Bromberg's Blues: Americana Music's Granddaddy Returns Home Once Again

David Bromberg embraced Americana music long before it was cool – probably even before the phrase had even been coined. He pioneered the seemingly inconcievable mash up of country and western, low-down blues, bluegrass and sea shanties with searing rock and roll guitar licks. Some call him the grandfather of Americana, which he said is nice but the moniker doesn't pay the bills. 

He was there in the late '60s and early '70s, mixing fiddle tunes with horn sections and gospel-like backup singers. Bromberg, now 71, set the course and the standards for today's Americana. But that style was unheard of "back in the day." 

"I'm an old guy now," he says. "Don't know how the hell that happened, but I am. Kids today, like the people who run the Americana [Music] Association, they've never heard of me. There was no such word then so maybe that's why they've never heard of me. It's just that I'm too old or something."

For today's Americana, newgrass, and roots music fans curious about the genre's early days, Bromberg's body of work could be an eye-opener. "I was talking to a guy the other day who was listening to my stuff for the first time," he says. "[That guy] said, 'You know, putting horns together with fiddles and you were doing that in the '60s and '70s before -- and now everybody's doing it.' The people who were that far ahead of their time, you know, like 40 or 50 years, they don't make no money."  

Bromberg was there, right beside the icons of the era – Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Jerry Garcia – with them onstage, in the studio, and on vinyl as a session player. They, in turn, graced his early releases. The Rev. Gary Davis took Bromberg under his wing and helped cement his already flourishing love of the blues. 

That devotion is front-and-center today as Bromberg’s newest release, The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing But the Blues comes out on Red House Records Oct. 14. 

From 1980 to 2002, Bromberg took a break from recording and the music business, with the exception of a few gigs here and there. He went to violin-making school in Chicago, studied and became a renowned expert on American-made violins, and eventually made his way to Wilmington, Delaware, where he opened David Bromberg Fine Violins. 

When he got back into performing, he was quoted as saying he wanted to record a blues album. Is this that album? "Pretty much," he says. 

The new release captures Bromberg's diverse vision of the blues -- some traditional, some original -- and was produced by heralded multi-instrumentalist and Grammy-winning producer Larry Campbell. 

It includes the traditional “Delia,” which was originally released on Bromberg’s 1972 debut release. One thing’s very different with this version, however, as Campbell accompanies him. 

"I've never really liked anybody else to play on Delia," Bromberg sayas. "I liked playing it all by myself. But you know Larry, he was sitting there and he decided to play it and lord it was just so good. So that's why I did it, because Larry brings something to it that is just remarkable." 

One of the record‘s highlights is the traditional folk chestnut “900 miles,” brought to public attention back in the day by the likes of legendary artists like Odetta, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Woody Guthrie. 

"That's a song I've been singing recently but not with that kind of a groove -- the Howling Wolf groove," Bromberg says. "I wanted to do a Howling Wolf tune but the ones I like have all been done to death. I wanted to do ‘900 Miles’ on my next record but this was a blues record, so I figured what the hell - I'll do it the way Howling Wolf would do it and there you have it.

"It does have a Wolf [feel], doesn't it?" he adds.  "That's Larry's groove -- it's like a Wolf groove but that's Larry." 

Campbell and Bromberg had been crossing paths for years before they sat down to record Bromberg’s previous record, Only Slightly Mad. Bromberg said Campbell’s orientation toward collaborative production made it seem natural to do the newest record with him. 

"Larry produced this but I suppose every record is -- or should be -- a collaboration between the singer and the producer. That's how Larry looks at it and that's how I look at it. There were points where we disagreed but we both picked our battles. We didn't have to win every argument. I trust his instincts very much. There were some things that I said I really want to do it this way and he said, 'OK'." 

Among the gems on the new release are the old Robert Johnson standard “Walkin’ Blues,” the Chicago-influenced Bromberg original “You Don’t Have to Go,” the gospel-tinged blues of “Yield Not,” and the countrified feel of “Kentucky Blues.” There’s even a blues treatment of Ray Charles’ jazzy “A Fool for You,” which Bromberg conquers solo. 

With Steve Earle’s recent success with Terraplane, a blues release that reached No. 1 on the blues chart, No. 2 on the folk chart, and No. 3 on the country chart -- and the Rolling Stones’ announcement their next record will revisit their blues roots -- one wonders, is the genre back in vogue? "I don't think it's ever gone out of style," Bromberg quips. 

