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Feature Articles

Apr 04

Part 3 - Roy Book Binder: Not Ready To Be Fenced In From Blues Beat Magazine By Rich Schneider

"The Opryland gig led to 38 appearances on Ralph Emery's Nashville Now television program, where he regaled the audience with his country tunes and humorous tales of life on the road. He signed with Rounder Records, and in 1988, released his first CD, Bookaroo, a collection of vintage country classics done in a bluesy style. He had found a new audience and was working as many country and bluegrass venues as he was blues gigs. "To this day, Dick Waterman tells the story of how I parlayed 15 minutes into a career."

Roy's made many friends among his fellow musicians over the years. A few of them are especially close to his heart. Paul Geremia began his career about the same time as Roy. "I think he is the greatest talent in the business. The greatest songwriter; the greatest guitar player. He always lived the life, but he's never been rewarded. He's an inspiration to every acoustic player. I wish I had half the talent he has."

In the early 90's, a jam session at the Blues to Bop Festival in Lugano, Switzerland, resulted in the formation of the Hillbilly Blues Cats, with buddies Rock Bottom on harp and Chief Billy Ochoa on bass. Roy had met Rock years earlier during Rock's tenure with the Silver King Band. The two hit it off right away, and Roy's van soon found its way to Rock's driveway. The Cats recorded a highly acclaimed CD for Rounder, but Rock's serious illness ended the trio's brief run.

Back on his own, Roy continued to explore diverse venues to display his unique talents. He developed a special relationship with Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna. They've toured and recorded together, and Roy regularly teaches at Jorma's "Fur Peace Ranch", where guitar players come to study American roots guitar techniques. He's an annual performer on the acoustic blues stage at Doc Watson's Merlefest, which Roy claims is second to none. Roy has also entered into the world of story telling and has appeared as a featured artist at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

In recent years, Roy has produced several albums, both performance and instructional videos, and even a DVD, all of which are displayed on his snazzy website. One of his original tunes, Anywhere You Go, is licensed to Burdine's, an upscale Florida department store. A few years ago, the PBS Emmy Award winning series, Arts Across America, joined Roy on the road, documenting his career in a segment titled Keeping Traditions Alive.

You would think that he might be somewhat road-weary after all the years "out there" as they say, but don't tell him that. "You don't have to deal with the drunk bass player. You don't have to worry about the drummer falling in love every other day. Being alone on the road is the greatest freedom a person can have."

Roy has opinions on many issues and is not shy about sharing them. He has little desire to tour Europe anymore, finds the traveling too stressful and the language barrier difficult for an acoustic artist. He hates the image of the bluesman as an ancient relic. "People picture blues as being played by a bunch of old men. If you look at the traditional blues of the 20's and 30's, these were young people. This was young people's music. Robert Johnson, Charlie Patten, and Blind Lemon Jefferson were the hip hop stars of their time." A number of Roy's contemporaries, of that generation of mostly white artists who kept alive the traditional Delta and Piedmont blues over the last 40 years, often express disappointment in their lack of recognition. They grumble that younger, often less talented but heavily promoted musicians, seem to be getting the big festival gigs and magazine covers. Roy takes a different view. "It never does any good to look at the empty part of the glass. What did we expect, playing music nobody cared about? We did it because we loved it. That we should do it and make a living is a miracle. I never could have envisioned the success I've had."

Roy has been spending more of his time writing songs of late. "I figure I'm almost 60; I'd better say something now, or nobody's ever gonna' hear it." He pens contemporary tunes that still employ traditional melodies and language. "I'm a modern person, but I still think the older language was prettier than the modern language." They're often filled with the "ghosts of his mentors" and rich with observations and reflections on the rambling lifestyle.

It's been a tough year for Roy, with the recent loss of close friends Dave Von Ronk, John Jackson, and dearest of all, Rock Bottom. No doubt, he's spent some time reflecting on his own personal journey. Death near to us can have that effect. Roy Book Binder hasn't led a conventional life, but then, he never had any desire to. His story is, in fact, a celebration of freedom and independence. But still he muses, "I wanted to live a dangerous life, and by God, I've done it. Now I wind up behind the white picket fence, and I'm still trying to get over that."

Our interview with Roy lasted for more than five hours. The time flew by and was filled with too many stories to print here, but here's a couple we just couldn't leave out...

Hacksaw Harney and Robert Junior Lockwood:
One of the five essential records I listen to was by Hacksaw Harney, the most brilliant guitar player in the Delta. He showed up at a recording session in Memphis in the early 60's, carrying a little attache case that said, Hacksaw Harney: Piano Tuning and Sewing Machine repair. He cut two sides for them that day, instrumentals on piano and guitar. Those tracks blew my mind for years. In 1972, Adelphi brought him East to play the Smithsonian Festival and to record him. He came to New York for a few days and stayed at my house. We played a couple little gigs together. The recording they made at that time had a hum in it, and it wasn't until 25 years later, that the technology existed to remove the hum, so they could release the record. It's called Sweet Man Blues, the most incredible guitar playing blues record ever made. Years later, I read an interview with Robert Junior Lockwood where he said that in spite of what other people have written over the years, the only guitar player Robert Johnson ever ran around with was Hacksaw Harney, because he knew he could learn something from him. A promoter introduced me to Robert at a festival in Maine. He had a reputation for being a bit cranky at times, and he had just finished his sound check and looked kind of somber. He just stared at me and had my eyes locked hard. I said, "Hacksaw Harney stayed at my house for two nights." He studied me for a moment, and stated somewhat profoundly, "He was the best guitar player in the Delta." "Yeah", I replied, "But he was better on the piano." Robert's face broke into a broad grin and lit up like a Christmas tree. "You knew the guy, you really knew him!" Later that night he came out to the motor home, and I talked him into showing me how he played the first two tunes he ever recorded, Take A Little Walk With Me and Little Boy Blue. The next morning before he left, he stopped by and told me if I was ever in Cleveland, I could park in his driveway and use the toilet if I wanted. The following year I played at his birthday party. When I saw him that night, I asked if he remembered me? He said, "Yeah, you're Hacksaw's buddy!"

Tierra Verde and Jimmy Witherspoon:
Back in the late 70's, they had a two week jazz and blues festival featuring Jimmy Witherspoon at Tierra Verde, an exclusive resort just south of St. Petersburg. We drove the motor home out there but couldn't find a public camp site, but we went to the show anyway, and I parked out back. When the show was over, it was too late to look for another spot, so we decided to just to sleep right there, hoping that they wouldn't mind. The next day, I met Jimmy and had him sign my Blues Who's Who, that I'm in as well. When he saw that I was a guitar player, he asked what room I was in so we could get together and jam a bit. I said, "We'd better use yours; I'm staying in the motor home, parked out by the tennis court near the dumpster." That afternoon, we had a little rehearsal and Spoon says, "You're playing with me tonight." That evening, he called me up on stage, and I played a few tunes with him, and then he had me do a few on my own. The manager sees this, and he comes up to me afterward and says, "That was great. By the way, what room are you staying in?" I said, "Well actually we don't have a room, we're staying in the motor home parked out by the tennis court, near the dumpster." He said, "We were wondering who that was. I'll give you a slip for your windshield, and you can stay there as long as you want." So we spent the whole winter there, used the swimming pool, ate in the restaurant once in a while. It was very nice.