The Black Keys. Akron, Ohio (2006). Photo by Michael Wilson, www.michaelwilson.pictures
EVERYTHING ABOUT HIS MUSIC WAS INTERESTING
By Benjamin Hedin
Dan Auerbach on Junior Kimbrough’s influence
The Black Keys were a blues band to start and, like most, they found their way through standards. When the indie label Alive Records offered them a contract, sight unseen, in 2002—the duo had made a demo tape but not yet played a gig—the Keys evidently drummed up a body of originals to round out the covers, rather than the other way around. Dan Auerbach, the band’s singer and guitarist, liked his records old and weird, and his devotion to them gave the Keys an inestimable gift: mastery of the hook. Most of their songs betray a startling simplicity of design, even on their recent albums—Brothers, El Camino, and Turn Blue—where synthesizers and studio gadgetry figure prominently. Peel back the handclaps and backup singing of “Everlasting Light” and there is only a riff, compact and elemental, droning away to trancelike effect. “Everything I do is all about groove,” Auerbach told me when I spoke with him last year. “And that stems from Junior Kimbrough.”
Kimbrough was a bluesman from the town of Holly Springs, in the rocky hill country of north-central Mississippi. He was born in 1930 and, though revered today, did not become known outside of Holly Springs and nearby Memphis until the 1990s, when he appeared in Robert Palmer’s documentary Deep Blues and then recorded for Mississippi’s Fat Possum label. Kimbrough’s blues are austere and cloistral. The harmony seldom changes and the rhythm accumulates with hypnotic force—he establishes a sonic pressure point and probes it relentlessly. Auerbach first heard him during an aborted stint at college, not long after Kimbrough died in 1998. During that initial exposure, he has said, it was like “the walls came tumbling down and the earth shook.”
In 2006, the Black Keys recorded an EP of Kimbrough songs, titling it Chulahoma after the Mississippi township where Kimbrough owned a juke joint. The album carves a curious place in their oeuvre; it isn’t talked about all that much, yet it remains an impressive and loving tribute to a blues musician. The Keys can sound like the original when they want—their rendition of “Nobody But You” is remarkably close to Kimbrough’s live versions of the tune—but Chulahoma is distinctly their own, the arrangements imaginative while still retaining a hill country vibe, with Auerbach coming into his own as a blues singer. His wordless vocal on the last track, “My Mind is Ramblin’,” is uncanny, like the moan of a field holler.
Last September, a special edition of Chulahoma was released to mark its tenth anniversary (sales benefitted Gilda’s Club NYC, a foundation that supports cancer patients). To coincide with publication of the Oxford American’s 2016 Southern Music Issue, “Visions of the Blues,” Auerbach agreed to revisit the making of the album, to discuss his fascination with Kimbrough’s sound as well as its influence on his songwriting—why, for him, Kimbrough remains what his gravestone in Holly Springs proclaims him as: THE BEGINNING AND END OF MUSIC.
Your introduction to the blues, you’ve stated, came through your father and uncle’s record collections. Did they own anything from the north Mississippi hill country?
No. [Those records] didn’t exist really. Other than Fred McDowell—and I sort of came upon that on my own. I was an Arhoolie nut. I had everything they did, and that’s where I first heard hill country blues, an Arhoolie record, “Write Me a Few of Your Lines,” the Fred McDowell album.
When you first heard Kimbrough did you detect a connection, even a slight one, to McDowell’s music?
No. R. L. Burnside sounded like Fred; he was just doing Fred songs, for the most part. But Junior was not. He was doing soul songs and church songs and doing them in the weirdest way, the most direct, pure way. He always had this funky feel to him. He was doing his own thing. That’s why when I think about north Mississippi blues, I don’t think of Junior Kimbrough. I think of Fred McDowell; I think of R.L.
His songs are famously difficult to learn—and it is folk music, after all, typically passed down orally, face-to-face. It’s not like there’s a Junior Kimbrough tab book you can buy.
When I started to try to play him I didn’t think I’d ever be able to. I couldn’t figure it out. Because, yeah, there wasn’t any tablature. And I remember at the time I was away at college for my first year. I was taking guitar class with this guy, and he said, “Why don’t you bring in some music you like? I’ll put it on paper for you and show you how the notes work.” I brought in Junior Kimbrough, and it was the beginning of the end for me for college. Watching this fucking highly trained musician trying to chart out Junior Kimbrough songs—it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.
The rhythms are too intricate for notation.
It’s all about feel. It’s all about feel and it’s all about space and it’s all about being in the moment.
You even drove to Holly Springs, but by the time you made it down Kimbrough had died.
I never got to see Junior, but I met his family, and I was in Junior’s juke. And it changed me. Like visiting Mecca. The heart of the groove—it was right there. The all-night dance party. It was good to see it up close and personal because I’d felt it for so long on record.
We forget the blues is dance music, but that’s what Kimbrough played.
Absolutely. A hundred percent. He made dance music.
