May 22, 2008

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A life of blues
Cigar-box guitar to 61 Stratocaster
By Brian Early bearly@hippopress.com

Louisiana Red was born playing the blues.

When he tells the story of his youth in Mississippi, its one of loss at an early age his mother dead of pneumonia when he was only a week old; his dad lynched by the Ku Klux Klan when he was five. The blues are in Louisiana Red.

He learned playing guitar like Robert Johnson his first guitar was a cigar box guitar; the strings were rubber bands. By the time he was nine, his self-taught bottleneck slide guitarist grandfather gave him his first real guitar.

After a stint in the Army that brought him to Korea, Louisiana Red was in Chicago, playing with Muddy Waters and other area blues greats. He moved to Detroit for a period, where he played with John Lee Hooker. You can see all these influences when Red plays at the Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry next Friday, May 30.

Its a yearly rarity to see Red in the States. Since 1982, hes lived in Germany, playing the European scene, traveling back to the States for a week or so a year.

I go around Europe, and they seem to accept the blues really highly, he said. I do better in Europe. In the United States, you have to be a big star to be really recognized. Im just getting recognized here now.

At 76, Red has found solace in Germany. In the U.S. he was constantly moving around the country, only staying in one place for a short period of time.

I had to get out of there, he said about the U.S. It was rough for me. There was a lot of competition. I was bouncing around like a ball.

In Germany, he was married, had children who speak the native language better than he does, and he played music. His trips to the States are partly to play music, partly to visit his family. One of his sons is a doctor in the U.S.

As he ages, the traveling is becoming more burdensome. He no longer travels to Australia for shows.

Its getting kind of rough. It takes 24 hours to get to Australia. When you land, you have to go right on stage, he said. I may go to China. I have a good friend over there teaching basketball. Ive never been to China.

But even flying to his home country can be challenging. When he arrived in the States this month, he found two of his guitars were broken on the flight.

They destroyed the neck of my [Fender] Stratocaster. A 61 Stratocaster. They threw luggage on top of them, he said.

He was on his way to play the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Jazz Fest when the guitars were broken. Hes looking to replace his guitars with a Stella, the guitar Robert Johnson played after he graduated from his cigar box.

Or he just might hang up his blues if hes not getting the respect that he feels he deserves.

In the blues, you dont retire, he said. You move on.