Driving to Survive
Jimmy Thackery talks about cool guitars, surf music, life on the road, dog biscuits, Assassins and plenty of other great stuff!
Interviewed by Mark Thompson at Blues on Grand in Des Moines, Iowa on Wednesday, July 26, 2001
MT: I was reviewing the notes from your disc with David Raitt...
Jimmy Thackery: What a blast that was!
MT: It mentioned that he inspired you when he gave you a Buddy Guy album.
JT: Well, it wasn't so much that he inspired me because I already knew who Buddy Guy was. The thing is we were in boarding school and out in the middle of the country someplace in Maryland. There was no way to go to a record store when you're in boarding school. I had a Led Zepplin album and a Steppenwolf album and that was as close as I could get. I knew there were things missing, a lot of them. I knew who Buddy was because I had already had a blues band and had already been experimenting with Buddy and Jr. Wells and all that kind of stuff. David's sister, Bonnie, was dating Dick Waterman, who managed Buddy, so he had all that stuff. David was a couple of doors down from me at the school, so I was able to get close to that stuff.
MT: So you were already playing then?
JT: In boarding school, I remember it real well. I had converted my bunk. I had two amplifiers, a Silvertone Twin Twelve and an Ampeg, on either end of my bed. I played my record player through that and I could plug my guitar in and play along with the record. It was preposterous! Definitely loud. David had a band with a couple of other guys from the school. They would very kindly let me come in and sit in and play, fumble around and try to learn stuff. It was very educational. There was a free period after lunch and we actually all got some sort of high school credit for jammin' our butts off for an hour. It was a Quaker school and it was supposed to be liberal. Of course, it was nothing close to that.
MT: How old were you when you started playing?
JT: I started fooling around with piano at about eleven. I was picking up my favorite tunes by the time I was twelve, getting pretty good. My parents decided it was time for piano lessons, which I just despised. They made me play all that crap I didn't want to play. It didn't take long to realize I wasn't going to get any girls playing the piano. Then at thirteen, I went to a 7th grade dance. There was this great rock band made up of seniors that had Fender guitars and amps. Girls were screaming their heads off and the veins were popping out of their necks as the band was doing Little Richard songs and stuff like that. And all the 7th grade girls that I was trying to get close to were all just swooning at these guys! I went, ok, that's what I want to do. It wasn't necessarily a musical experience, it was a hormonal experience. Once I got the guitar in my hand I began to realize that this is the deal. Then I started hearing the music that made me say what is that noise and how can I make it. I have to learn how to make this noise. Then it was all over.
MT: You mentioned Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells - were there any other people that influenced you early on?
JT: Man, everybody in the world influenced me. At two years old, I was sitting at my father's work bench and he was playing Chopin. I started to cry. My father looked at me and said what in the world is the matter. I said. Daddy, it's so sad! He went. Oh God! Bye, bye, doctorate, you know. There was always music in my house. My mother was real into pop music, she was a musician. My father was listening to classics, my mother to pop music and older music. I basically didn't have a chance, it was around me all the time. The first thing that you do when you pick up an electric guitar in the early 60's was you start playing surf music. What else? It's easy, it goes twang.
MT: So that's where "Apache" came from. (a surf tune that is a staple of Jimmy's live show and is on his Drive to Survive CD)
JT: Sure, that's a salute to my original roots. That's probably where "Sinner Street" came from, the title cut of the last album. I just decided I would write a surf tune, or spy tune 01 whatever you want to call it. I remember being really turned on by the theme from "The Man From U.N.C.L.E" and "Peter Gunn". They were blues riffs basically, they were just real twangy blues riffs. That stuff just got me going. So it just sort of a logical progression. Eventually you just to acknowledge what got you turned on in the first place after you've gone through this whole other gambit of musical styles. Where did it really come from? For me, a lot of it was TV themes. I was born in '53. We were TV kids. TV themes were the most accessible music of all at that point. All the way up to "Mission Impossible", that stuff made a difference for some reason.
