By James Calemine
CLICK ON LINKS WITH TO JUMP TO RELATED STORIES WITHIN
"Every generation learns to dance/Across that floor they steal their moments..."
I'm standing in the Georgia Theatre in Athens, Georgia. I stare up at the high ceiling. The place is empty. Bloodkin, one of this city’s long time bands, perform their sound check onstage. An accidental fire gutted the Theatre a few years back, and like a phoenix, this resurrected Athens music institution proves a fitting backdrop for the tonight’s performance.
Between place, band, and time, tonight captures a moment of mystical convergence for me. I used to stand in this place often over 20 years ago when I attended the University of Georgia and a young Bloodkin was just picking up steam, but I have only been back to the “new” Georgia Theatre a few times since it was rebuilt. I was here last December for Bloodkin's tribute to the Rolling Stones called "Exile On Lumpkin Street" when Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys played with the band. In August, I attended the tribute to Michael Houser, the lead guitarist for Widespread Panic who died of pancreatic cancer in 2002. I'm here tonight for Bloodkin's release of their 5 CD box set One Long Hustle and a celebration of their 25 year anniversary.
The Bloodkin story is not for those weak at heart. In some ways, this is a story that is glorious to tell, but gritty to live--it's a story of survival. It's a tale about sacrificing everything for your art. The catch is the work must transcend time. There is no doubt the music of Bloodkin will endure. Daniel Hutchens and Eric Carter constructed a mighty songbook, and they are still out there writing songs and playing shows. They're originals. They haven't achieved global acclaim or riches, but they should...and hey, they're still writing, recording and performing, so you never know. They've played gigs all over the country--mean dive bars, festivals, living rooms, juke joints, porches, backyards, sold out coliseums and various other so-called stages. In one song, Danny summed it up when he sang in "Another Lost Son of Gypsy Rose Lee": "We earned some dead blue kisses and a ringing in our ears."
Bloodkin’s new 5-CD box set--One Long Hustle--contains 88 song recordings covering the scope of their entire career. It's an amazing collection and testament to their music and how far they've come. It has not been easy. Everything is just as meaningful now as it ever was with no one is getting any younger. Knowing Bloodkin all these years--the friendship, the brotherhood, tragedies, heartbreaks, accomplishments, failures and, God knows, laughs--their story is really that of any hardworking hero.
I've served as a witness and comrade in Bloodkin’s rock & roll crusade. We have been close friends throughout most of the years that One Long Hustle spans. Bloodkin is truly family to me. I was about 22 when I met them. I lived with Danny and Eric for four and a half years in the DaVille Apartments when the rock & roll atmosphere of Athens, Georgia, was at a zenith in the 90s. I've seen the dark underbelly of rock & roll, shady deals, rock & roll illusions and glory of Bloodkin first hand... things that cannot be forgotten.
I really haven't written in depth about the band in years because it's a fine line. Ernest Hemingway said you should never write about your friends because it softens one's ruthless perspective. You take it easy on them. So as a storyteller telling a tale of songsmiths, I have the luxury and the curse of blurring the lines between art and friendship after 20-plus years. In this great unknown, I intend to do just that...
"Voodoo can't touch us We're too fuckin' mean..."
Daniel Hutchens was eight when he met a six year old Eric Carter through a neighbor in Ripley, West Virginia. The boys connected immediately sharing an interest in comic books, baseball, and rock & roll music. A few years later their fascination in music expanded as Hutchens began playing guitar, and Carter started out on drums. “He was a good drummer——then his parents bought him a guitar, and the drums sort of went out the window,” laughed Hutchens.
They were crazy motherfuckers with a wicked sense of humor, and they were deadly serious about songwriting and playing music. In their early days in West Virginia Eric and Danny began writing songs. I remember being told it was the younger Eric who actually turned Danny onto the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Eventually, in their own way, Danny chose the Dylan’s troubadour path as Eric seemed to align with Keith Richards’ rock & roll lineage. They called themselves The Black Market Babies and before they were called Bloodkin, a name Danny took the from a short story by William Goyen titled "The Faces of Blood Kindred".
The insulated nature of their home state made our heroes restless. I remember them telling me stories of growing up in West Virginia and the classic social perspective locals always have of longhairs who read books. I understood having been to West Virginia all my life. My 99-year old grandmother still lives there. Still, they honed their chops in their home state. They already wrote almost a hundred songs before they left the state. They played shows around West Virginia including one in 1984 when Danny and Eric backed up beat poet Allen Ginsberg in 1984. Of course, Ginsberg was close friends with William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Jack Kerouac. Danny showed me a Xerox copy of the check once. Like Ginsberg’s friend Kerouac, the road beckoned, and they knew they would have to leave town.
