I couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 years old when my father first played me a song about a robbery, written from a raucous criminal’s point of view, featuring a catchily ascending introductory riff, threats to “put a bullet right through your best liver,” and a backing track that sounded like it was being (purposefully) stumbled through by some drunken mariachis. “The Hold-Up,” co-written by George Harrison in the late 1960s, marked the beginning of my obsession with string instrumentalist, ironist, and songwriter David Bromberg, whose albums I soon started collecting. Bromberg was my gateway drug into the vertiginously vast taxonomy known as American roots music. If one were to follow the trail through all the musicians he played beside (Bob Dylan, Tom Rush, and the Grateful Dead) and all those whose songs he interpreted (Bill Monroe, Allan Toussaint, Hoagy Carmichael, and a lot of Blind Willies), they’d arrive at an esoterically comprehensive cross-section of the United States’ tonal output through the 20th century. One of Bromberg’s most celebrated albums, Demon in Disguise, transitions with sardonic ease from jugband music (“Hard-Workin’ John”) to meretricious R&B (“Sharon”) and back again, all of it seemingly delivered by a sympathetic devil who knows interpersonal perfidy as intimately as he knows Martin guitars.
After a long retirement in the 1990s, during which he attended violin school, Bromberg returned to touring and released two albums, the latter of which, Use Me, sports an array of high-profile guests such as Los Lobos, Widespread Panic, and Levon Helm. I caught up with Bromberg to discuss his career, his upcoming show at New York’s Town Hall on March 3rd, what it’s like playing for drugged-up audiences, and how the profession of being a touring musician brings out masculine angst like no other.
So you’re doing a show in March with Allan Toussaint at New York’s Town Hall…
I’m really looking forward to that.
Me too. I was excited when I heard you were playing with Toussaint because one of my favorite tracks of yours is off a live bootleg I found where you play a big-band medley of “Motoring,” the Motown song, and “I Like It Like That,” the Chris Kenner tune that Allan Toussaint co-wrote.
I have a record called Dance Party by Martha and the Vandellas. I love that record. It’s a combination of A- and B-sides. Martha Reeves was a very special singer; she would use the fourth note of the scale as a blue note. I never heard anybody else do that, and she does it nearly every song. I love her singing and think it’s a fantastic choice of notes. And I came upon this song “Motoring,” which I think is a B-side, and I was just playing it one day, and then out came “I Like It Like That.”
But Allan Toussaint…it’s such an honor to share the stage with him. [He’s] one of the greatest writers in American history. He also made a record, The Bright Mississippi, that I’ll be listening to until the day I die. It’s gorgeous. To me, it sounds like a few musicians sitting in a New Orleans whorehouse in the middle of the afternoon, when there’s no business, just playing for themselves and for each other. And none of the musicians are trying to date their playing; they’re not trying to sound like 1921. But the feel is 1921. More sophisticated things creep in here and there, and they fit, and it’s fine. But they’re not playing down to it.
It’s interesting, because I wouldn’t be surprised if you put out an album like The Bright Mississippi either. You’re somewhat known for your broad, category-defying catalogue, though much of it could be classified as American roots music.
Today, having such disparate sources of music and performing so many different genres isn’t quite as weird as it was when I started doing it. It was commercial suicide at the time. In those days, we had record stores—they don’t exist any longer—and the record stores would have bins where they would classify the music. And they never had any idea where to put mine. That was a big handicap.
But your albums always sounded so unified…
Actually, one of the strangest things about my new album, Use Me, is that several reviewers and interviewers have told me that they think it hangs together better than my early albums, which were all produced by one person. And here’s an album with 11 tunes produced by 11 people, and it works.
I think it works because of your presence on the tracks. You have a way of making genres explicitly your own. You sing about yourself in the first person even when covering old standards, in the tradition of many R&B performers. And the only other musician from the ’70s who drew on such a protean bank of material was Ry Cooder, and he always inspired me to run out and listen to his sources. Your covers by comparison seem definitive because of your personality. Not to take anything away from Ry, I love him—
I do too. Actually, in the ’70s, I was interviewed by a woman who wrote in the published piece that I was slavishly imitating my sources, whereas Ry Cooder always did different things. I was stunned. I love what Ry Cooder does, I think he’s brilliant. But the flaw in that is that I’m not capable of slavishly imitating my sources!
But you feel like there’s more of an audience for esoteric repertoires today?
Before I stopped touring in 1980, there was something called “freeform radio” that was kind of built for me. You might tune into a freeform station and hear classical music, and then the next piece would be Cajun. Then there’d be a pop tune, and there’d be a blues number…you just never knew. Which is kind of what I do. But that’s gone. But now some bands, some of them moderately popular, are doing the same thing, and it makes my stuff less strange.
Any there any that you feel are direct descendants?
I hesitate to claim them. I will say the most similar band to mine is Lyle Lovett’s band. I sit in with them and Lyle always introduces me as a musical hero of his. So I think I may have had some influence there.