MT: I was listening to you with the Nighthawks and you've been playing with the Drivers for some time, starting in 1992 but in between I hadn't heard much about you for a while.
JT: I was playing with this big band called The Assassins that was impossible to move around anywhere. It was a six piece band that would expand from time to time to a thirteen piece band. We had a lot of horns. So it became difficult to move them around. It became so difficult that I decided to go to the trio format. No harmonicas, no nothin'. Just me and a bass player and a drummer. Everything got real rosy all of a sudden. There was just Moe, Larry and Curly. We get along well and it just made more sense.
MT: From listening to you over the years, I know that you have and continue to do a lot of different Hendrix tunes.
JT: Hendrix was certainly a big influence because there I was playing "Gloria" and surf music and Rolling Stone songs that were all written by blues guys we'd never heard of but we were pretty into them. And some Beatles songs but not very many. And along comes this guy who gets fired off the tour with The Monkees in England and his first date in the states is in Washington D.C. I happened to be walking by the place one night with a buddy of mine. He said let's go in here. I said we couldn't go in, we were only fifteen. He said they had a place downstairs where kids can go. It was like a Fillmore thing with the bubbled lights and the black lights. I had never seen anything like that. On comes this black guy dressed in feather boas and psychedelic pants and starts doing back flips. Suddenly I went “Oh, I see, this is all about show business". This is not just get up there and play your guitar, this is something entirely different. Things just really weren't the same after that.
MT: You mentioned The Assassins. Is there anything on the David Raitt CD that's at all similar to what you were doing with that band?
JT: Yeah. Actually the Assassins did more funk and R&B kind of stuff. We did very little blues, per se. That kind of format was real comfortable for me. It wasn't out of my realm at all. I knew that the Raitt CD was going to have horns on it and B-3's, back-up singing. So we approached the lead and rhythm tracks with that in mind. The trick about that stuff is leave a lot of holes. If you're a hundred miles an hour all over the place, there's no place for the horns to go.
MT: I have several recordings where you are a guest guitar player. On every one, you sound like you but you're a little different. You're making adjustments?
JT: Well, sure. You're trying to make adjustments to their styles. I'd like to think that I could hire myself out as a gunslinger. Be myself, but also help make the album what the artist wants it to be. Part of that is through doing some producing on my own, you get to learn how to keep your style but sort of chameleon it a little bit, to modify whatever their approach to their music is so that it fits in with their genre. We're different out here. We're all the same but we're all different. We're all riding around in Ford vans and driving too much. We just finished a string of dates with Debbie Davies. She's been riding in the truck with us for a couple of days. It's so funny to get somebody who's donethe same circuits you have, you have so many things in common. We just keep laughing about it. " You mean that happens to you to!"
MT: I saw you in Aurora and you did a great show. Later that day, you played with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets with Sam Meyers. I thought you really notched the energy up when you sat in with them.
JT: Well, that's nice to hear. Anson is a very dear friend and probably one of the nicest guys I know in show business. One of those very rare people that never has a cross word to say about anybody and is always welcoming you with open arms. There's never a question - if you're in the house, you've got a guitar and a spot on his stage. And likewise. We have a lot of fun together.
MT: It was really apparent. You two seem to be challenging each other a little bit.
JT: I don't know that you'd call it challenging. I'd say that you were feeding off each other and trying to make the other guy play a little better. Some people used to call it headcutting. I call just call it friendly competition. You put in that extra person that's a good player and everybody's going to rally around that. They're all going to say, oh wow, we get to step out a little bit here.
MT: How many dates do you play in a year?
JT: I lost count. I have been spending a little more time at home, which has been nice because it's better for the creative process. We did about 300 nights a year for a long time. Two or three years ago I began to realize I've never had a life. I've been on the road since I was 18 or 19. If I don't start living a little bit and spending some time at home and doing other things. I'm painting again, which is something I haven't done in thirty years. My wife and I opened a restaurant where we live in Arkansas. That's another neat diversion that's a lot of fun. I'm starting to have some other diversions in my life that have nothing to do with playing music on the road. I got this particular band together about three years ago and the band has been so high that you end up being out there just slogging away at it. I can't take the time that I was taking two years ago when the band was in the process of finishing up one level and starting another, I took a great deal of time off to reflect and think where I was going to go next. Once these guys came on, hell, you make hay while the sun shines. We're back to working pretty hard again. I don't know how dates a year it is but it's a lot.
