“The real acoustic blues king” Rock ‘n’ Reel
Catfish Keith is a wonderful guitarist and a fine exponent of acoustic blues. With his resonator and vintage-sounding guitars, and a fine ear for wheedling out old blues and folk tunes that he can re-work for a modern audience, he’s been entertaining people all round the world for nearly forty years. He’s been nominated for Grammys and Blues Music Awards on a number of occasions, has headlined major music festivals, and appeared with legendary artists like John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Robert Cray, Koko Taylor, Taj Mahal, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Johnny Shines.
His latest album, Catfish Crawl, is a wonderful eclectic mix of material from Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Blake, Furry Lewis, Johnny Shines, Jessie Mae Hemphill, the Carter Family, the Nassau String Band and others, as well as some original material. It’s great fun, the guitar work is outstanding and Keith’s arrangements of the songs are masterful. Check it out, you’ll enjoy it!
We were delighted to get the chance to chat to Keith and ask him about the album and his life in music. First of all, I had to ask – where did the name Catfish Keith come from?
“Well,” he told me, “I got called that when I was a young fella. For a brief period of time, I lived on a sailboat in the Virgin Islands. I’d just left home and I’d never really seen the ocean before, but I had a friend who had a sailboat and he let me crew on it. So I was down there, living on the boat and we used to go fishing with this guy and he would say, “Hey man, you are nothing but a catfish swimming around.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but every time I’d see him, he’d say that.
“So, a handful of years goes by, and the time came for me, when I was maybe 22, to do my very first album. Using my given name, (Keith Daniel Kozacik) proved to be very cumbersome and people didn’t know how to spell it. So, I thought, well, if I’m going to change my name now is the time to do it. So I decided to go with Catfish Keith, because, you know, it kinda made me part of the blues animal kingdom! Now some people call me Cat and some just call me Fish!
What’s more, Keith told me, the song Catfish Blues, had been very formative for him. The song has been recorded by many artists over the years, including Honeyboy Edwards and Muddy Waters but it was Robert Petway’s original version, recorded in 1941, that had really turned him on to the sound of the National guitar, making him want to play a resonator.
“I recorded it at a place called Flat Black Studios, which is not far away from where I live, run by a guy named Luke Tweedy and it’s just a nice place to record. It’s an old converted barn and I’ve gone there for about five or six of my albums. I think I took nine guitars – I have a lot of guitars! – and set them all up in the studio. And over the course of four or five days, I would go in for about three or four hours and record a handful of songs and I just kept at it until all the tracking was done and then we mastered it. The way I work, I’m well prepared when I go in the studio.
“I have 20 or 30 songs I could try. And then I go ahead and go through them. And if they don’t work after two or three or four cuts, I just move on to the next one. And so pretty quickly it reveals if a song’s truly ready or not. I guess I used 13 songs on that album and I like to use a number of different guitars just to vary the sound. Some songs I’ll play slide guitar, usually on my baritone Nationals. And I play a lot of the little handmade guitars, including the Santa Cruz Catfish Special and guitars by Ralph Bown, who’s a British guitar builder.
“There’s a whole bunch of great luthiers that have made guitars for me kind of in a vintage style. People like Dale Fairbanks at Fairbanks Guitars, Tony Klassen at ARK New Era Guitars, and Todd Cambio at Fraulini Guitars And I really love those guitars and I love to showcase them. In Luke’s studio you get this wonderful, wonderful sound, and it’s really easy to work.
“From my repertoire maybe several months before I’m going to do a record I’ll list out fifty or a hundred songs that I love and I want to do. I’ve written some too, and I’ll spend two or three months before the studio date, just crafting and honing and practicing and working on songs. It’s all about kind of doing the homework, so when it’s time to record I’m ready to go. And that’s the way I’ve worked for years and years.
“Most of what I do is solo – that was always my vision for the music. The music I loved the most was the quirky, weird, beautiful treasure trove of songs where one person and an instrument could make all the sound, a complete and whole beautiful orchestra. Finger picking guitar and all the roots music, but heavily based in country blues. And of course, I also do songs from the Islands and I do some jazzy things, and songs that come from old time country and fiddle tunes, you know, kind of the whole full bag of American roots music. And that’s always really inspired me.”
Keith benefited from there being a lot of really gifted musicians and songwriters and old-time musicians in Iowa when he was growing up – people he could see performing live and learn from. Then, whenever he started playing professionally, he got the opportunity to tour all over the US, which gave him the chance to meet many of his heroes, first generation blues artists, like Johnny Shines, Homesick James and Honeyboy Edwards, who, although getting pretty old, were still alive. He got the opportunity to meet and play with the likes of Jessie Mae Hemphill, John Cephas and John Jackson and Henry Townsend.
