Red Snakeskin Shoes
I was 13 when I began playing the guitar, discovered the blues, and started to go to smoky blues bars and clubs with my Dad. This was when I began listening to, absorbing, and reveling in the music that would forever change my life.
Growing up amist the vibrant New England Blues Scene, there was a lot to take in. Great clubs, too many to mention here, provided the stages for incredible, inspirational, educational nights, and being an inquisitive kid, I would make sure to talk to the artists after the shows, getting any tips or advice they would give. I saw Junior Wells (one of his final appearances), Hubert Sumlin (also the first time I saw Per Hanson drum!), RL Burnside, Bo Diddley (I went with a girl I really liked, and we made sure to sit right up close... He flirted with her all night long!!), Otis Rush, Susan Tedeschi opening for Buddy Guy on his birthday, Pinetop Perkins, Bob Margolin, and, of course, Ronnie Earl.
The first night I saw Ronnie was the late show at The Iron Horse the night before my hgih school SATs. He played powerfully and passionately, like always. This was the late '90s incarnation of The Broadcasters, and featured longtime Ronnie compadres Michael "Mudcat" Ward on bass, Anthony Geracy on the keys, and Mark Greenberg on the drums. The band was rock solid and provided a tight groove and energy for Ronnie to soar over. It was transformative guitar, unlike anything I had ever heard. Ronnie's playing still makes me feel that way today. My Dad felt the power of Ronnie's music too, and we made sure to see him every chance we got. Ronnie made quite the impression on us both; for many years Dad would suggest: "You should get a pair of red snakeskin shoes like Ronnie has. That would be very cool on stage."
After multiple shows and multiple meetings, I began to "know" the musicians we were seeing, and people started inviting me to sit in. My second time performing with Bob Margolin and Pinetop Perkins was at the original House of Blues, in Harvard Square, and that night I met Annie Raines. I brought up Son House during a conversation with her, and she recommended I meet her partner, Paul Rishell, and gave me their card. Thus began weekly lessons with Paul, him teaching me how to really "hear blues" and translate that to the instrument. He was an incredible teacher and truly taught me how to learn. During that time he and Annie were playing regularly with Ronnie, and I started tagging along to those shows, and began to know Ronnie and his band. A year or so later, Dad and I ran into Ronnie outside of a Jeff Beck show. Ronnie remembered I was into the blues, asked for my number and said he'd call.
The first time I went to Ronnie's house I met Donna, Ronnie wonderful wife, watched a Red Sox/Yankees game, looked at blues photos he had collected or taken through the years, checked out and played his entire guitar collection (an incredible experience!), jammed (nerve-wracking!), and received a lesson in electric blues, sitting across from Ronnie on his couch after the ballgame wrapped up. We became close friends, and began hanging out regularly.
Ronnie gave me guitar lessons. We'd sit, he'd let me play "Blondie," the blond Stratocaster he was playing at that first Iron Horse show, and I learned about blues guitar. We talked about developing your own tone and sound, and I'd marvel over how different the exact same guitar sounded when I played it vs. when he played it. He told me about phrasing and I learned how to sing along with your guitar, stopping the instrument when you ran out of breath. He was another tremendous teacher, and I tried to soak up all I could.
Ronnie, who was transitioning to a life off the road, was beginning to play more regularly again, and I started to help him out with the gigs. Suddenly I was at every gig Ronnie played. I'd help him set up his amps, tune his guitars, and keep his 100' cable untangled as he walked through the crowd while playing a smoking solo. During the moments not guiding a guitar cable through a packed floor of fans, I'd be backstage next to Ronnie, studying his playing. At some point in the night Ronnie would call me up to the stage, take his guitar off his shoulders and put it on mine, then after a solo on his guitar I'd hand it back, pick up a different guitar and finish the night playing with the band. Even when on stage, I made sure to be in a spot where I could keep an easy eye on what Ronnie was doing, trying to learn everything.
Ronnie and I always tried to meet at his house before each gig with enough time to play the guitar; for me to have a guitar lesson. Sometimes I'd ask Ronnie how he did certain things in songs, and sometimes he'd have things he wanted to show me. Hours later, during the show, Ronnie and I would make eye contact, and then he'd do one of the things we had discussed in his living room. It was a complete education; he'd show me how to technically execute something, and a few hours later, how to artistically use that thing... Ronnie showed me how to turn guitar playing into music. I could not have dreamed of a better education.
One afternoon Ronnie and I were at his house and he said: "I have some old stage clothes I don't wear any more. Let's go through them and see what fits you..." "Sure... That sounds like fun," I said, barely able to conceal my excitement. A few hours after, back in the car, I picked up my cell and dialed home: "Dad, remember how you used to say I should get a pair of red snakeskin shoes like Ronnie Earl's? You won't believe what Ronnie just gave me!!"
--Barrett Anderson is a Boston-based blues musician, who performs regularly throughout New England, recently won a Boston Music Award, "2013 Blues Artist of the Year," and released his second album, The Long Fall, featuring Ron Levy and Per Hanson. He owns many pairs of stage-worthy shoes.
(first published in the Boston Blues Society's monthly newsletter, February 2013)