Interview: Cole Prior Stevens Where Buck Owens Crosses Muddy Water October 27, 2010Posted by David W. King in Uncategorized.
Another in the original thought lost interviews.
Slide guitarist Cole Prior Stevens’ music can best be described as “where Buck Owens meets Muddy Waters.” A left handed picker that plays guitar strung right handed, much like Albert King, Otis Rush and Eddie Clearwater, Stevens has worked to over come this challenge. Unable to play as a right hander might, he has created numerous musical techniques evident in a CD on which he is the only musician, and does this to good effect. When you are the only musician playing a single instrument on a recording, you have no one to hide behind.
On this release, Slide Ville, he brings forth the Bakerfield Sound of the ’50s and 60s, which he blends with his earliest influences to create a sound that is distinctly his own
Country Blues is a very big influence for you. In fact, you describe your music as “Buck Owens meets Muddy Waters ” How, and when did you pick up the slide guitar?
Just like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and a host of other great country musicians, I lived in and was influenced by the Bakersfield, California country music scene. These great country musicians were responsible for shaping the original Bakersfield Sound back in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. I also spent part of my youth in Los Angeles and was equally influenced by many top notch blues, rock and jazz musicians … Bakersfield and Los Angles fueled my interest in music and the slide guitar.
About ten years ago I decided to make a more concerted effort to learn how to play slide guitar and, at the time, I was doing a lot of solo acoustic blues events. I decided the best way to learn slide was to invest in a National Resophonic guitar, get some instructional tapes, DVDs and study the pre-war master’s styles like Muddy Waters, Son House, Tampa Red and, of course, Robert Johnson. Because I took time to study the masters, I learned to play with open tuning slide like they did. As I began to front my own bands, I transferred all of that knowledge to electric guitar. I still play in open tunings in G & D and use a capo for key changes.
How did you develop your unique take on slide?
I suppose this is where the Bakersfield factor kind of be heard. When I was growing up in Bakersfield I’d watch Cousin Herb’s Trading Post everyday after school on TV. This was a live local broadcast that featured anybody and everybody playing and touring in country music at the time. There always seemed to be a steel player in the band, and that sound crept into my playing somehow. I have a tendency to have a chordal approach to my rhythm playing with slide instead of that driving alternating thumb style on the root note that is so typical in country blues style picking.
The other unique factor affecting my approach and musical voicing on slide playing dramatically, is that I am a left handed picker that plays guitar strung right handed… you know, like Albert King, Otis Rush and Eddie Clearwater did. There are licks I don’t do or they are more difficult for me to do than a right handed player because of my goofy way of playing. You do what works for you and go from there I guess.
It is like anything else… when you deliberately intend something and you stay focused on it, somewhere along the line the universe is going to respond.
Who were your earliest influences?
My earliest influences were Muddy Waters, BB King, Elmore James, Howling Wolf and Robert Johnson. When I was growing up I used to listen to Wolfman Jack’s radio shows when I lived in Los Angeles. I would lay awake at night with a transistor radio under my pillow falling asleep listening to his play list of old R&B and some old swampy blues stuff.
I would have to say my main connection for blues was Mary Campbell, our live in nanny who was a Creole from New Orleans. Sometimes she would have me at her house rent parties on the weekend when she was off. Folks would come to the house with stacks of 45 RPM records jam packed full of blues, R&B and Motown music. Mary would serve me up a bowl of her shrimp gumbo and sit me in a corner. Man, I’m telling you, Dave, I just listened to that stuff for hours on end watching people dancing and having a good time being happy! It didn’t really take much before I was hooked and I wasn’t more than 10 or 11 years old at the time. I thought it was pretty cool!
Your last effort, your self-produced Slide-ville was unique in that it was recorded without a drummer. Was this a deliberate decision, or was it simply a matter of not having an available drummer? Either way, it really gives emphasis to your slide work. How did this release come to be?
It is an interesting story how I ended up not having a drummer on the Slide-ville CD, because my original intention was to have one on the project. I began the recording process using a click track in my studio because I had all these ideas about the songs and the arrangements I wanted to capture before I lost them.
My home studio was pretty small and after making some good headway with tunes I thought I would just finish up my part of it and then dub the drum tracks in a bigger & better studio when I was ready. My friend and drummer, Mike Alger, was already playing these tunes in our local shows so he was ready to step in when I needed him.
It was funny, because the click tracks were annoying to me during the recording process, I turned the clicks into a kick drum sound so I could focus laying down tracks. Well, they ended up remaining on the finished work. I did all the tracks myself, guitars, vocals, harmonies, solos and bass. On a couple of songs I had my long time west coast band mate Michael Butler play some solos. In fact, Mike is on a couple of tunes on the new CD too. Mike and I have been playing in bands together since 1981.
