Cover photo © 2022 Laura Carbone
“Most sidemen don’t get a lot of attention. Some guys they go to gigs and they see there’s a whole band up there and they actually see that there’s something goin’ on that’s a product of the whole.”
Michael “Mudcat” Ward creates the product of the whole. One of the pillars of the 80’s and 90’s Blues explosion, Mudcat has developed an immediately recognizable bass sound. A die hard New Englander hailing from Lewiston, Maine, Mudcat is the torch bearer of, as he calls it, “string bass.” This is the large acoustic stand up bass that was an integral part of the early transition of the Blues from solo and small group rural Blues to the electrification and extended ensembles of Chicago, Memphis, Helena and beyond. A consummate sideman, meaning he plays his bass to accentuate the music and he says “make the leader look good,” Mudcat is also a clever, prolific and at times irreverent songwriter. A founding member of Sugar Ray and the Bluetones and Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, two of the most enduring modern day Blues units, Mudcat has been the trusted low end for countless Blues legends including Big Walter Horton, Big Mama Thornton, Hubert Sumlin and Jimmy Rogers.
Mudcat, Ronnie Earl, Sugar Ray Norcia, Duke Robillard, Anthony Geraci and a host of other New England based Bluesmen helped to supercharge the East Coast Blues in the late 70’s in hallowed and long shuttered Boston and Rhode Island clubs such as The Speakeasy, The Met and Lupo’s. Mudcat, who resides in Cambridge, MA, continues to be the go to traditional Blues bassist in New England. This interview was conducted in person, something rare in the post COVID world. Meeting just outside of Inman Square in Cambridge where 45 years earlier Mudcat and Ronnie Earl used to run from club to club, Mudcat detailed his life in Blues through an at times thick Northern New England accent, resplendent with elongated “r’s” and dropped syllables.
The late 60’s was a great time to be on fire with music. New England was also a good place to do it. Many people trying to escape the often dangerous crush of New York City moved North, and major national and international acts stopped in to cater to fans. Young precocious Michael Ward took advantage of every opportunity and chased down musical dreams that didn’t include the bass.
“I started out as a want-a-be piano player. I took piano lessons as a kid. I was like one of those kids that the teacher tricked. You know I wasn’t really learning how to read (music) but I could memorize everything she was teachin’. She put the music, either the wrong music or upside down or something, and you know I was actin’ like I was readin’ it. I got busted. But she thought ‘you know this kid should really learn Jazz, but I can’t teach that, I don’t know that.’ So I really had no instruction for a couple of years but I was playing by ear.”
“We had a piano in the house. My mother played Classical piano and my father played Jazz piano and trombone in the marching bands. So I had musical inspiration in the house. My father had Mingus records and my mother had a Bob Dylan record before I did, you know that kind of thing. I was born in ‘54, so when I was growing up in the early 60’s, pre-Beatles and the early Beatles that was all important. Anyway I wanted to be a piano player and I was trying to be a piano player and I had bought an electric piano.”
“In ‘69 I went to Woodstock. I actually wanted to go to this festival in Atlantic City that had B.B. King advertised and a lot of Blues acts. But my parents wouldn’t let me go, that seemed either too far or too dangerous. So I bugged them for the rest of the Summer. The Woodstock one was advertised and I think they let me go because they had told me no on the other one. Woodstock wasn’t really a Blues guy’s festival, it had Paul Butterfield and Canned Heat, if you count them. I mean it was still a great experience obviously, it was a mind blowing thing.”
It is comical in hindsight to think that Woodstock was the safer festival to go to for the young Ward. Mudcat’s Summer of ‘69 Blues love continued though.
“That same Summer I had seen the Jimi Hendrix Experience in Lewiston, Maine where I grew up, at the City Armory. I used to go in there in the afternoons, I used to like to watch bands set up and that kind of thing. I went in there and it was me and the janitor and we watched Jimi Hendrix. They came and the gear was set up for them and he played for 20 minutes for me and the janitor. Basically for him (Hendrix), he played for himself. But you know we were like (mouth gaped open) this is incredible.”