MT: Where's your restaurant?
JT: It's back in my hometown of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It's called the Blues Dog Cafe and it's named after my dear dog, Luther, who's named after my dear friend Luther Allison. It's a late night cafe in a town full of vampires. We sell really great food – way much more of a notch above the local bar food. It's much more eclectic. We've got some very good chefs. My wife is one of the principal chefs and she's one of the creative counselors there. We sell a full line of doggie products. See, I always wanted a restaurant and she always wanted a pet store. So we just combined the two. You can buy collars and leashes. The chili and the salad all come in dog bowls. Sandwiches are served on Frisbees so that you can take them home to your dog. We got doggie t-shirts and our own doggie biscuit line. It's wacky! Bluesdog.com
MT: That's a really different approach.
JT: We're having a ball. It's a lot of fun. It's giving me yet again another diversion. Sometimes it's just the best medicine to be able to not think about this stuff all the time. When you're doing 300 nights a year, it's all you think about.
MT: What are your thoughts on the quality of blues clubs around the country these days and your assessment of the whole business?
JT: The economy has dictated that a lot of the larger rooms which we love to play in are all closing. I mean, there's nothing better than playing a 500 seat club - just big enough to move around, with a good sound system - and putting on a show that we would do at a festival or concert. Smaller places are still thriving, but my theory is that once those medium-sized places start going down, it tends to break down the natural progression. It becomes harder for bands that are starting out to then make that leap from small clubs to medium, to the concert stage. There are so many great blues clubs in this country that are run by people who aren't in it to make money - because there's none to be made. Instead, they do it because they love the musicians and audiences. Bless their hearts - otherwise we'd all be out of a job! Somebody recently said to me that they'd hate to be a newcomer because there'd be no place to go. If you've been established for 25 years or more, you're probably doing O.K. - but a whole section of this business is dropping away simply because the overhead on large clubs is impossible to meet. A lot of these rooms try to put in blues two nights a week, then reggae, or rap and all that... that's the kiss of death. You know that and I know that. You can't be all things to all people in this business, or it goes to hell.
MT: Unless you're The House of Blues...
JT: I guess they're doing fine, but 9 times out of 10, you go in those lands of places and there's nobody there.
MT: Do you have any outside projects that you're working on?
JT: Yes, several. Somebody is getting a bunch of blues artists together for each of them to do a Beatles song. I'm not sure how or if that's going to work. There's also a tribute to Fred McDowell that's underway. I'm not really in a position to do anything until my contract with Blind Pig is up, (this September), so these are all on the back-burner. I'm keeping all of my options open, and am not going to nail myself down right now - just want to get a feel for where I can go. I've been getting a lot of inquiries about doing session work, lately - much of it for people who are getting their foot in the door. That makes me happy because there's the potential for doing a lot of different projects - (more eclectic, outside of my box). But I'll also continue my own...
The only thing I like better than performing live is working in the studio. It's one of my all-time passions, and when it works it works great. You're able to watch everything build, like doing a painting. The two are very similar: you put down the background, or rhythm, then over that the form, or overdubs.
MT: Labels like Telarc, who weren't really known for doing blues, have now been getting into it - and with artists that I found surprising, like Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson. Any possibilities with a label like that?
JT: There's possibilities for all kinds of things, but they haven’t talked to me. We're spreading out all of the papers and looking to see where it will take us. But there are others who have contacted me, too. Let's just wait and see who has the bigger brass ring!
MT: Well, Free Agency works in sports...
JT: It can be a good thing - it's a peaceful feeling to have.
MT: You control your own destiny.