Compared to Huntington, West Virginia, Athens, Georgia, home of the University of Georgia, served as a lodestone of culture when our heroes arrived in 1986. Danny wrote in the Long Hustle liner notes this about their geographical move:
We wound up in Athens mainly by chance--we'd heard about the music scene just like everyone else in America, and we thought we'd move there and give it a try. We never thought we'd wind up staying twenty-plus years. But Athens delivered on all the things Huntington hadn't, and then some. To this day, there's not a better place in the world to start up a rock & roll band. I'm not exactly sure what exactly makes it such a great place for music--I don't think anyone's ever really been sure. That's part of the magic; you can't put a finger on it.
Athens contained everything they wanted. Athens was hip--it wasn't West Virginia. It's a college town. There were plenty of bars and girls in Athens. They were having a blast. They began playing gigs and trying to get a solid lineup. They did the struggling musician thing, working jobs in restaurants such as Gus Garcias and Harry Bissett's that didn’t interfere with their gigs. Athens allowed them complete artistic freedom. In those days, the Bloodkin line-up settled into Danny and Eric backed with the rhythm section of Barry Sell and Aaron Phillips. Bloodkin also fell in with the right crowd--musically speaking. In those early Athens days Bloodkin kept company with bands like Widespread Panic, the Dashboard Saviors, Pylon, Flat Duo Jets, Vic Chesnutt, Kilkenney Cats, White Buffalo, Hayride and a long list of other musicians. They were already originals amid the crowd. Athens was deep with hippie roots and certainly alternative ones, but Bloodkin really were the hard-core rock & rollers. They established themselves with their Bob Dylan/Rolling Stones combination in that late 80s period when Athens was being defined worldwide as a hotbed of alternative rock & roll by bands like the B-52s and REM.
As a mean rock & roll band that didn't prescribe to hippie musical ethics or alternative pop aesthetics, Bloodkin honed their song craft during those early Athens days. They were deadly serious about doing things their way without selling out. As a testament to their vision, the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson asked Eric to join the band around this time. Eric declined to join that emerging Atlanta band--opting to stay with Danny. Foreshadowing Danny and Eric’s longer story, the Crowes went onto sell 25 million albums, and Bloodkin took their first step towards operating on obscurity's tightrope.
Danny wrote about this first moment that captured the essence of Eric Carter in the One Long Hustle liner notes and how Eric's ethic proved to be destiny:
Eric willfully turned his back on being a rock star, but he certainly could have achieved that goal if that's what he had wanted deep down--his options certainly weren't limited to me. He turned The Black Crowes down flat when they were starting out; he considered them too derivative. I told him to go earn some cash and gain some celebrity. But he was too pure, too proud, too stubborn. And those same qualities are part of what makes his guitar playing so great. He may have passed up the full blown fame and fortune, but he nailed the Art. As the recordings attest...
Our heroes were too young to be deterred as Bloodkin’s musical diamonds continued to shine in the Athens scene. Their songwriting efforts bore fruit when a few of their songs got into the hands of members from Widespread Panic whose regional touring popularity had them as the next group from Athens poised for flight behind R.E.M. Panic loved Bloodkin's music and championed the band from the start. In fact, they loved Bloodkin's music so much that they decided to record "Makes Sense To Me" on their breakthrough second album Mom's Kitchen in 1991. Things were looking up for Bloodkin. It seemed they began operating on the threshold of exposing a wider audience to their music. It was around this time that I met Bloodkin.
"I stole the kisses when the bride was young/A razor blade beneath my tongue."
"Paying What I Owe"
I grew up on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Like Danny and Eric in West Virginia, I started early on my writing journey from my coastal Georgia home. As a longtime literature and music nut, I discovered the writer Stanley Booth lived across the causeway in Brunswick, Georgia, when I was 17. Booth wrote the definitive book on The Rolling Stones called the True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. The book revolved around the 1969 Stones tour that ended with Altamont. Booth would turn out to be a significant musical and literary influence upon this writer.
Booth was born in Waycross, Georgia, but he lived in Memphis for 25 years. Always a hub for American music, Memphis became an essential rock & roll city during the 50s and 60s with Sun Records (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Phillips), Stax Records (Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs), and Hi Records (Al Green, Willie Mitchell). As a writer there, Booth knew Otis Redding, Gram Parsons, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, B.B. King, Furry Lewis, Duane Allman, Jim Dickinson, Jerry Wexler, Phineas Newborn, Charlie Freeman, Lash LaRue, Furry Lewis, Al Green, Carla Thomas and a long list of others. Booth served as a literary mentor to me giving me a hard dose of truth about what it meant to be a writer. Booth also exposed me to books and albums I would've never heard about if not for him and his vast collection. Booth was a serious frame of reference. His music and literary collection rivaled most small town libraries. I recorded hundreds of jazz, blues, country, and rock & roll albums at his house.