Bromberg said his hiatus may have hurt his career, but it saved his faith in the music and in himself. "I was touring too much," he admits. "At one point I was on the road for two years without being home for more than two weeks, and that's too much. What happened was, I was realizing [that,] when I wasn't on the road, I wasn't writing, I wasn't practicing, I wasn't jamming -- there was nothing of a musician there. So I came to the conclusion that I wasn't a musician, if I ever had been. I decided I didn't want to be one of these guys who does a bitter imitation of something he loved, so I decided to find another way to live my life that I might enjoy." 

Today, touring is very different for Bromberg. Like others with decades-spanning careers, he limits his time on the road -- roughly two weeks at a time, before taking a break. Does that help keep his sanity? "Yeah," he says. "Such as it is." 

Joel Barrett: Since returning to music, you perform in a number of configurations: solo, as the David Bromberg Quintet, and with the David Bromberg Big Band. What does each bring to the table? 

David Bromberg: I used to always only want to play with the big band. The best way for me to explain it is this: The big band is like a luxury car and the quintet is the sports car. There's things I can maneuver around with the quintet, there are roads I can drive on that I can't drive on with the big band. And there's always been roads I can drive with the big band that I can't drive on with the quintet. They are different things, but I'm really enjoying the quintet a lot -- it's the core of the big band, too.

How’d you come up with the title of the new release?

I named the album The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing But the Blues, and then discovered a song by that name so we went back in and recorded the song.

You have an interesting quote on the album cover, "There's only two types of music: 'The Star Spangled Banner' and the Blues,” from fiddler Johnny Gimbel. What’s that mean to you?

That was the way we were going to do the record -- that was the assumption [at the beginning]: If it's not "The Star Spangled Banner," then it must be the blues. But [then] we decided to be a little more blues-specific than that.

What do you make of this political situation with the upcoming presidential election?

I find it very scary. There's this rule: you don't compare anyone or anything to the Nazis because that was out of all comprehension. Mussolini, Juan Peron, all the great dictators, they all started like Donald Trump. I don't think Donald Trump wants to be president, he wants to be dictator. Here's the thing, he's never been a president [of anything], he's never answered to a board. What he says goes. And you listen to him, you know it's illegal to kill the families of terrorists or any combatants. The Army won't do it if you ask them to. [But he says,] "Oh, yes they will. I'll make them do it." You often hear me say, "This is not the America I grew up in." I have song where I go on a rant like that.

One quirk you are known for is the ability to extrapolate verses, seemingly on the fly, in the middle of songs. An example of that would be “I Will Not Be Your Fool.” How does that work?

They accumulate over time. I'll just say something that I haven't said before, and if I really like it, I'll remember it and say it again and then add to it. So stuff builds up that way.

Your treatment of Sam Cooke’s “(What a) Wonderful World,” from Midnight on the Water, has some of that. Any stories behind your cover of that iconic song?

I couldn't get Columbia [Records] to put it out as a single and I finally found out why. After [I was] urging them to do it over and over, and them not giving me a response, they released it on one of their under-labels [with] Johnny Nash doing it -- and he had a hit.

"Sammy's Song," with Bob Dylan on harmonica, is a story about a teen's first experience with sex in the form of a Mexico prostitute. Did you experience any blow-back from that song?

I know the FCC has a file on it. Shortly after I wrote it, I was at a folk festival, which might not have been the right place to do that song. I got the best worst reaction to it imaginable. When I finished the song, [there] was complete silence and I walked off the stage to silence. I was walking back and I saw [the promoter] walking towards me and I thought, I better pack up, he's kicking me out. But he loved it; he said that was fantastic.

There is no song I ever heard that's anything like it. It's completely unique. It is a young man's first sexual experience and it's a bad one. It's a viewpoint I've never heard -- not only in a song but I can't remember reading it anywhere. You know who liked that? It was John Lennon.

Speaking of bizarre, what was with the Debbie Boone reference? She was the daughter of crooner Pat Boone and had a few hits in the ‘70s...

I've always thought Debbie Boone's name was more musical than her recordings. When you say it, [it has a certain ring to it,] so I figured what the hell, I'll put it in the lock groove and put some other names in there. 

What’s in your CD player right now?

There are a few things I really like today. I'm crazy about the Milk Carton Kids. I think they are fantastic. There's a band called the California Honeydrops. They are really good -- if you can catch them live, you should.

