Mark Hummel – Big Road Blues: 12 Bars On I-80 | Book Review

Mark HummelBig Road Blues: 12 Bars On I-80

Mountain Top Publishing LLC

322 pages Softcover Edition

If there is anyone out there pondering the future of their musical career, as in trying to decide if it makes sense to hit the road in search of a wider audience, you should definitely read this book. It will not teach you much about how to market yourself and your music, nor will it give you the insider secrets on writing a hit song. What you will get is an honest, no-frills glimpse at life on the road and the myriad assortment of issues that can be manifested any time you spend extended time traveling in tight spaces with other musicians.

Author Mark Hummel certainly can speak from experience, as he has been playing blues music for more than 50 years. A fine harmonica player and band leader, Hummel has thousands of miles under his belt from his travels domestically and across the European continent. His Blues Survivors bands have always featured some of the best blues musicians, particularly for his Blues Harmonica Blowout shows, which he has staged for over 30 years.

In the ‘Foreword,” author Lee Hildebrand shares several of his personal experiences with Hummel, including thoughts on one short tour he did as a member of the band. One telling story involved Big Joe Duskin, a Cincinnati piano player who was part of the tour. Duskin had been dealing with a number of major health issues, so everyone was quite concerned when it came time to leave for the next show, and Joe was nowhere to be found. Calls to his room went unanswered, as did knocks on his room’s door. Finally, just as the hotel manager was going to let Hummel into the room, the door opened and Duskin apologized for not answering, as he had been in the midst of praying.

Right from the jump, Hummel shares a woeful tale of a 2007 tour through Italy, which was fabulous, and on to Netherlands, where the band met the “Vulture,” who would be their manager for that portion of the tour. Hummel’s first impressions proved to be unfortunately accurate as the manager kept changing details of their contract, adding charges while trying to lower the band’s pay, in addition to having little sense of direction, a necessary skill for the person in charge of driving the band from gig to gig. It all came to a head the night a German club owner refused to pay the agreed-upon fee. Hummel refused to back down, and the police got involved, at which point Hummel learned that the club owner was notorious for that practice. Several nights later, the band pointed out to the Vulture that he was driving away from the cub without the trailer that contained all of their instruments and gear. What a way to make a living!

Several chapters cover Hummel’s introduction to the music plus his harmonica influences like Sonny Terry, and some of the older Bay area blues musicians that mentored him, including the singer-guitarist Haskell “Cool Papa” Sadler and the lap steel guitar player, Sonny Rhodes. One night the drummer for Rhodes leapt off the stage and got into a knock-down fight with a guy who was apparently dancing way to close to the drummer’s girlfriend.

Using first-hand experiences, Hummel lays out a saga of broken vehicles, low pay, unscrupulous club owners and promoters, band members with serious digestive issues, and others not up to the demands of the music, some of whom had radically inflated opinions of their own abilities that seldom were borne out on the bandstand. Readers will undoubtedly share Hummel’s anger at his recounting of the evening a promoter disrespected guitarist Eddie Taylor, who quickly announced he was walking out on the gig. After some verbal bantering, the promoter offered up a seemingly sincere apology wrapped around a string of bad luck seemingly torn from a country tearjerker. Once Taylor finished his performance, which got a fine response from the packed house, the promoter refused to pay even half of the agreed-upon amount, leaving the band to walk out in disgust.

If that life doesn’t seem exciting enough, the author details the joys of navigating through snow and ice storms, avoiding tornadoes, dealing with sound crews determined to turn everything up to 11, and the drummer who was offended by a remark, leading to him jumping out of the van as it headed on down the road, disappearing into the night. Women are another source of trouble but nothing like trying to blow harmonica while suffering from a bout of Bell’s Palsy. Hummel has to defend himself one night when a mentally off-balanced, would-be drummer attacks him on stage. And who can forget the one and only night’s stay at the motel featuring gay porn for free all night long!

It is not all doom and gloom. Hummel also describes nights when the band was on fire, making joyful music that made it all worthwhile. Regular collaborators like guitarist Rusty Zinn and drummer June Core help ease the stress and pressure that Hummel endures as the band leader. There are enough of those moments to sustain Hummel’s passion for the music after all these years.

Spread throughout the book are illustrations of some of the musicians under discussion, created by the talented guitarist Franck Goldwasser, who shared experiences similar to Hummel’s. There is also 15 page section of B&W photos from various stages of Hummel’s life, including some pictures of musicians who helped mold his musical growth.

We should all be thankful for musicians like Mark Hummel, undeterred by whims of fate, still passionate about the music, ready and willing to hit the road yet again, fully aware of what could be waiting for them. The extent of their devotion is brought to life as Hummel proves to be a skillful storyteller, mixing many emotions while including doses of humor to lighten the mood. This one is recommended to anyone who wants a broader understanding of what goes on after the lights go down, and the road stretches out to the next show.

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