“Jimi Hendrix was a step removed, you know I’d seen Buddy Guy and I’d seen Magic Sam. I’d seen Charlie Musslewhite and the Aces, that was Junior Wells’ band, with Fred Roulette on steel and Skip Rose on piano that was in Portland in 1969 too. So to see Magic Sam and Jimi Hendrix I was already slapped in the face with plenty of Blues excitement. And that was a good thing too, that you could really see some of the real innovators of the music at that time, if you’re my age.”
On fire from music and hunting down all the Blues he could, Mudcat also had a bit of a rebellious streak. “I went to a boarding school in New Hampshire for high school because I was gonna be dead probably by the time I got out of high school,” he confesses.
“My parents had an idea about that. It was my choice, but they offered to send me to boarding school, prep school, so I went to Phillips Exeter. At Exeter I noticed in the music building there was kind of a curtain and all these Fender amplifiers behind it. I was thinking ‘ah this might be a good place after all.’ When I finally showed up for school in 1969 I’d just had that Summer of incredible inspiration. I’m there with my Hohner electric piano under my arm and I’m lookin’ for other kids at the school that wanna play Blues.”
“So I met these guys that were playing Blues and I go to their rehearsal. The piano player was 100 times better than I was even back then. It was Ben Tench, ended up being Tom Petty’s piano player. So it was like this isn’t gonna work for me. He was like ‘no, no we need a bass player. So take that piano back to where you came from at Thanksgiving when you can go home. If you can go to a pawn shop and swap it for a bass you’ve got a gig.’ So that’s exactly what I did. It was his instructions and I followed ‘em and I’ve been playin’ the bass ever since. So thank you Ben, I guess he’s Benmont, but he was Ben back then.”
In the band with the future Heartbreaker, Mudcat began to get his first taste of being on the stage, being in a band and traveling to play, things he would chase down consistently for the rest of his career.
“Actually we had a gig that next weekend, as soon as I got back from break. We played all the events, like after a football game there’d be a mixer they would call it. So we rode on our amps in the back of the bus with the football players. We’d be high and they’d be thinkin’ to find some beers at the end of the night. It came kinda easy to me, I knew what to do playing the bass. I’m not sure I was attracted to the bass per se like some guys, ‘you know that’s the sound I want to make.’ But I saw it as a function of a band that I could be part of the music and maybe I’ll be a piano player later on. But, I found that I liked it and I actually got half good at it at some point, maybe not back then.”
After Exeter, Mudcat went to Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. The relatively new college “was still an apple orchard really.” Then a move to Cambridge, MA with his guitar playing brother Peter Ward, later known as Peter Hi Fi. It was in the mid 70’s when Hi Fi and Mudcat went to the Speakeasy, a fabled Blues joint in Cambridge, that they “fed cigarettes” to the blazingly good guitarist on the bandstand Ronnie Horvath, soon to be known internationally as Ronnie Earl. A lifelong friendship and musical partnership was born.
“I hooked up with Ronnie soon as I got out of college and started bands down here in the Boston area. We were kind of obsessed with Blues, couldn’t listen to Disco, couldn’t listen to anything else. Had to be Blues or nothin’. It took that kind of mental sharp focus, I think, to get where we got with the music. I mean we were crazy, we’d play all night for nothing if that was available to us, it was just not enough.”
“Back then you would call up clubs and get gigs that way. It was always hard to find a manager or agent who got you any work or got you any money. We (Mudcat, Ronnie and Hi Fi) moved into an apartment in Inman Square up the street here that John Nicholas had had. He moved down to Austin, TX, he joined Asleep at the Wheel at that time. So we moved into his place, it was a 4 apartment building on Wyatt Street that had been abandoned by the owner. So we were there rent free. I was always worried someone would light it on fire just to collect the insurance.”
Mudcat and Ronnie were running buddies, jumping from club to club, sitting in wherever they could. It was Ronnie’s unique style, and his take no prisoners Queens, NY attitude that propelled them forward.
