When Albert Cummings first went into FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., to begin working on his forthcoming album Believe, out Feb. 14 from Provogue Records, his goal was to record popular blues covers—and covers only. The hit classics are among radio’s top spun, he reasoned, so why not entice radio hosts with new versions of old favorites? But once he reunited with producer Jim Gaines (whose storied career includes projects with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Santana, Albert Collins, Walter Trout and so many others) and got a feel for the studio, his approach began to change. Before he knew it, he’d amassed recordings of six original songs that he decided to pair with five covers, resulting in a mix of the old and the new. And while some of the cover selections differ significantly in terms of tone and message, Cummings feels confident his listeners will embrace the collection. “I noticed throughout the years that people relate to my songs and type of music,” he recently told Blues Rock Review. “Maybe that connection is Albert.”
How did your visualization for this album change as you began recording it?
I noticed that most radio stations, especially in the blues world, they don’t tend to play a lot of original stuff; they tend to play stuff they’re familiar with and cover songs, no matter what the band is. And I said, “I’m going to make a whole album of just covers so they’ll always have something to pull from the album, and they’ll always have something they’re familiar with.” Then I decided to go to Muscle Shoals, and I still went there with that game plan. But when I got there, Jim Gaines started bringing in all these musicians and we started playing. I was like, “This is no longer a cover album, Jim.” So I decided to do half and half: I did six of my own and then five covers.
That’s what the basic thought was. It turned out to be something totally different, which is probably why I like it so much. I believe if you’re thinking, you’re stinking. I wanted people to be able to just put it on and let it play all the way through. If they’re having a house party or driving, they can just enjoy it. I wanted it to have that feel. When they used to make albums where they picked songs that all flowed with each other, that’s what I tried to do for my own songs and others.
What’s your working relationship with Jim Gaines like?
It’s funny—I know about all these people Jim’s worked with, but every time I get with him I find out something else that he did. He’s not one to ever brag about whatever he’s done; he doesn’t even talk about it. Our whole relationship from the day we first met is just about friendship. It’s not really anything to do with how great he is; he’s just such a humble guy. You never know it when you’re working with him. He’s such a good friend and such a nice person to be around. It makes me feel really comfortable in a studio, and that’s all I want.
Jim’s the kind of guy that will be pushing you with a cattle prod, but you won’t know it. He’s very good at like, “Oh, you can do better than that, Albert.” He pushes you but doesn’t ever insult you or hurt your feelings. He always wants the best for whoever he’s working with, and that’s what’s really nice about him.
Does he help you tap into deeper emotions, or is it more of a technical result when he pushes you in the studio?
He finds out where you want to go; he finds out what the address is that you need to GPS and he finds out how to get there. Because he makes me feel so comfortable, I never get that nervousness of, “I have to overplay or play too much.” With this album especially, it wasn’t as much a guitar album as an album of songs. Jim’s a guitar guy, so it’s very easy to fall into the trap of, “I have to play something and I have to overdo this.” With Jim, you don’t have to do that. You just play a couple notes, and if that fits the song and feels good and passes Jim’s white glove test, it’s fine.
I’ve had many times where Jim has said, “Take a couple cracks at this,” and we’ll listen back and I’ll say, “I like this one,” and he’ll say, “No, I think I like this one.” And I’m like, “But I’m not doing anything in that.” And he’s like, “That’s what I like.” It’s kind of nice; because of my close relationship with him, I just trust him so much. Most of the time, when I get back home and let it sit for a little while and listen back to it, I’m like, “He’s right.” The guy’s just so smart.
How did you decide which covers to include on Believe? Did you start with a list that you had to pare down over time?
I did. I went in with a whole playlist of probably 25 songs that I wanted to pick from. I never want to do a song exactly how someone originally did it; I think that’s pure plagiarism in music. I always like to put my own version on it. If I made that album in Chicago versus Muscle Shoals, I probably would have picked different songs because it fit the players better. They were all songs that I’d grown up listening to, or that inspired me in some way and made me want to play. Every one had to get through that test first.
