“Ten Shots” with Ted Drozdowski of Scissormen

By Georgetown Fats
June 2011

Long before my dreams of working professionally in radio were dashed by the realization that terrestrial radio is truly an awful medium run by soulless corporations I stumbled upon the written works of Ted Drozdowski. Ted Drozdowski’s work for The Boston Phoenix quickly became ‘must read’ material for this formerly wide-eyed, and often pie-eyed, college boy.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized Ted could sling a pretty mean guitar too.

Journalist, columnist, vocalist, guitarist, southern gentleman, Ted Drozdowski wears many different hats in order to keep his music going. With the release of Robert Mugge’s Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues Ted Drozdowski will have another hat to add to his collection: movie star.

Georgetown Fats - So, I have to admit, I have watched Robert Mugge’s Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage to the Crossroads so many times I am convinced that watching the same file over and over was the reason for the recent demise of my TIVO. How did you meet Mr. Mugge, and how did he pitch you on being the focus of Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues?

Ted Drozdowski of Scissormen - Oddly enough, Bob and I first met at the MFA during a screening of his Robert Johnson movie, but we'd spoken on the phone a few times before. We really became friends when he moved to Mississippi to become the film maker in residence for Mississippi Public Television and I was playing a little room called Martin's in Jackson. He and his son, Robert, started coming to see the band whenever we passed through town and it was kind of a ritual bonding. A couple years ago, we were off to Philadelphia to do the “Miles of Music” syndicated public television show — Scissormen on the same show that's featured Pat Martino and Joe Pass ... there's a trip — and Bob was kind enough to let us stay at his house.

We've stayed in touch, and then he got a gig as an endowed chair at the film program at Ball

State University in Muncie, IN. A short time later I booked a gig at the Slippery Noodle, an old line blues club in Indiana, and invited him out. He accepted, then wrote back a while later and proposed bringing a film crew to do a student project Scissormen short that we could use for promo. And then he just kept getting great ideas and expanding the project, and suddenly we were in a 90 minute feature with a two-hour-fifteen-minute live concert as the centerpiece. Crazy! I never would have imagined such a thing, but it is amazing to be in a movie. I think it took until the Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa in April to really wrap my brain around it all. Bob is my favorite documentary flim maker, and Deep Blues literally changed my life – twice: once when I read Bob Palmer's book, and again when I saw Bob Mugge's movie. Life can have some beautiful surprises.

Georgetown Fats – Since I’ve had a chance to speak with you a few times and generally come to know you as maven of music, and then witness the guitar shredding demon that you become during a live show, are there any uncomfortable scenes in Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues that you wished hit the cutting room floor?

Ted Drozdowski - Not really. Well, just one thing. I am out of tune some while demonstrating what open G sounds like during a slide clinic at the Slippery Noodle. But then again, almost every bluesman I enjoy plays out of tune occasionally - just usually not on film. That said, the hard thing for me to get used to is seeing myself up there so much. I am literally in almost every scene, and don't really think of myself as Prince Charming - regardless of how delightful I can be . . . Ahem. As I mentioned, I've really just gotten used to seeing myself on screen at the latest screenings, so I shouldn’t be too squeamish at the MFA.

Georgetown Fats - When we last spoke you were in Wisconsin on your way from a gig at Chris Johnson’s (a Deep Blues/North Mississippi Hill Country Blues Patron) Bayport BBQ and I was catching you as you were packing for a trip to Switzerland. Where does your boundless amount of energy come from?

Ted Drozdowski - Well, I believe in what I'm doing, regardless of how much gatekeepers and the like might try to shake my faith and how hard the economy makes it to tour as an indie band these days. I think Scissormen are carrying a torch for a style of music that's important and relevant, and that we are an important and interesting bridge between the past, present and future of the blues. And if other people can't see that, well maybe they need to open their eyes and ears a little wider and develop a better understanding about what the blues is really about. So I guess you could say that our sense of mission, and the fact that we put on great live shows that let us go to places where we're reenergized and surprised by what happens, keeps me and Matt Snow on the beam.

