This is the Delta.
Flat, cultivated land crawls by on both sides of the smoothly paved two-lane Highway 61, heading southbound from Memphis, Tennessee, to Clarksdale, Mississippi. Nova Scotian blues artist Garrett Mason points to the endless casino billboards and burger joints going by on the 70-mile drive. This is his first time in America, he reveals.
Clarksdale is the home of the Delta blues and the historic location of The Crossroads, where legend has it early 20th-century blues man Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a better playing style.
Three days before, back in Memphis on Beale Street, Garrett Mason and the Vibrations competed in the International Blues Challenge, an annual battle of the best 100 or so amateur blues groups from around the world. Mason and company were nominated to perform by the organizers of the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival in Fredericton. Down here on Highway 61, people don’t know what a Juno is---Mason won Best Blues Album in 2005---nor have they heard about Garrett’s father, the late Truro blues artist Dutch Mason.
Garrett Mason has taken time out from recording his new album in Halifax---due out by April, he says---for this detour to the Delta.
Mason spots a tiny record shop on Third Street. Inside, owner and blues writer Gary W. Miller shuffles around---looking rough, looking for an ashtray---as he talks about past and present Clarksdale bluesmen. Robert Johnson comes up. Rather than selling his soul at The Crossroads, Miller figures Johnson found a good teacher a state over. “It’s thought now that he travelled to Alabama, where he learned from two brothers in particular and other people around there at that time. He was not very good when he came to Clarksdale the first time. It was common for players to travel all around in those days. When he came back from Alabama two years later, he sounded much better.”
Mason listens politely, hands in pockets, taking his time in this store of rarities. Miller tells Mason how some of the best players from Clarksdale were entirely self-taught because everyone, even their own relatives, jealously guarded custom harp or guitar techniques.
The Crossroads are only blocks away from Miller’s store, not at all like the countryside rest area Mason imagined.
“Scary,” he quietly observes, looking at the garbage-strewn train tracks and, further on, a fairly busy open-door pool hall with clientele wandering in and out. Mason looks beyond to the boarded-up juke-joints and blues bars that line what must’ve been the town’s main drag, before the new, improved Highway 61 picked up and moved east.
“Are you kidding me?”Vibrations bassist Mike Farrington Jr. asks as he and drummer Damien Moynihan angle into the crowded club around 6:30pm in Memphis.
A 16-year-old singer from Alabama, backed by his Dad, is murdering “Voodoo Child.” It’s busy by the bar, but Farrington Jr. finds a spot near the back, where he gapes at the stage with two beers in hand. The act is part of two nights of semifinals for the IBC that take place at several Beale Street bars. Everyone’s talking about a family band from Kansas City, Trampled Under Foot. Members of the K.C. Blues Society show up at every club, and every IBC event, outnumbering the opposition. Sure enough they’re at The Superior Club, waiting on Trampled Under Foot, when Garrett Mason and the Vibrations, from Nova Scotia, Canada, take the stage.
Mason’s turn has come early because one of the earlier bands failed to show up on time. Everything is timed. Mason stays within his 25-minute set time. Applause is sporadic. Mason is unhappy with the sound, the performance---the whole situation.
Trampled Under Foot take the stage after Mason. The crowd loves this solid band of brothers and sisters and shows it with loud cheers. Farrington Jr. says later: “I knew it was over when they started playing.”
On the second night of the competition---Friday night---the guys play a great set at The Superior Club. There are fewer problems with the sound tonight. The bar is jammed with a wide variety of blues fans from around the world. Garrett has them in his pocket. The band sounds muscular, like Booker T and the MGs, but faster. They’re tight, listening closely to each other. Mason’s finger-picking style, the depth of his vocal delivery and his crack backing band sound like nothing else on Beale Street.
After the set, the guys are optimistic they could make it to the finals. Cassie Taylor, daughter of Otis Taylor and a co-host of the final awards show, wants to talk to Garrett. At the back of the bar, beside all the gear, she predicts his band will be in the finals.
But when the finalists are posted on Beale Street around midnight, Garrett Mason and the Vibrations aren’t called to the big show. Trampled Under Foot is. They go on to win the whole event. The news is greeted by a guy pumping his fists and shouting, “Best blues band in the world! I can’t believe we did it!”
Mason attends the finals atthe Orpheum Theatre, but leaves before the show ends. “Did you see that Joe Pesci guy playing harmonica? I don’t know what it was about that guy, but I just broke out laughing. I couldn’t handle it---he looked so ridiculous. I couldn’t stop laughing.” Mason’s laughing, sitting across from his bandmates in their hotel room, while they drink awful Canadian whiskey and talk about the other bands. They’re hard on the groups they don’t like.
