by Kevin Crowe
I'm a poet,â” says the Oklahoma-based bluesman Watermelon Slim. â“I write sonnetsâ. William Shakespeare stands on top. Shakespeare and Muddy Waters.â”
Slim's voice is banged-up as it come across the telephone line, the kind of voice that sounds like it's been hardened by years of heavy cigarette smoke. His is the voice of the blues, a grizzled, almost haunting wail that, when he sings, carries a weatherworn sense of sage knowledge, an earthy flair of workingman bathos. Yes, this is the blues, forged by years of sweat, blood and lots of pain.
â“You got to live to play the bluesâ. The first time I actually got paid,â” he says, â“I was 19. That was 1968. It was a pretty insignificant time. I didn't know what to do with myself. Music and drugs, and a little bit of sex.â”
Slim's life story reads like a Mississippi Delta folk tale, which begins in Vietnam, on a GI hospital bed. â“I had some sort of disease that wasn't ever properly diagnosed,â” he recalls. â“For about two weeks, I had this five-dollar Vietnamese guitar that I found at a shop of this little Vietnamese guy.â” He had a lighter, which he used as a crude slide. â“The first pick I ever used was a quarter.â” He later cut a pick out of an old coffee can.
In 1970, after being discharged, Slim found himself at the Unicorn Coffee House in Boston, playing alongside John Lee Hooker. Three years later, still in Boston, he cut an album at a small studio on Dorchester Ave., an anti-war album called Merry Airbrakes . Some of these early tracks were later covered by Country Joe McDonald. Even Atlantic Records wanted a piece of him in the '70s, but Slim turned them down, preferring to live life on his own terms.
I'm too poor to pay attention/ I'm too hungry to eat/ Too sick to see my doctor/ And I'm too tired to sleep , he sings. Hard timesâ"Lord, hard times have come at last/ If you want to see me on my good side, baby/ You had better look fast.
â“I've lost two marriages, several jobs,â” Slim says. â“Lost all my top teeth. I've failed more things than most people have tried. And here I am at the end, and the light is shining on me. It's a story of redemption.â”
Along the way, he's earned degrees in journalism and history at the Universities of Oregon and Oklahoma. And he's made a living as a truck driver, forklift operator, sawmiller, salesman, petty criminal and, of course, as a watermelon farmer. In the early '80s, while working in the fields in 105-degree heat, it hit him, â“like Paul on the road to Damascusâ”; he had a harmonica in one hand and a slice of watermelon in the other. Maybe it was fate.
â“I didn't release another album until 2001,â” he says. â“If I had taken that first deal that Atlantic Records had offered me, I might have been a household name, or I might have burned out like Janis Joplin.â”
But burnout isn't a problem for Slim these days. He says that he'll never run out of material, because he's lived too much. With his new band, The Workers, he's been able to find stability for the first time in his musical career. In 2005, two years after the release of his sophomore LP, Up Close and Personal , he was honored with a W.C. Handy nomination for Best New Artist.
â“I'm a 100 percent better guitar player with this band, The Workers,â” Slim goes on. â“I never really had a long association with anybody until this century.â” And he's never strayed from his humble roots, still preaching the same Delta blues that he's been playing all his life. â“It's real,â” Slim explains. â“It's not something that you can sit around and think about at a computer. You got to get out and sweat and, maybe, bleed for your livingâ I have. It's why the blues is real. You got to lose something to feel the fierce feelings that the blues is, it's almost like the Book of Job.â”
WHO: Watermelon Slim WHEN: Wednesday, May 9, 9 p.m. WHERE: Brackins HOW MUCH $8
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