ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JUNE 17, 1999
Ya gotta like interviewing those old blues guys, ’cause they’ve seen some things and have a few tales to tell. Often all it takes to get them going is an innocent little query like: “So, when did you pick up your first guitar?” Most players worth their salt perk up at the chance to relive their first feel of the fretboard, and veteran bluesman Sonny Rhodes—who was born in the 1940s on the Texas cotton plantation where his parents worked—is no different.
“I was about eight,” recalls Rhodes over the phone from Oakland, California, “and I got it from the guy that we picked cotton for. We had a bad crop that year, and none of the kids got Christmas presents, and bein’ the youngest of six, I cried. And he told me, ‘Sonny, if you stop cryin’, I’ll give you a Christmas present. I can only give your family one, and you’re the baby, so we’ll give it to you.’ So I stopped cryin’, and he took me out there to the barn, and hangin’ outside the barn wall was an old Stella guitar. He wiped it off for me, and I took that, and I guess I musta strummed around for at least six or seven months, till somebody in the cotton field said, ‘Sonny, you could probably play that thing if you take it and put five more strings on it.’ You know, for seven months I banged around on it with the one string, and it still sounded pretty good to me.”
These days, the 58-year-old Rhodes favours a lap-steel guitar, which dominates his latest CD, Blue Diamond. He got interested in the sit-down style of playing when, as a teenager in Austin, Texas, he helped country-and-western bands move their gear.
“I would help those guys carry amplifiers and guitar cases,” says Rhodes, “and then they would let me sit around and listen to sound checks. I thought it was a personal performance they gave me for helping with their equipment—you know what goes through a kid’s mind—but actually it was a sound check. And there was a western-swing band that came in there one time, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and there was a steel guitarist with them named Leon McAuliffe. He had such haunting sounds come out of the instrument that I told him one time, ‘Mr. McAuliffe, when I get to be a man, I’m gonna get me one of those, and I’m gonna play it.’ And he looked at me and smiled and said, ‘I know, son, but this is a white man’s instrument, and niggers weren’t intended to play them.’ So I laughed, and God rest his soul, I wish he could hear me today.”
Or just see him today. When Rhodes plays a free jazz-fest gig at Gastown’s steam clock on June 27, he’ll undoubtedly be clad in the eye-catching garb he’s noted for, including a bejewelled turban and brightly coloured suit. But even with his flamboyant image, and the fact that he’s been cutting records since the late ’50s, the self-proclaimed “Disciple of the Blues” isn’t one of your better-known recording artists. That could all change with his recent signing to Edmonton-based Stony Plain Records, though.
“In the past I couldn’t seem to get on any label that was really pushin’ the blues,” he explains, “but I think this is gonna be an excellent label for me, because they do a lot more for their artists.”
Rhodes plays upwards of 250 shows a year, roaming the highways and byways of North America in a Dodge van, accompanied by his wife, Ann. He figures the time is right for another resurgence of interest in the kind of music he’s been preaching most of his life.
“They had shut the blues down for a while,” says the grandfather of 17, “and it was all about the Top 40, Top 10, hard rock, acid rock, rap, stuff like that. There was no place for the blues to plug in, so we just kept on playin’ and playin’, and it came back. You know, the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan was quite instrumental in puttin’ another spark into the blues. We haven’t had a saviour in a while, that’s what the problem is.”