Although harmonica player Kim Wilson is very excited about his new album with Mud Morganfield, a tribute to Mud’s father Muddy Waters called For Pops, we have started talking about Howlin’ Wolf with a joyful glee. “Sam Phillips loved Howlin’ Wolf,” Wilson stated. “The Sun stuff is incredible with the Wolf. I’ve got all of it.” Spending an hour chatting with Wilson, who brought the Fabulous Thunderbirds to life, is like sitting with a curator of an exotic museum. His admiration for the forefathers of the blues is clearly on his sleeve and you can’t stump his knowledge. So working with Muddy Waters’ son Mud Morganfield should have been a no-brainer a long time ago. But it took the president of their mutual record company to put this recording into motion and reaping the rewards are the lovers of blues music made by one of it’s masters: Muddy Waters. Celebrating the Mississippi bluesman’s 100th birthday with a rerecording of some of his best-loved songs by his son and his friend was about as natural as the blues itself. “We never got a chance to play together [before this album] but I’ve known about Kim and respected his harp playing for years,” Morganfield told me in a separate interview.
Wilson, born in Detroit but raised in California, grew up listening to the howl of Wolfman Jack from a station whose signal beamed out from Tijuana. The music stuck with him and eventually Wilson was doing some playing of his own, standing beside legends blowing out gems that harp players like Little Walter and James Cotton had done before him. Forming the T-Birds with guitar player Jimmie Vaughan in the early seventies, scoring a few big hits along the way and opening for such superstars as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, Wilson has always remained a harp player at heart. Shining with a lonesome wail on “Still A Fool” and “Just To Be With You” while adding a boogie woogie jive to “My Dog Can’t Bark,” Wilson has done supreme justice to the music of Muddy Waters.
This album, For Pops, kind of came together because people wanted this album to come together. How do you think it came out?
I think it came out fantastic. I think David Earl [president of Severn Records] hired all the right guys and I think it’s going to make some noise, at least in the blues world. Hopefully it will cross over to other worlds (laughs). But I think in the blues world, I think it really stands up and a lot of people are going to want to hear this record. I’m very proud of it.
When was the first time you met Mud?
The first time I met Mud was on the session. I knew his father very well and, you know, Mud is a work in progress. He’s only been singing for not very long so to be able to sing like that after just a few years is pretty incredible. But I think Mud realized that I was pretty close to his dad and I think there was a kind of instant respect between both of us. We got to know each other a little bit and he’s a hell of a guy. He’s a nice guy.
You’re a singer as well. Was there any thought of you singing any of these songs besides just playing harmonica?
Well, I think this was really about Mud singing his dad’s songs as opposed to me butting in and trying to get vocals on it. I don’t sing many Muddy Waters songs anyway because when the old man died, I just didn’t want to do it anymore. That’s how close to him I was. I couldn’t even hear his name for about a year or two without tearing up a little bit cause I was real tight with him. So I think it worked out perfectly. I think it was a good call by David. Of course, I had a little bit to do with it myself. I mean, I was trying to talk him into throwing some blues down and kind of giving to people what they want and it worked out okay. I’m telling you, I’m very, very happy with this record.
It’s a very natural performance. We didn’t have to do very many takes. I think we tracked the whole thing in two days. It might have been three maybe, but all those guys in that studio, they knew the music and that’s the key. You can’t be bringing people in. You know, sometimes people want big guest stars and all this stuff but for a record like this, you really got to know the music. Playing Muddy Waters songs is not something you can job. You have to live it and all those guys in that band have.
Which song were you most excited to play on?
Really not one particular one. My thing was, I couldn’t go in knocking off the original Little Walter stuff. I had to have my own voice on this record. So I wasn’t really thinking about one particular song, I was just winging it all the way through. It was all improvised, everything was improvised, and everything was improvised by the band. So there was no particular song. I wanted to play well on every single song. I love all the Muddy Waters songs and I don’t really have a favorite. I might have some favorites that the original Muddy Waters did but that would be a long list (laughs).