“I’m 58 years old now but when I was young, in my early twenties, quite a few of those old guys were still around. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was very, very lucky to have that direct link and friendship. And get to know the culture of it, as well as just learning music from old records. So, that really brought it to life and made the music even more real and more important. Those musicians are like my musical grandparents. But then there are also those that are one generation older than me, whom I’ve known and learned from – like Dave Van Ronk, Paul Geremiah, John Hammond and Roy Bookbinder. These are all guys that I still know, and we’re still good friends. And they were huge influences as to how you get out there and actually take the music to the world.”
What, I wondered, drew him to the blues and the sort of traditional music that he plays?
“Well, you know, when I was a real little kid my mom had records in the house and I remember we had a Leadbelly record and we had Odetta and Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash and Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, stuff like that. My mom liked to collect records and she loved folk music and the blues. So that was when I first heard it when I was a little kid. And then when I was about 12 and started playing, there were quite a lot of people playing acoustic guitar especially at summer camp, and there were camp counsellors who would play guitars and sing all these songs by the campfire.
“And then I used to go to folk mass or hippy mass in my Catholic church back in the ’70s. And once they found out that I liked playing guitar they got me playing in the church band. I barely knew any chords, but they put me right on stage. And we’d play songs for all the parts of the mass, you know, the Amen and all that. So when I was coming of age, there were a lot of acoustic guitars around being played. And that made me start to teach myself guitar. And I just love the sound of acoustic guitar.”
Listen to any Catfish Keith albums and you’ll pretty quickly realize what a jaw-droppingly good guitar player he is, finger-picking complex patterns and sounding like there are about three guitars in play rather than just one. That was what attracted him to the acoustic guitar – hearing the complexity of players like Paul Simon, then Leo Kottle and John Fahey. Listening to this sort of stuff as a teenager was what drew him in, rather than the pop songs his class mates were listening to. He was much more attracted to the music of James Taylor, Jim Croce, Simon and Garfunkel. Anything, really that featured acoustic guitar.
“But when I started hearing these old blues, it really grabbed me and I was inspired to not only learn the guitar, but, sing as well and make the whole world of music and really that’s what’s fuelled me ever since.”
As he listened to all these great acoustic guitar players, Keith began to wonder where did they got their music.
“I always had that kind of bookish curiosity. I loved going to the library as a kid – I’d find books about country blues, like the Samuel Charters book, and I found pictures of Charlie Patton and Blind Blake. So I just sort of started studying. And the libraries had the old records too. They had Blind Blake records and Fred McDowell and Memphis Minnie, and all those wonderful country blues. So, I would check those out and study them.
“I would befriend blues record collectors and go to their houses and ask them to play the blues records so I could record them on my boombox on cassette tape. Then I’d study the recordings. I loved the music and I felt like I was finding a hidden treasure.”
Once he began to discover all this great music, Keith began to practice incessantly. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes at least 10,000 hours practise to get professionally good at something. Keith says he’s put in hundreds of thousands of hours, just playing all the time as a young man. And he still does:
“I still play guitar a lot. I can leave it by for a while, but then I’ll go and play for hours and just enjoy taking the journey with the guitar. I do what I called daydream guitar play. I’ll just lay in the bed with the guitar and I won’t even think of anything in particular. I’ll just pick the guitar up and start playing and see what happens. And sometimes I’ll make a whole new song and sometimes I’ll just play and enjoy whatever journey I’m on until I have to get up and walk around.”
Keith has a unique sound, honed over many years, which is a result of his superb guitar chops, his in-depth knowledge of the musical canon and by the way in which he approaches re-interpreting an old song – he doesn’t just copy the way a song has been performed but he first internalizes it, allows it to become part of him before he begins to arrange it in a way that keeps the vintage vibe, but makes it sound new and alive.
I went on to ask Keith about something I’d noticed in Catfish Crawl, that I thought was a bit unusual. Here and there, you hear him using harmonics, which is not something that you often hear in country blues playing. But it adds something pretty nice to some of the songs.
“Yeah, you don’t really hear it within country blues. I listened to a lot of kinds of guitar playing and when I was a young man I heard a jazz guitar soloist playing in a lounge, and he would do all these finger style sort of standards. And then all of a sudden, he’d do a whole chorus that was in just in harmonics. And when I saw him, it just made my hair stand up. It made me realize if I could get some of that sound that I would extend the range of the guitar and it could stretch the possibility of the sounds, you can add colours and textures.
