Seasick Steve finds calmer waters

By Scott Kara

Seasick Steve's musical career was a late-bloomer. Photo / Supplied
Seasick Steve's musical career was a late-bloomer. Photo / Supplied

Seasick Steve has lived under bridges, jumped freight trains, and eked out an existence as a hobo doing odd jobs throughout Tennessee and Mississippi. And many of the blues singer's stomping and raw songs tell these stories. Like on Prospect Lane - one of his own personal favourites - about a dead-end road in Memphis that happens to be an "easy place to jump on a train out of there".

Then there's I Started Out With Nothin' where he sings "I can't lose what I never had ...", or early song Dog House Boogie, about leaving home aged 14 because "I figured I'd do better on my own".

But, says the 70-something bluesman with one of his friendly chuckles, his life story may have been exaggerated - glorified even - by the music media in recent years. Because when he finally started making a name for himself as a musician, and releasing records in the mid-2000s, his past as a hobo, tramp, and bum (because he says he's been all three) made a great yarn.

"The press in England especially have been very kind to me, if hugely inaccurate," he laughs on the phone from San Diego where he's visiting after being in Nashville recording his sixth album which features Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and Jack White (whose label, Third Man, he's signed to). "I've raised five boys so I couldn't do that while I was living under a bridge," he laughs again.

He has always played music but with a family to look after it was "easier to swing a hammer" to make ends meet. But once the kids left home, and spurred on by a health scare in the early 2000s, he started taking his music more seriously and released debut album, Cheap, in 2004, and follow up, Dog House Music, two years later.

But it was following a performance on the Jools Holland TV show in Britain at the end of 2006, where Steve played a loud and scorching version of Dog House Boogie on his beaten-up three-string guitar, that he found overnight success.

"Before that happened my music was in hobby land. And I honestly didn't think it was going to last so I decided to go out and have as much fun as I could while my kids are gone. I had no idea it was going to keep getting bigger and bigger."

From the Later with Jools Holland appearance, he got asked to play music festivals around the world, and has released three more albums including last year's Can't Teach An Old Dog New Tricks with thumpin' love song Don't Know Why She Love Me But She Do.

"I'm madly in love with my girl," he says of his Norwegian wife who he met 30 years ago while playing in a pub band in the country. After living in the US for many years they moved back to Norway 10 years ago where they have been based ever since.

He's looking forward to coming to New Zealand this month because he heard a lot about it from his father who was stationed here during World War II.

"I ain't never been to New Zealand before so we're just going to drive from the top to the bottom and look at all the trees and things," he says.

He's playing just one show while he's here, at Mangawhai Tavern on December 29, and possibly another in Auckland (so keep your ears open).

He'll have a number of guitars with him, perhaps even the one made out of the hub caps of a Morris Minor, a garden hoe, and a barbecue spatula. One thing's for sure, he'll be packing the three-string guitar that made him a star.

"A friend of mine found it in a Salvation Army place down in Mississippi somewhere, so it's just a junk Japanese shit guitar from the 60s - and it had three strings. I kinda kept playing it because people kept wanting me to. It's not very fun to play though because the strings are real high, and I have to wear a bandage when I play it because the strings cut my fingers.

"And it's funny, because I paid $75 for that guitar and now people tell me that it's worth a lot of money because it's mine, and I'm kind of in the position where I have to take care of it - which is exactly the oppposite of what I bought it for," he laughs.

The habits of living hand to mouth, as he puts it in Dog House Boogie, die hard. "That all happened in my youth, and the way I was formed was living rough and so that don't ever go away. But I also never have a day where I think, 'Wow, I'm so cool', I just think, 'Wow'. I mean six years ago I didn't have a job, my wife was working in an old people's home, and we were in desperate trouble, and so I don't have to think back very far to when we didn't have any money."

It's quite a transformation from being destitute to rubbing shoulders and recording with the likes of Jones, White, and another of his new pals, Dave Grohl. But, not surprisingly, humble Steve takes it all in his stride.

"They're nice guys. But I just shake my head really. And I got on well with John, because he's a bit older, and these other guys are so young, you know, and they kind of come from another time from me, but John I remember being the Led Zeppelin band so the first time we all played together was at the Isle of Wight Festival with 75,000 people and I was looking over at him and I said to myself, 'What's that dude from Led Zeppelin doing here?'."

Who: Seasick Steve
Where & when: Mangawhai Tavern, December 29
Essential listening: Dog House (2006); Man from Another Time (2009); You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks (2011)
Also see: Walkin' Man: The Best of Seasick Steve (2001), for a one stop shop of the bluesman's work

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