Were these the only songs you recorded or did you do some more for a possible follow-up?
I think we just cut these fourteen. That was it. But who knows about a follow-up. You never know. It would be nice to do but we’ll see.
Muddy Waters is such a huge shadow for any musician to stand under. How do you think his son has handled being Muddy Waters son?
You know, I don’t think there’s been that much to handle so far. He’s just a regular guy. He obviously loved his dad and he sounds a lot like his dad but I think he kind of lives, musically at least, kind of a carefree life. He can do just about anything he wants and that’s a nice place to be. I think he has handled it better than the other brother, put it that way.
Any chance of you guys getting together to play some of these songs live?
Oh sure, there is a chance of it. I’m hoping we’re going to get booked as that unit and go out and do some shows. That would be great. That would be fantastic.
You were born in Detroit. Did you discover blues first or rock & roll?
I really didn’t get into the radio till I moved out to California in 1960. We had XERB out here and a lot of Jazz stations. In the beginning when I was a little kid, I think I moved out here in fifth grade, it was Casey Kasem and all that but it didn’t take long before I got locked into XERB. That was an incredible experience cause that was Wolfman Jack. He was playing all the right stuff. It was incredible. In fact, I ended up learning songs off the radio because I didn’t have a huge record collection back then so I would listen for songs, and a lot of those songs, some of those songs at least, never made it to CD. Pretty crazy but I remember “Searching For My Love” by Bobby Moore. I remember that one. I used to love that song. I used to love “Try It, You’ll Like It.” That was by Marie Adams. That never made it to CD because I’ve never heard that since. I think I heard it on YouTube but that was a great song. You know Wolfman Jack, they were down in Tijuana and they had so much power you could hear them in Alaska on a good day. And you got to hear everything, all the good soul, all the good stuff. It was great. I remember I was going to the draft board in LA, they let us drive ourselves, and I was in the car at 8:00 in the morning and we were following the bus with all the other guys in it. And every morning at 8:00, Wolfman Jack would play “Blues With A Feeling” by Little Walter and “Further On Up The Road” by Bobby Blue Bland. Every morning, every single morning, same song, incredible.
When did you start taking your talent seriously and wanting to do that too?
Well, I knew right away. I knew what I wanted to do immediately when I started doing it. I was a senior in high school, I was actually a football player, and I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to play football the rest of my life. At the same time I was getting into all this great blues music. A friend of mine was playing a harmonica and I picked it up and I was in a band immediately. I was in a band three months after I started playing. A year later, I was playing with all the great old guys. It was crazy. Eddie Taylor, Albert Collins, Pee Wee Crayton, George Harmonica Smith, John Lee Hooker even back then a little bit. It was nuts.
Were you ever intimidated by being on stage with them?
You know, it’s weird. I was so respectful to them that they loved me right off the bat. They just kind of welcomed me in to where I didn’t feel uncomfortable, ever. There were times when I was up on stage going, “Look where I am.” Then I had to play. I wasn’t real good at first but they seemed to like it. I was playing for those guys. I wasn’t playing for the audience. I was playing for them.
You played with Howlin’ Wolf?
I did not play with Howlin’ Wolf but I met him. I met him right before he died. Howlin’ Wolf might be the greatest blues singer of all time.
I tell you what, I was listening last night to Muddy. Well, I was listening to Otis Spann on YouTube and they had this thing where Spann would come in and all these people in this festival in Europe would come out, and Muddy was one of them, and Muddy just had this distinctive style that nobody else had. I think that was the thing with Muddy. I mean, when you get to people like Muddy and the Wolf and people like BB King back on RPM Records, the Chicago guys like Otis Rush, Magic Sam, it’s really just kind of a matter of preference as opposed to who was better than the other guy. You love them all, that’s the thing. But I loved the Wolf, I’ll tell you that. I love Howlin’ Wolf. He really was ahead of his time. He didn’t like that lump, you know, that dadum-dadum. He wanted to stay away from that.
