Albert Cummings is a contemporary blues master, very much inspired by and in the style of Stevie Ray Vaughan. On Live at the ’62 Center, his latest album, Cummings documents his legendary live show, demonstrating not just guitar chops but a strong, soulful voice. The fourth-generation master carpenter out of Massachusetts checked in with Blues Rock Review somewhere deep in the heart of Texas.
You grew up with bluegrass and a country fan. Have you ever thought about a country album?
Yeah. A lot of stuff I write is along that country vein. It’s in me. It’ll come out eventually. I haven’t done a full-fledged country album. I think some of my stuff hints around to it but I never try to go straight with anything. I just kind of try and let my music go all or crawl. Maybe the next album. Because I really want to record my next album in Nashville so maybe it’ll seem [country]. But I’ll never get too far away from own stuff.
What’s your writing process like? How do you write?
Most of my stuff just comes to me. Whenever it does, I’m never able to sit down and say “OK. I’m going to write a song about this today” and that’s that. Any time I get my guitar out at home, which I don’t really ever get to practice much at home, I usually just keep my phone next to me and if I come up with some riff or some little idea, I try to record it because I never remember it. Even the next day. I’m like ‘I’ll never forget this riff’ and the next day it’s gone. I just record the riff and as I riff day-to-day, someone will say a phrase, or something will happen, or something will trigger an idea. When I do write a song it takes about five minutes. When it finally happens. But it takes forever to get the process to go. I’ve sat down to write a verse and I can’t get it and a year or two later something else will trigger it and it’ll just make that come alive. It just comes when it’s going to come.
Are you always going through these recordings to see what’s there. Or do you remember what’s there?
I do when I get a free chance or I’m really bored or something. I’ll start listening. And I’m like ‘Wow! That’s really cool. I’ve got to learn that!’ It’s something I came up with one day that I totally forgot and I don’t even know what I was doing. Now I sit right down and I do the riff and then I tell myself what I was doing, what fret I was on (laughs). That’s what it takes! The phone’s been a big help. I’m not much of a techy guy. It’s just a big help, though. I’ve forgotten more stuff than I’ve ever had.
And do you think this process is a side effect of your vocation building homes? That you sort of need all of the pieces together? Like the same way you would lay down a foundation.
It’s so true, man. It’s exactly the way I see it. I don’t know if it comes from being a builder or it’s just a coincidence but when I go in the studio, it’s exactly that. It’s laying down the foundation first and then it’s loading up the frame and then it’s putting all the decorations on it. It’s the same thing when you’re making a song. Getting the sounds right, getting the whole track right, the people right. Getting all that stuff right. When you’re building a building, if you put every brick in place correctly, eventually your building will be successful. It’s the same with a song. You’re just slowly putting one brick into place and if it’s the right brick then all of a sudden you have a good album. It is a building philosophy.
Going back to the building philosophy, have you ever built a guitar?
No. And it’s funny. I don’t even have a desire to. I don’t think anyone’s every going to beat what Leo Fender did. And there are many people out there trying! You’d think as a carpenter I would. But from a general contractor point-of-view, I don’t do my own wiring. I have a guy that does the wiring. I have a guy that builds the guitar. I don’t build my own hammer! (laughs)
What is it about a Strat? What makes it so special?
I just think the Strat is the best-sounding guitar out there. Everybody can argue it, but it’s the cleanest, most honest, pure, straight-forward thick sound that’s out there. And you can dirty that up all you want and do what you want with it and make it sound like anything you want. You can feel it in your gut. It just punches you right in the gut if you’re getting a Strat sounding right. It’s just a good-sounding instrument. It just fits my style.
I like the strength of it, too; the construction of the thing I’ve had my Strat knocked over, blown over in the wind, dropped, it’s fallen out of its case. Knock on wood, the thing is still going perfectly. I bought my son an Epiphone once and the thing broke! He knocked it over and the head came off! The Strat’s almost indestructible.
Do you not have time to practice? Do you not practice in general?