I usually go and work with the studio band that’s in the area. I think everyone brings something different to the table. If I’d had a different drummer on this album, I might have selected something different. My original songs on every album I’ve ever done, I’ve never gone into the studio knowing what they are. I go in with an idea, but they’re all born in the studio. I’ve had songs where I have to come home and learn them myself.
It’s interesting to think that if you’d recorded in a studio anywhere else that the track listing for this album would be completely different.
I truly believe that’s absolutely 100% true. It’s all about vibes. Even live shows are like that; I never use a set list when I play, so a different audience can bring me to a whole different place. Ten, 15 minutes in I’m hearing what they’re going for, what they’re liking.
I’m parked next to a river right now, so I’m thinking if I were to try to catch a fish out there and it wasn’t working with one lure, I’d switch to another one—just like I’d switch songs and would keep trying until I found something that they’d hit on.
In the studio, it’s the same thing: When you’re working with players and the guys that are running the sound board and the equipment that you’re using and everything that goes with it, you have to adapt. I go in and I do reconnaissance when I’m starting up and figuring things out, and I learn about what I want to do. It’s a completely off the hip thing for me. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but it’s what I do.
I love to be able to create live shows as well as in the studio and just come up with something that hasn’t been done. What else could be interesting? It wouldn’t be any fun to try to copy somebody’s album. I want to create something that’s never been done before; that’s the whole goal with every live show and studio album I do.
Getting into some of the specific songs on Believe, “Hold On” has a completely different feeling to it than “Crazy Love.” What do you hope your listeners get out of hearing such different songs on the same album?
Both of those songs have touched me. If I don’t give my listeners 100% of what I like, how are they going to like it? I hope they find a connection and feel the same. I noticed throughout the years that people relate to my songs and type of music. They’re completely different artists and types of music, but maybe that connection is Albert.
I think there’s two types of musicians: Creators who make music and play it, and then there’s the performers who play what the creators have created. They just go and perform; they don’t create. I try to be a creator.
“Do What Mama Says” is a fun addition to the album, and while other songs embrace themes like love and loss, this one feels accessible to all age groups, even the very young. What inspired you to bring this song into the fold?
I think it’s one of my favorites on the album. It’s not specifically about what my mother said to me; it could be similar to what my wife would tell my sons and what I would tell my sons as well.
I’m 52 years old now, and I’m watching society slipping away from the kindness between people. It just comes down to parenting; everything I see going wrong in society comes down to parenting. “Do What Mama Says” might have come from that. It’s just simple, stupid things that we’re all told, but kids and adults still need it. “Use your manners,” “always say please,” “just be nice.” Be kind out there. I like that song, and I hope that the girls will like that song too, because I could see them pointing at their boyfriends or husbands or whatever and saying, “Hey, you do what Mama says.”
You first started performing when you were 27. Do you feel that getting into music performance then instead of in your teens or early 20s helped you avoid the pitfalls that some musicians fall into when they are immersed in the industry at a young age?
I think we all go through growing up, whether you’re in music or not. I’ve had people tell me, “You should have done this when you were 20 years old.” I’d say, “Well, I couldn’t have done this when I was 20. I didn’t know myself when I was 20.” I think there’s some point to what you said; maybe being more mature helped me. I literally started when most people were giving up.
I never dreamed of playing music. Music found me. I’m so glad it did, because it’s helped me grow and there are all these people I’ve met. But in my style of music, you’re not going to see me write a pop song. The music industry and national radio are set up for what 13-year-old girls are going to buy. The rest of us are just out of luck.
There are a lot of us out there that wish radio would change. We’re also the ones who are paying for the companies’ products that they’re advertising with. I don’t understand how it doesn’t catch.
People are starting to get real tired with the one-week wonder songs that get overplayed and disappear. What happens to the artists? Maybe they’re not quite mature enough to handle what’s going on. I know for myself that I could not have done any of what I do now then.
What I play right now is entirely different from what I played five years ago. My approach, my thoughts, everything. The songs I’m writing now are much different from what they were 10 or 20 years ago.
For me, that’s a great thing: It means I’ve grown.
Interview by Meghan Roos