An Interview with Albert Cummings

An Interview with Albert Cummings

By Bluebird
January 2013

Bluebird - Tell us about the new album, No Regrets. Like many of your prior albums, it was produced by Jim Gaines, who has an impressive list of credits in blues (George Thorogood, Santana, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, among many). How has his work influenced the overall production?

Albert Cummings - Jim is one of the most amazing people I have met in music. He has become one of my very best friends, and I so enjoy having him in the studio with me. Not only do I like his friendship, but I love the feeling of calm he brings to the studio. Jim knows the ins and outs of every piece of equipment and software there is. This was my fourth album working with Jim. I donít think there is anyone out there that knows what I can do better than Jim. He is not afraid to push artists either. If he knows what they are capable of, he will push them until he gets what he wants. I love the feeling of having that safety net while in the studio. You can tell youíre listening to a Jim Gaines CD as soon as you play it.

Bluebird - Fans want to know about your experience with the legendary Double Trouble. Bring it, tell us!

Albert Cummings - This is one of those things that has happened to me that I always feel like it couldnít have possibly happened but it did. Early in my career I was approached by Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). They wanted to put on a blues show. They wanted me to be the local headliner and they asked me who I suggested to have as a national headliner. I jokingly said - Why donít you have Double Trouble come and play with me?? They said oh that is a great idea! Well I didnít think anything about it. I was like, yeah right. I had to send in my demo I had at the time which was called, Albert Cummings and Swamp Yankee. About two weeks after I sent it I heard they agreed to come and play with me. I canít tell you how freaked out I was. Double Trouble? Are you kidding me? They are going to come and play with me and I am going to front them? Sure enough they were coming! The show we were going to do was late in the day so I was able to book another show that night in Saratoga NY at a place called the Metro. The afternoon show was held at the RPI field house in Troy, NY. It was the last place I had seen Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble perform. The next time I walked into the building I was now performing with Stevieís band.

I can remember watching every video I could of Double Trouble, so I knew what to expect on stage. I saw that both Chris Layton (drummer) and Tommy Shannon (the bass player) were very calm on stage so thatís what I expected. Tommy showed up after just having foot surgery. His whole foot was in a cast and he was walking with a limp. When show time finally came the three of us walked on stage and hit it. I didnít have the nerve to even look over at Chris or Tommy until midway into the second song. When I looked over I expected to see them being nice and calm just like the videos I had watched. Instead I look over and see Tommy dancing around in his cast and Chris with a huge smile. That was it! I floored it and off we went. We finished the show and loaded up immediately to get to the other show in Saratoga. We drove up and set up at the Metro. I remember playing for around three hours straight and never wanting to end. We had perfect dynamics and a sold out crowd that was going nuts and we just had plain fun together.

At three oíclock in the morning, I was finally driving them back to their hotel. Chris and Tommy were both talking to me about how much better my playing was than the demo that I had sent them. They told me that I needed to do a real album. I told them that I wanted to, but I had no idea of how to go about it. They told me they would help me. They would produce a new album for me and play on it as well!! I was beyond excited. As I was hearing this news I drove by three exits because I was so excited. I finally got them back to their rooms and we traded numbers.

The next thing I knew I was in Austin TX hanging out with Double Trouble. They also brought Reese Wynans down for the session, which made it the first time the entire band had recorded with an artist for a complete album since Stevie. It was the most amazing experience I have ever had. I spent nineteen days with those guys doing that album. Every minute was packed with education and stories about Stevie. They taught me more in those nineteen days than I had learned up until that point. At one point during the recording I was having a tough time with a solo and I asked them what would Stevie tell me to do. They told me he would tell you to play ďFrom The HeartĒ and thatís what I named the album. It is still one of my most favorite albums.