JT: (Laughs.) At least until you sign that contract! It's a little like being married for a long time, then being single for a year or two before getting remarried again. At least for awhile, you have options.
MT: You mentioned stretching outward as a musician. On your Switching Gears disc, the second track was zydeco. When some friends of mine heard that...
JT: ...they went 'huh??
MT: But I thought it was great!
JT: The thing about our fans is that they expect a certain thing when one of my records come out, a certain approach or genre. When I wrote that song for Chubby (Carrier), I never had any intentions of performing it myself. I spent months and months trying to track him down to give it to him - but we never managed to cross paths - it seemed as if our agents had
us at opposite ends of the world! When it came to doing Switching Gears, I thought I might as well record the damn thing, and have him play on it.
MT: Well, I enjoyed it.
JT: I did, too - it was a lot of fun to do in the studio, and Chubby sounded great. We've since had big laughs about the whole thing.
MT: The Drivers have had three different bass players, and yet your drummer. Mark Stutso, has been there all along. What is it about the two of you that makes it such a good combination?
JT: I'm not so sure, except that we've become like brothers over the years. Also, I've always been a 'guitar player's drummer' and he's been a 'drummer's guitar player'! There's often been a certain radar between myself and a drummer. I've had that with (Pete) Ragusa in the Nighthawks and with Dave Palomar in the Assassins, too. Once you've found a drummer who knows what you're going to do before you do it, man, you stick with it. Mark also has a fabulous singing voice and his tempos are always exactly right - he's the one drummer I've found that can count-off a song in exactly the same tempo every night of the year. When you hire a guy like that, you don't let him go-no matter how much money he owes you!
MT: I'll be sure to mention that to him...
JT: ...he'll get a laugh out of it - trust me!
MT: You talked a little bit about how great the band is now. It certainly was a plus, getting Ken Faltinson (bass) from Luther Allison's last band.
JT: Oh yeah, and besides that he's an excellent keyboard player.
MT: I didn't know that.
JT: He did all of the keyboards on the last album, and since Jimmy (Carpenter) plays baritone and tenor sax, I basically have the option to have a 6-piece band. Kenny and Jimmy are good writers, Mark is a great singer...so there's a lot of creative energy going on here. It's no longer just centered around me.
MT: I saw you early on when Jimmy was first starting with the band - he seemed a bit shy.
JT: I'll grant that! He wasn't sure where he was going to go, but I kept trying to encourage him, ("Go out there and knock 'em dead!") and to provide opportunities. The record company wanted a 'guitar hero record' but fortunately my producer, Jim Gaines, was very sympathetic and told them - 'look, he's got this fabulous new player and he's trying to feature him'. It was a fight, but we modified a few things and got all of this great sax stuff in there. Over the last three years we've gotten dynamic - people comment on how great it's been to watch us work together - so I was right in the first place! When you start listening to record companies and guys who've never played an instrument in their lives who think they know what sells...screw that, man! I get up in front of people every night and I know what turns them on. You find out what they want and you deliver. If you deliver it on a disc, they're going to buy it. But those guys have a 'reverse marketing' concept: packaging, looks, 'you've got to lose 60 Ibs.' - it's crap! They may think they know what sells, but what you're doing is selling to the people who want to hear this band.
MT: You've never struck me as somebody that would do anything other than what you wanted to do.
JT: I try to compromise to a certain extent. I've never been in the record selling business, only making them. I have to conclude that those guys probably know more about how to market something, but there's a point where you do have to be true to the people that are paying to come and see you. They're the ones to really count on in the long run – not some record exec. It won't be long before they are out of the loop, anyway, since the internet is going to make such jobs obsolete - and the retailers, too.
MT: I think a lot of people classify your music as blues / rock.
JT: For lack of a better term.
MT: Does that help or hurt in the marketplace?