Today, my good friend Griffin Bufkin serves as the proprietor of St Simons’ famed Southern Soul Barbeque, but in our youth Griffin and I used to ride the school bus together. We shared a love for music back then. Years later, I made my friends cassettes of obscure music often culled from Stanley Booth’s collection. Mixed tapes like these were gold as this was before CDs--much less Internet or cell phones. The tapes contained esoteric songs from known and unknown artists or undiscovered gems. Years later in 1990, Griffin was booking a bar in Valdosta, Georgia called Ashley Street Station. He had one of my tapes playing over the system when Bloodkin arrived to play the club. That particular tape happened to contain a Bob Dylan song called "God Knows" that Danny or Eric never heard. They asked Griffin who made the tape. Griffin told them about me, and a couple months later I met Danny at the Roadhouse Bar in Athens. I remember Danny giving me the cassettes called “Start From Scatch”, which became Disc one on One Long Hustle box set. A few days later, I met Eric. The cosmic friendship began...
After high school, I lived in Valdosta, Georgia, for a few months before moving to Athens, Georgia, and eventually graduating from the University of Georgia. Around the same time period I met Bloodkin, I took a pilgrimage to Memphis with Stanley Booth when he was writing his second book called Rythm Oil(sic). Booth and I visited Sun Studios, the Peabody Motel and the Lamplighter Lounge. We saw the Dickinson Family (Jim with sons Luther & Cody, who later formed North Mississippi Allstars) perform together for the first time at the Memphis Blues Festival billed as Jim Dickinson & The Hardlycan Playboys.
From Booth I learned about the literary craft and some hardcore artistic business facts. Luckily, Booth's influence evaporated any illusion I operated on regarding artistic bliss. I learned there is a severe price to pay for your art. This knowledge would become invaluable as I began my time with Bloodkin as their friend, witness and creative compadre.
When I moved into the living room of their two-bedroom apartment in early 1992, it was a productive time for Hutchens/Carter. It seemed like they were writing new songs almost every day. I'd hear Danny in his bedroom playing the same song over and over. It got to the point where I learned the songs long before they were recorded or played live. Sometimes I'd fall in love with that original version before it would be changed around for its officially recording. I got Danny a job at Dial America, and we had fun with that for a while. We'd hang out , talk, play music, watch TV and cop a buzz. I carried a lot of guitar cases and amps for them in those days. I'd jump in the van and travel with them to shows. It was really all about fun as long as the craft was involved. All sorts of Athens music locals came by the apartment. Panic’s Todd Nance and his wife were regulars along with Todd McBride, Mike Gibson, John Donley, Jackie Jasper, Greta Bettis and a cast of other local characters.
1992 was an interesting year. The Rodney King riots were exploding. Grunge was taking over. Widespread Panic were already on their way after Phil Walden chose the band to be the flagship group on his resurrected Capricorn Records. A Georgia music legend, Walden had managed Otis Redding and later Duane Allman. Walden created Capricorn Records as a vehicle for the Allman Brothers Band. Before its bankruptcy in 1979, Capricorn had been one of the most successful independent labels of the 70s and now Walden had his mind set on re-creating the Capricorn/Allman magic with Widespread Panic.
As Panic continued to achieve success on Capricorn, people were getting used to Bloodkin’s association with Panic. Phil Walden facilitated Danny's songwriting with potential Capricorn artists such as Jerry Joseph. There was a high sense of anticipation in the air surrounding Bloodkin as they prepared to record an album of their own. Disc two on One Long Hustle is a good representation of material that was being played around the house during this time. Disc three on the box set contains some of my favorite songs that never saw the light of until now such as "Misunderstand", "Devil Without A Disguise", "Hand Right In Front of Your Face", and "Paying What I Owe".
"You can translate from your hips/You can learn to read my lips
Don't you misunderstand me."
