“A national treasure in your own back yard.” Jorma Kaukonen
Mary Flower is an amazing acoustic guitarist who specializes in Piedmont-style finger picking with dashes of Delta, ragtime and jazz. A finalist in the National Finger Picking Guitar Championship, she is also a three-time nominee for a Blues Music Award and many times a Cascade Blues Association Muddy Award winner. Living Blues magazine said that she “Marries acoustic blues with touches of ragtime, folk, and jazz…the interplay is always interesting, often provocative, and sometimes breath-taking.”
She has eleven recordings and performs regularly in the United States and abroad, including appearances at the King Biscuit Blues festival, the Vancouver Folk Festival and Prairie Home Companion.
As well as her recording and song-writing, Mary Flower is a renowned guitar instructor, teaching at festivals and guitar camps, and hosts her own guitar camp, Blues in the Gorge, each year near Portland, Oregon. In addition, she has developed five instructional DVDs and been part of the Blues in Schools program.
With a great deal of care and creativity, she brings to life older blues and roots music, and composes songs that sound like they firmly belong in America’s great roots music tradition. She recently released her eleventh album, Livin’ With the Blues Again, a 12-song set that comprises instrumentals which showcase Mary’s guitar chops, blues and gospel songs and some Mary Flower originals. Down at the Crossroads got to chat to Mary about the album and her music.
Gary: I’ve been listening to your new album quite a lot over the last the last week or so. And I’ve really enjoyed it. I mean, it’s the blues, but it’s kind of uplifting as well. So I wondered if maybe you could tell us a little bit about it, how you decided what songs would go on it and maybe a bit about the recording process.
Mary Flower: Well, I have to tell you that this was a fairly quickly recorded CD and also I didn’t have a lot of time to plan. I know people who have spent a year to record an album and I found out maybe a month and a half, I’d say, before recording times that I was going to do it.
I was approached by the Little Village Foundation, which is…I call them angels. They find people that they want to record for them. And then they record the whole thing and do the artwork and pay for everything, and then give you CDs. I was extremely lucky to be chosen for this project. They recorded five albums about the same time and the release date for all five was the same. So we did a five act concert down at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, California.
Jim Pugh is a Hammond B3 player, who has played with a lot of groups, including with Robert Cray. And he decided to do something that would get him off the road and do something good for people. So he started the Little Village Foundation which is based somewhere in California. Anyway. So I had very little time compared to what a lot of people have when they do a project. I just kind of chose songs that I thought that I knew well enough to be able to pull off in the studio fairly well without having to think too hard – songs that I’ve been playing that I knew fairly well. I wrote a couple of extras before I went in and I did a couple of repeats from older albums.
For the recording process we had an engineer who’s a great guitar player. And mostly the other people on the recording are Little Village artists, except for Susie Thompson, who’s a friend of mine. And so it was people I’d never met or played with before. And they just kind of brought ’em in and the Sons of the Soul Revivers were phenomenal to work with. Three guys. And they didn’t have to even think about the parts. They knew exactly what to do and they sounded really, really good. They’re incredible. Anyway, it kind of all worked out.
Gary: I wanted to ask you about your singing, because I thought your singing on the album was very good. Clearly you’re known for your finger picking prowess – and the album is bookended by two lovely instrumentals. But do you have a preference between just playing guitar or playing and singing?
Mary Flower: Yes, I do. I would prefer…well, let’s put it in terms of songwriting. Would I rather write an instrumental or lyrics? l’d certainly rather be more guitar centric than being called the singer songwriter. Writing songs is a really difficult process for me lyrically. And, you know, I can sing or not sing, but I’m happy to not be singing if that’s an option. And I love writing instrumentals. I’m passionate about that. Particularly writing instrumentals that sound like an old song. Piedmont style blues or something.
Gary: But take Living with the Blues Again, which is a Mary Flower original. When you talk about, you know, struggling maybe with writing lyrics, I just thought the lyrics on that were very strong. And some were quite amusing. And then you have “this old country’s in a terrible mass, there’s lying and cheating, hitting and tweeting…No more kindness, my friend.” Which sounded to me awfully like a comment on your tweeter-in-chief.
Mary Flower: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, what else could it be? It was definitely a political connotation. I’m not really a political performer or someone that talks a lot about politics. But I did find that that fit in well to that song. But my audience is not going to be insulted by that – they’re pretty much in agreement, I think. But yeah. That was exactly what that was all about. And I thought it was a very gentle way to say something. You know, as opposed to some people who are just…have more guts than I have!
Gary: I thought that was nicely done in the song and so, you know, I think your lyric writing on that one came through pretty well. It kind of reminded me of a Chris Smither, song in some ways, because he’s quite clever with his lyrics as well.
Mary Flower: Yeah. Well, he’s a real lyricist. But I just find it difficult to get inspiration. If I go to a retreat where I have nothing to do but write, I can write a song! But daily life – there’s so much to do. I get distracted. and I always have to be dragged away from my house, far away from civilization to write! But I can do it when forced to!
