The announcement that this year blues giant Buddy Guy would be taking his last tour has triggered anxiety among fans, a healthy demand for tickets and sage speculation about the future of the art form.
For his part, Guy, 86, in an interview with the Journal-Constitution, said he understands his responsibility to the blues, but he is more interested in taking his bows while he’s still on his feet.
“The old fellow is doing pretty good,” he said, “but when you get to my age and you’re going Point A to Point B on the airlines, that catches up to you. Maybe I’d better step out of the way for the young people. I don’t want them to wheel me out on stage in a wheelchair.”
He’s going out with a bang. His “Damn Right Farewell Tour,” which brings him to Atlanta and Savannah, will take him to India, Europe, the Middle East, Australia and South America as well as the U.S., crossing the ocean three or four times. It’s the kind of schedule that would make Atlanta’s blues-rock road warrior Tinsley Ellis take a nap.
Earlier this month, during a tour stop in Mumbai, Guy’s drummer and producer Tom Hambridge told an interviewer, “I think Buddy Guy is a little bit of a freak of nature. He gets stronger as he gets older. I’m not sure how that works.”
Credit: Buddy Guy
Credit: Buddy Guy
George “Buddy” Guy was born in Lettsworth, Louisiana, to a sharecropper family. He came to Chicago in 1957, determined to make a living in music.
His incendiary, no-holds-barred guitar playing was hugely influential. Jimi Hendrix brought a tape recorder to his performances. Eric Clapton said “he was my pilot” when inducting Guy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Of retirement, Guy said “I’ll be 87 this year. I started picking cotton at 6 years old, so I’ve been working for 80 some years. Man, it’s time.”
Guy performs a sold-out show at Atlanta Symphony Hall on March 17 and two engagements at the Savannah Music Festival, March 25 and March 26.
Ryan McMaken, artistic director of the Savannah fest, said the opportunity to book the blues master encouraged the festival team to open up a new outdoor venue, the 2,500-capacity Trustees’ Garden, to accommodate Guy’s audience.
The blues elder has been touring with a crew of 20-something prodigies, including “King” Solomon Hicks, Jontavious Willis (from Greenville, Georgia) and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram.
After Guy heard Ingram play, he helped the young man find an opportunity to record. Hambridge produced Ingram’s 2019 debut, “Kingfish,” which was nominated for a Grammy in the traditional blues category.
Of Ingram, now 24, Guy said, “I told my drummer, who’s my producer, ‘we got to get him on a record.’ Those kind of people can keep this music alive.”
Credit: Justin Hardiman
Credit: Justin Hardiman
The issue of keeping the blues alive is a significant one. In one sense the blues is imperishable. There is a new generation of players, including Ingram and Willis, plenty of blues-saturated rock and pop, and even blues-influenced classical music from such composers as jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard and Atlantan Carlos Simon.
On the other hand, the artists from Buddy Guy’s generation, the group that created the Chicago blues, are almost all gone. An extensive New Yorker profile from 2018 (by editor David Remnick) asked “Is the legendary singer and guitarist the last of his kind?” and answered in a qualified affirmative. “The way Guy sees it” Remnick wrote, “he is like one of those aging souls who find themselves the last fluent speaker of an obscure regional language.”
Willis has a tongue-in-cheek song, “The Blues is Dead,” on his 2019 album “Spectacular Class,” with the lyric: “I said stop with that foolish talk, it ain’t nothin’ but some myth/You know the blues ain’t dead, he just been takin’ his rest.”
But Guy gets this particular question so often that his publicist, Annie Lawlor, offered the following caveat in an email before his scheduled interview with the AJC:
“If we could avoid the very frequently asked question — “Are the blues a dying art form and how do you plan to keep them alive?” — that would be much appreciated. It always feels a bit silly to me given that BG is doing 130+ tour dates a year, releasing Grammy nominated records, fostering young talent on/off stage, and owns one of the most well known blues clubs in the world — but we still get that one a lot.”
Guy says he will probably play the occasional festival, and he’ll show up at his Chicago club, Legends, every now and then. “My kids are running the club, and they tell me ‘When you’re there, we do good.’ And if I have to go up and sing one, I can do that.”
It’s another example of his tenacity, a quality that he exemplifies, which is a good lesson for the young people joining him on tour. He was in his 50s when he released “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues,” his breakthrough 1991 album. He had been performing for more than 30 years. He just never gave up.
“It’s like a prize fighter,” said Guy, of the struggle against obscurity. “If you’re in the ring with your gloves on, and you give up, and lay down, you can’t win. But if you keep swinging, you might get in a lucky punch.”
At Atlanta Symphony Hall. 8 p.m., Friday, March 17. Sold out. Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. aso.org.
At the Savannah Music Festival. 5 p.m. March 25; 4 p.m. March 26. $109. Trustees’ Garden, 10 E. Broad St., Savannah, near the Charles Morris Center venue. savannahmusicfestival.org.
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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com