He didn’t have too much of that. He was a very modern thinking guy.
Did you ever sit down with these guys and talk to them about what it was like when they first started?
I would sit down, just me and Muddy, and he would tell me all kinds of stuff. But Muddy was a guy who thought about the present. He wasn’t really a guy who thought about the past or the future, I don’t think. Back when Muddy was alive, a lot of his cronies were still alive so he wasn’t like reminiscing or anything. He was just talking. I remember being in a studio and Jimmie Rodgers was talking all kinds of stuff about horn sections that used to happen back then and I wish I had listened better (laughs). But for me, it was like heaven being around all these guys. And like I said, Muddy Waters, he said a lot of things to me and that’s the kind of stuff I kind of keep to myself because if I started talking about it, it’d sound like I was tooting my own horn anyway, you know. Muddy Waters was very, very generous to me. They all were very generous to me. Muddy Waters was a guy who had all the great harmonica players in his band and he just loved what I did. I wish he was alive to hear it now.
When did you start writing your own songs?
That happened in the very beginning also. I started writing when I started playing. You know, these days I go through spurts of writing. Like, I’m not really writing anything right now. I’m just enjoying it out here in California and, well, I’m not really thinking about much of anything (laughs). I had a few good gigs last week with the Blues guys. I’m still working fairly often with the Thunderbirds this year. Next year it’s going to be nuts but this year has been a little bit light which has been good. I’ve been able to relax a little bit and that’s been fun. But songwriting is one of those things where you always have to have, like, that iPhone is a great thing because you got that microphone thing in there and you can always sing out melodies and sing lyrics in there and you’ve got your phone right in your hand. You don’t have to have a special thing like you used to have, like one of these little voice recorders. So the iPhone has been great for me because I’ve been able to write. I don’t use the Garage Band like a lot of people do. I just go in there and sing a melody and sing a beat and maybe sing a little bass line, maybe sing a little guitar line and of course the lyrics, you know. They all come kind of together. It’s a cool thing to have.
You seem to have taken with the modern technology.
The thing is, in the old days you would forget a lot of stuff. If you didn’t have a piece of paper or you were driving or something, you had to remember it. Now you can just pull this thing out and you remember everything. Like, “Wow, I didn’t know I had that.” That kind of stuff. “That sounds pretty good, wow, I’m going to have to work on that.” (laughs)
What was it like the first time you went in to record in a real recording studio?
It took a while to get used to it. Studios have changed over the years. They’ve become a little more live. You like what’s coming out of the instrument as opposed to, in the old days, when they would put you in there, isolate you. It was like a padded cell. That was when nothing was ringing out and now it’s like, people understand. People like David Earl really understands because he’s into the really old music. But I think a lot of modern kids now, they do it the same way. They go in there and have a nice live room, things are ringing out, they’re probably all tracked together and not piece it together. It depends on the situation. I pieced it together before and it’s been great but you have to have the good microphones, you have to have a nice live sounding situation, because it has to sound good to you. If it doesn’t sound good to you, it’s not going to sound good on the recording.
You said a few minutes ago that you have a big year coming up next year. What’s all the excitement about?
Well, I can’t really talk about it right now. I don’t have signed contracts yet. But it’s looking pretty good so we’ll see what happens.
Is it Thunderbirds?
Yeah, it’s Thunderbirds.
You guys have been together since the early seventies, longer than I think people really realize.
Yeah, I’m the only original one left but the thing is that this band is not a nostalgia band. This band is a bunch of guys, younger guys, who still have something to say and that’s a beautiful thing at this stage of my life to be able to be around people that are ready to go for it. And you can’t be resting on your laurels. I think that’s one good thing about not having a pile of hits. A pile of hits is great if you want money. I think Clapton has done a good job with having a lot of hit records but still being able to go off and do a lot of different things. I really respect Clapton because he’s gone in a lot of different directions musically but he’s legitimized every one of them and that’s hard to do. It’s hard to be in the business a long time, have a lot of hit records and not have someone place a time period on you. A lot of these guys will go out and have had hits in the past and they still have their fans from the past and that’s good. But it’s really about moving on with the music. And that’s a beautiful thing about blues music, it’s improvising every day, it never gets old, you’re not playing the same thing every time. If you’ve got a lot of hit records, you’re going to play all the hits. All of them. And you’re going to play them exactly like they were on the record. No thank you. I don’t want to do that. In order to stay in this business, I have to be able to get up there and just let the dogs run, you know.