What is it that continues to draw you to such dissonant styles of music—and draw you to not only listen, but interpret? I was thinking about it, and I wonder if the connection between all these early-20th-century players—like Charlie Poole, Bill Monroe, and Blind Willie McTell—isn’t attitude.
I wouldn’t have phrased it as attitude. I like any music that I feel is soulful. Maybe we’re saying the same thing.
Well, soulful, yeah. But you tap into the masculine angst of nearly every genre you attempt. In a lot of songs you’re pleading with a woman or an audience, or telling a woman off. And you always personalize the drama in a way that makes the singer very vulnerable, or could make them vulnerable.
Oh, yeah. If you spend most of your time on the road, you don’t know much more than the road. That’s your reality. And then you start writing these songs about “Oh babe, it’s so lonesome out here, won’t you come back to the motel with me and make it all better?” There are many of those songs, and I don’t know who can identify with them except other performers. So if I get feelings like that I try to translate them into more accessible and understandable terms.
It’s interesting that you mentioned a moment ago that [my songs] tend to refer to women or audiences. The most bitter song I ever wrote I originally wrote to an audience. But of course I put it in terms of a woman. It was originally to an audience that wanted to tell me what tunes to do. And it was in the drug days, you know. I could tell that a lot of the people there were high on reds [street name for Seconal] and beer, because people who are high on reds and beer always ask for whatever song you just finished. It was a drugged out audience and they wanted me to do what they wanted to hear, and I don’t work that way. So I wrote a song called “I Will Not Be Your Fool.”
I also wrote a song called “New Lee Highway Blues,” which is about being on the road. But the song is phrased so it could be a couple of criminals on the lam, or a couple of people driving cross country on a move, or it could be anything, whatever the listener wants it to be.
My dad always played “New Lee Highway Blues” on road trips actually. It made the drive seem even worse, because the tone is just so angry and frustrated. You can’t ignore your own anger and frustration when you’re listening to a song like that.
I’m good at doing angry songs. When I was raised, I wasn’t permitted to be angry. So I found that I could express it musically. I don’t have more anger than most people, but there were times in my life when I felt anger and literally was not able to express it. So it had to come out of me through songs. Not all my songs are angry, but the angry ones are pretty fucking angry.
And again, expressing anger through lyrics could make you seem vulnerable, but there’s always a blistering guitar solo to balance it out. You become vulnerable but also impenetrable because you’re doing something the audience, or the woman, can’t do—tear into a guitar. Or a dobro. In fact, you’ve mastered a number of string instruments. You went to school to learn how to build violins, and in other interviews you’ve said that it’s your favorite instrument…
I’m a terrible fiddler though.
It’s funny because the other fiddle-worshipper I love, John Hartford, also thought he was a terrible fiddle player. You actually produced his album Aereo-plain. But Hartford wrote scads of paeans to the fiddle. What is it, exactly, about the fiddle’s mystique?
Well, it’s a much older instrument than the guitar. The modern guitar wasn’t developed until the end of the 19th century, in Spain. The fiddle is the instrument that I believe is closest to the human voice.
There are many more ways to attack a note on the fiddle than any other instrument I’m aware of. And if you take a human voice singing a note, a violin playing the same note, a clarinet playing the same note, a flute playing the same note, and a trumpet playing the same note, and then you cut off the beginning and the ends of the note, they’re all indistinguishable. The attack is what distinguishes the instrument. And the violin and viola and cello can really duplicate the attack of the human voice. If you listen to some recordings of those instruments…they just sound like singing.
That’s interesting, because you manage to wrangle very vocal-sounding passages out of the guitar. I’ve always enjoyed your electric guitar work a great deal. Your tutelage under Reverend Gary Davis is legendary, but I’m curious how you started playing electric guitar. The Reverend only played acoustic, of course…
But I did learn a lot about blues playing by going to churches with the Reverend. He certainly didn’t teach me himself, electric guitar playing. But listening to sermons—not always his sermons, but sometimes other preachers would be in the churches we went to—I discovered something. The phrasing of all the blues guitarists I love comes directly from church. It’s the phrasing of a preacher.
Take a guitar player like Eric Clapton, who’s brilliant. He’s established a style that’s much copied, but he does it better than anybody does it: [He makes] a continuous line from the beginning of the solo to the end. You compare that to B.B. King or Albert King, and they phrase like a preacher. They’ll start and then…they’ll hold it…for dramatic…effect…until you…can’t wait to hear what they’re gonna say next. That’s more pronounced in my playing today, perhaps, than it was on the old records. Sometimes before I play today, I even say, “I’m gonna preach this one.” Not only on electric guitar, but also on acoustic.
I switch back and forth between electric and acoustic a lot. These days even when I play with my acoustic quartet and I bring along the electric and play some electric blues. I used to think, “I don’t want to bring an electric along unless I have drums.” But then I decided what the hell.
What’s it like playing electric with a bluegrass outfit?
Well…we make it work.
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