Hey Polecat! You Found That Lost Chord Yet? (A Smashin' Transistors Classic Interview)

(Editors note: Since I let the old Smashin' Transistors site at Homestead laspe I have been occasionally posting some of the interview and articles I did over there. Here's a doozy of one I did with Dale Beavers a couple years back. The photos included are ones I took too.

     Strike a conversation with a blues fan about the music and many topics are likely to come up. It may be about regions of its birth such as New Orleans, Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. It could possibly be about how the sound moved north to Chicago and Detroit during and after World War II in search of  work and better life away from the swamps and cotton fields and where it adopted a louder and tougher sound to match its surroundings.
     Possibly it could be about how in the 60's British bands like the Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin took the sound, refitted it and sold it back to white American teens who probably who were, most likely, not familiar with the sound anyway.
    Or it's quite possible you may hear a rant about how most people today think the blues is a middle age white guy standing on a stage with more money tied up his guitar and amp than some of his apparent old time heroes ever made off their most famous songs due to “the man” ripping them off blind of everything.
    One thing that usually doesn't come up though is any association to punk rock.
    Both the blues and punk rock, in their original essences, were music of the downtrodden. Both were pure expression and raw emotion.
    Both howled, wailed and took very little to make a very big noise.
    Born and raised the son of a honky tonk bar owner and Baptist preacher in Arkansas Dale, aka the Polecat (a name that was bestowed upon by a musical mentor one night after some rowdy revelry ) cut his musical teeth playing in assortment of punk rock-n-roll bands. It wasn't until he met and started playing with down home and old raw cats like Junior Kimbrough, Cedell Davis and others though that made up the foundation of what would be Oxford, Mississippi based record label Fat Possum that he found his inspiration of the kind of music he wanted to play “for the rest of my life.”
    “It's people that grew up on punk rock, alternative rock are the one's today that are turning on to blues these days”, states Dale “The Polecat” Beavers.
   “I think blues is the original punk rock anyway, man. I mean, you listen to that Live On Maxwell Street  album (Robert Nighthawk's record from 1964). Holy shit! Is that thing out of control. I remember seeing the album cover and Johnny Young's in the background with a battery powered amplifier and there's Robert Nighthawk with a super reverb in a beat up old recliner sitting out by a fire hydrant” he laughs. “And they're just rockin' it, man. It's always about Muddy Waters when people talk about blues going electric, man but Nighthawk had a few years on him. His stuff was just too wild for most people at the time and still is now.”
    At six and  half feet tall and speaking in an accent as southern as BBQ sauce and thick & deep as swamp made of molasses Mr Beavers pours himself a Fighting Cock bourbon on the rocks and talks of the early 1990's. He was in his late 20's and discovered the kind of music that touched the way nothing else had before
    “I was roommates with Bruce Watson (co-owner of Fat Possum) in college down in Louisiana and he was working in this department store there. Then he got transferred to Oxford, Mississippi. He always had a recording studio going on and started hooking up with Matt Johnson (Fat Possum Records main man). They ended up recording what became Junior Kimbrough's  All Night Long. He calls me the next day saying, “You have got to hear this guy. This is the most insane blues music I've ever heard” and he starts going on and on for about an hour about it y'know. You have got to come up here and check this out. He's got a jukejoint (The legendary Junior's Place in Chulahoma, Mississippi, which his family ran two years after his death by heart attack followed by a stroke until the place burned to the ground in 2000) and you gotta come up here and hang out.”
    At first Beavers just hung around the scene, checking it out, soaking it in, getting up on stage and occasionally jamming with these elder statesman.
    “Then Bruce and Matt and them guys starting working on Junior's 2nd album "Sad Days, Lonely Nights". I was called in to help out as an engineer and whatever . They were recording it at Junior's jukejoint so here we were  in pretty much a shack,” he laughs “I mean, the place was a mess but I ended up playing bass on the record and it was great.”
    “The thing is with those guys is they'd never rehearse. Going out and playing with those guys was what we'd call paid rehearsal”, Dale speculates on why one could consider particular styles of blues direct correlation to punk rock.  “None of them ever practiced before a gig. It was just go out there and do it y'know. Live gigs we're like a free for all. They were great! You'd go out on the road in Mississippi stopping by to pick up Junior or RL Burnside or whoever y'know, get them in the van and spend days playing these little joints all over the place for whoever would want to listen. And you watch these guys playing, and it was a hell of a lot different than listening to the records.”
   “Well, that seems to be the case with most live music”, I said to him “It's the atmosphere of it, right?”
