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.
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).
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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."
So Hughes is making the most of his decision to stay mainly at home, while doing at least one major European tour each year. Making it particularly enjoyable to do so is his camaraderie with Blues Plus, his trio. Featuring a genuine local keyboard legend, the sprightly 69-year-old Earl Gilliam, the group is anchored by longtime bassist J. Fred Arceneaux and drummer Joe Griffin.
Reflecting on his musical partners, Hughes emphatically says: "We play together and truly enjoy it. We read each other, give each other incentive, really feel what we're doing together. I used to tell any guy who comes in my band, 'Look, don't go up there and make this no job. Have some fun.' But I don't need to remind these guys, 'cause they'll beat me into having fun if I don't watch it." Indeed, anyone who has ever witnessed the kid-in-a-candy-store grin on Griffin as he works behind the drum kit, Arceneaux's self-composed air of rhythmic transcendence or the witty interchanges (musical and verbal) between Gilliam and the rest can tell that these men appreciate the chance to fuse their considerable skills in performance.
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"I think one of Joe's great joys in life is playing Stump the Band," Griffin says. "And that's one of the reasons Joe's music is always fresh. The arrangements and tempos of any tune can vary from night to night, depending on which direction Joe wants to take the song and the audience. You basically have to watch him like a hawk and sometimes be about one-half mind reader."
Given the way this unit has jelled over recent years on the local blues circuit, Hughes is excited about the prospects for his upcoming CD, which he plans to record locally with Blues Plus within the next few months. Following his usual bent toward independence, he has already prepared and rehearsed the material (nine new originals and three covers) and will produce the finished product himself, then sell it to a label. That strategy has worked before (on the CDs ultimately distributed by Rounder), and it allows Hughes to do things his own way. "With the attention I've got so far, I don't believe I'll have any problem getting this on a label," he says, "so I'm going to take it to the max myself, and do it with my own band."
In the meantime, Hughes and company will hone their chops in Houston clubs and get ready for the big show headlining the 20th anniversary of Blues Estafette. Despite his sense that he has never quite gotten his due around Texas as the blues master he undoubtedly is, Hughes keeps bending those strings and singing. "It's about love. The greatest thing to me in my life is my music," he says, adding, "Every now and then the magic will happen and you've had a beautiful night."
Joe "Guitar" Hughes and Blues Plus will appear on Saturday, July 31, at the Big Easy, 5731 Kirby Drive. No cover charge. Call (713) 523-9999.