect for my father and my mother. So, they wouldn’t let me do certain things, too. I would be the only kid on the block with drumsticks. Everybody else would have drugs. If they thought I was selling drugs, they would beat my ass, and they would take me to my dad, and he would beat my ass, too. That would happen a lot ’cause, like I say, it’s hard, man. Like all your friends are doing certain things. You think those things are cool, but like I said, music saved my life. That’s why I’m here today, man. My mom made sure I did other things than what the other kids were doing.
“Katrina was an eye opener on so many levels, on many levels. Everybody has their (impression), but it was an eye opener to those who was there. I was on tour when Katrina was hitting. We were coming from Japan, and we got to L.A. at the airport, and everybody was looking at the TV. Our phones were like off for 24 hours. When we landed, it was the aftermath happening. I lost a lot of friends. I lost family. I lost an older brother. I had an older brother who was trying to swim for one side of Carlton Ave to the other side of the street with my niece and nephew and he got lost. We haven’t found him.”
Did that change the environment in New Orleans?
“It changed a whole lot. New Orleans is back, but it’s not totally back. There’s still a lot to be done. There’s still room for progress. Music is a universal language. That has definitely carried.
Does Christmas think that if Katrina had happened in another city like what we encountered in Puerto Rico, the residents would not have been able to bounce back the way New Orleans did because they had the music to keep them sane?
“Yes and no. I think it depends on you. If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, everybody is ‘Hey, how ya doing, man?’ ‘Hey, what’s up, baby? That’s the vibe. That’s the whole shit. I’ve been back in New Orleans as a resident for two years ’cause there is no city like it. You get off gigs and from wherever you’re playing at to wherever you stay, you can stop at three or four bars on the way home. There’s people there. They’re playing music. If not music and a live band, there’s a jukebox.
“In New York you get a slice of pizza. In New Orleans I can literally sit down and have a gumbo at 3 o’clock in the morning, and that’s what’s special about the city, and I think those things are the things that allow us to keep going and keep pushing, you know? It’s about staying positive.”
Eddie teaches classes and clinics, helping kids develop music fundamental skills and setting them on the right track to becoming great drummers and percussionists.
In their liner notes to the CD is the following observation: There’s a joke about New Orleans musicians that goes, “There’s only one band in the whole town, but it has five thousand members.” Stone sees that as an advantage and a disadvantage. “It can be a challenge, and it’s a blessing at the same time. You get to meet so many people, and they come to New Orleans, and some of the ones that come from out of town, they’re the ones that teach us locals about our history and heritage because sometimes you can take things for granted in your hometown. We get guys that come in from out of town, and they have his zeal, and the fire, and this passion about New Orleans, and its music. Man, they start teaching you about that stuff, and sometimes I scratch my head, and I go why didn’t I learn about that when I was a kid in school? So, it’s both a blessing and a challenge at the same time, but I think overall, it’s good.”
Visit Red Gravy’s website at: www.keithstonemusic.com.
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.