Music to me is something that has to, especially this blues music, it’s something you don’t get good at till you get older. I wasn’t that good when I was a kid. Even on the old Thunderbirds records, I wasn’t that good. I would say I was probably the weak link in that whole thing but I did all the singing, I did all the songwriting and it was a work-in-progress. Of course, I was kind of self-medicated back then so luckily I had a harmonica in my face every night and it worked out for me for when I got sober and all of a sudden everything just came to life. That was a great thing for me. For one thing, I had to do it to live (laughs). But for another, the music really got good at that time. It really started progressing. And that was like twenty-six years ago.
Were you nervous when you got sober, maybe more so than when you first started out?
Well, about the first year I didn’t really know what I was doing. It ended up being okay after I heard it on tape but there were certain times when I realized that I missed the hangover cause I was never really screwed up on a bandstand, unless we did two sets, which we did a lot of two sets in the beginning. But I’d always play the first set straight but hung over from the night before (laughs). And I found out that it was the hangover that I was missing. So it took me a little while to get used to that. I mean, there was a time when I was nervous a lot. There were times when I was playing in front of a big audience and stuff like that. Now it’s not like that. It hasn’t been like that in quite a while.
How do you think you have changed over the years in terms of how you create your music?
I’m just comfortable in my own body, you know. I think I’ve gotten good enough now to where I can walk up there like I own the place as opposed to before when I wasn’t sure of myself in certain things. But singing was the hardest part and I’m starting to get that now. I feel real good. The thing about it is that I’ve kind of made a reputation for myself over the years. I’ve done a lot of huge, huge records. I mean, Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, a lot of people, and I think that’s been big for my confidence too and it makes me want to get better and better. So when I walk in there I’m just going to lay it down with no worries.
You played on Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s latest album, Goin’ Home. He’s one of the young blues guys. What was it like working with him?
Well, I just went in there and overdubbed on a track that was already there. I didn’t track live with them. But you know, he’s a good kid. He’s a nice kid. And he’s going to progress and he’s going to move on and on with his music. These things go in stages. He’s still a pretty damn young guy. We’re all works in progress, all of us, even me still. And the beautiful thing about blues music is that you can play it your whole life. And real rock & roll too, you can play your whole life. It’s beautiful.
What was it like working with Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds on the Thunderbirds albums? What were they like as producers?
Nick Lowe was more of a player’s coach (laughs). He was one of the guys. He knew how to get the sounds, he had a great ear and he was a lot of fun to work with. Dave Edmunds, he was more business-like. He got in there and concentrated on a lot of different things. They both had great engineers, which helped, but Dave Edmunds was also a great guy. I mean, he was also a funny guy and blah-blah-blah. But he was a little more business-like than Lowe was. I don’t think Lowe would be pissed off if I’m talking about him like that, because we made great records with him, and one great record with Nick. But it was just great to be around those guys. They took interest in us a long time ago. Really, it was Jake Riviera, the manager of their band, who came to see us in Texas, I believe, and said, “I want you to open up for Rockpile for a whole European tour.” Actually, it was just Britain and it was only like thirty shows, just in Britain alone. And we had a ball, we got to know each other and it was great. It was a lot of fun.
I’m interviewing Nick’s former wife Carlene Carter next week.