Georgetown Fats - With acts like The Black Keys and The White Stripes receiving crossover airplay while artists and acts such as Scott H. Biram, The North Mississippi All-Stars, Cedric Burnside and Lightnin' Malcolm receiving national media attention, in your opinion are we witnessing a mass awakening to the North Mississippi Hill Country music and style?

Ted Drozdowski - Well, I don't think it's a mass awakening yet, but I think this scene is starting to bubble up out of the underground. And I hear it more and more, including on major blues radio outlets. So I think that's an affirmation for what we and all those other artists are doing. If people open up their hearts and their ears, and listen in an unprejudicial manner, they'll get it. I'm not saying everybody in the hill country scene or its offshoots is a genius, but there's a lot of good music being made out there and its time is coming. The gates - which have largely been held by a generation raised on white British blues for the last couple of decades — not that there's anything wrong with white British blues — are creaking open more and more. And while we might hear from booking agents and programmers that their audiences aren't interested in what we do, compared to four/four Chicago shuffles and other blues music that's generally played by hacks with too few fantastic exceptions, to say nothing of people who think the entire repertoire was completed in 1966 and just needs to be reused and recycled — the reaction of both old and young people where ever and whenever we play puts the lie to that bullshit. What we do is universal. Just get the hell out of the way, let us do it, and watch what happens. But alas, I digress . . .

Georgetown Fats - How is it that Jessie Mae Hemphill, who wrote “Lord Help the Poor and Needy” which is a personal favorite of mine, does not have a mile marker in Mississippi yet?

Ted Drozdowski - Damn, I'll have to ask Scott Baretta about that when I see him next, which will be soon. I'm just damn glad Jessie has a tombstone. My wife Laurie and I loved that lady, and we love her still. Her music was so beautiful and strong, and she could kick your ass even with one bad leg after her stroke.

Georgetown Fats - As best you can recall, I am curious to learn who your first North Mississippi Hill Country influence was and/or what song created your “ah-ha” moment?

Ted Drozdowski - Well, it was seeing R.L. Burnside doing "Jumper on the Line" in Deep Blues, and then Junior Kimbrough "All Night Long." I thought R.L. was the coolest rhythm player I'd ever heard in just one song. And then to see Junior lay down that psychedelic trance inducing sex music right after that. I was at a press screening with two other people, and before the movie was over I had resolved to go see those two men play in those two places. I was drawn in. And to have been befriended by Junior, R.L. and Jessie is one of the biggest gifts I've ever had in my life, and it changed the way I thought and looked at the world as much as the way I'd been playing. Plus getting to know Robert Palmer was a bonus in all that, too. And, in another musical arena, Sonny Sharrock — and Mighty Sam McClain, whose power and spiritual core is too often underestimated by his fellow New England residents. There is power in their music and hearts, just like there was in Charley Patton's and Son House's.

Georgetown Fats - You make no bones about your respect and admiration for the artists of the North Mississippi Hill Country, and due to your writings and touring, I know you have had the opportunity to spend quality time with a number of the artists from the area. I am curious to learn if you had to pin it all down to one musician from the area, who made the largest impact on Ted Drozdowski both professionally and personally?

Ted Drozdowski - I would have to say it boils down mostly to R.L., who actively encouraged me to play his kind of blues, despite my initial resistance. I miss him, and all the others, and think about them a lot. I feel lucky to be able to talk to Sam pretty often, and I also miss the close connection I once had with Ronnie Earl, who is one of the most beautiful players alive, but openly struggles with demons, or at least illness. But for hill country, that's R.L. What a great soul he was! And then probably Jessie, only because Junior died before I could really get to know him as deeply as the other two.

Georgetown Fats - Other than throwing a slab of raw meat to drummer Matt Snow before a gig, are there any other pre-gig rituals you observe?

Ted Drozdowski - Ideally, at least three fingers of Jameson's sipped slowly enough to enjoy it. I also like setting up and having some time to sit and chill instead of flying right into things, to get the road or the day out of my head. But even if that doesn't happen, I'm at a point now where whatever I need to get to a good place musically and performance-wise is on tap 99.9-percent of the time. I just have to open up the faucet a little. And Matt also enjoys a little pre-gig nip o' the Irish.

