If someone asks Jeff Norwood what makes a bluesman, he tells them bluesmen are like Bonzai trees. “The harshness of their existence creates something wizened and beautiful in its deformity,” Norwood says via e-mail. “Vince is no exception.”
Norwood is referring to Vince Cheney, a likeminded blues artist playing music that sounds like it was made in a one-room country shack, not in a burger commercial. It’s audible in Norwood languid-bottleneck track “The Devil.” You can hear it in Cheney’s rhubarb vocals and harmonica thump on “Miss Maybelle.”
Speaking on the phone from his Tupelo, Miss., home, Cheney, 33, says he can feel the spirit of that town’s favorite music sons.
“It’s really kind of flooring when you go by the Tupelo Hardware Store, a lot of people just drive by it,” Cheney says. “But I can imagine maybe John Lee Hooker or Elvis…because they were literally on that corner before.”
Vince, when you play a set on the bandstand, do you approach it the same as when you play music as a street performer?
It’s totally opposite. Live (onstage), I worry more about capturing what I play at home and making it sound like it sounds at home. On the street, I’m usually playing harmonica, singing and playing guitar through the same amp. That’s how they got that sound in the ’50s, when the first electric blues came out.
Both of them sort of come naturally, as funny as that may sound. But on the street I’m more at home…no matter what street I’m on. Jeff fits in playing this roots music better than most people coming from Clarksdale, (Miss.,) or somewhere like that. A lot of artists are out there to show-out and Jeff doesn’t do that.
Jeff, what’s the key to keeping the blues authentic?
Never listen to commercial blues and run, don’t walk, away from artists that play it. I mostly listen to old Paramount 78 sides by Son House and Charley Patton. The most modern thing I listen to is Jr. Kimbrough and Johnny Winter.
Cultivate friendships with your elders and learn firsthand from them. For instance: Drink Small taught me slip time. He would clap and vary the beat, and we would trade off verses. He would intentionally try and mess me up. He’d say, “Don’t count it. Feel it. You’re running away from it like a rabbit out the box. Slow down and make the pocket your own.”
Vince, what is the biggest challenge you think Caucasians face in playing the blues?
It’s sad because, people will listen to my records and think they’re hiring a black guy. It’s funny how the black clubs are disappointed I’m white and the white clubs are disappointed that I’m white too. (Laughs.) What I do, I sing about my life. Every song whether it be a Robert Johnson song or my own, I’m playing it for a reason. I think the blues is one of the few places you can let loose and express yourself, and not cause any political problems. (Laughs.)
Jeff, what is the “most juke joint” of all existing juke joints?
My favorites are Club 2000 in Clarksdale, Miss., Po' Monkey's Lounge in Merigold, Miss., The Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, Miss., and Gip's Place in Bessemer, Ala. My all-time favorite is Junior’s Place on Highway 4, south of Holly Springs, Miss. It burned to the ground in the mid-1990s but the spirit of the music and the folks long gone that played there is still felt there amongst the ruins.
Vince, which of your own material gets the biggest reaction when you play it live?
I don’t know how it makes others feel, but to me it would be a more recent song—I’m not just saying that because it’s going to be the name of the CD I’m working on—it’s “Homemade Quicksand.” That’s probably a song that I testify in the most and I’m most connected to.
Jeff, Johnny Winter was a big inspiration for you getting into the blues. What do you think his particular stamp on that music is, and what is your favorite Winter record?
Johnny Winter was the first cat to really rock the traditional blues as far as the electric guitar goes. His first album, “Johnny Winter” on Columbia Records is still the benchmark electric blues record. Johnny knows the old style and applied it to rock ‘n’ roll in a way nobody else has ever been able to.
Stevie Ray Vaughn is famous because he’s dead. Hendrix was misunderstood because of all the acid hippie stuff. Johnny’s the best resonator player there is, in my opinion, as well. There are other cats, of course, that are wicked tight, but their playing is just too clinical and studied.
Vince, if you needed to play someone a single track to explain Hill Country blues, which would you choose?
Jessie Mae Hemphill, “Hard Times.” I believe that’s where it all started from, not her but the hard times people have been struggling through for years.