As a staff producer for Capricorn Records in the 70s, Johnny Sandlin recorded with the Allman Brothers, Cowboy, Eddie Hinton and a long list of others. In the early 90s, Sandlin became a musical link between the two Capricorn eras since he was now serving Widespread Panic’s producer as well. Panic had always championed Bloodkin's music and did everything they could to expose Bloodkin's music to a wider audience, so it was decided that Bloodkin would record their debut album, Good Luck Charm, at Johnny Sandlin's studio in Decatur, Alabama. In late 92, they began to travel to Decatur to record with legends--hard-boiled professionals like the legendary bass/drum duo of David Hood and Roger Hawkins from the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (aka "The Swampers"). Bloodkin’s line-up now consisted of Chris Barrineau on bass and Jack Dawson on the drums. This core band would be featured on Good Luck Charm. Compositions for these sessions included old standbys like "Preacherman", "Quarter Tank of Gasoline", "Privilege", "Can't Get High", "Success Yourself" and "End of the Show". Every member of Widespread Panic played on the album.
In the summer of 1993, Danny traveled to Europe to play bass in Moe Tucker's Band. Tucker served as the drummer in the Velvet Underground. Danny got a taste of how to travel with the real rock & rollers. I remember he suffered heatstroke that summer somewhere in Europe while Eric and I held the fort down in Athens. One evening I asked Eric to show me some things on the guitar. It flashed an insight into his character, and his ability to cut truthfully right to the matter. I already knew some chords, and could pluck around but there were a few things I wanted him to show me. After a lick, I mentioned, "I can't really use my pinky finger that well." Eric looked at me and grinned with cigarette smoke obscuring his face, "Then you're not really serious, are you?" Rest assured, I began practicing with the pinky finger.
I wrote the liner notes for Good Luck Charm, and when the record was released in September of 93, I read some poetry at the release party at the Nowhere Bar in Athens with the band playing behind me. That was the first public outing for what we called 'The Fandango Brothers'. We's sit around, and they would play guitar around pieces of lyrics, poems or stories I'd written--much like they'd done with Allen Ginsberg. A lot of of personal ground was covered in these days. Everyone became familiar with the other's tendencies and proclivities. This was a serious song-crafting period that would last for several years. Widespread Panic recording the Bloodkin song "Henry Parsons Died" for their Everyday album allowed even more exposure for Bloodkin. It seemed rock & roll dreams were at their fingertips, and they were ascending...
"Good luck, I think you're gonna need it/When you cut out in the storm..."
"Wet Trombone Blues"
1994 was an interesting year. Now, Bloodkin had a record to promote. They hit the road with a vengeance. A taste of the rock & roll dream dawned. I began writing The Bloodkin Chronicles--which is now book length--and documented the daily notes I'd make when they would play shows, or even practice. The downtown Athens camaraderie really began to accelerate. There were a lot of late night activities. A lot of music was played. A lot of songs written. Mysteries and lore of the art reigned supreme around Apartment C6. We began recording Fandango Brothers numbers around the house more often during this time. The core of our friendship always revolved around the work of our heroes and how we tried to follow the old traditions. They were musicians who were well-read, and I was a writer who heard a lot of music and tried to tinker on instruments myself. Tastes of Panic excesses would spill over as far as exposure, friends and benefits. Danny did another tour with the Velvet Underground and operated as Lou Reed's guitar tech in Europe. Danny cultivated a friendship with Sterling Morrison that continued until Morrison's death.
Despite all the good vibes around the record, Good Luck Charm had been released on a label started by John Bell of Panic and Johnny Sandlin. Their faith in Bloodkin notwithstanding, these were the days before the Internet - no iTunes, music downloads, streaming music, YouTube, etc. It was essential the record labels have good distribution to get your record into record stores and then might to get your songs heard on the radio. The Sandlin/Bell label could not do this effectively, which hampered Bloodkin’s progress. I once heard a story that Capricorn was pursuing Bloodkin, but somehow the deal didn't materialize. A deal like this could have made all the difference.
Still, things were going pretty well, and fun remained the main source of everything that was undertaken. Bloodkin still seemed poised for a wider exposure due to Panic’s growing success. After Panic recorded "Henry Parsons Died" on their Everyday album, they covered Bloodkin’s "Can't Get High" on the Ain't Life Grand CD making it a single. Unfortunately, the video for "Can't Get High"--the Bloodkin song Panic recorded on their Ain't Life Grand album--was never delivered to MTV by the Capricorn rep, which stunted the chance of massive television exposure. The song still hit #27 on the Billboard charts, but that setback seemed to linger in some strange way. Panic was beginning to soar, yet that was the first faint trace of Bloodkin falling between the cracks.
All along, I watched first-hand the types of people who warm their hands around a rock & roll band. Some folks have a legitimate reason to be there, and some don't. It's a sad case in some respects that attracts people like hustlers, crazy women, drunks & addicts, big talkers and sick egomaniacs with terminal identity crisis and no real form of self-expression other than ranting, raving or making a scene in a bar. They come and they go. Having said that, in Bloodkin's case--for the most part--the people around them I love more now than I did then. Lifelong connections I'll never forget, and I'm happy they continue.