Later, in Clarksdale, Garrett explains why the IBC disturbed him to the point of laughter. “It’s like everybody was trying to out-do each other,” he says. “There was a lot of...athletic playing. To me it seemed kind of phony. It was like a kid’s show or something.” After a pause he adds: “Too bad.”
Still, his disappointment in not advancing is obvious and he admits as much: “We wanted to win it for the people back home, to make them feel good.”
Go a block or two in the wrong direction in Memphis, and you’re likely to encounter countless homeless people and boarded-up buildings. Some passersby on the street warn tourists to stay away from certain parts of town and then ask for money as payment for the advice.
When the hotel’s night-doorman sees guests give money to people on the street, he’s heard saying, “Don’t feed the bears.”
It’s at least a 20-minute walk from the hotel to the historic Sun Studio, once owned by Sam Phillips and once the hit-making home of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. They’re immortalized in candid black-and-white portraits tacked up around the studio. Mason looks like a younger, more toothsome version of Carl Perkins.
“Crazy feel in this place,” he says, and asks about recording rates. They’re $80 an hour, he’s told. Pianos, guitars and amplifiers fill the room.
Mason has already spent ample time in a Halifax studio with producer Charles Austin, working on the new and as-yet-untitled album. They’re using the “old ways to make something new.” They’re recording on reel-to-reel tape, for one. Mason records with Farrington Jr. and Moynihan, as well. Having a steady rhythm section makes for tight arrangements, whether in the studio or on the stage.
Fans of Mason’s live show may notice a key difference with the new album: the songs are slower. Necessary, explains Mason, because he wants people to put the headphones on and listen to every song’s detail. During the live shows they play faster because it’s about making people move.
Garrett agrees to a photograph in front of the Sun building, then hustles back downtown to meet his mom, who’s coming down to Memphis for a holiday herself, at the hotel.
Garrett’s father, Dutch, met the future Pam Mason in British Columbia while he was on tour. Three days later, Dutch invited her to live with him in Nova Scotia. They lived in Truro for 20 years, raising Garrett on blues, soul and country music. The younger Mason acknowledges his vocal tone is vaguely similar to his father’s, but says the similarities are probably genetic.
“I didn’t really get to see Dad play much and you know he didn’t sing much around the house. So my influence wasn’t really from him, but from the kind of music that he liked to listen to. He liked blues the most.”
Mason used to hate the blues “because the old man used to play it full-tilt” on the stereo. He says, “I didn’t get into it until I was like 13, then I had my own time to get into it, and I started to love it. I didn’t even like Muddy Waters the first couple times I heard him, but then the more I heard him, I just loved the hell out of it.”
Of the players who made Mason want to play guitar and sing---Albert King, Albert Collins, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix---only B.B. is still alive. Garrett Mason and the Vibrations opened for B.B. on his 80th birthday, at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2006.
Albert King, Mason’s personal favourite, was born just south of Clarksdale. He died in Memphis 15 years ago.
“They sounded totally unique---you know there is just so much soul in the guitar, and personality and originality, and I just heard that and thought ‘I want to be able to do that myself.’ It’s like your own voice, but through a guitar.”
Mason’s right hand is tattooed with a scroll that says “Dad.” It’s a small tribute to his father, who died last year around this time. The elder Mason had tattoos, too: a cat on one hand, a seagull on the other. “They were bad tattoos,” Garrett recalls. “You couldn’t really tell what they were, because they were all blotchy. But I thought it was cool he did it like that---to have them out front where everyone could see.”
On Garrett Mason’s pinky finger is another tribute: a ring that belonged to Rick Jeffery, a longtime family friend and bandmate to Dutch. Jeffery died in 2003.
Pam Mason remembers Jeffery’s early influence on her son’s playing.
“I always said if he became a musician I would kill Dutch. But Garrett took an interest in it. So, Dutch called Ricky over one day and told him to go with Garrett into his bedroom and find out if he was any good. They played for a while. Ricky came out after a bit and he said, ‘Yeah, he’s got it, Dutch.’”
Mason says everything he’s doing pays tribute to his father. Can it be more than that? Garrett Mason says it can: being independent and original is “the way to go.”
He confides he’s hesitant to ally himself with music business people. He’s still not sure how the new album will be distributed. Mason sells CDs from the stage and does well by it. It creates more work, when he’d rather be in his basement rehearsing with Moynihan and Farrington Jr.
He respects how his father, B.B. and Albert King, and so many others like them, did it: by building up a career and a following on the road. Everyone can play the blues, Mason insists, but some do it “with more conviction.”
Somewhere on the road near Memphis, Mason describes an idyllic future, a dream of how he’d like to live after the bar and bigger concert gigs are over. He doesn’t want to be on the road forever. He imagines himself living on a farm with a woman who loves him---maybe in British Columbia, where his mother lives. “I’m a little old fashioned that way,” he says.