“He was fearless. He would go right up to B.B. King or anybody and introduce himself. I always noticed they treated him like an equal even before hearing him. Then they would invite him up to sit in and they’d like the way he played. Afterwards they’d have a drink together. He was one of the extended Blues family and it always was, in my eyes, he was that. He was doing exactly what they were doing, just not for as long.”
“When I first started paying with him he was notably the Bluest guy out here. Some guys could play faster, some guys could play more styles of stuff. He couldn’t. He could basically only play Bluesy. He didn’t learn Rock first, he didn’t grow up with it. He didn’t play guitar his whole life, he started late in life. Blues was what he wanted to play, what he was interested in. We had these blinders on basically. He couldn’t even exactly manage to copy. He managed to develop a style, it worked in his favor. With the feeling and approach and the really single mindedness to play the deepest Blues he could. No one else was doing that. Ronnie could play like Hubert, he could play like B.B, he could play like Freddie King. But, it always had a little more Ronnie in there.”
“I owe him a lot. He made me feel like I could be a Blues player. There’s no reason you can’t be a Blues player. I used to feel like I’m a white guy from Lewiston Maine, really? I like playing Blues so much and I like playing bass, but does this really even work? He was like yah, you have as much standing to do it as Bobby Anderson, or any other bass player that you can find. There’s no difference between those guys in Chicago, Mississippi or Texas and you. That was a hurdle I needed to get over. He pulled me right over it.”
Ronnie and Mudcat needed a singer, neither had a strong voice. So out of Westerly, Rhode Island came the 3rd piece of the puzzle Raymond “Sugar Ray” Norcia. Then with the addition of Berklee College of Music maestro Anthony Geraci (“he was writing a concerto on his front porch when we convinced him to drop out of school and tour with us”) and drummer Neil Gouvin – Sugar Ray and the Bluestones were born. It was the unique talent of Sugar Ray, the big voiced, tasty harp blowing frontman who brought the group together. “Sugar was a great player right from the get go.” Mudcat qualifies “I wouldn’t say miles above everybody else but really nobody around here was playing like him.”
“You know how some guys are fully formed when they first come out? Jerry Lee Lewis is a good example. Did he ever sound like somethin’ else? Some guys you get it right from the start, or at least from when you first find out about them. Sugar Ray’s harmonica’s playing, Sugar Ray is like one of those guys. I’d say his singing too but his voice got deeper, more baritone as he got older. But his harmonica playing, he came right out from the first time you heard him, not a flashy guy but very Blue and direct, real direct. Not a lot of notes for the fun of it, everything said something.”
“Things kinda just progress and you don’t realize how they are at the time. When we put the band together Ronnie and me and Sugar and Neil Gouvin and then added Anthony Geraci on piano. We immediately called up places in DC and Virginia and got gigs, so we immediately started traveling. We had this steady thing in Rhode Island and then we had Sunday nights in Cambridge at the Speakeasy. The thing is just take as many gigs as possible. I mean we ended up taking gigs at Disco clubs where we didn’t belong. We played weddings, we played anything really.”
An unbridled searching talent like Ronnie Earl couldn’t stay in one place for too long. Pretty soon the line ups of the 2 main New England bands – The Bluetones and Roomful of Blues – would shift and set the groundwork for heights to come.
“When Duke (Robillard) left Roomful of Blues with John Rossi the drummer, Greg Piccolo (Roomful’s lead horn player) immediately scooped up Ronnie. That’s just inevitably gonna happen, a band with real bookin’ agents and 6 night a week gigs. And a weekly salary, I think it was only $250 a week or whatever, but it was guaranteed no matter how many gigs you had. They even had health insurance at one point, we were scrapin’ around at $40 a man a night on a good week you know.”
“But we kept moving. We had my brother Peter Hi Fi on guitar and Kaz (Kazanoff) on saxophone. Kaz decided to go to Texas and Peter was hired by Jerry Portnoy to play with Pinetop (Perkins) and Willie Big Eyes Smith, what was Legendary, Muddy’s old band. So we held auditions and we found Kid Bangham that way.”
