By Maegan Johnsen
Legendary bluesman Watermelon Slim is currently halfway through his 'Up Close And Personal' tour ofNew Zealand. Raised in North Carolina, Watermelon Slim has taken his blues all over the US, Europe, andSoutheast Asia in a career that spans over 30 years, and has performed with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray and John Lee Hooker.
Maegan Johnsen caught up with Watermelon Slim before his show in Wanaka and found out some more about this intriguing musician.
My first question is perhaps an obvious one but I cannot help but wonder about your name. Where did the title "Watermelon Slim" come from?
When I got back from Vietnam I was a political activist, a grunt labourer and a criminal. Not in any particular order. To stop being a criminal I had to drop that part of my life and leave where I was, so I moved to Oklahoma. I became a farmer and I found the name when I was farming. I was out in the middle of a field of watermelons, somewhere in the third week of July 1980. It was about 105 degrees in the shade and I'm standing in the sun and I had a piece of watermelon in one hand and I reached into my pocket with the other and found a D Harmonica. I looked at the harmonica and I looked at the piece of watermelon I was eating and suddenly "Bam!" I realised I had a blues name. There were plenty of ‘Slims', ‘Memphis Slim' and ‘Bumblebee Slim' etcetera but there was no Watermelon Slim and I've been that now for 33 years.
By the way...I got a hundred dollar bill in my pocket that says I can eat one more bite of watermelon than you can!
Was there music in your home growing up? Did you always know you wanted to be a professional musician?
Yeah, we had a lot of music growing up but neither of my parents or the stepparents were musicians. They encouraged my brother and I to play and sing. My brother, Peter Homans, became a world famous classical composer. You'll find his performances at Carnegie Hall and places like that. He's much bigger than I am. Peter is a famous fellow but I myself did not become a full time musician successfully until I was 55 years old. I tried and failed several times, I tried to re-invent myself as this and that including a journalist and a schoolteacher but it never did work. So after my masters degree and four more years of truck driving I was told ‘If you are ever going to be anything more than a weekend warrior you are going to have to quit your job and have an agent".
I was introduced to my band, The Workers, the best band I ever played with. We eventually recorded several records and won some awards and then I retired them in 2010 because I just wanted to play solo all the time. I'm a minor leaguer. I don't make a lot of money or anything like that. The major leaguers make more in a gig than I make in a year. I'm very realistic about it all.
When were you first introduced to the Blues?
1954 I was listening to the blues in my own home being sung by a black woman who was working for my mother. She was cleaning and cooking and taking care of the kids. This was back in the days of segregation in America. What I realised at least 10 years later, was that Beula was singing John Lee Hooker music. So that was the very first live music I ever heard in my life aside from my mother singing lullabies to us. That's where it came from.
So is John Lee Hooker one of your main influences?
He is my number one hero of all time. I played with John Lee one time in 1970. I was a twenty one year old wannabe, six months back from Vietnam, and he treated me with the greatest respect. I wasn't really ready to play with him then but I played anyhow. I never got a chance to play with him again but thirty-seven years later I got to play with his son on a tour in Turkey.
So John Lee was my greatest hero and below that was Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Slim Harpo and Fred McDowell and three or four others. As far as harp players go it was Junior Wells, James Cotton and especially my mentor George Mayweather. He was the guy who showed me how to do a show more than anybody else, the showmanship element. I can sing on key. I can play above average with harp. I'm a competent guitarist and I was a choirboy in the church since I was teeny.
John Lee Hooker was the man to begin with and George Mayweather was the mentor eventually.
You feel more comfortable on the harmonica than you do on guitar?
Well, I played harp from 1959 and I started playing guitar in 1970 after Vietnam. I don't prefer one to the other but if I had to characterise which one I do better I am definitely a better harp player than I am a guitar player. I am merely a competent slide guitar player who, after 43 years, is beginning to be a master of his own style. With harp I am competitive with whoever is in the business. At this point I'm a senior blues man. I'm one of the people who influences people now.
Do you think, in Blues music today, that some of the authenticity is lost when there isn't such a struggle behind the artist?
I don't even know if it's struggle, I suppose it is. The young people who are playing today generally have not taken the same path as previous generations including me. I don't know that they've actually worked, like loading and unloading railroad cars, saw milling and driving trucks. There's not much of that kind of work anymore.