“So I took some of his technique. And there are other jazz players like Lenny Breau who had his own harmonics sound. And then, you hear it in rock and roll guys like Eddie Van Halen. It’s different, it’s more frenetic and it’s all electric guitar, but it’s the same technique. And harmonics were also used in Hawaiian music for lap style playing. I studied hard on all those harmonics, just so I could add some different colours to what I was doing. So I could take a really simple melody, and then if I want to, I can play the entire thing in harmonics, or I can add little skanky harmonic notes that add a little texture in the middle of a song.”
Keith has been a endorser of National Reso-phonic guitars since the 1990s and has recently had a signature guitar made by Santa Cruz. I was keen to hear about his guitars. First he told me about Nationals:
“Well, it’s a very distinctive sound, a beautiful voice that really occupies sort of a cultural place. Nationals really captured my imagination when I heard the Hawaiian guys, like Sol Hoopii, who plays lap style and tricones, and then Son House and Blind boy Fuller and Booker White. But I have to credit Son house. When I was a teenager and I was into finger picking, I was already finger-picking pretty good. But then I found a Son House record – the Father of Folk Blues record he did in 1965.
“I got it in the cutout section of the record store. I don’t know if you remember that record stores had this section where the records were cheaper and they had the corners of the cover snipped off. The records were half price or a third of the price. And there were always some real treasures in the cutout bin. The Son House record was one of those records where I put it on and I was like, wow, what is that? And then I had to listen to it again because it really sorta threw me. It was like this sort of drunken banjo and garbage can sound together, and it really went with his moaning voice and it was very deep.
“And the poetry of some of those songs…He did a song called Death Letter, and one of the lines was, “It looked like 10,000 was down in the burying ground, I didn’t know I loved her until they laid her down.” You’re only 15 and you’re hearing this stuff! It was so heavy and unforgettable. It would draw me in and the sound of the slide was like the sound of a human voice. So I guess all those things are what drew me to the sound of National guitar. And I use a whole bunch of them a bunch of different ways, but it’s really part of what I do.”
Then there’s the Catfish Special from the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, based in…yes, you’ve guessed it…Santa Cruz, California. Keith told me he’d meet the Santa Cruz people at the big annual guitar show, NAMM, in Los Angeles, when he was helping at the National booth. In due course they offered to do a signature model and asked him about the specification.
“I was hypnotized by these little, all-mahogany guitars that they made, so I said, let’s try a mahogany guitar. Richard Hoover, the head honcho and guru took me through his own wood pile at his factory and showed me this one kind of mahogany from Guatemala and it had this sort of shimmering figure to it. That was it. And I think the guitar fits a funny little niche. So they made this guitar for me as my signature model and got Catfish inlaid on the peghead, and little bubbles inlaid on the fingerboard, so it’s fun to look at as well as really fun to play. And it’s probably the finest instrument I’ve ever had.
“And you know, as you play an acoustic guitar the tone gets better and better. I feel so lucky that I was able to get with Santa Cruz and I’m so charmed by everything that they do. It’s just a wonderful company.” [Check out the Catfish Special here.]
We’d had a great conversation and could’ve chatted on much longer, but I wanted to know finally about how the pandemic is affecting things for Keith, Clearly live performances are out for the time being.
“Yeah. Unless your audience is standing out in the field! But all the venues where people sit right next to each other, which is almost all of them – that model might take a while to come back. And a lot of those venues are gonna probably fold. There’s a place here in Iowa city that I play in, it’s been there for 58 years and they finally had to throw in the towel two or three months ago. It was really the nexus of folk music and alternative rock and all kinds of stuff in the heart of Iowa city. It’s hard to imagine the town without that place, it’s been such a part of the culture of the town. I think there’s a lot of places where the same thing is happening all over the world. I don’t know how we come back from that.
Keith went on to talk about his love for performing and the loss that has been.
“I really didn’t realize how much I love it, traveling all over the world. It didn’t have to be 300 gigs a year, but it was certainly a hundred plus, and we would always go to the UK and Ireland, Europe and all over the USA. But this March, everything died as far as that goes and I’ve had to cancel and reschedule things two or three times. So yeah, it’s been difficult. We would have done my 50th and 51st overseas tours this year had we had played. It was going to be my best year ever. But like with everybody, things got postponed. We’ll see what happens next year, here’s hoping.”
For artists and venues alike, these are difficult times for sure. We can all just hope that we get to the point where people like Catfish Keith can get to safely perform and entertain us again before long.
Happily for Keith, he has his wife Penny beside him as his manager, sound engineer, and President of their label, Fish Tail Records. “She’s been right by my side through all of this, since day one. It’s not just me. It’s the both of us, that make the band. She knows how to make the music sound powerful and big, and she knows what is right. She is a lot smarter than me, and we do this journey together. I love her with all my heart, and none of this would be possible without her.”
Now – go buy Catfish Crawl!