Mudcat remembers “we didn’t really know Kid and he wasn’t really from around here. He was from Pennsylvania and he was living in Somerville.” The virtuoso guitarist was some kind of naïve savant. Mudcat recounts his less than impressive image in his audition for the Bluetones which is comical considering what an integral part of the Bluetones sound Kid Bangham became.
“He didn’t have a case for his guitar. We had an audition at the drummer’s house. I remember talking to him on the phone ‘do you have a car, can you get there?’ ‘No but I’ll get there though.’ I said do you know Magic Sam? No. Do you know Little Walter? No. Have you heard of B.B. King? Yeah. Well okay, do you know how to march? And he’s like yeah. It turns out he didn’t know what I was talkin’ about. He had a great march though, (humming and moving his shoulders in the looping 1-2 beat of classic Blues marching). He ended up calling Duke out of the blue and saying ‘hey Duke, what’s a march?’ And I think Duke just went (same humming and movements) just like that over the phone to him.”
“So he came to the rehearsal late and he still got the gig. We had a guy come from California, John Knox. He was pretty well versed. He was talkin’ to Anthony on the phone, and I’m sure Anthony had had a few drinks. Anthony goes ‘oh, yeah sure come on.’ He’s like ‘I’m coming from Sacramento.’ Oh yeah sure that’s not too far. So this guy shows up at the airport pretty much thinking, I think, he’s got the gig. He played fine. Then the Kid had his audition. He shows up late and he has his rusty strings. Okay let’s play a song ‘Same Old Blues.’ Do you know that? ‘No, but just play it, I’ll play it.’ And he plays great, just nails it. Kaz was still hanging with us he says ‘man if you don’t hire this kid, you’re out of your mind.’ We all heard it. Then we had the bad experience of telling John Knox, who may have given up his house or rent or girlfriend or who knows what his life was like, I was afraid to ask. To lose a gig to someone who clearly doesn’t have any band experience couldn’t have felt all that great.”
“Kid was great from the start. He was a little bit absent minded. He left his guitar in a hotel one night, didn’t remember he had done that until 40 miles out of town. So we drive back to get it and he still has his hotel room key. He opens the door but the guitar isn’t in there but the room has been cleaned and made up. So we go to the office and there was his guitar. He was lucky.”
After hard touring Sugar Ray and the Bluetones were ready to start making records. The first record on Rounder was recorded in Western Massachusetts at Longview Studio where they “ended staying 2 nights and having a long party.” The record is solid and introduced the band to B.B. King’s piano player and future producer Ron Levy. Levy became an key part of the early Bluetones sound. He helped move them to their 2nd record in which the band had to balance out some creative differences.
“On the second record we did, Don’t Stand in My Way, Anthony always wanted an expensive studio. Sugar and I didn’t care where we did it as long as there was a good performance. Some of our favorite records the audio quality isn’t that great, it’s the performance. But Anthony was one of those guys that really wanted to have a high sounding, high audio sound. So Ron Levy said ‘Rounder is working out a budget for your next record. Why don’t yah bring 4 songs and come over to (future co-founder of Vizz Tone) Richard Rosenblatt’s basement, he’s got a little studio set up in there.’ Anthony’s like (with a stern voice) ‘they got a grand piano in there?’ Well no. So Anthony’s already unhappy with it.”
“It was, you know, 8-track, it wasn’t the full state of the art. All we were supposed to do was go down there and see, could we imagine making a record down here. Rounder’s thinking we could do it on the cheap and it’s an intimate room. So we went in there and recorded 4 or 5, maybe 6 songs and expecting to be told at that point ‘okay what do you think?’ Anthony, we already know what he thinks (chuckling). And it wasn’t that at all. It was ‘okay, half your record’s done. Now let’s just pick a day to finish the other half.’ Anthony was not a happy camper.”
A masterpiece of 80’s Blues, Don’t Stand in My Way led to more records and more touring. The Bluetones’ sound got deeper and fuller. The line up changed, but Sugar, Mudcat and drummer Neil Gouvin remained. The record business was not always kind though. Mudcat still bristles at the many indignities, mostly suffered by his heroes, at the hands of music commerce.
