Louis Electric

December 2014
more... ArtistsCatfish Keith

Stomp, Growl and Twang: Catfish Keith Interview

I love this CD – let’s just get that out of the way right now.
There’s a pure, raw energy to it. So live and in the moment – almost innocent, yet so very worldly. The strings snap, sizzle and twang in just the right way, and that powerful voice growls, whispers, snarls and hollers in all the right places. The originals blend seamlessly with tradition, and the old songs are lovingly presented, full of power and inimitable mischief. Drawing from an enviable arsenal of guitars, this solo outing is rich and sonically varied; from steel to wood, from bottleneck to flesh, from sex to gospel, this CD is endlessly engaging and downright fun to listen to.
The duet at the end with his wife and partner of twenty years, Penny Cahill, is honestly touching without being sentimental, foolish or saccharin. The whole thing comes off effortless and elegant in its simplicity and honesty. Give a listen to the title track, "If I Could Holler" at the bottom of this page for a sample.

I’ve known Catfish Keith since we were kids, and I’ve followed his career, at times closely and at times peripherally, ever since, paying closest attention to the “watershed moments” that can serve to define an artist and put them into the history books. I suspect that his most recent album, If I Could Holler, is one of those moments.

For those not yet initiated into the “Cult of Catfish,” here’s a little introduction. Keith’s been playing since he was 12 years old, and at 15 realized he wanted to make music his living. His enduring style of acoustic blues, featuring a mic''d-up foot-stomping rhythm and impressive simultaneous bass, solo and comping chops, brought national recognition in 1992 when he was nominated for his first W.C. Handy Blues Award for Jitterbug Swing. The nomination, for Best Acoustic Blues Album, solidified his place in the modern blues community and kick-started his European touring.

“I was 32 years old at the time, so it made a huge impact on everything I was doing,” he explained. “It allowed me to get more and better gigs – really helped my reputation. It’s sort of the Grammy of the blues world. The word of mouth it generated was incredible.”

In 2002, Catfish was invited to be part of a major package tour called The American Festival of the Blues, which toured through England, Scotland and Wales, playing such venues as the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. He recalls: “We played in these giant, legendary-type venues – 40 different venues in 40 days.” With Catfish on the tour were Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges, Angela Brown and Michael Roach. Currently, Catfish tours the UK every October and November, and tours the U.S. most of the rest of the year.

Ten of his independently-released albums are number-one independent radio chart-toppers, including his 1984 debut for Kicking Mule records, Catfish Blues. Since then, he has released eleven solo discs, culminating with the release of If I Could Holler in 2008.

I visited with Catfish about his newest release to dig into what was cookin’ in his process and how he captured this amazingly live performance in the studio.

This album has a really different feel to it, at least to my ears. Was that intentional?

Nothing about the feel of this record was really intentional; my approach has always been to take in a healthy list of tunes, both originals and songs from the treasure trove, and see what works best. Usually I don''t know if new songs are really ready until I actually go in and record them; a few weren''t ripe yet, so we''ll save them for next time. I''ll only try a few takes at most on any song; if it doesn''t work I just move on to the next thing.

The spirit I think I''ve achieved is a deeper, more hypnotic feel. More dust and bones and highways – all life''s joy and sorrow is in there. My style has become more pared down with age, and I think it has more "I''m glad to be alive" energy in it. I feel so lucky to be able to do this – it really is a great life!

What you’ve captured is something incredibly live and in the moment, which is such a rare thing anymore. It’s extremely challenging to get that life and vitality in a studio setting. How did you pull it off?

This album was recorded by Justin Kennedy in Iowa City, Iowa. He did everything: recording, engineering, mixing and mastering. He''s great to work with; I really enjoyed his imagination and wizardry. He used a total of eight mics to capture the live sound of vocal, guitars and feet. Just around the guitars were three mics, one by the fretboard, one by the lower bout and one right in front. I used six different guitars, two were great acoustic guitars (a Flammang EL and a Collings 00 12 fret), four were various National Reso-Phonics, including two Baritones, a 12-string and the Radiotone. Every guitar does its own special thing. The 12-string has become an important new voice for me, and the title song, "If I Could Holler," wrote itself on the 12-string Tricone.