Stoneking rigs his Jazzmaster with heavy strings to help reduce sustain and give the instrument a responsiveness that’s closer to his resonator. Meanwhile, he uses the vibrato arm to imitate the slurring sound of the horns on his previous recordings. Photo by Kane Hibberd
Drop a needle on a dusty old jazz or blues 78 from the ’40s, and you’ll get an inkling of how it feels to hear C.W. Stoneking for the first time. Fever visions of sweaty juke joints, late-night rent parties, and uptown nightclubs packed with lindy hoppers rise up from the black shellac grooves like heat from a Mississippi highway, invoking all the promises of mystery, romance, redemption, and revenge that have drawn blues players to the guitar for more than a century.
But this particular singer-songwriter isn’t just duplicating the sound and style of a bygone era. A small-town native of Australia’s remote Northern Territory, Stoneking grew up in a household that encouraged musical curiosity. His father’s record collection was an eclectic mix that ranged from early blues to classic ’50s gospel, inspiring the youngster to pick up a guitar, teach himself some songs, leave high school, and start busking on the streets of Sydney. Along the way, in open rebellion against the ubiquity of late-’80s pop all around him, he’d so idealized and internalized the very idea of the Blues that he stumbled onto a signature all his own.
“I was hanging with different people, and some older guys who were musicians,” Stoneking recalls in his laid-back Aussie drawl. “I gradually got deeper and deeper into blues, and it pretty much became what I was into all the time. Then there were aspects of it that I hunted down, and they led me into other types of music—things that had some parallels, like old calypso out of Trinidad, and a lot of old gospel records, too.”
He tried out the electric guitar and taught himself the banjo, but when he bought his 1931 National Duolian resonator, he had the sound—and the volume—he’d been seeking. He was barely 30 when he recorded 2005’s King Hokum, which, in songs like “Handyman Blues” and “She’s a Bread Baker,” captured the stark, haunted, and howling spirit that first drew him to the music of Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, and so many other heroes. Three years later, he came out with Jungle Blues—a concept album that merged elements of hoodoo, vaudeville, old-time radio dramas, sea shanties, New Orleans-style ragtime, and even Appalachian bluegrass, all with a sizzling-hot horn section to top it off.
Onstage, Stoneking cuts an eccentric profile, to say the least. Clad head-to-toe in immaculate white cotton, with black-accented bowtie and greased-back hair, he resembles a young Richard Widmark right off the set of a Hollywood noir. Blues purists might be tempted to write him off as an imitator or a huckster, until it becomes apparent that this music is an integral part of who he is. And he means it, right down to his white buck shoes and his hand tattoos (on his right hand, the names of his sons, Atticus and Ishmael). Sure, there are hints of Tom Waits and even Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cab Calloway in some of Stoneking’s sound and theatrics, but he’s an outright original whose time is firmly rooted in the here and now.
His fifth and latest album, Gon’ Boogaloo, released in 2014 in Australia and just recently in the U.S., deepens the narrative. Shortly after he recorded Jungle Blues, Stoneking decided to revamp his sound yet again—this time by plugging in. He found what he needed in the Fender American Vintage reissue of the ’65 Jazzmaster, but it took some adjustments to make it work. Stoneking had barely touched an electric guitar for more than 20 years.
“One of the hallmarks of Nationals is they have barely any sustain,” he explains. “They’re all attack and no sustain, which is what I’ve found to be challenging going through the electric, where it has much more presence. So everywhere I looked, people were telling me how Jazzmasters have no sustain, and I thought, ‘Maybe this is the guitar for me.’ They also do well with heavy-gauge strings—more to keep the vibrato system in check, so it doesn’t get too sloppy. On my National, I play .016s or so, but I don’t go quite so heavy on the electric because I do want to bend the strings. And that’s when I started to fiddle around with it.”