Bluebird - The Stevie Ray Vaughan factor can not be ignored in your biography or live show performance. Fans were talking about it in the hallway during your last performance at the Iron Horse, the similarities and differences in your styles to the late, great SRV. Your biography noted that you have an early history of picking and bluegrass intuitions, winning awards, but when you heard the early works of SRV, you went back to take on the guitar with 'a new resolve'. Can you tell us more about how this artist has shaped your music influences and more importantly, how your style is different from SRV?

Albert Cummings - I did start out playing five string banjo. My dad played guitar in the big band era. He would play solos that he had learned and he would improvise on them while playing. When I first heard Stevie I thought it had to be a fake. How could anyone play like that? It had to be two guitars recorded. Anyway, I was an idiot. While in college at Wentworth Institute in Boston, I was walking by the Orpheum theater and I saw two buses parked in front. One of the buses had a Les Paul and a Stratocaster painted on the side. I walked closer and read the marquis. It said Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. I went back to my dorm and asked everyone I could to go with me but no one wanted to go. I bought a ticket and went to the show myself. Stevie came out in an Indian Headdress and put on a show that blew me away. I couldnít believe what I was seeing. I knew right away that the recordings I was hearing were real and that I was watching the greatest guitar player that ever played. After the show I can remember walking out saying to myself, Bye Bye Banjo! From then on I was buying every album I could from Stevie. That night left me completely inspired but it would still be another eight or nine years before I would sit down and try to learn how to play a guitar. Stevie is my number one influence for sure, but certainly not my only one. Once I started to study Stevie, I became very interested in who his idols were. I looked into his idols and learned about all of the great players that he studied. I began studying all of these guys and began picking up their influences as well. I am a melting pot of many different performers, but Stevie opened the door for me to all of them.

Bluebird - By the way, I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan open for Robert Plant at the Meadowlands in NJ back in the day. I don't think even Mr. Plant was insulted that he (Plant) was booed when he approached the stage. I think he would have wanted to hear more SRV too.

Albert Cummings - Ha Ha, Iím sure Stevie broke a lot of major performersí hearts when he stole the show!

Bluebird - I'm a student of the Delta blues. I take classic rock and blues rock and trace my way backwards to their original histories as much as I can. Who is your favorite Delta blues artist and how do you think this region has influenced rock music? How can we keep this music history alive?

Albert Cummings - This is an interesting question! My favorite Delta guy?? Hmmm? Iím not sure if he fits the bill because he was from Texas but he fits the bill of the one man and a guitar. This was Lightning Hopkins. I strive to have a tenth of the confidence that man had while performing. He was just as cool as he could be and he was an incredible player and singer.

As far as keeping it alive, well, it is alive. It is a part of every music we hear today. Blues is the beginning of it all. We might not recognize it but it is there. What happens is all music evolves so what was popular fifty years ago is not really popular today no matter what the genre. There are many artists that are out there who are playing it just like it used to be played but that is not going to bring it back. People who enjoy the old style like what these guys are doing but the masses are not. I try very hard to present my blues to people so they can understand it in modern ways. I feel that this is the best way to bring attention to the originators that inspired me to play this music. If I did an entire show with one style of blues I would not be doing the music justice as a whole. The blues is a big house and there is a room for everyone.

Bluebird - Guitar talk. I don't even know where to start in asking questions about 'gear,' but many fans are very interested in knowing which guitars you use for which songs/performances and why. Can you offer some 'guitar talk' for us?

Albert Cummings - Well this is an easy one. I play one guitar until I break it and then I always have one for back up when or if I do. I play Fender Stratocasters because to me they have the best tone and they donít break easily. I tend to be very hard on a guitar with my style. I love to see guys that have twenty different guitars and they are constantly switching between them. Itís all part of the show I guess. To me itís just over-compensating and trying to look like a big shot. I have a pretty unique set up with my pick ups, etc. so I can get a lot of tones out of one guitar. I also love playing through good Fender amps. I believe that 90% of your tone comes from your fingers but good equipment helps for sure.