Robert Palmer, the great critic and blues historian, who produced two of Kimbrough’s albums, All Night Long and Sad Days, Lonely Nights, even said, “his songs were never designed for the studio.” For Palmer, you couldn’t take Kimbrough out of the juke, even though he did record in a studio, or something like one, in the 1980s for High Water.
I go back to those High Water recordings. Even though on the surface they seem tamer, for some reason they just hit me; they’re so pure and so personal because they’re so soft in your ear. Junior was always captured playing in front of an audience, but this time they got him playing just in his headphones, so you almost for the first time can hear Junior playing for himself. There’s more attention to the groove. Everything’s a little more interesting.
The Black Keys covered Kimbrough on their first two records, including “Do the Rump” on The Big Come Up and “Everywhere I Go” on Thickfreakness. But an entire album is another matter. Did it take much convincing for Patrick Carney [drummer for the Black Keys] to agree to the project?
Pat wasn’t really a fan of blues music, but one thing he instantly understood was Junior Kimbrough. During those long drives in the early years, when we were driving ourselves in the van, we’d always be playing music for each other. We had different tastes. He would introduce me to stuff, and at the same time I was playing stuff for him like Junior Kimbrough. He really loved that. It wasn’t difficult to get him to play it.
It always seemed to me the form of hill country blues, the short phrases and melodic circumscription of it, would be liberating for a drummer.
It suited Pat because Pat’s a very atypical drummer, and none of Junior Kimbrough’s drumbeats were ever typical. That’s the other thing that’s so cool about Junior. Everything about his music was interesting. It wasn’t just his guitar playing. On those High Water recordings Calvin Jackson’s playing weird-as-fuck drumbeats, and they’re close mic’d, they’re recorded all weird. It sounds so strange and it’s part of the charm for me. I’m sure that was part of the charm for Pat, too.
Where was Chulahoma recorded?
Pat’s basement in Akron. We were between studios and he set some shit up in the basement and we recorded down there. We had no idea what we were doing.
Were you at all hesitant about approaching this music, being young and white and from north of the Ohio River?
No. I don’t fall for any of that bullshit. For me it’s either good music or it’s not good music. People who make the best music don’t think about race or color; they just make art.
Is it that simple? White popularization of the blues is a structural feature of American music, from Jimmie Rodgers to Elvis to Chulahoma to whoever decides to do it again in the next twenty years. All the same, it seems we don’t quite know what to make of it, and tend to regard the subject uneasily, as if there were something troubling about it even if we can’t say precisely what that is.
Blues music is an American art form. It’s not a black art form; it’s not a white art form. It has meter and rhyme schemes from Western Europe folk music and from Africa, Cuba. Charley Patton was mostly Native American. If you really want to talk about it, you got to get into this shit. Jessie Mae Hemphill was Native American, Howlin’ Wolf was part Native American. When are we going to start talking about Native Americans? Because their influence is maybe the greatest of all, the Native American drumbeat being the root of all rock & roll.
American music is all about sharing; it’s all about the melting pot. White and black and Native American getting together. That’s the only reason it’s good.
Is it fair to say that by the time of Brothers [the Keys’ sixth album, released in 2010] you had internalized Kimbrough’s style of writing? That album is all groove, all drone, and it’s not hard to imagine some of its songs being pumped out of Kimbrough’s juke on a Saturday night.
I don’t know. It was a combination of things. You say it sounded like Junior; other people say it sounds like T. Rex. At that point we kind of connected the dots on a lot of music. We realized there were similarities from all these kinds of things from all these different time periods. And we really started to feel it in Muscle Shoals.
The legendary studio in Alabama where you recorded Brothers [Muscle Shoals Sound]—you hear all kinds of stories about that place, even down to the dimensions of the room and the way the ceiling height affects the sound. Everyone who steps inside is a convert.
There’s magic there. How else would you explain the success of that building, of that little town? It makes absolutely no sense. People talk about there being sacred land there . . . all I know is I got wrapped up in my own little world. To this day it’s probably the favorite thing Pat and I have done together. I do love that record.
To return to Kimbrough—if those songs are not directly descended from his sound, how would you describe his influence?
Everything I do is all about groove. The most important part of a record is the drummer. And that stems from Junior Kimbrough, who worshipped drums. His guitar playing’s wrapped around the drums; he played his guitar like it was congas. And that influenced me. Every record I make I’m very much thinking rhythmically.
So he’s still there—it’s not something you’ve moved beyond.
Oh, he only gets better for me. It’s proven most of the time to be true: some of the music that I love the most, that I want to live with forever, are records I didn’t quite get at first, and that was definitely true for Junior. I didn’t understand it at first. It took a few listens. I had to come back to it a couple of times before I got it. And once I got it nothing was ever the same. I’ve had very few experiences like that with artists in my life. But he’s one of them.
Enjoy this conversation? Find more blues writing in the 2016 Southern Music Issue: Visions of the Blues and subscribe to the Oxford American.