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Houston Blues

Local hero Joe "Guitar" Hughes knows success takes more than talent

In the 40-plus years that Joe "Guitar" Hughes has played blues professionally, he has never strayed too far from Houston. That emotional attachment to his hometown has proved both bane and blessing for the self-reliant singer, songwriter, producer and guitarist extraordinaire. Now, as he prepares for a new recording project and a return to Europe's most prestigious blues festival as a headliner, Hughes wonders if, in the Lone Star State at least, this is as good as it's ever going to get.

Though he has toured with numerous heavyweights of blues and R&B since the early '60s, released six critically acclaimed CDs (and made appearances on various other compilations) since the mid-'80s, concomitantly evolved into a deity at Blues Estafette (the premier annual event for European aficionados), and just last year graced the cover of the genre's leading periodical (Living Blues), Hughes still performs on stages in small clubs around town most of the time. Obviously his local performances are some of the best entertainment values available anywhere: world-class musicianship at neighborhood tavern prices.

It's cliché to bemoan the thought that Houston fully appreciates homegrown musical talent until it makes it big elsewhere. But Hughes's local following is relatively strong. It's the rest of Texas that seems to be in the dark. What makes Hughes's situation especially enigmatic is that he arguably has impressed all the right out-of-staters with his intensely passionate electric guitar licks, darkly timbred vocalizing, sharp sense of humor and affable personal dignity.

Even with his large local following and international appeal, Joe Hughes still plays small clubs.
Even with his large local following and international appeal, Joe Hughes still plays small clubs.

That 1998 cover story in Living Blues came two years after one of the magazine's notoriously toughest, Chicago-based critics opined that Hughes belonged in the same league with venerated icons Muddy Waters and B.B. King. The praise came in direct response to Hughes's Texas Guitar Slinger, which was released in 1996 on the Bullseye Blues imprint, which is distributed by mighty Rounder Records. But the national accolades had really begun as far back as Hughes's 1989 Black Top label release, If You Want to See the Blues, also distributed by Rounder. Over the last decade Hughes has wowed audiences at some of the largest blues festivals in the United States, from Chicago to California. And the unrelenting marketing machine known as House of Blues has featured the Third Ward-raised guitar ace not only in its high profile clubs but also on a widely available CD package called Essential Texas Blues (1997).

Ever since collectors in Europe discovered (and reportedly started paying pricey sums for) scratchy copies of various late-'50s singles Hughes waxed for long-gone local labels (such as Henry Hayes's Kangaroo Records), he has also been in demand overseas. Big-time. This November will mark Hughes's eighth appearance at Blues Estafette, an annual gathering of fans from across the pond at the elegant Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht, one of Holland's oldest cities and a long-recognized cultural center. This time around, Hughes tops a bill that includes more than 20 of the best blues acts in America, and he's looking forward to a triumphant return.

"The Utrecht festival, it's just incredibly beautiful," says Hughes. "I didn't know how it felt to be treated as an artist until I went to Europe."

Hughes has capitalized on his exalted reputation in the Netherlands by recording two of his finest CDs there, including the self-produced 1993 studio disc Down & Depressed: Dangerous (Munich Records). Of all his productions, this one is probably very well known to listeners of KPFT's local blues radio programming, thanks to the popularity of the autobiographical track "Put the Crack Down." Additionally, the record features the often-requested instrumental jam "Dowling and Holman," titled after a Third Ward street corner once frequented by the granddaddy of Houston blues, Lightnin' Hopkins. That intersection also marked the place where Ivory Lee Semien (a.k.a. King Ivory) fashioned a primitive recording studio back in the '50s and produced some of the early singles that eventually got Hughes noticed by international blues collectors.

Also recorded in 1993, Live at the Vredenburg (Double Trouble) offers almost two hours of inspired performance, a couple of originals and numerous choice covers ranging from Hughes's former Third Ward chum Albert Collins to Guitar Slim to B.B. King. Whereas the stateside studio productions have concentrated mainly on original compositions, this live recording showcases Hughes's ability to imbue the work of others with his own distinctive sound, a trademark of his club gigs (where he generally mixes originals and covers 50-50).

In the liner notes to Live at Vredenburg, Dutch producer Marcel M. Vos expresses his desire that the recording "will hopefully lead to more work in [Hughes's] home state." But the truth is, outside of a network of Houston venues, the fiery performer with his backup band, Blues Plus, rarely makes appearances elsewhere around Texas. With only a few exceptions, cities such as Austin, Dallas and San Antonio seem largely oblivious to Hughes's stature, talent and availability for regional touring. Their loss, of course, is Houston's treat.

Hughes figures that being rooted in Houston isn't the worst thing that could happen. He has always chosen to stay here out of a sense of commitment to his devoted spouse (and manager), Willie Mae, and their family. "Thank God for my wife. She's been the backbone of my little nest over here for many, many years," he says. And despite his longing for a higher home-state profile, he also acknowledges that the regional obscurity is partly of his own making. "My hardest thing is trying to find a good agent," he says. Citing the example of his best friend, a guitar-playing colleague and former bandmate who chose to relocate to New York and subsequently hit the major leagues (before his death in 1997), Hughes says, "Johnny Copeland told me you must have an agent. But it's hard to try to connect with somebody."

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