Bluebird - Vocals. The fans and I heard many singer-songwriter tones in your live and recorded vocals that were contemporary blues such as Joe Bonamassa and classic rock, such as Steve Winwood or Paul Rogers. But that is just my ear, how do you categorize your vocal style?

Albert Cummings - I learned to sing in Basic Training in Fort Knox while singing cadence. That was the first time I ever tried to sing anything. I never had one vocalist that I wanted to sing like. I just evolved into myself. I donít think I sound like anyone but some folks say I sound like Paul Rogers. I am familiar with a few Bad Company songs, but I have never studied Paul in any way. I just try to sing what I feel and not worry about who I sound like. I try to give what is my honest voice. I canít stand when people try to sing like they have a raspy voice when they really donít. It never comes out right. You have to be honest with your music.

Bluebird - What was it like to record for 'Blind Pig' records?

Albert Cummings - It was a real honor for me to record for Blind Pig records. They have a long history with many of the originators in the blues. They were a very big help in getting my music out and making people aware of my music. I think we made some great albums that I am very proud of.

Bluebird - I watched your guitar string 'pop' during the last song at the recent show at the Iron Horse. You took it in stride and said 'I timed that just right.' You had a solo working the mic like a Theremin! You seem to give every song all that you've got. Can you tell us what it's like for you to perform live?

Albert Cummings - Yes, that worked out perfectly that night. I broke a string on the last song. Thatís what I mean when I say I break it. My guitars are set up with a certain spring tension and heavy strings so when I break a string, everything goes way out of tune. There is no playing that guitar any more. I have to switch. Since it was the last song I didnít have to switch.

I do try to give every song all Iíve got. I try to give everything I have to my shows and to do that I have to floor it for every second of the show I can. I donít use a set list for this very reason. I am not a guy who likes to rehearse things. Everything to me has to be spontaneous. I believe if youíre thinking youíre stinking. I like to not know where Iím going during a song. It keeps the band on their toes as well as me.

Bluebird - I ask this of everyone I interview: What do you want the next generation to 'get' about music? What advice would you give to up and coming musicians, trying to put their work out there to be heard in this industry?

Albert Cummings - This is a good question to ask! I think it is sad that there is no real music on the radio anymore. My young sons are listening to all of songs that are really sounds put together. When you spend time in the studio it gives you a whole different outlook on what you hear on the radio in all genres. Music is now about creating a star that fits the bill to be famous. Just look at American Idol. This is the epitome of what is going wrong with the future of music. While the show is an absolute genius idea of how to create a buzz about someone and then make them famous and then make money off of their careers, it is not a good thing for music in general. The acts of today couldnít go into a regular venue and captivate an audience by themselves. It is all about the hype and the show etc. Donít get me wrong. It is all part of entertainment and if people will buy it then go ahead and sell it. I am talking about real artists. People who write their own material, people who play their own instruments, people who know how to capture a crowd and give an audience something that canít be purchased. This is becoming rare to find. It takes a lot of very hard work for artists to get their music heard these days. Americans tend to like what they are familiar with. If it's on the radio they think it must be good. In reality, whatís on the radio is not necessarily what is real. The studio allows you to fake anything or everything. I know first-hand of bands that have to learn the stuff that is on their records and they canít play it live without recordings playing behind them. You hear an album and it sounds like the biggest thing in the world. Then you go see the band and they donít even sound anything like the record.

My advice for young musician would be simple: Be yourself because everyone else is taken! Donít try to be someone else. To get ahead today, you have to have your own sound. People in the music business today are not interested in building acts and growing them into success. They are interested in working with acts that are already proven. This means that you are going to have to work harder than everyone else to pound the pavement. With the internet and how connected the world is, you actually have more opportunity than anyone that came before us. You have to have product though. Just figure out what everyone else is doing and do something different. Or you can always get on American Idol!

Bluebird - Well said! Thank you so much for your time!

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