We would go out and work and then along with our job we'd be playing and if we were lucky somebody would hear us. I was very lucky when eventually at 55 years old somebody finally decided that I was worth listening to and was worth putting some money behind. Young people are not impressing me much with playing the blues. I've got a couple of people in Clarksdale Mississippi who are going to turn into Blues people if they don't get drawn away by the technology and the sampling and music that isn't really the blues
Tell me about your creative process. What inspires you?
I write blues about a lot of different stuff but in general I write about work, bittersweet, long-term relationships between the sexes and my own mortality and mortality in general. Americans do not, in any way, want to confront the reality of death. It's why we are so willing to kill Afghanis and Iraqis. That gives me the blues more than any bottle or any woman ever gave me and I've seen plenty of women and plenty of bottles. I have been a political activist in America for 40 some years and I am still one of the co-ordinators of Vietnam Veterans Against The War. That was a result of being in Vietnam. I was not a heavy combat troop. I shot at the enemy only once the whole time I was there. It wasn't too much later I realised that they weren't really the enemy.
What do you think about the current state of the music industry in general?
I don't much care if I sell records or not. I make my living playing. I make a little bit of my living selling CD's. That's coming to an end because the music industry is putting down CD's. Now it's all electronic downloads and that's not personal. You cannot read about me with a bunch of electronic impulses. You can't look at a picture of me. Eventually I will leave the music business and go home and farm. That will make a modest living and I will play three or four gigs a month plus social security. I'm not hurting for money right now. I will die in the black.
All things considered what advice would you give to other musicians who are considering a career similar to yours?
I have one word for people who think they want to do this, and that is practice, practice, practice, practice and practice. That sounds like five words but it's one word.
Just do the music and be good and honourable. I've done a lot of things and made a lot of decisions that I shouldn't have. To put it in the crudest terms you are going to get your dick knocked in the dirt time and time again, that's what happened to me. I had two broken ribs and multiple compound jaw fractures from trying to be a musician. What you've got to do is listen to people like me. You don't have to learn these lessons personally.
What I also understand is that being a musician is not what it was when I was growing up. It's now electronic impulses. I am a much too dedicated a sinner to be a good ideologically Christian example to people but that's how I learnt, singing in church. Church is a good place to learn to sing.
And finally tell me about your experiences in New Zealand?
Are you ready? "I've been angling for this New Zealand tour for nearly 60 years" You have to use that quote!
I knew from the age of 7 or 8 years old that I wanted to come to New Zealand because it is a fisherman's paradise. I've been a fisherman that long.
We didn't catch anything today but that doesn't matter. This is not my first trip to New Zealand but it is my first trip to the South Island. I love this place! New Zealand is my number one country on my short list of nations to which to emigrate but I understand it costs much too much money. I would pay it if I had it.
Don't miss Watermelon Slim on the remainder of his New Zealand Tour!
Thur 18 APR - Memorial Hall, Motueka 7.30 pm tickets at Hot Mama's Café , State Cinema Motueka and Eventfinda
Fri 19 APR - Meow, Wellington 8.30pm tickets at venue , Slowboat Records, Mint Music Lower Hutt and Eventfinda
Sat 20 APR - St Peter's Hall, Paekakariki 7.30 pm tickets, Valhalla Café Raumati, Fruit & Vege Shop, Eventfinda Mint and Slowboat
Sun 21 APR - Butlers Reef, New Plymouth 3.30 pm tickets at venue , Vinyl Countdown and Eventfinda
Tue 23 APR - Bent Horseshoe Cafe, Tokomaru, Palmerston North 7.30 pm tickets at venue and Eventfinda
Wed 24 APR - Blackbarn Vineyard, Havelock North 7.30 pm tickets at venue and Eventfinda
Thur 25 APR - ANZAC DAY .. Tatapouri Fishing Club, Gisborne 3.30 pm show tickets at venue, Gisborne Deli and Eventfinda
Sat 27 APR - Diggers Bar, Hamilton 3.30 pm tickets at venue, Shearers Musicworks Anglesea St and Eventfinda
Sun 28 APR - The Riverhead, Auckland In The Boathouse 2 pm www.theriverhead.co.nz and Eventfinda