    “Well, yeah there is that but then you sit down and watch these guys play and you realize how fuckin' simple it is. No one else can play it like them though. It's crazy shit, man. Junior doing all this snaky almost Indian music thing coming out of his guitar and whatever. It's more about what's going on with your rhythm hand and the spaces than the notes you're playing with your other hand. It's this whole percussion thing, beating the hell out of the guitar and feeling of the music y'know. As Cedell Davis (Wheel chair bound due to a bout with polio as a child, the 83 year old Davis  is famous for using butter knife to play slide guitar. Beavers played on his 1998 album The Horror Of It All then toured Europe with him) said to me, “As long as you can tap your foot to it. If you can't tap your foot to it, you ain't in time”, and you know what? He was right.”
      From there on he got lessons on the music's spirit and soul that cannot be taught but can only be learned finding himself going on the road with Junior Kimbrough.
    When asked about how he got the Kimbrough gig Dale recollects, “He needed a bass player to go out and play all these shows with.  Gary Burnside (one of R.L. Burnside's 13 offspring) was playing bass for him was a total nightmare to take on the road and Matt and the Fat Possum guys just didn't want to have to deal with that anymore y'know. I got his first album, sat down and learned every bass line off it one night. He's skeptical as hell y'know because most people couldn't understand a lot of what he was playing but I had it down! Every song he hit I had it down. “Meet Me In The City”...all of them, man. He's like “Damn, you can play”! So then I got asked will you go on tour with Junior and I was like absolutely.”
    When thinking about those shows which spanned coast to coast of the USA the San Francisco Blues Fest sticks out in his mind.
     “We opened up for Booker T and the MG's and John Lee Hooker there playing for something like 100,000 people. Man, I was like “I've hit it.”
    But it was a more intimate gig that Beavers fondly remembers most.
    “It was on the same tour as that. We had a caravan of all these guys like Junior, R.L., Paul “Wine” Jones and so on in a bus hitting all these different places. We had left Salt Lake City and we're off to Sun Valley, Idaho. Straight though that Great Basin Desert area up there, right? And the bus blows something in the rear end. So here we are stranded 2 hours from anywhere pretty much. So some guys get off the bus to go wander around amongst the scorpions and the snakes and shit and Junior's like, “I ain't getting off the bus.”, so I sat in there with him. He's got the air conditioner running and there's an acoustic guitar sitting there and Junior sat there for three hours playing every song he ever knew. Stuff he used to play a long time ago, y'know, other people's songs like “Crawling Kingsnake” and all this old stuff but playing it all Junior style, stuff he'd refuse to play for people at that point in his life because he had his own songs. And I was like “Man, this is unreal”. I mean, to hear Junior on acoustic and watching him play it was something else anyway but to hear and watch him play all these song the public would never hear him do...That was my baptism there. There was nothing better than that and I'll never forget it. After that I was like 'Man, I want to be just like that dude”. It definitely changed my life right there. I took that fork in the road and it's brought me to where I am.”
     The way Beavers eyes light up underneath his thick as caterpillar eyebrows it's obvious he likes to reminisce about his times with Kimbrough. He could talk about him for hours, so I ask, “What was he like? What was it like just hanging out with him?”  Beavers is more than happy to fill me in.
     “He was awesome. Coolest dude ever. He'd have tons of money in his pocket and never pay for anything. He'd, like, never by himself a hamburger. “Go get me a hamburger. I'll pay when you get back.”
    He then pauses and laughs, “He'd never pay you back. You know you weren't gonna get paid for shit.”
     Continuing on about Kimbrough, Beavers mentions, “You could never even call Junior on the phone. I drive from Little Rock which is 4 hours away from Holly Springs to go hook up with him because we'd have a show coming up or whatever and I wouldn't even call Mildred, his girlfriend, I was coming over. I'd just drive to Holly Springs and pull in front of Akey Brothers Radio store and there he'd be sitting out in the front parking lot in his Oldsmobile just pimpin' y'know. Like clockwork there'd he be just hanging out all day, every day just being cool. “We've got a gig Junior” I'd tell him. “Well, we better get going then boy.”
    In 1999, Dale Beavers hooked up with another Dale, Hawkins to be exact. Hawkins, who passed away in 2010, was one of the forefathers of rock-n-roll most notably for writing and first performing one of most during songs of the last 60 years “Suzy Q”.
    “I was living in Memphis for awhile but had gone back to Little Rock. I had this friend who did a show on the local independent community radio station there. His name's David Grace. He had been doing this show for 12 years and had never repeated a song twice in all that time. I would record everything I had going as far as bands I was in on 4-track. I would send him this stuff and he would play them on theradio. He was also Dale Hawkins entertainment attorney handling his royalties and what not.  One time he said to me “Man, You guys should go over Hawkins place and get some shit down on tape. I was 'Hawkins? As in Dale Hawkins? The guy who wrote Suzy Q? Are you fer real? And he's, 'Yeah. I've been telling him about you guys.' It would be cool.”
