Hart, Alvin Youngblood
Alvin Youngblood Hart (born Gregory Edward Hart), a self–taught guitarist, songwriter, and multi–instrumentalist, helped lead a younger generation of creative blues artists during the 1990s. Similar to artists such as Keb’ Mo’ and Corey Harris, the free–spirited, Memphis–based musician with a solid foundation in the blues wrote and performed songs personalized with his own insights and experiences. Moreover, Hart’s musical influences extended beyond the confines of the blues, as did those of blues veteran Taj Mahal, who viewed the blues as a world music rather than an American genre. Borrowing techniques from an array of artists such as rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix to alternative bluesman Captain Beefheart, Hart developed an eclectic blues style that included elements of western swing, pop, reggae, and rock.
Hart’s 1996 debut album Big Mama’s Door earned the singer and guitarist the W.C. Handy Award (he was nominated for a total of five) for best new artist in 1997. In 1999, Downbeat magazine named Hart’s 1998 follow–up album, the acclaimed Territory, as blues album of the year. With two successful records to his name at just 35 years of age, critics predicted that, like his predecessor Taj Mahal, Hart would prove an important inspiration to contemporary blues musicians foryears to come. “Using mandolin, 12–string and lap steel guitars, Hart cuts straight through the soul of the music,” commented Michael Point in Downbeat, “transcending simple labels like ‘blues’ in favor of something more universal and all–encompassing.” Likewise, Downbeats Frank–John Had–ley added, “Hart is afine, discriminating singerand multi–instrumentalist whose interpretations of country blues and other African–American folk song are among the most involved anywhere.” And Hart himself further explained, “To me blues is all about personal expression and musical adventure, and that’s what I strive for when recording.”
Hart’s musical adventure began far from the cultural heart and soul of blues music, which originated in the southern United States. Although Hart would later live in Chicago as a teenager and serve time in the U.S. Coast Guard stationed on the Mississippi River, two areas known for influencing blues artists, Hart’s first introduction to the blues occurred during his early childhood in California. Born on March 2, 1963, in Oakland, Hart said blues music always filled the family home, as both his parents had roots in rural Mississippi. “I just came upon the blues, what, just hearing it every day in the house,” Hart explained to Renée Montagne in an interview for the National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast Morning Edition. “My dad used to walkaround the housesinging, ‘Momma killed a chicken, thought it was a duck, put him on the table with his legs sittin’ up, got to bottle up and go, ’ you know. I’ve been hearing that since day one. Playing in
Born Gregory Edward Hart, March 2, 1963, in Oakland, CA; Education: Studied guitar with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
Released debut album, Big Mama’s Door, Columbia/Okeh, 1996; released Territory, Hannibal, 1998; toured with alternative rock bands, including the Afghan Whigs and Son Volt, 1999.
Awards: W.C. Handy Award for best new artist, 1997; Downbeat magazine award for best blues album of the year for Territory, 1999.
Addresses: Home —Memphis, TN. Record company —Hannibal/Rykodisc, Shetland Park, 27 Congress St., Salem, MA 01970; phone: (888) 2–EARFUL. Website— http://www.rykodisc.com.
the house, playing in my head, you know, from day one.” In addition, family vacations to Carroll County, Mississippi, where Hart’s grandparents lived, further strengthened his admiration for the blues.
From Oakland, the Hart family moved to Los Angeles, then to Ohio, before settling in Chicago, a city rich in the blues culture. Here, Hart met and played music on the streets with other blues artists like the late Maxwell Street Jimmy and Lucky Lopez, who remained relatively unknown outside Chicago, and earned his middle name “Youngblood” from the older musicians. In orderto entice them to let him sit in and play, Hart used to put extra money in their tip boxes.
As a young adult, Hart spent seven years with the Coast Guard. Forthreeandahalf ofthoseyears, he was based on a buoy boat in the town of Natchez, located on the Mississippi River. During the day, the crew set up buoys in the river to mark the deep water for commercial boats and also built navigational lights along the river bank. But at night, with the crew’s ship tied to a tree in the middle of the river, Hart usually concentrated on playing blues. “I’d get a chance to practice music a little bit on the bow of the boat, you know, where nobody was, if the mosquitoes weren’t too bad.” One of Hart’s later instrumental songs, “Underway at 7,” was inspired by his time spent on the Mississippi. “We used to have breakfast at 6:30 and get underway at 7,” Hart told Montagne, explaining the song’s title.
