Brand-new blues

It took him 30 years, three wives, and a world of miles to do it, but country-blues wanderer Roy Book Binder finally feels at home recording his own music.

Polk City Ramble (Rounder Records, 1998), Book Binder’s latest release, features seven new songs — a record number of originals for the road-worn bluesman. Some, like “New Age Woman Blues” (a comical ode to his tarot-obsessed second wife), rattle along with his trademark, popcorn-dry humor. Others are serious, even solemn: “Trouble in the Streets,” the disc’s opening track, recalls the murder of two tourists at a North Florida rest stop that’s all too familiar to Book Binder.

“It made me worry, [because] it was a place I used to stay a lot when I was traveling. I thought: There, but for the grace of God, am I. I don’t stay at rest stops very much anymore,” he admits in a recent phone interview from his motor home (parked, more or less permanently, in Polk City, Fla.).

An old-fashioned yearning to pay his dues, born of a carefully guarded reverence for his predecessors, accounts for Book Binder’s prior shying away from homegrown material. His own career had its beginnings in the social maelstrom of the mid-’60s: After a stint in the Army, where he learned to play blues guitar, the aspiring musician sought out the likes of the Rev. Gary Davis and Pink Anderson, veteran blues masters then enjoying renewed popularity.

“I idolized them and wanted to do what they did,” he confesses. The famously laid-back singer feels lucky that he woke up to the blues when he did, pointing out, “The civil-rights movement was a very political time, and the [recognition] of older black musicians became a part of that. And because of the time it happened, the [blues] guys who had become popular in the ’20s were only in their 60s then. If the folk movement had happened 10 years later, it would have been too late [to learn from them], because they would have all been dead.”

The music of Davis and Anderson, he says, “will always be a part of my life. But there’s a time when you have to be your own man. When you’ve been at it a long time, you have to say something, try to write some new songs. [And] the older you get, the more you have to say.

“I want my next album to be all originals,” Book Binder adds.

Though he studied and played with the Rev. Davis for many years, Book Binder’s musical style has never borne an overt likeness to his mentor’s. And these days, when tutoring the next generation of hopeful blues pickers, he emphasizes instinct over imitation. “When I teach guitar, I tell my students, ‘Your left hand is your brain, and your right hand is your personality. … I’m not going to mess with your personality.’ Everyone’s got to make a C-chord the same way, but how it sounds will [come from] your personality. … You turn technique into your own style.”

In a similar spirit, Book Binder included a few unlikely classics on Polk City Ramble. In the disc’s liner notes, he remarks about “Electricity”: “Bought a CD of rockabilly near-greats at a Union 76 truck stop for two dollars. Jimmy Murphy was the big surprise for me. He should have been a big star.”

For the most part, though, the bluesman tends to tread familiar water when deciding what artists to cover — though he chooses not to cover at least one blues giant.

“Robert Johnson is big again right now in the blues world,” Book Binder says. “He has that whole myth associated with him, [about having] sold his soul to the devil. Almost every acoustic player covers him, because it’s a popular thing to do, but I never felt comfortable doing his material, because I couldn’t identify with it. Robert Johnson was a plantation field hand, a man who lived a violent life that led to a violent death. I tend to cover people I know, because if you do a song that someone else has already done, you have to identify your own life with it somehow.”

Book Binder’s own tombstone is likely to read “storyteller” before “musician.” His 1994 release, Live … Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (Rounder Records) — recorded in an Athens, Ohio, coffeehouse — is arguably his most famous work to date: The CD (his first live effort) features just as much talking as singing, which spurred Sing Out! magazine to comment: “His greatest strength is as a performer and raconteur, using his music to frame his stories and the stories to give background to the music. His previous albums have fallen short by showing only the musical side of his work. Here, he is in his element.”

Book Binder himself views the two art forms as cozier bedfellows. “Folksingers have been telling stories all along,” he points out. “That’s what it’s all about. If I sing a song about Gary Davis, I have to tell you about Gary Davis,” he explains matter-of-factly.

Though he doesn’t make a habit of performing on the storytelling circuit, Book Binder couldn’t resist a recent invitation to headline the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tenn., in June — the most prestigious event of its kind in America.

And what yarns will he unravel from his memory on that summer day?

“I haven’t decided yet,” he murmurs: “I’m probably going to wing it — like I winged my whole life.”

@circlettext:Roy Book Binder comes to Be Here Now on Thursday, April 15, at 8 p.m. The cover charge is $10. Call 258-2071 for more information.

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