Gary: And there are some very cheerful spots on the album. There’s A Bright Side Somewhere, which is an old gospel song, which has been done by all sorts of people. I discovered recently another nice version of that by Ry Cooder.
Mary Flower: Oh I didn’t know he did it.
Gary: Yeah, but yours is a great version. And then River of Joy. Both seem to me to be quite hopeful or inspirational songs at a time when there’s a lot of pessimism around, you know, you say “the world’s all rough and tumble, There’s a great unrest” and so on. How important are those sort of songs, those kind of upbeat songs, in times like these?
Mary Flower: I think they’re critical. I have some hope because it’s gotta turn. It’s worse than it’s ever been, but it’s gonna turn around. And I think people like being hopeful. River of Joy is one of the two songs that I had previously recorded. I had written that after 9/11 – it was my response to that. So it kind of felt like it was time to do it one more time. I’m not a religious person, but gospel music is quite moving to me. I just feel like it lifts me up.
Gary: It’s such a big part of American roots music isn’t it?
Mary Flower: Yes, it’s huge. I’m a big fan of good gospel music. And that song Bright Side I thought was a Reverend Gary Davis song until I realized it’s an old Methodist hymn. And the guys that I sang with knew it quite differently. And they kind of had to relearn the structure of the song. Everybody’s got their version of it.
Gary: So, let me ask you a little bit about your guitar playing. Obviously, you’re very skilled. You’ve been a finalist in prestigious competitions and so on. And so how did you get so good, Mary? Were you self-taught? Did you have teachers? How did you get to the skill level you have?
Mary Flower: I am completely self-taught. I grew up in a small town where nobody played guitar. And, you know, it was during what we call the folk scene of the 60s, late 60s, and all I heard were the commercial renderings from people. I didn’t really understand the roots of the music until I went to school at Indiana University, which has probably the greatest ever ethno-musicology school in the country.
And a lot of musicians came there and, as I began to dig a little bit deeper, I realized that some of the Peter, Paul and Mary songs, were written by Reverend Gary Davis. I started hearing the roots. And as I got older, I began to delve into the people who played the early country blues and early Piedmont style blues. Then I met John Cephas, who is one of my heroes. And John Jackson, two Piedmont style players. I spent time with both of them, not really learning from them, but playing with them, you know? And as I went around to these guitar camps, which were really fun, I learned. I mean, I watched other people. I watched how they taught. I watched how they play. And that really helped me in the beginning. And then I kind of found my own way.
But I try to not copy. I mean, unless I decide I’m going to do a note for note version of somebody’s song. I try to kind of use their style in a way with my own playing, with my own writing. And I turn it around a little bit. I try to never steal. I mean, you won’t hear me sound too much like Robert Johnson, although I could if I wanted to. Plenty of people that do that. I try to make it my own, I guess.
Gary: So how do you do you do that? When you’ve identified a song that you think that might work for Mary Flower, how do you go about the rearranging, reinterpreting?
Mary Flower: I try to be true to the form and perhaps play it in a different key, make my own arrangement. But keep it recognizable. I don’t want to take it too far away from where a song was written. But probably the hardest thing for me is if I’m learning a song that was recorded by a man. Many times I can’t sing those lyrics or I can’t sing it in the key that they recorded. So, I’ve got to make some changes. All of that can be a bit of a struggle. It’s really hard to take a song and make it mine if it’s written by a guy. And so many times it is.
Gary: Do you ever change lyrics then so you can sing it?
Mary Flower: Yes, I have been known to do that! If I were doing a Robert Johnson song, I can’t sing, “I’ll beat my woman until I’m satisfied.” So yes. I’ve been known to change a bit here and there.
The other problem is understanding lyrics from the recording. That can be super hard and I get really frustrated. You’d think this song must have lyrics on the internet. Wrong! Because they couldn’t understand the lyrics either! So, yes, it can be really hard to find the correct interpretation of the song.
Gary: A good example of that is Blind Willie Johnson’s Latter Rain. Because if you go and look for the lyrics of that, you’ll find all sorts of strange things because Johnson was a Pentecostal and there’s a bit of Pentecostal theology that read a text in the Old Testament about the “latter rain” falling on the crops which they took to refer to the Spirit falling in the last days. So that’s what the song’s about, because Johnson’s Pentecostal movement felt that they were in the days of the latter rain of the Spirit coming down. But unless you understand that you would misinterpret what Johnson is singing, which sometimes can be difficult. So that’s a prime example of a prime example of what you’re saying.
Mary Flower: Yeah. And there are so many dialects as well. In the Southern States, it’s really hard to understand those guys so much of the time. Another positive point for writing my own!
Gary: So if someone was starting out on a journey wanting to play acoustic blues guitar, people who come to your to your workshops and so on – who would you advise them to listen to?