After serving with the Coast Guard, Hart turned to music. In 1996 at age 33, he released his 14–track debut album, Big Mama’s Door, with producers Michael Nash and Carey Williams on the Columbia/OKeh label; “Big Mama” refers to Hart’s grandmother from Mississippi. Beginning with the first song, the album’s title track, and continuing throughout the record, Hart explored his country blues side and the acoustic blues tradition through his own expressive interpretations. Critics often complain that most younger blues artists seem overly studied when they take on the rich blues heritage. However, Hart displayed a comfortable ease and sense of authority in his singing, finger picking, and playing slide guitar. On his original song “Joe Friday,” Hart sounded much like one of blues music’s icons, the Mississippi Delta legend Robert Johnson. He also covered other artist’s tunes, including Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues,” Leadbelly’s “When I Was a Cowboy,” and Willie McTell’s “Hillbilly Willie’s Blues.” In 1997, Hart received five W.C. Handy Award nominations for his debut and won the title for best new artist.
Around the same time Hart released Big Mama’s Door, he was one of six slide guitarists chosen to participate in sessions with Junior Wells, known as one of the creators, along with Little Walter, the two Sonny Boy Williamsons, and James Cotton, of Mississippi Delta/Chicago–style harmonica playing. The sessions resulted in the 1996 release of Come on in This House, produced by John Snyder on the Telare label. For the album, Hart performed on both 12–string dobro and National steel guitar.
Two years later in 1998, Hart released his sophomore effort, Territory, this time with Hannibal (a division of Rykodisc), a label that appeared to give the artist a broader range of creativity. Continuing to illuminate the blues tradition, Hart performed a haunting version of a lesser–known song by Skip James (1902–1969) entitled “Illinois Blues,” as well Bukka White’s (1909–1977) backwoods–inspired “Mama Don’t Allow.” For both songs, he heightened the drama with his skillful slide guitar playing. Hart also performed the age–old folk song “John Hardy,” adding his own personal touch by playing acoustic guitar and concertina, while Taj Mahal stepped in to play mandolin and provide vocal support for “France Blues.” But unlike Hart’s first album, Territory traveled beyond traditional blues. An admitted fan of singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autry during his childhood, Hart paid tribute to western swing music through his original song “Tallacatcha,” featuring the lap steel guitar and fiddle. He also performed a remake of Captain Beef–heart’s blues–rocker “Ice Rose,” a Jamaican, ska groove entitled “Just About to Go,” and the lamentful Tin Pan Alley number “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes.”
“One of the ways for me to keep music enjoyable is to cover a lot of ground or play whatever I feel I can get away with at the time,” Hart explained to Hadley, recollecting the lessons he learned while studying for a short time with the musically versatile multi–instrumentalist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, considered one of the foremost architects of modern blues guitar. “He was always telling me to forget about what labels people want to put on you and just try to have a good time playing music.” Taking Brown’s advice in recording Territory obviously paid off for Hart, as the acclaimed collection won the blues album of the year award in 1999 from Downbeat magazine.
Making a more diverse record also brought Hart fans from outside the blues scene, and by the spring of 1999, the artist opened for alternative rock acts such as the Afghan Whigs and Son Volt. “It’s kind of loud, so I’m playing electric guitar as opposed to doing my regular acoustic gig,” he told Hadley. In addition to playing guitars, Hart also enjoyed repairing and restoring, buying, selling, and trading the instruments. For his next project, he hoped to record a harder–edged album because, as he recalled, “I grew up on all that early–to mid–70s Frank Zappa music.” In the future, Hart also wanted to work with his older brother, a funk base player who lives in Japan, on a tribute album to Sonny Sharrock (1940–1994), a well–known experimental, free–jazz guitarist.
Big Mama’s Door, Columbia/OKeh, 1996.
(With others) Come on in This House, Telarc, 1996.
