Story by Suzanne Van Atten. Photos by Jenni Girtman.
By day, the squat, cinderblock building with bars on the windows is easy to overlook. But at night, when the neon light glows blue, the Northside Tavern on Howell Mill Road comes alive. And it’s never livelier than when Daniel Dudeck, aka Mudcat, is on stage.
The perpetually youthful musician in the wide-brim fedora is a fixture at the blues club, where he can usually be found fingerpicking the guitar strings Piedmont style or playing a smoking slide. To catch him in action, especially on a weekend night when he’s backed by a full band, is a quintessential Atlanta experience that leaves clubgoers sweaty and exhausted from their workout on the dance floor.
The self-taught musician honed his craft busking on street corners and ferries from New York to New Orleans, and has gone on to tour Europe and play with greats like Dickey Betts, Taj Mahal and Derek Trucks. But perhaps his greatest influence as an Atlanta institution is his role as an ambassador for bridging the contemporary blues scene with the legacy of its forebears.
“He’s one of the most influential blues musicians in the modern era,” says Matt Harper, owner of Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, where Dudeck got his start in Atlanta.
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“He brings people together from multi-generations, and he’s able to propagate Atlanta blues music all over the world. Plus, he’s just a blast. His music is very rootsy, stylish and fun.”
Despite his Southern drawl, Dudeck, 52, spent the first nine years of his life in St. Paul, Minn. He likes to point out that his hometown borders the Mississippi River, home of both the blues and the humble catfish with which he shares a nickname.
In 1976, Dudeck moved to Tybee Island with his mother, where she supported them with her barber skills. Six years later, she “decided she had to go find herself,” he says, and he wound up in the foster care system. After a couple of temporary situations, Dudeck landed in a family with three brothers who treated him as their own. When the family moved to Augusta, Dudeck went with them.
Dudeck credits his love of music to his mother’s vinyl record collection; Johnny Cash was one of her favorites. But his passion for the blues began with “The Blues Brothers” movie. In a brief scene before the late, great Aretha Franklin’s big number, blues legend John Lee Hooker can be seen performing his song “Boom Boom.”
“What the hell is that?” Dudeck remembers thinking.
That sound lit a fire in him.
“In Augusta, there was a bookstore that had a huge collection of jazz and blues records. I bought a Vanguard album, ‘The Great Bluesmen.’ It made me high,” Dudeck says, chuckling at the memory. “It put me in a euphoric kind of place.”
When he was 17, a friend gave Dudeck a guitar left behind by an ex-girlfriend.
“I stayed with it day and night for a month straight,” he says.
Songwriting came naturally to him.
“I couldn’t play other people’s stuff very well,” he says. “My M.O. was to learn a riff and write a song around it. And I always loved to sing. When I was little I liked to skip school and walk through the marsh and make up songs and sing them to the seagulls.”
Music wasn’t his only creative outlet. Dudeck began acting in children’s theater when he was still in Minnesota, and he stuck with it through his teenage years, playing roles in “Godspell” and “Macbeth.”
After high school he got in to the National Shakespeare Conservatory, an acting school in New York City. He found a place to live in Hell’s Kitchen and started busking on the Staten Island Ferry. It wasn’t long before he started spending more time on the street than in school and dropped out. He eventually moved to New Orleans and continued to busk and study acting before making his way to Atlanta, where he began playing blues clubs around town. His varied repertoire would expand over time, ranging from “Goin’ to Jackson” by Cash and “Empty Room Blues” by Memphis Slim to originals like the rollicking “Get Your House in Order” and the love song “Falling.”
In 1993, the longtime owner of the Northside Tavern died, leaving his daughter, Ellyn Webb, in charge. She waffled between turning it into a strip club or a blues bar. Then one day, Dudeck says, “she saw me playing at Fat Matt’s and asked me if I was interested in bringing some friends in.”
Dudeck delivered. Not only did he bring in contemporary blues musicians, but he introduced old-school African-American blues artists like Frank Edwards, Cora Mae Bryant and Beverly “Guitar” Watkins to a new generation of fans. Along the way, Dudeck gained a deeper knowledge of the blues.
“Cora Mae changed my world. I thought I knew the blues, but I’d never heard of the Piedmont blues,” he says, referring to the fingerpicking style of guitar playing characteristic of coastal blues musicians.
Now, 25 years later, the Northside Tavern is a beloved institution among live music fans.
“I was the young guy when I started, now I’m older than a lot of the people there,” Dudeck says.
The musician performs solo every Wednesday night and plays with a full band the last weekend of the month. He estimated he’s played 2,000 nights at the club so far. After Webb died last year, her brother Tommy became manager and Dudeck took over booking the bands.
Asked what’s changed over the years, Dudeck pointed to the bar’s Westside neighborhood.
“When we first started, we had to have the Red Dog cops there to keep it safe. If you saw somebody walking by, it was because they were homeless or they were coming to the Tavern. Now they’re walking from one restaurant to another.”
Dudeck still plays other venues around town, including Blind Willie’s and Matilda’s, and he has a new record out called “Castaway.” When he’s not immersed in music, he can be found tending his vegetable gardens or preserving his harvest at his home in Decatur, which he shares with wife Kathryn Dudeck, wildlife director for the Chattahoochee Nature Center.
But on Wednesday night, come hell or high water, Daniel Dudeck will be at the Northside Tavern playing the blues.
Northside Tavern, 1058 Howell Mill Road. Mudcat performs 10 p.m.-2 a.m. every Wednesday and the last full weekend of the month. Free Wednesday, $10 Friday-Saturday. 404-874-8745. northsidetavern.com. mudcatblues.com
The Piedmont Report is a podcast Dudeck hosts on his website at mudcatblues.com that combines his two loves: the blues and farming. The show features music, stories and planting tips for gardeners. He performed a scripted, live version of the show at Avondale Towne Cinema last summer with a host of guest artists, and he had so much fun, he plans to do it again.