First, he had the guitar retrofitted with true-to-’50s-vintage pickups by Don Mare in Long Beach, California. Then he started familiarizing himself with the whammy setup, which helped him begin to simulate some of the horn parts he’d arranged for Jungle Blues. In the midst of that, he discovered a new sound that was very close to a Hawaiian slack-key guitar.
“The vibrato system actually became a big part of my playing,” he says. “Lots of stuff I make with the horns will have a slightly slurred front end on the notes. So I found it gave everything a slight bit of slurring on the front, and that seemed to take the character a little closer to what it was like being played by a horn section.”
Plugging into an old Harmony 306A combo that’s prone to overheating, as well as a custom 16-watt combo built from the guts of an antique Bell & Howell film projector, Stoneking recorded Gon’ Boogaloo in two days with a full band: bassist Andrew Scott, drummer Jacob Kinniburgh, and backing singers Vika Bull, Linda Bull, Maddy Kelly, and Memphis Kelly. Amazingly, they tracked everything live to a 2-track Ampex tape machine using only two microphones in the room—just about as lo-fi as you can possibly get in this age of laptop symphonies. The decision wasn’t entirely by choice [see “Paleo Recording: Capturing Gon’ Boogaloo’s Primitive Vibe” sidebar], but Stoneking and his bandmates made the most of the situation by trying different takes from different positions in the room—essentially using mic bleed and the room sound to their advantage.
“Some of the guys were more nervous about it than I was,” he laughs. “But I thought we could do it, and I think we pulled it off. Doing it on the fly like that, there’s always gonna be some shortcomings. If we would have had a bit more time, we probably could have ironed out some things, but I was happy enough with it, and recording was quite enjoyable.”
From the spooky dancehall jump cuts of “The Zombie” and “Get on the Floor” to the loping tiki-style strains of “On a Desert Isle” and the Carib-calypso groove on “The Thing I Done,” Gon’ Boogaloo switches gears with a mesmerizing, hypnagogic effect. And against the backdrop of Stoneking’s fascination with New Orleans voodoo tradition (on the album’s cover shot, his face is painted to resemble a sorcerer’s skull), each song comes across as exotic, mysterious and oddly psychedelic, no matter how familiar and earthbound its bluesy foundation might be.
“It’s funny, because the first time I rode through Mississippi, it didn’t look anything like the mental image I had,” Stoneking says, ruminating over the strange mosaic that inspires his music. “It looked like a cut-down jungle—this weird, hallucinated oil painting of greens. It was very fertile, and not anything like the arid, twisted, ancient landscape I thought it was, which I came to realize was completely Australian. So in some ways, I feel like I just took that sound and understood it through an Australian filter.”
One of the biggest changes for you on Gon’ Boogaloo was the switch from National resonator to Jazzmaster. Can you talk a little bit more about that transition?
Yeah, [2008’s] Jungle Blues was all National and tenor banjo. It was difficult, because I hadn’t really played the electric guitar since I was about 18, except for maybe about six months when I was, like, 21 and I played in a little local group in the country. And even after all that time, I had no desire to go back to anything like what I played before, so it was a steep learning curve all the way around. I wasn’t in any practice shape whatsoever for improvising as an instrumentalist or using moving chord voices or single-string stuff—not at all. And then just with the tonal difference of the electric guitar, I sounded very bad for probably a good year-and-a-half. I was very sloppy.
OccasionallyI’d hear a friend’s band, and I’d think maybe I should really stick with acoustic. The National just sounds good without doing anything, whereas the electric seemed like a lot of work to make it sound good. There’s a hundred bad sounds and a couple of good ones—for me, anyway. But by the same token, it was a lot of fun and very rewarding, because I was starting to really feel I’d been missing it a bit. I was working with horn players, and I would write a lot of the horn parts—and they were great improvisers as well—and here I was clunking along in the background. And I thought, “Well, you have ideas for music, so when you make it up, just find a way that you can play it, too, and then you’re speaking your own language.” I’m still pretty sloppy, but I’m getting there [laughs].