Territory, Hannibal, 1998.
(With others) Every Road I Take: The Best of Contemporary Acoustic Blues, Shanachie, 1999.
Rucker, Leland, editor, musicHound blues: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Swenson, John, editor, Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide, Random House, 1999.
Downbeat, September 1998, p. 55; March 1999, pp. 22–25; April 1999, p. 64; August 1999, p. 42.
Independent, July 3, 1998, p. 17.
Morning Edition (NPR), July 21, 1998.
Newsday, August 27, 1998, p. C07.
St. Louis Post–Dispatch, July 25, 1996, p. 08; August 21, 1998, p. E4.
Village Voice, September 15, 1998, p. 62.
Hart, Alvin Youngblood
Hart, Alvin Youngblood
Steeped in the acoustic blues tradition of his Mississippi ancestors, guitarist and singer Alvin Youngblood Hart has earned both critical and popular acclaim. His songs honor the blues heritage of such seminal figures as Leadbelly and Robert Johnson, but also incorporate more eclectic influences such as western swing, Jamaican ska, funk, jazz, and acid rock. Hart explained his wide-ranging musical tastes to Scott Barretta in Jefferson Blues Magazine, saying "I just want to hear it played good, white or black…I'm to the point of Gatemouth Brown, he says ‘I don't play the blues, I play music.’ I might play the blues here for five minutes, but then I might play something else, a Mexican polka. I'm just trying to play music, call it songster if you want. Like I'm up there with my wife, working on some gypsy song. I don't know what it's about, but it sounds pretty sad and bluesy to me." His taste appeals to audiences throughout the United States and Europe, where he tours extensively.
Gregory Edward Hart, who adopted the nickname Alvin from the television cartoon series Alvin and the Chipmunks, was born in 1963 in Oakland, California, where he spent his early childhood. Later, the family moved to Los Angeles, California, near Columbus, Ohio, and finally to Chicago, Illinois. Like many young people of his generation, Hart loved the music of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Frank Zappa. But at home he also heard the more traditional music of rural Mississippi, from which his family had come. In an interview with Renee Montagne on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, quoted in Contemporary Musicians, Hart observed that "I just came upon the blues, what, just hearing it every day in the house." He also heard this music during family vacations to Mississippi, which immediately felt like home to him. "So much of myself goes back so far there," he said in remarks quoted on the Rykodisc Web site. "It's important to me to hold on to a little bit of something from the different cultures that evolved in the area from which I evolved." Music, he added, is "perhaps the easiest part of it. It's a thread I can bring forward."
Hart taught himself to play guitar at age 14 and was soon jamming with garage bands around his Chicago neighborhood. After graduating from high school, he moved to Los Angeles with the hope of starting a career as professional musician. Though it was difficult to break into the music business there, he did find work with various bands, playing everything from Hank Williams tunes to the music of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. In 1986 Hart joined the U.S. Coast Guard. He was stationed for a period on a riverboat in Natchez, Mississippi, where he enjoyed going to local music clubs. Soon he was playing for tips, or sitting in with whatever band was booked for the weekend.
Hart was later posted to Bolinas, California, in the San Francisco Bay area. Here he found even more musical success. In 1990 he opened at several local engagements for bluesman Joe Louis Walker, and in 1991 he played at the San Francisco Blues Festival. Hart was also making a name for himself restoring old instruments. As his appreciation of traditional blues music deepened, he explained to Andy Ellis in Guitar Player, he wanted to "play the instruments those guys were playing—mostly mail-order guitars that had fallen apart over the years." With his Coast Guard training in electronics, he also became interested in repairing and customizing amplifiers. As he commented to Ellis, "I fix a lot of my amps—I know enough to be dangerous."
In 1996 Hart released his first album, Big Mama's Door, the title song of which refers to the singer's Mississippi grandmother. The album received five W.C. Handy award nominations and earned Hart the honor of best new artist of the year. His second album, Territory, was similarly well received. Both Downbeat magazine and Living Blues magazine named it best blues album of the year, and it also received Living Blues's critics' award for best traditional/acoustic blues album. Critics expressed admiration for Hart's playing and singing, and for his personal engagement with his material. As Michael Point observed in a Downbeat piece, quoted in Contemporary Musicians, "Hart cuts straight through the soul of the music."