My gigs are my practice. The band never has a rehearsal. I live a pretty crazy, busy life and I’ve got such determination and desire to seize the music and do what I want to do with music. And it lights that fire and keeps me going to be able to work 14-hour days and go play gigs. I’ve never met a musician, famous or not famous, that puts in the amount of work I put in. I don’t know how many people would do what I do. But it’s because I’m absolutely obsessed with music. And I’m really starting to see some momentum right now and I’m really excited about it. I always joke and say to musicians, ‘If you want to be a musician, you really have to have a good career!’ And they look at me like I have three heads. They look at me like ‘Isn’t this your career?’
But once you can get some momentum and start making a career out of it, yeah. But I had a career first. Get yourself set-up and get yourself an income, so you can afford to do things. Because it’s expensive. It’s not like you learn a few chords on guitar and they give you a tour bus. It’s hard work. Anybody that’s ever made it in music will tell you it’s not easy. Having two careers is even harder but it enables you to be able to play your gigs or play this venue or get to this spot and get yourself seen. To do whatever it is you have to do.
Is there a typical 14-hour day for you? Because I think people have this idea that you’re flying around on a private jet. Not you in particular but when you see someone on a stage.
Well that’s coming. Don’t cut me out of the jet, yet! (laughs) I’m talking more about working construction and then going out to work music. I remember when I first met with Double Trouble, I remember Chris Layton telling me “Life as a rock star is fun for one hour a day and the rest of it is work.” And I was like ‘What?! What are you talking about?’ I was pretty naive and young at that point. And then I started to get into [music] and you are humping and busting and going and traveling. You’re never getting the proper sleep. You really have to take care of yourself. People see the other side — you on the stage. And that’s why we do it. That’s what we’re there to do. But there’s a lot of work to it.
Speaking of Double Trouble, I know you’re a big Stevie Ray Vaughan fan. Is there something he did that you think only you notice. Or that isn’t as well-recognized about him.
I think he played guitar better than anybody that’s ever lived. Myself, certainly, included. But I think the coolest thing I can tell you about Stevie, in my opinion, is he could play like anyone. He could go into BB King and you’d think you’re listening to BB King. He could play Albert King, of course, that was his forte, and you’d think you were listening to Albert King. And he could do [Albert] Collins. He could do all of these guys, just when his own rig and his own guitar. He knew how to manipulate his sound with his hands. And then when he’s all done with being everybody else, he could go back to being Stevie. And that’s the key thing. He had his own thing, but he had the respect and he had that ability and that talent to be able to go back and transform himself into that person and how they delivered those notes. And I’ve never seen anybody do that.
I’ve seen a lot of guys out there, if they decide to do an Albert King song, they’re going to mock it. Why are you trying to mess up that song? You can’t get any better than Albert. What are you doing? Get your own life! You hear those Stevie bootlegs, though, and you hear him go into these things, and you’re like ‘My God!’ He doing all of their licks. And that’s the key thing. I don’t try to be anybody else. I try to just be myself. Stevie inspired me to do that. But, man, he could be anybody he wanted to be. That’s the part I see less-noted. The guy’s over-the-top, with every other talent there ever was with guitar.
It’s funny you say that because one of the things I like about on the new live album is the “Midnight Rider” cover because it is different from the Allman Brothers version, which everyone knows. It’s nice that you take it to a different place.
I have to be myself. You’re not going to beat what Gregg Allman did with that song. You can only give a nod to it. Don’t try to play it like Gregg did. You’re not going to get any better than those guys. So yeah. I changed it up. There are two reasons. One, I like to change things up a little bit, put my own spin on it, and two, I’m not good enough to learn the way they did it anyway!
You were just speaking about BB and Albert King. Is Freddie King the most under-appreciated King?
Definitely! People know BB King. They might know Albert King. Albert wasn’t quite as popular. He is among guitarists, but as far as the public goes, probably less so. But you mention Freddie King and people go ‘Who’s Freddie King?’ I wish Freddie had more time to tell his story. He died in his 40s. He was more cross-over than any of those guys were at that time. He had all of that momentum in the 70s, and that’s the time BB was starting to become known as well. He was always known in the blues world, but when the Rolling Stones put him out on stage with them, everybody started to play homage to this guy. And the world started to know BB King. He fought and struggled and played and played and played with zero acknowledgment, for 20 or 30 years. People were slow to the take, I guess.