     Beavers learned though that working with Mr. Hawkins was easier said than done as the reputation of him being a little crazy from many years of living the not so healthy rock-n-roll lifestyle proved  true.
    “Let me tell you something. Dale Hawkins was a scorning mother fucker. I mean, he don't like anybody. We got to his door and here is with his cats all walking around his legs and he's got a sawed off shot gun in his hand.” It took a little for the “paranoid as hell and jaded as the day is long” Hawkins to warm up to the idea of recording with a bunch of younger upstarts who wanted to do something akin to his early wild and loose records.
    After doing an audition session for him though, Hawkins was excited about making a new record but still had his own grand ideas floating around in his head.
    “I'm going to get Richard Carpenter (of the 70's smaltz-pop hitmakers the Carpenters) on the phone”  Dale Beavers recalls suggestion being amongst some other outlandish and outdated ideas of who hawkins thought should produce the record.
    “A lot of people thought he was dead. He he was getting his chest wings back and out of his mind. Finally I said, and I had just met him 'Dale, this is the 21 century, man. That's not how you need to it'.”
   But after months of session and dealing with Hawkin's erratic behavior and hanging out in his studio in East Little Rock,  the self produced session were under the name Wild Cat Tamer on a label Dale Hawkins started strictly for the album called Plumtone in 1999.
     “It was pretty cool. People were like 'He's still alive? We helped him out and he helped us” Beavers says but also mentioned how Hawkins never paid a promised cash payment for the work. “I called him one night and was asking him about some money. He tells me, “I was gonna send you some money but I hit a fire hydrant with my Lincoln and had to get it fixed'. He was probably on his to Waffle House to get a pecan pie. So, I paid to fix the guy who wrote Suzy Q's Lincoln. It's cool, man. I ain't worried”.
    Dale Hawkins died in 2010 at the age of 74 from colon cancer.
    Beavers shakes his pack of Marlboro Reds, notices it's empty and asks me if I have some spare smokes. "I'll fix you another bourbon for swap" he offers.
    The 00's brought a lot of different thing to Beavers world. He married, move to Michigan and became the father of two kids but along with a domesticated life he needed to still get out and “lose my mind y'know.”
    Getting into Detroit's garage rock scene in the mid 90's he learned it was just like being down home with its love for authenticity and respect, though not complete aping, of the past. “I never even planned on moving to Detroit” Beavers tells me “but my second (now ex) wife was from Michigan so that's where I ended up".
    Meeting people around the town he thought “Detroit's cool. It's really rough around the edges and all that but I like that. I can hang out with these folks y'know.”
    Not long after moving to Detroit, Memphis compatriots Jack Yarber and Greg Cartwright of the lamented 90's blues punk band the Oblivians were in town to record their 3rd album as their on-going country and southern soul inflected and punk rock rooted project Compulsive Gamblers-the much acclaimed Crystal Gazing Luck Amazing.
    “I think that album is a masterpiece, man. One of my proudest moments. I was living up here for just a few months by then and Greg gives me a call and say's “We're coming up there to record at Jim Diamond's  studio. Do you want to play with us? And I'm like cool-got any songs? He's like 'Don't worry about. You'd be better if you don't know anything and just go in and play.' Top notch band and to just go in sight unseen with some great songs by Greg and Jack and to rip out this rock-n-roll record....That's what it's all about. That punk rock, that's rock-n-roll. That's the blues, No bullshit, Just play it and don't worry.”
     Also in the band was Jeff Meier, who's CV includes Rocket 455 and the Detroit Cobras and again bandmates with Beavers in the Shanks backing up Detroit RnB legend Nathaniel Mayer  both live and on Mayer's 2005 raucous soul album for the Fat Possum label “I Just Want To Be Held”.
    Meier describes those times as “a real drunk-fest. Band, audience, stage crew, doorman... everyone.”
    When asked what Beavers brought to the table in a city rich with its own heritage and style he says,  “He always brings a rock-n-roll attitude and a deceptive simplicity to every group he's in. Some of the stuff he plays seems easy, but you try playing it! There's a hillbilly sensibility, too. Not your typical suburban wanna be redneck... he's the real deal.”
   Daniel Kroha of 90's the Motor City garage soul punk legends the Gories echo's such sentiments as well “That crazy ol' polecat!? “ he grins “He's got the fire and brimstone of a Baptist preacher.”