"I live in a rotgut midnight town my home/Rotgut midnight town I call it home."
By 1995, things were getting a little crazy. We were all running pretty hard, and it was the earliest signs of threads wearing thin. In preparation for what would become their second album Creeperweed, Danny and Eric were playing and recording a lot of songs in our kitchen--Apartment C6. Tunes like "Black Jacket". "All Dolled Up" and "Asked For Water" were some of the tunes. But, there were so many songs I heard and loved that never saw the light of day--songs like "Absolutely Nothing"--until One Long Hustle. A lot of songs on the box set were written during this period. Chris Barrineau played a vital role in the energy, music, and personal camaraderie during these days. We were all close. Our apartment became the rock & roll headquarters. All kinds of folks were coming over, and after awhile it got a little strange. We were flirting with dark shadows out on the fringe. Living together, we all became accustomed to the others phrases and expressions and soon we all adopted the same phrases so in some cases it might be difficult to ascertain who actually thought of it first. Around this time, Danny and I wrote a song called "Early Grave". I wrote the verses and he wrote the chorus. Maybe one day the version we recorded will see the light of day.
However, the Creeperweed recording sessions stand as a real glorious time of music, telepathy, magic and serendipity. Danny wrote this regarding Creeperweed:
In 1995 we made Creeperweed, which wound up being one of my favorite recording experiences. I knew two things going in: One, I wanted to make a record that was more spontaneous and less "polished" than Good Luck Charm; as valuable an experience as working with Johnny Sandlin had been, Good Luck Charm is very much Johnny's vision of Bloodkin, and now I wanted to create something a little closer to the band's original heart. Two, I wanted the record to be made entirely with "acoustic" instruments. I use the quotes because some of the acoustic instruments were variously equipped with electronic pick-ups and plugged into amplifiers, or otherwise affected during the recording process. But I wanted the flavor of those basic instruments: acoustic guitars, dobro, acoustic bass (not upright, but just Chris Barrineau's hollow-body acoustic bass guitar), drums, harmonica, fiddle. The only "electric" instrument used was John Keane's pedal steel. I heard this record in my head before we ever made it; of all our records this was was definitely my baby. It was no easy task to convince Eric Carter not to play any electric guitar on an entire record.
The album was recorded in mostly at Doug Stanley's house, but Widespread Panic's old rehearsal space served as the magical location where they recorded the stellar instrumental "Mercy Train To Bogart" in one take. They stripped their sound down to acoustic instruments. Danny played guitar with his back to me. Todd Nance sat on Danny's right. Eric was sitting to Todd's right. Mike Gibson was on Eric's right. Barrineau to his right--all in a circle. I sat at the empty keyboard seat. And under those circumstances, it may stand as one of my most memorable musical moments. There was a weird light in the dimmed place that night--king of a blue-ish green aura. Three minutes of pure timeless reflection for your humble scribe. After these sessions, the rock & roll habits became more evident on everyone...and things became a bit darker and weirder.
During this time I met Patterson Hood. His father David Hood, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bassist who had also played bass on Good Luck Charm, remains a legend having playing on records by Aretha Franklin to Bob Dylan to Traffic. Patterson was the sound guy at the High Hat Blues Club. He had not formed the Drive By Truckers yet, but his emergence on the Bloodkin radar during this time provides another glimpse of foreshadowing. Hood would later play an important role in the band’s history, but it would take more than a decade.
Bloodkin remained the undiscovered Athens band. Creeperweed was released in September of 1996, but it had the same “lack of a record label” problem as Good Luck Charm. Still, the evening Todd served as the drummer when they played the release party at the High Hat Blues Club that counts as one of my favorite Bloodkin shows of all time. The show represented a zenith musically for me because the performance captured the full force of their songwriting and the raw power of these four guys playing music. Straight to the source. Close to the bone. There were many, many great memories to come, but that night was pure magic. Around this time, I began to feel things were changing a little bit. By October of 95, after the Creeperweed sessions, I could feel the shifting sands of time descending on everyone. I was getting antsy...a little nervous. People close to us began overdosing and going to jail. I began spending more time in Atlanta, and by the fall of 96 I moved out of the DaVille Apartments. I felt a foreboding sense of change that maybe the band didn't during that time after the Creeperweed sessions. It was the end of an era for me...
CLICK ON LINKS WITH TO JUMP TO RELATED STORIES WITHIN