Mary Flower: Well, I would say Blind Blake, because he is the top of the heap as far as I’m concerned. I know maybe seven people who can imitate him well, who can play just where he’s playing. But if I want a gentler approach, I would start with Mississippi John Hurt, whom everybody loved because he was a sweetheart. Although his songs sound easy, they’re not really, but they’re a good place to learn. And I’d also say Elizabeth Cotton, who also had a gentler approach. And, you know, she wrote Freight Train, which is very cool.
These guys teach you pattern picking, and how to incorporate a melody. But when people try to learn syncopation, that’s what throws everybody. It’s so complex. And really the guys who play that are really imitating a piano, and it’s easier to play syncopation on a piano than it is to play it on a guitar. So that’s what tends to throw people.
That’s kind of what I spend a lot of time teaching in these workshops because a simple melody isn’t very interesting. People have to learn to vary it from measure to measure. But John Hurt, he is a great place to start.
Gary: Very good. Who then are the guitarists that you like to listen to these days?
Mary Flower: Well, I don’t do a lot of listening, and I’ll tell you why. I hear music all the time. I mean, I had a four-hour rehearsal yesterday with my little string band! But of course, Ry Cooder. And then some of my friends who are not maybe nationally known or internationally known. Pat Donahue is one of my favourite players of all time.
I still hear people say to me, “You know what, you’re so good. Why have we never heard of you?” That’s why I get on tour. And Pat’s another one of those. Even though he was on Prairie Home companion for years and had millions of people listening to him every week. And then there’s Paul Geremiah whom I knew. Sadly, he’s had a stroke and I don’t think he can play anymore right now. But he was the best of the best when he was touring. These are some of the top, top guys. Oh, and John Cephas and John Jackson I guess I should put it in that category, as far as heroes of mine go.
Gary: So let me ask you a little bit about the blues. You’ve been nominated for Blues Music Awards, and a lot of your music revolves around the blues. What is it that attracts you to this music, Mary?
Mary Flower: Well, there’s so many different kinds of blues. The Chicago style was mostly electric, and I’m not really interested in that. I’m interested in the Piedmont style because it is complex and challenging. And oddly enough, it was played mostly by blind men. Go figure on that one! They were phenomenal. But I don’t know – it speaks to me, it’s got an edge to it. And I can write songs that work in that genre. I mean, I can write folk songs if I need to. But I really like the challenge of trying to make it sound like it’s an older song.
Gary: This is music that’s been around for a long time, that does seem to have an enduring appeal. Generation after generation discovers something fresh in it and it seems to have that continual attraction and pull.
Mary Flower: And I also think that the people who are really good at it have been working all their lives toward getting it right. That to me is worth a lot right there. Let’s put it this way – there are not a lot of jerks playing this kind of music! If they are, they don’t last. They are people who are putting their best foot forward and being true to the to the genre.
Take John Jackson, the Piedmont style player from Virginia, who is no longer around, and was probably the closest thing to John Hurt. He lived a fabulous life. And I think everybody was so touched by him. He just had a halo around his head! He played this music and spoke with an accent that nobody could quite understand. But he was such a great guy. And that really appeals to me and speaks for something.
Gary: Yes, that’s very interesting that you say that, because over the last two, three years I’ve talked to quite a lot of blues musicians…like Eric Bibb, Chris Smither, Rory Block, Hans Theessink, Luther Dickinson and quite a few others. And they’ve been generous with their time in talking to me and never critical of other people. So, yes, I think you’re right to say that. [when you’re finished here, check out the interviews by clicking the link]
Mary Flower: Oh, by the way, I’ve invited Eric to teach at my camp next year, and we’ve had Michael Jerome Brown in the past. He’s a wonderful player.
Gary: Yes, he’s a fantastic player. I saw him touring with Eric Bibb in the last year. And he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the blues and blues history.
Mary Flower: Yes, he taught at my camp and made a big impression a couple of years ago. So hopefully we’ll get Eric Bibb next year. And it look like we might have Jim Kweskin for the jug band-y stuff. Anyway, that would be quite a year if I can get who I want.
Gary: So tell us about your teaching, Mary, because I know that’s a big part of what you do.
Mary Flower: Well, I have my own guitar camp that happens here in early October. And it’s been hugely successful. We’re going on our seventh year, I think. And I bring in three nationally known people, and then get 50 students. So teaching is something I love to do. And it also balances me out. I don’t have to be on the road all the time. And I teach at other people’s guitar camps as well.
My camp is called Blues in the Gorge and it’s in the Columbia River Gorge at a place called Menucha. There’s something on my home page of my website about the dates for next year, which is early October. [check it out here] It’s 5 days – three intense days. And it’s a lot of fun. Everybody who comes is gracious. A lot of these camps turn into party camps, but that’s not what this is. People take it seriously and a lot of really great, great people show up for it.
Gary: That sounds fabulous and a lot of fun. Mary, it’s been lovely talking to you. Thanks so much for your time.