“We did a tour with Big Walter Horton as his band. Also JB Hutto and his band and Left Hand Frank Craig from Chicago and his band – the 3 bands. Those shows were all great. They taped the one at the Knickerbocker in Westerly and ended up selling it to this guy John Stedman who ran a record label in England, JSP Records, who released the Big Walter set. Nobody paid us. I think we had a 2 week stint, just how it worked out, that was the last night of the tour and we didn’t get paid right for the night, Big Walter didn’t get paid right. And that’s the night they taped and made a record so we got screwed on the gig and didn’t get paid for the record. Big Walter never saw a dime from the record.”
“As a matter of fact on that tour I had also played bass with Left Hand Frank’s band, the opening act. And to my surprise I found a CD of that, so I bought it. I was down in Memphis for one of the Blues Music Awards shows and I saw Nick Moss and his wife Kate. She comes up to me and says ‘ oh I just wanted to say hello, I just want to tell you one thing, that record you did with Left Hand Frank is one of my favorite recordings of all time.’ and I had only heard of it, found out about it 60 days before she had said that to me. If I hadn’t gone into this used record shop, I’d have had no idea what she was talking about. I bet somebody owes me something for that one too.”
Mudcat is a fantastic songwriter. From the first Bluetones record on, he has contributed irreverent and heartfelt originals. “It’s completely different from what I do as a bass player.” He demurs, “I’ve written songs where I’ve forgot to have a bass part. Some of these things you play the bass to ‘em like you’re backing up somebody else’s song.”
The piano player in him still resides in his songwriting. It could also be his Yankee heritage, clever and analytical while also prone to tall tales and never allowing facts to get in the way of a good story, that helps Mudcat produce such memorable songs.
“I don’t know what song writing’s all about really. I’ve written a bunch of songs over the years for the Bluetones records and what have you. The newest Bluestones record with Little Charlie Baty I wrote ‘The Night I Got Pulled Over’ which is a recitation. Duke and Little Charlie swap 12-bar, kinda Jazz-y slow Blues verses in the background. Sugar does this recitation about gettin’ pulled over and asking the policeman what’s the deal. Is it because of a tail light? No. And just goes through a host of possibilities, all of which are not the reason. So it’s kind of a little story to it.”
“So I like to write songs of that nature, just a recitation so there’s no melody to it. But I also really like to write melodies and find lyrics to go with those. It works both ways for me. And sometimes I just pull a song out of the air, which I’ve heard other people can do. Or just sit down at a piano and within 10 minutes a song’s materialized, not necessarily the arrangement, but the gist of it. It just happens, I can’t really explain it, and I can’t really make it happen. Well I can craft a song if I have to, but to just have that kind of inspiration, which is a very weird but natural thing, that happens to me.”
In 2021, after more than 4 decades in music, Mudcat released his debut solo record. The self-titled album is a Folky acoustic homage to Ward’s life in music, his love of music and his lasting relationships. “Some of these songs I wrote a while back, the other’s were written just prior to recording or even during. It’s folk music, it’s not exactly Blues in the technical sense.”
Mudcat had started the record in 2020 and then the pandemic hit. Reconfiguring the music to be multi-tracked and recorded in isolation allowed him to play with the instrumentation and dismantle some of the traditional more rigid Blues forms he has so well mastered. “Someone asked me ‘why didn’t you play bass on every song?’ It’s not like there’s another bass player on here. I just didn’t think every song required bass.”
But there was also something lost in the fractured nature of the recording. In his thoughtful liner notes he laments that his dear friend Ronnie Earl couldn’t contribute due to the pandemic. For a musician who has spent the bulk of his career playing live whether it be on stage or in the studio, the isolated process was hard.
“It was all sent by tracks. Which is not how you want to do everything. You don’t always want bass and drums to be layered and done like the Rock records are made. You lose something. What you lose on a Rock record is not as much of an omission as on a Blues or a Folk or Traditional type of tune if you don’t have bass and drums working together. Even mistakes don’t hurt yah. There’s just a lack of the togetherness of it, it’s a compromise. I think it came out okay, but for some of these songs I’d have never imagined not being in the same room at the same time with the string bass and the drums.”
