Sonny Rhodes went hell-bent for leather on the lap-steel guitar

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 20, 2001

The first musician I interviewed after terrorists committed those atrocious acts in the U.S. last week was American blues veteran Sonny Rhodes. And the impression I got—after passing on my condolences regarding his country’s anguish—was that the 60-year-old Florida resident is a straight-up kinda guy.

“I was quite saddened and quite angry at the same time,” Rhodes replied when asked for his reaction to the attacks. “I’ve seen the World Trade Center many times, and I thought it was a marvel, so to watch ’em go down like that, that just took a lot outta me. That’s just like watching the Statue of Liberty fall off into the water. It still has me shook up. But I figured, you know, as long as the United States has been droppin’ bombs on Third World countries, eventually something like that was gonna happen here. And unfortunately it did happen.”

There have been a number of events in the history of human conflict that have been heart-wrenching enough to inspire blues artists such as Rhodes to pour their hearts out in song, and the actions of September 11 will surely join them. But while he does feel compelled to put his shaken emotions to music, Rhodes doesn’t feel the time is right for such a cathartic exercise. “It would probably have to be about a year or something before I did that,” he related, “because anything that you wrote in the blues about that right now would probably cause you to get hooked up with the federal government. And I don’t feel like that, you know. They don’t understand.”

The Feds might not have a grip on the healing capacities of the blues, but Rhodes’s fans do, and they can see where he’s coming from with the title of his latest CD, A Good Day to Play the Blues. On that disc’s final track, “Good Day to Sing and Play the Blues (Van Fire Blues)”, Rhodes sings about his rotten luck with cars. In the winter of ’99 the van he and his band were driving in went up in flames on a Connecticut turnpike, taking all their touring gear with it. Then earlier this year his replacement vehicle was lost in a raging inferno at a repair shop. Being a dedicated road warrior, Rhodes had no choice but to go out and acquire yet another set of wheels.

“I’ve got an old bucket of bolts out here,” he said from his Edmonton tour stop. “I’ve been pretty lucky about catchin’ up with those old things, you know, ’cause there’s nobody that goes out on that road and stays out there like me. I’ve got a $136,000 house down in Florida, complete with an in-ground swimming pool, and I’m hardly ever home to enjoy it.”

Wherever Rhodes’s incessant travels take him, you’ll find him blasting out incendiary licks from his trusty lap-steel guitar. Nowadays that instrument is perceived as pretty cool, but it wasn’t always that way. “They used to laugh way back in the time,” reported Rhodes, “but I never did let that bother me. What made me excel on the instrument was the fact that when L.C. ‘Good Rockin’ Robinson, my mentor, died, I loved him so much that I wanted to keep what he did on that lap-steel guitar alive. So I just went hell-bent for leather playin’ that damn thing, and when I looked up, I was the only one out there. And I was the best one out there.”

While Rhodes’s potent lap steel–playing has been known to turn heads—as it surely will when he performs two free shows at the Yale Hotel on Tuesday and Wednesday (September 25 and 26)—his unique appearance isn’t far behind. It includes sharp suits and turbans bedecked with a silver brooch positioned on his forehead. “It’s nonreligious and nonpolitical,” Rhodes claimed of the headgear. “I just wear that because, back in the day when I put that on, that was what I thought a ‘self-proclaimed disciple of the blues’ would look like. I figured he’d be a greyish black man with a big smile and a turban on his head.

“But right now I’m kinda confused about the turban,” he added, “because everybody that’s in the foreign countries wears some kinda head wrap around their heads, and I don’t know if I should take it off. I’ve been wearing this thing here for so long, I’d hate to change my style because some idiots do somethin’ stupid.”

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