Start with the Soul, Hart's third solo album, featured more electrified music than his previous recordings. In fact, Hart dedicated the album to, among others, the late Phil Lynott of the Irish hard-rock band Thin Lizzy. Critics appreciated the influence of soul, country, and hard rock in Start with the Soul; indeed, Boston Globe reviewer Jonathan Perry admiringly described Hart's guitar work on the cut "Electric Eel" as "Link Wray-meets-Jimi Hendrix." In an All Music review quoted on the Rykodisc Web site, Al Campbell praised Hart for expanding his repertoire in a way that remained authentic to his musical roots.
Hart won a Grammy Award in 2005 for Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, a tribute album to which he contributed the track "Nelly Was a Lady." Foster, who wrote such iconic American songs as "Oh! Susannah" and "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)," was "the very first American songwriter," according to the album's executive producer, Tamara Saviano, quoted in a Boston Globe article by Devra First. Though Saviano acknowledged that, by twenty-first century standards, some of Foster's work appears racist, the composer held relatively progressive views for his time. "I think [Foster] represented his time well musically," Hart told First. "We make a big deal out of [the racial issues] now. We have a tendency to go overboard with that kind of stuff."
Like Hart's earlier recordings, his fifth solo album, Motivational Speaker, elicited rave reviews. Village Voice Online writer George Smith hailed Hart's "golden vibe" and declared that the album was worth of the "Congressional Medal of Honor for Satisfying Hard Rock." Jon Young, in Mother Jones, called the album "irresistible."
Hart has performed in venues across the United States as well as in Europe. He opened for Taj Mahal at Yoshi's in Oakland in 1995; he has also played with the Allman Brothers Band, Neil Young, Los Lobos, Ben Harper, Buddy Guy, and John Lee Hooker. He contributed two tracks to Paint it Blue, a Rolling Stones tribute album. In 2006 he provided musical support to Samuel L. Jackson in his role as a blues musician in the film Black Snake Moan.
Big Mama's Door, Okeh/Sony, 1996.
(With others) Paint It Blue: Songs of the Rolling Stones, House of Blues, 1997.
Territory, Hannibal/Rykodisc, 1998.
(With others) Every Road I Take: The Best of Contemporary Acoustic Blues, Shanachie, 1999.
Start with the Soul, Hannibal/Rykodisc, 2000.
Down in the Alley, Memphis International Records, 2002.
(With others), Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, American Roots, 2004.
Motivational Speaker, Tone-Cool/Artemis, 2005.
(With others) Secondhand Smoke: A Tribute to Frank Marino, WildMess Records, 2005.
At a Glance …
Born Gregory Edward Hart on March 2, 1963, in Oakland, CA; married Heidi Hart; children: one son.
U.S. Coast Guard, seaman and electronics technician, 1986-1993; musician, 1980s-.
W.C. Handy Award, the Blues Foundation, for best new artist, 1997; Downbeat magazine award for best blues album, Territory, 1999; New York Times Top Ten Releases, and BBC Blues Record of the Year, for Soul, 2000; Grammy award, Traditional Folk Album, for contribution to Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, 2005.
Office—PO Box 18999, Memphis, TN 38181.
Contemporary Musicians, Thomson Gale, 2000.
Boston Globe, April 20, 2000, p. C8; December 5, 2004, p. N10.
Guitar Player, July 2000, p. 37.
Mother Jones, July-August, 2005.
"Alvin Youngblood Hart Interview," Jefferson Blues Magazine, www.jeffersonbluesmag.com/arkiv/ayoung.htm (March 26, 2007).
"Alvin Youngblood Hart," Rykodisc Catalog, www.rykodisc.com/Catalog/CatalogArtist_01.asp?Action=Get&Artist_ID=350 (February 26, 2007).
"Black Snake Moan Music Hits 1.30.07," IGN.com, http://music.ign.com/articles/751/751492p1.html (March 27, 2007).
"Body English," Village Voice Online, www.villagevoice.com/music/0532,smith,66643,22.html (March 26, 2007).