JT: I don't really give a damn. Some would like to pigeonhole it all, but the fact is I just write music. I've been a blues player from the git-go but it has pushed the envelope at times. But if that's what you want to hear, then I'm willing to say 'yeah, we're a blues band'. The Nighthawks weren't really a blues band - we played a lot of soul, Memphis soul, Motown, rock-n-roll...all lands of stuff. Maybe we all came from that, and it's how we got together, but we went in very different directions. It's the same with this band. We may be in Blues Revue, Blues Access, Living Blues, and you can find our CD's in the blues section at Tower Records but whatever you want to call it, I don't give a shit. The people that come to see us know what it us, and aren't going to bother to describe it.
MT: I have to ask you about the quote that was on Jonny Lang's CD from you – there seems to be some people in the blues community that are upset about all these younger players...
JT: Ah, that's bullshit! That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. You know I wouldn't be here now if Muddy Waters hadn't done the same for me. He encouraged me, so did James Cotton and Otis Rush. They knew that somebody had to carry the torch. And they knew that young black guys weren't doing it, although some were...but hey, they're all dying. John Lee Hooker just died, Muddy's gone, and God help him but B.B. is probably around the comer...who in the hell are these people going to write about when that generation is gone?
It's not about black and white but about older and younger. I've been beating in the trenches for thirty years and the one thing I would say to these kids is 'get your own style'. Quit being Stevie. They need to get that message. We all had a hero that we emulated when we were coming up - for me it was Buddy (Guy) and Otis, and I wanted to sound just like them. All these lads, their first access to this music was Stevie. He was just this explosion on the scene. So, they embraced him and didn't bother to listen to or care about anything else. My advice is to go and listen to all of the ones that Stevie got it from. Then you can synthesize your own style; carry the torch.
Bless their hearts, I think it's wonderful. When I was eighteen years old, I couldn't play my way out of a paper bag! Of course, we didn't have as much access to music back then. We had to steal records, then slow them down to 16 rpm to pick out the licks. Now, they can stop a video to see what the fingers are doing. That's a big difference. No wonder there's all these little prodigies. (So, you can't get into Jonny Lang's dressing room and he used to beg you to jam with him.. .well, get over it!)
MT: I know you play festivals and you're out there, you hear a lot of folks. Is there anyone that you feel deserves more attention than what they seem to be getting?
JT: Hayden Sayers by a long shot. That guy's a ripsnorter - one of those real blues roots types that's not playing anything like that. Instead, he's playing accessible, young people's rock-n-roll that's blues based. In my mind, he's really got something. Baby Jason and the Stankers - there's another one. He's doing better than Hayden is and I don't know why. They're both great singers, players, and songwriters - energetic, young, and good-looking... they're thin and all that crap...
MT: I don't like them already.
JT: They're just bad ass players; really creative and two nice guys who could use a lot more recognition. And there are a million others out there, like Josh Smith. There's another kid that is fabulous on guitar and nobody is paying any attention to him. Once again, it comes back to - where do they play? If they haven't had the record deal for fifteen or twenty years,
they're land of lost. Nobody is taking chances any more except those that are already proven.
MT: My last question - how did you end up getting your guitar back?
JT: Well, it was stolen near Kansas City and fortunately I have many, many fans and friends there. They took it upon themselves to do a 'Get Jimmy's Guitar Back!' campaign. They went on the internet, made posters, and canvassed every pawn shop, music store, crack house, etc. in the whole area. Turns out the fool that had stolen the thing walked right
into the music store that provided our PA for the show that night in K. City! They'd seen me play a hundred times on that guitar. So basically they asked for and got it back.
It's wild - that story was all over the world, it was amazing. That's when I began to realize how powerful a medium the internet is. It affected me directly in a positive way; I began to realize that it can be used for some good!
MT: And it certainly helped me to arrange that interview with Jimmy last July at the Blues on Grand club in Des Moines, Iowa!
Thank you to Jimmy Thackery for sitting down with me and being so generous with his time. Also, a huge thank you to Jimmy Carpenter, sax player and road manager for the Drivers, for a prompt response to my e-mail request for the interview and for making all of the arrangements. Be sure to catch Jimmy and the Drivers in November, when they will be playing at Buddy Guy's Legends and Luther's Blues in Madison.