    Sometimes though, the combination of Detroit and the Polecat with his fire and brimstone would get out of hand. It wouldn't be uncommon for people to have to step back when he decided it was time to get sideways. “He's a train comin’ round the bend, or maybe just a trainwreck.” says Meier “But don't worry, he can take it just as well as he dishes it out. If he messes with you, give it back to him. He likes it.”
   “How many times did he test your patience” I ask.
   “Almost every time I've hung out with him! Seriously, Dale's a rockin’ cat...One that comes to mind is the time he fell down the stairs at Jacoby's in downtown Detroit. He ended up landing on top me and my wife, Gwen. Of course, it was right in front of the editor of one of the Detroit weeklies, so it made the gossip column. He did everything he could to keep his wife from getting a hold of a copy.”
   Pennsylvania based, cigar box guitar builder and musician Christian Beshore, who comes to Michigan on a fairly regular to play solo gigs and to collaborate with Beavers in a band known as the Girls From Hateville, has been a friend of Beavers for several years now. He's had his fair share of wondering “what the hell did I get myself into” moments with him as well.
    “Tested my patience?” he repeats back to me when I ask him the question.
    “Every moment I am around him, or even on the phone with him. The craziest time I ever had with Dale I
won't repeat for you to print.”
     Well, how about one I can print then?
     “The first time he ever really tested me was when we were playing the Detroit Chopper Show and we were out drinking. He insisted we find some bar. We drove around for about an hour in one block, circling the bar...when we left it took the gps on my phone to get us home.”
    The thing is though is no matter how much Beavers does to drive people on the brink of pulling their hair out and leaving him stranded somewhere is his honest to goodness southern “charm." The guy knows how to make an impression. Beshore remembers the first time he met him.
    “He was eating a hoagie, sitting in a La-Z-Boy and watching some cable TV crap. my impression was that he was not that cool. That changed about a minute later when that crazy fool opened his mouth. His “Hey, y'all” voice could not be doubted.”
   Being inspired and crazy comes with a price and Beaver's bill came due in 2010 when his wife filed for divorce. Having two young children he knew he just couldn't pull up roots.
    “New Orleans, Memphis, Detroit, New York. They were cool but I grew up in a small town in Arkansas. My dad did outboard motor mechanics and we were complete river rats y'know. Telephoning catfish, Illegal deer hunting...from boats! You name it. The thought of wanting to live on a small town on the water would always come back to me. Y'know, being a carpenter and having fishing boat type of trip, right?”
    After several gigs over a period of few month in Port Huron, the thought of it being that kind of town kept gnawing at his thoughts. “I wanted to get out of Detroit. I just wanted to get away from all that shit. I took to this place.”
    At first the small but insular underground music in Port Huron took him as a curiosity. Here was this hillbilly who had toured the world and played with some of the most revered unsung legends of Rock-n-Roll and the Blues and for some reason wanted to live in small town away isolated from any big music scene. There wasn't much to offer outside of a house party here and a dive bar gig there and it's not exactly the highest focus of places-especially for someone who had been awarded best Blues Artist in Detroit as he was voted in “Real Detroit” magazine in 2009.
    I mean, here's 6 and a half foot cat that talks like boisterous Foghorn Leghorn standing on a stage with a well used vintage hollow body guitar, playing through a Fender tube amp that looks like it seen many a day in the back of a pick up truck in sweltering and sweating in the southern sun, wailing though a mic akin to the ones guys like Elvis sang through back in the 50's with his rhythm accompaniment  being his right foot coming down and a homemade wooden stompin' box. He's out playing blues festivals and what not all over the country. What would motivate him to move in a podunk like Port Huron, Michigan?
    Maybe they weren't suspicious of him as they were perplexed perhaps.
    As time went on and people got to know him better he became accepted as one of the town's newly adopted sons. As Benny Browsowski, singer of Blue Water Area based greaser punk band Smackmadam put it, “Dale doesn't really fit in the local scene which is a good part of his appeal. Instead of suburban white boys forcing themselves to play music they like but don't feel-he's an instant elder statesman of the blues. Playing music he feels.”
    When talking about their differences in drink of choice, Benny says, “Dale's preference for bourbon over moonshine shows he's more of a gentlemen than a roughneck. It by no means implies he’s not willing to get down and dirty.”
    In the summer of 2010, Beavers signed a lease for a place and now his ID carries a 48060 zipcode. “This is my home now. Ya'll is cool people. You needed some trouble. I'm finding it for you.”


Hit with a rock said…
Dale Beavers and Roadside Rick are playing the Roche this weekend. http://www.bluewater.org/event/dale-the-arkansas-polecat-beavers-and-roadside-rick-the-breakdowns-at-port-hurons-roche-bar/
Unknown said…
That guy is a complete jerk.