Georgetown Fats - So while I know you relocated to Nashville years ago, by your production work with Peter Parcek, writing reviews of the Ten Foot Polecats’ I Get Blamed for Everything I Do, in addition to being an informative musical source for yours truly, it is clear you haven’t cut ties with Boston. What, if anything, do you miss about the city or state? What are you happy to have left behind?

Ted Drozdowski - When I left Boston I was not too fond of it. I felt there wasn't much for me there as a musician or journalist any more, for various reasons. And I thought it was getting too costly and less and less fun. It took me about two years to warm up to the city again. Much to my surprise, the more I toured and the more I got out of the city, including eventually relocating to Nashville, the more people in Boston seemed to give a damn about my music. And maybe it was the distance, but I feel like I've been in better communication with all my friends there now and maybe we all value each other a little more for the distance.

I fell back in love with the city playing First Night two years ago. The brownstones were so beautiful dusted in snow. Everybody was so welcoming and friendly. And I really miss good sea food and good cooking in general. Nashville knows little about cuisine - especially ethnic cuisine. There are so many good inexpensive restaurants in Boston. I've also been amazed to see the pendulum swing in Boston blues. That thing about the gates opening up is really happening in Boston. It might be hard to see it from the outside, but I see it and feel it's very welcoming. And I love the damn Ten Foot Polecats and a bunch of other Boston artists.

All that said, it is easier to be an artist in Boston than Nashville, in terms of survival, convenience in touring and the amount of regard here for musicians in general. I also think the Boston music scene was, to a certain extent, in arrested development for decades when I left. Maybe that's changed now. As raw as I might play, I am way over garage rock bands, and indie pop for the most part never spoke to me because it has a lack of depth, soul and originality, generally speaking. I like bands that have an original voice, like Morphine did, or Tom Waits, or Sam McClain, or Ronnie, or Paul and Annie, or Holy Cow, or Captain Beefheart, or Pink Floyd. And Scissormen. If you don't have something of your own to say, you're not talking to me.

Georgetown Fats - So while the immediate future has Scissormen supporting Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues, when can Scissormen fans expect a follow-up to Luck in a Hurry?

Ted Drozdowski - First up will be a DVD/soundtrack CD, hopefully out in the fall. A lot of people have been asking how to get the movie, plus I think the live recordings we did at the Key Palace Theater in Red Key, IN, really capture and, in a way, put a lid on this phase of the band. Matt and I are developing a pile of new songs for the next studio recording. We've got about a dozen in various states, and a few are already making it into the live sets. And they are pushing the repertoire in new directions. Our vision for the next studio album is to get more sonically exploratory and push the envelope more while still keeping our arms around the tradition. We know it can be done, because we've got two new songs we're playing now, "Letter from Hell" and "The River," that do exactly that — and people are really digging them. The next album will also expand the line-up, at least for the studio, with some bass, string, harmonica and other instruments in the arrangements. Then we'll see what happens when we take it on the road.

For hard core fans, we put out a CD late last year: BOOTLEG: Blues Rules 2010 — Live in Crissier, Switzerland. It's raw and high energy, and comes right off the soundboard in two track, for the same festival we're going to play next week. The show just had a cool vibe and it seemed like it would be good to share it with people. We decided to do a limited pressing and then let iTunes and Amazon run with it digitally, and much to my surprise we actually recouped on the first pressing before the street date thanks to advance sales. We also did a second pressing, so we could take some physical copies back to Switzerland. It was ready for the last tour, and if we sell two or three copies more at this point we'll have recouped on that pressing as well. That's a nice affirmation!

Georgetown Fats - Thank you for your time and this interview. I’m looking forward to the event at the movie screening at the Museum of Fine Arts. Safe travels, and send my best regards to the TSA folks.

Ted Drozdowski - Nothing they love better than knuckle-draggers with guitars

For more information on Scissormen, check them out at www.facebook.com/pages/Scissormen/155426714528 or for tickets to the June 29th screening of Robert Mugge’s Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues check out http://www.songkick.com/concerts/9058631-scissormen-at-museum-of-fine-arts-boston

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