Chock full of talented artists such as Eric and Ulrika Bibb, Dennis Brennan, Sugar Ray and Monster Mike Welch, Michael Mudcat Ward the album is a testament to Mudcat’s artistry both as a bassist and as a songwriter. One track in particular stands out as being a departure for the Bluesman.
“‘Joe Lewis Blues’ I wanted to write a kind of historical song. Steve Earl does a lot of that. It’s in that singer songwriter tradition. Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty,’ you can kind of call that a genre. Historical fiction. Joe Lewis, I wanted all true facts about him so I did kind of a research project. Did everything I could to find out about him and found a song structure that I could get a lot of information out. Actually that song I didn’t think I could sing it, I tried to get everybody else to sing it including Eric Bibb, and they were all ‘no no that demo you have it shows that it’s your song.’ Well I thought Dennis Brennan, he could do it. Racky Thomas, he could do it. None of them would do it. But Dennis did say ‘I have to tell you one thing, that song’s too long.’ So I went back and wrote 3 or 4 more verses, made it a little longer.”
Mudcat is one of the great “string bass” players. He has his own style – big toned and “behind the beat.” He’s been playing the same acoustic bass that his wife picked out for him in the early 80’s. “I was on tour,” he reminisces, “and she had put a down payment, I think it was $10, on a bass in the window of the Music Emporium which used to be here in Boston. When I got home she brought me over and said ‘I got you that bass, but you have to pay for it.’ And I happily did (chuckles).”
Mudcat’s music is traditional. He plays a Chicago indebted, gritty New England style of Blues that he and his friends developed.
“Style is a very important part of traditional music, and that’s one of the great things about it too. Ronnie understood this years before other guys. Blues is a 12 bar, 12 measures, I – IV – V music. It’s what you do within the limitations of a basically shared thing, you know we’re all sharing the same format. And yet you make it your individual thing. That’s the game and if you can do that, you know, you’ll do pretty good. Is it finished, has enough of it been done, is it time to move on? I don’t know, I don’t know the answer to that. Just when you think everything’s been said, someone says something new. I would never bet against that.”
Michael Mudcat Ward is the epitome of a sideman. He has dedicated his life to creating the foundation for other musicians to excel and, in doing, has found his own voice and his own art. Mudcat looks to mentors such as drummers Fred Below, Ted Harvey or Willie “Big Eyes” Smith for inspiration. He looks to progenitors of the “string bass” in Blues such as Big Crawford, Ransom Knowling and the more well known Willie Dixon as models of how to support the music. He feels kinship with next generation bassists like Rodrigo Mantovani (from Nick Moss Band) or Andrew Gohman (from Doug Deming and the Jewel Tones) in whom he hears the same dedication and respect for the tradition that he has. Mudcat has given his all to mastering a style of Blues that is traditional but not simple. Blues that are deep and heartfelt. Blues that come directly out of his well framed bass notes and his well crafted songs. Mudcat is the sideman.
“Bass players and drums, and sometimes piano players, there is a sideman role in a lot of bands. Some bands are real bands, it’s the same guys all the time, like Springsteen’s E Street Band. And there’s a guy like Elvis, he’ll have a band behind him but it could change. It’s not a band, it’s not a unit, it’ll change over time. The sideman learns to play the sound of the guy they’re working for, so the sound doesn’t change unless that’s what they (the band leader) is looking for. I’m a band member when I play with Sugar Ray in the Bluetones, I’m a sideman when I play bass with somebody else. Some guys are fast learners and then some guys are like me. Then you have to go with instinct and do the best you can and most of the time it works out fine.”
You can keep up with Mudcat on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Mudcat-Ward/1390464755/
For an interesting history of The Speakeasy and its place in Boston Blues check out this article from The Blues Audience from 2007: http://thebluesaudience.com/cambridge-speakeasy