There’s an album by Freddie King that’s a guitar players bible, that they should have. I wish I could find mine or maybe I should download it again but it’s called Freddy King Goes Surfin’. You ever heard of that?
It’s every blues rhythm on one album. Every blues lick. That guy, just what he did on that album. It’s all instrumentals. As far as woodshedding, it is the album to sit down with as a guitar player. Because it’s everything you need to know. If you can do that, you can pretty much sit in with any blues band anywhere you want. So there’s my tip for the guitar players out there.
And have you ever toured with a rhythm guitarist?
No. I haven’t. I haven’t had the want. The band I want to tour with, and it’s going to start evolving here soon, is I really want to find two female backup singers and a really good B3 player. Someone who can really hover and really add to the song. I want to tour with that group. So the rhythm guitarist, if there ever came a point, would probably come after that. But I like to keep it really spontaneous and really raw. And the more people you add to that, the harder it is to be that. You kind of have to have parts and places. Everyone has to find a spot to hang out in the song. So I like the trio. Not a lot of people can pull the trio off. I’ll slowly evolve but I like doing what I’m doing right now.
The line-up you just described is sort of what you used on the live album, right? Is that what gave you the idea?
That’s what I wanted to put out. I put that together. I met the [backup singers] on that album the day of the recording. I found them on YouTube and they lived down near Boston, and I was like ‘Yeah. They’ll be great.’ And they did a great job. But it was the first time we played together. The same with the keyboard player. That band never was together. But that’s part of my spontaneity. I like to keep everyone on their toes because if you’re thinking, you’re stinking. And what better place to do it than with film crews and recording going on. That’s a good time to take a risk! We just pulled it off, though. That’s why I like that album, too. It’s got an energy.
I wish I had better guitar tone on it. I wish I did this or I wish I did that, but that’s what we did. That’s what happened and that’s what we did that day. And that’s what music is. It’s just a recording. It’s just an audio photograph of that moment in time. That’s it.
Did you not love the tone on the album?
My favorite amp did not work that day. I don’t know what happened to it. So I had to use a couple of different things and I didn’t have what I wanted. But I think it works, but it sounded a little choked off to me. And it did during the whole show. But hey. It’s what it is. I can’t change it now.
I thought it’s a good mix but I thought the tone was actually really good.
Yeah. The tone was great! (laughs) I’m not going to point out bad things! But that’s just part of being a guitarist. Everything you do is ‘I have to fix this. I have to change that. I have to get this. I have to find a better reverb pedal. I have to find a better amp. I have to find this. I have to replace this cord. I have to try a different pick.’ It’s part of being an insane guitar player.
You’re fourth-generation master carpenter. Where do you see the music business in four generations.
Maybe I’m crazy but I think there’s got to be a revolution of some kind. Because the radio right now has become sound. There are no bands that are putting things out. This whole Idol thing and all that stuff. It’s like ‘who’s going to come out here and be the best karaoke artist. And we’re going to make you famous. In the meantime, we’re going to take every right you ever had and every dollar you make and we’re going to steal that from you.’ Because it’s a gigantic ploy. ‘We’re going to make you an instant star and you’re going to be famous!’ Yeah. And you’re going to be broke. Because you’re not going to have any [musical] ability.
Maybe I’m crazy but I’m out on the front lines of that music and I just see people starting to really have a greater appreciation for live music, because it’s becoming so rare to find good venues that even have artists come through. It’s very hard to compete because nobody’s into live music. And you go to Europe and people are absolutely nuts about it. But the States are getting fed so much of this The Voice and this stuff on TV. And tribute bands! At least people are going out to see bands but you could have Hendrix playing at a place and nobody would go see Hendrix. But if there was a Hendrix tribute three blocks down, they’d go see the Hendrix tribute. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen, going on with the tribute bands.
Maybe I’m hopelessly optimistic but I feel like people are starting to discover [live music] again. And I think blues is going to be one of the top ones that comes into that. I hope so. I’d really like to see some live stuff. It’ll all work itself out. It’s like a bad sliver.
We’re ending on an optimistic note and a carpentry note!
There you go!
Interview by Steven Ovadia