The thing that I've been listening to the most recently is Mary Gauthier. She's marvelous. I met her and I had heard one of her song (“Your Sister Cried”), which I thought was really good.

Recently I've been listening to Dylan's radio show. He's not doing that anymore but I was talking to him recently and his office sent me all the radio shows, which I love. He had "I Drink" on it [by Mary Gauthier]. I think that's the most extraordinary song. It encapsulates everything I've ever heard from someone who drinks. It has it all right there. She's one of the best songwriters the United States has ever produced. I’ve talked to my manager and I want to do some shows with her.

What do you make of this digital revolution?

I don't think it's shaken out yet. ... Back in the day -- days we remember fondly now, they were pretty difficult [then] but nowadays we remember them fondly -- it was all right that performers, nobody, got paid for radio play, because it was advertising. People would hear you and then go buy your records. Now, there is no buying of things any longer, that doesn't happen. So as a result, everyone is making money from the music except for the people who make it. That's just not right.

That's not the roughest thing about it, about the digital revolution, [though]. The thing that strikes me the most about it is - I can't see how anybody can start [a music career] now. It's impossible. You have to get on YouTube and hope you become viral. That's quite a hope.

You are Jewish, are you a practicing Jew?

I don't need to practice, I got it down.

How'd you get to Wilmington, Delaware? Was it the scene there?

What I was getting away from was another Chicago winter. I had a friend who lived here in town so it just seemed like the thing to do. I hadn't consciously decided to open a violin store but I had unconsciously decided to do that. It's a nice town. It's gotten so much better over time.

Man...that's a great interview...I love that guy, what a treasure...thanks Joel!

I agree.  Great interview! Wide ranging and interesting topics....from a musician I have liked for many years.

Bromberg is one of my favorite musical artists of all time and his relative obscurity these days is a crime. When he returned to making music and releasing albums I was very pleased indeed. This was a great article about the man and an intersting interview with him. I'm so glad to hear he's finally releasing the all blues abums he's been talking about. I saw him live recently with his quartet and it was wonderful indeed. Thanks Joel for this posting.

The title of the interview says it all.  DB is one of my top votes for my growing list of folks who should be called "Mr. Americana".  I saw him do songs from 8 different genres a couple of years ago with his quintet and he did a varied set with the quintet a couple of weeks ago in a club in my hometown. Wicked sense of humor, which helped when he was dealing with a couple of loudmouths in the recent crowd who did not get the message that he was not doing requests.  It is amazing to hear an artist do a down and dirty blues song and then sing the 60's girl group pop standard "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?".  DB is an encyclopedia or roots music.  Like Van Morrison, he follows his muse wherever it leads.

That blues album this article talked about, "The Blues, the Whole Blues and Nothing But the Blues" is excellent indeed. And in keeping with his eclectic soul although the album is all blues it's about every genre of blues there is from acoustic country blues to electric Chicgo blues to horned-infuesed r&b.

Dennis, David is playing a few songs from that blues album in his current tour.  I volunteer for a blues show on local public radio station and have access to about 1,600 blues CD's and I can tell you that David's blues performances are some of the best out there.  When he did the show at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro NC a couple of years ago he started with the Blind Willie Johnson standard "Nobody's Fault But Mine" and then went to his extended version of Little Charlie and Nightcats funny song "I'll Take You Back" and either Sloppy Drunk or Eyesight to The Blind.   I had never seen David in performance so I was very pleased with this opening.  

Check out a couple of pages of David's setlist from the shows that folks have reported.

His diversity is astounding, including quite a few torch or sentimental songs. At the recent concert he said that he and the band had 90 songs in their kit bag and he does not use prepared set lists for a show. 

Thanks Dave...he is diverse...I'd love to see him...

One of my favorite albums by him is the 1976 release "How Late'll Ya Play 'Til?-Vol 1: Live Vol 2:Studio" a 2 CD set. The live one is a good introduction to how great he can be live with improvised raps. Most of the songs happen to be blues with a couple of Robert Johnson covers. One song is called "Bullfrog Blues" which clocks in at 16:02 because of his long rap. That song is credited to Bromberg and someone by the name of Boo Terwilliger who I've never heard of and there's hardly anything about him on the internet either. I assume the co-write is because of Bromberg's rap. The studio album is great too and includes the best version of Blind Willlie McTell's "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" I've ever heard.