I used to stay at their house (laughs). She’s fantastic. She comes from a great bloodline – Carl Smith and her mom was June Carter, Johnny Cash was her step-dad. She was fantastic. And it was all one big party back then. We had a ball (laughs). I’m telling you. I remember she took us out to a Mexican restaurant in London while I was staying at their house. Nick was out of town and I was staying at the house and I woke up. I had got really trashed that night and I woke up in the house and I had blood all over the pillow and I’m going, “Oh my God, what have I done?” And I couldn’t find anybody (laughs). I thought I had killed somebody. I didn’t know what had happened, you know what I mean, and nobody was around to confirm what I’d done.
What did you do?
Well, I think I just scratched something in the night (laughs). I don’t know, it was weird. My blood was awfully thin so it didn’t take much. But she’s a great gal. It was so much fun to be around them. I mean, people like Elvis Costello were coming by. It was just one big party. Everybody loved each other, everybody was very complimentary to each other. I remember Jimmie broke his leg over there so I had to wait for him to get out of the hospital. It took a couple of weeks because he had a real bad break so I just hung around London. I was on Seconds Of Pleasure, that Dave Edmunds record. They brought me in the studio and me and Nick were in there just writing songs and doing all kinds of cool stuff and I was on that record so it was very cool. I had a lot of fun.
What is the main excitement for you playing music after all these years? You’ve done just about everything.
Just becoming what Muddy and all those guys thought I was back then. Going back to blues music again, the old guys, they wrote the book. There’s no question about it. But there is no reason why a white kid like me can’t have his own chapter in the book too. I mean, music is all about leaving a legacy and I think that that’s what I’m in the process of doing right now. I’m really having a lot of fun just playing and I have a lot of fun playing at a very high level every night. And I think that’s what you’re looking for, you know what I mean. It’s a hard music to be truly legitimate as a white person, you know. I think there’s a lot of white people playing it these days but there’s not many that are really legitimate and I feel good about that part of it. I feel good about playing with a lot of different people. I feel good about all of it. There’re certain things I have to turn down because I don’t think I can do it with a clear conscience but not that much. And it’s always nice when you get these calls from people like Mark Knopfler. Mark Knopfler was a fantastic session and I enjoyed that a lot [Privateering, 2013]. But I enjoy working with all these people. And for me, variety is the spice of life. In the Blues All-Stars, there are a lot of different people playing in that. When I get out with the Thunderbirds then I got a whole new outlook on things. It’s all about being comfortable in your own body. That’s what it’s about.
And it took you this long to feel that way?
Yeah, I have very high standards. I don’t listen to much modern music and when I do it’s usually somebody like, say, Raphael Saadiq, and I’ve worked with him too. Or more of the black music. That’s still where you’re going to find the voices but I think the old stuff is the standard. You’ve got to be able to do that before you can do anything else legitimately.
You mentioned YouTube earlier. It’s great how all the old music is more easily accessible to get to than it was when I was growing up.
That’s the thing. We used to have to climb over piles of records at the Ace Records warehouse down in Jackson. They were just piled up and we just had to dig through them. You’re digging for stuff you haven’t heard before. Now, it’s all there, right there for you. So there is no excuse for someone who says they play blues NOT to be able to play. But you’re always saying something or you always have your own voice, you’re always saying something new, whether you’re playing old songs or not. I think it’s very important to listen to the old stuff, very important. That’s all I do. I don’t listen to anything new. Anything before 1965, that’s the real thing. A few things happened after that but not very much though. I mean, the pop music even back in the 1960’s, they had real musicians, even if it was a simpy little pop song. In fact I play with one guy who was on some of that stuff, Larry Taylor. His first recording was in 1958. They were real players. They would hire a house band, like in Muscle Shoals, like at Stax Records, like at Chess, and they would make pop records like Chuck Berry or the soul stuff by Otis Redding or Carla Thomas or all these great, great people but it would be the same band backing them all up.
What did you think of Otis?
Oh my God, he was incredible and he was an incredible songwriter too.
Hopefully this CD can turn some more people on to great blues music.
I hope so. You know, I’m very proud of this CD. I think it could make a few waves even. You never know (laughs).