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Home with the Blues

Joe "Guitar" Hughes has never strayed far from the town that gave him his sound

On June 19, there was a fish fry at the Savoy Ice House on Dowling Street in the Third Ward. The occasion, of course, was Juneteenth, and the band playing on the sidewalk was making a joyful noise. Joe Hughes, standing in with some old friends, growled and shouted his way through a volley of familiar R&B standards, as the notes from his Fender bent and twisted their way through the dancing crowd in the parking lot and out into the neighborhood.

After turning over the lead, Hughes sat down with some acquaintances. Then a motion from the bass player caught his eye and drew him away. After a side-of-the-mouth exchange, Hughes nodded. When the song that was being played ended, the bassist unstrapped his instrument and handed it to Hughes, whose callused, muscular fingers began dancing an intricate jazz shuffle down the strings. It was not surprising to learn that Joe Hughes -- a man who has literally made "guitar" his middle name -- is on occasion also a world-class bass player.

Indeed, there's much about Joe "Guitar" Hughes that indicates the Texas double-shuffle is the pulse of his soul, the heartbeat that feeds the flights of fancy that his fingers and mind are prone to. In classic Texas bluesman fashion, Hughes -- who learned his craft alongside Albert Collins, who left Houston to head west, and Johnny Copeland, who bailed to head east -- is far more of a sensation in Europe than he is in his hometown. But of that trio of teenage pals from the Third Ward, it's Hughes' licks and lyrics that somehow sound the most like a street party on Dowling on a hot summer night.

Hughes' enthusiasm for the southeast Houston neighborhood in which he grew up can be infectious. When he talks about "back in the day," weed-covered lots materialize through the fog of time into shimmering, throbbing establishments of music, light and emotion. When his low, rhythmic voice tells of what it was like to hear Hop Wilson play, the beers in the coolers of the Live Oak Grove begin to clink together in time to the over-amped notes of a long-dead bluesman's steel guitar. Ask Hughes about the obscure, talented, self-destructive singer/piano player Elmore Nixon, and he tells of the time he saw Nixon walking down Tuam and refused to let him pass without singing a song. Few of the things never seen by most are as clear as the image of Hughes blocking the path of the tall, lanky singer until Nixon, laughing, began singing, "Mama's little baby loves shortnin' bread, shortnin' bread, shortnin' bread ...." Decades later, there's still amazement mixed in with the laughter in Hughes' voice as he says, "I'll never forget that."

The sum of the things that Joe Hughes will never forget is a large portion of what makes up Houston blues. On his latest CD, Texas Guitar Slinger, the title track is an autobiographical acknowledgment of a host of Houston guitarists who influenced the distinctive Hughes style. The line "Raised on Lightnin' Hopkins, weaned on Gatemouth Brown" is followed by references to T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Pete Mayes, Clarence Hollimon and Johnny Brown in a virtual Who's Who of Texas blues guitar. It's an old and familiar gambit in the blues, this comparison of the performer to heroes and peers, that has gained a certain cachet with the younger white artists who make up much of the ranks of a new generation of blues players.

Unlike these contenders-in-training, though, Hughes is not talking about strange sounds he heard on the radio. He's talking about people he knew firsthand. Growing up in the Third Ward in the 1940s was the bluesman's equivalent of being a Muslim born in Mecca -- what is a once-in-a-lifetime event for others was simply day-to-day life for Hughes. When he mentions Lightnin' Hopkins as an influence, he's discussing not the Hopkins of internationally distributed albums and tours with the Grateful Dead, but a street performer whose presence around the Third Ward was as omnipresent as the asphalt of McGowan Street. Hughes' childhood was, simply, one surrounded by music and musicians.

The instrument that eventually became Hughes' middle name was at first an afterthought. As a teenager, Hughes dreamed of becoming a balladeer, and he regularly performed popular vocal numbers at talent shows. Like most performers making their first few public appearances, stage fright was a factor, and Hughes decided the best cure for the jitters was to find something to do with his hands. Simple economics ruled out acquiring a saxophone, but dishwasher's wages enabled the 15-year-old performer to become the owner of an acoustic guitar.

That instrument soon became a permanent appendage as Hughes roamed the streets of his neighborhood studying now-legendary Third Ward troubadours. When night fell, Hughes would travel to the Club Matinee on Lyons Avenue. For touring acts and the stars of Houston's Duke/Peacock label, a visit to Houston meant stopping by the Matinee for an after-show dinner and sitting in on the jam sessions that often went on until sunrise. It also provided a teenage guitarist a chance to spy on the styles of such artists as T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulsom and Hughes' favorite talent -- then and now -- Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.

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