Anyway, when I was ready to do track drums, the general consensus was that the songs actually stood up by themselves without a drummer. I thought about it, remembering how many of those great early recorded blues tunes without drummers sounded. Appreciating those early recordings, I stuck with it because it just felt right, you know? But I guess you’re right, Dave, it does give more emphasis on the slide work because there is just less to listen to — the percussiveness of the guitars and the kick drum still drives the tunes.
You are presently working on another release, which if it drops as scheduled, will release this early spring. This one will have a real drummer with whom you are currently recording drum tracks. Rough examples of this release can now be found online. What else can you tell us regarding this release?
I’m pretty excited about this new release. And yes, there will be a drummer on this album! In fact, other than a couple of stray tracks, the drum tracks are all that is left to do before final mix & mastering. My good friend and talented musician, Graham Dennison, is co-engineering and co-producing this disc with me.
Graham and I share the same vision about the project. He is, by and large, the bridge that allows me easier access to that deeper part of me because he knows me AND my music so well. I hold him responsible for squeezing the best out of me in the studio… especially when it comes to solos and vocal tracks. Let me put it to you this way: with his style coaching and producing, after a session with him… I go home with a sore throat and bleeding fingers.
Graham does not let up on me, he’s a velvet bulldozer. Come to think of it, I have several bulldozers in my life supporting what I do in music. I’m pretty fortunate! He knows what I’m capable of and he persists until he is satisfied. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard him say “that was a good take Cole, now let’s do it again and this time take half of the notes out please.” He really gets me to think about singing and playing more soulfully from a deeper place, support the melody lines, musical economy and reaching in as deep as I can go with myself. I’m grateful for learning these things in an intimate recording environment because it is proving to be a positive impact when I’m doing shows in public.
It’s always interesting to probe the psyche of the artist. With the talent that you display on both of these recordings, why do you feel that you have fallen into a creative rut?
As it has been lovingly pointed out to me, my biggest pitfall about my music is that I’m too self critical. I guess hitting that big brick wall can affect many musicians come to think of it. I guess it is frustrating to me when I can’t play what I hear in my own head. It is not that I’m displeased with my musical abilities, I guess sometimes it just feels out of reach.
After I finished the road tour in April of ’08 I did a lot of self assessment. I wanted to expand my playing and improve my vocals but I really didn’t create a plan to go about it. As I began to formulate a new plan to get there, I decided to make some improvements that would exploit my personal playing style. I made some gear changes stripping things back down to the basics. I switched over to a Telecaster and to me, that really closed a big gap for me, it compliments my playing style more.
Probably the best thing I did for myself was to make more headway in my personal study with the instrument so I would have a broader palette to express from. This also began to help me to understand how important it is to be yourself and honor your own unique musical character. After changing my perspective, a few things began to unfold more easily and rapidly for me. It was what my wife calls an Ah-ha moment. I guess I had to step out of my own way to allow it to take its own course.
So I’m happy to report this project has been a good spring board to test the waters so to speak with a new guitar style. Keith Richards probably said it best and I’m paraphrasing here: you don’t pick a guitar style… it picks you!
What are you hoping to attain personally with your music?
My main objective with music right now is to stay connected to the feeling that attracted me to music in the first place. Recapturing those memories from my early years has been good medicine for me because performing music for a crowd of music fans is very exciting to me. There is a very deep satisfaction playing my guitar and singing the songs that I write. The lyrics and subject matter that I write about is important to me and hopefully to many others too. You could say I am pretty passionate about my music.
That being said, Dave, I feel like everything else concerning my career and musical goals will unfold more effortlessly now. It is like anything else… when you deliberately intend something and you stay focused on it, somewhere along the line the universe is going to respond. I figure it is my job to stay in that place of constant joy and let the powers that be do its job. I know it is totally possible for me to make great records and have a fulfilling and fun career doing what I love to do — performing music. I just have to do my part.
You are also working to put together a road band with whom you are hoping to tour east of the Mississippi, in an effort to promote this project. How is this going for you? How is this going for you? Where can we hear you perform in the months to come?
I have always been blessed with playing with great musicians. No matter what the project was, everyone had something great to offer musically. To me, the exciting thing about the blues scene is that there are more places to play and more blues fans to play to than ever before. It almost seems that there is a blues renaissance going on now. There is an amazing amount of musical talent out there to enjoy now more than ever before. So all is good.
My plate is pretty full right now finishing this CD so my focus is on that project. I have some great prospects and I have to believe the right players will show up at the right time. It is like that movie Field of Dreams; if you build it… they will come. So assembling a touring band to me is a part of building the field. As new doors of opportunity open for me, I have to believe that the right people will be there to help me share the joy. As it comes together you’ll start seeing dates appearing on my website events page.
To Contact Cole: