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Erci Gebhardt

Our Man in Alabama

Episode 2: The Beast Runs Free In Alabama... June 2006

Red returns with the second of his occasional reports from the Southern US. This time he's been hanging with local legend Max Russell...

Max’s Music at 3908 North Jackson Highway, Sheffield Alabama, is not even a ten second drive from the infamous 3914 Jackson Highway Studio. It’s a typical small town music store, bars in the windows, beat up brick building. I’ve spent a lot of time in this building either visiting Max or getting drunk upstairs in an apartment rented by a friend of mine, Kevin "Sledgehammer" Sledge.

You walk in the door and you find yourself in a small room cluttered with vintage amps, guitars, mics, and pedals. To the right is a studio tape machine that stands taller than me. The kind of thing a man my age has no business remembering but would give a left nut to see in action. The only place I remember seeing one is on the sleave of the Leon Russell and Marc Benno record, Asylum Choir II.

About a year ago I bought a ‘63 Shure Bullet mic from Max. These things are almost completely unusable but if you catch it on the right day and the amp is facing the right way and the levels are set just right then it’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever heard. Max’s Music is full of little gems like this.

When you open the door a bell jingles, a few moments go by and a tall bear of a man emerges from the back room where a work bench sits with mounds of guitar accessories on it. When you catch Max at work he’s usually dressed plainly in blue jeans and a black t-shirt. His hair slicked back in a manner that in his more image conscious days was probably a pompadour of some sort.

When you first meet Max he’s extremely friendly in a gruff and expressionless sorta way, but when you get to know him you find that’s part of his charm. People all over town have all kinds of different memories and opinions of Max, very few I’ve heard are bad and all them are interesting. Bill Conflict, a local punk rock legend, remembers him being "the first kid in town to have blue hair." My opinion of Max - a generous and warm man in the body of one of the toughest sons of bitches since that of Howlin’ Wolf.

Due to its location in the Shoals area, Max’s music has had many visits from stars over the years. Max - "I have had a few big dogs come in my shop that I know of and some I thought were and some that thought they were. I met Peter Wolf of the J. Giels Band about 5 or 6 years ago, he was in town recording with Little Milton. He was cool, bought an amp from me. I showed him my metal body guitar and he asked if I knew Rollin’ and Tumblin’, we jammed right there on the work bench. He did the hambone and I played guitar. Jack White came in, strange dude. And most all of the session players and songwriters come to see me from time to time."

Max’s Music is full of character but there is more to Max Russell than this amazing little store. He is also an outstanding bluesman. I went to see Max perform at a local bar called Big Ed’s, A rather new bar in a very old part of town. Everytime I’ve been there they were passing out free jello shots, wich is not my favorite way of ingesting liquor but I’m also not picky. The crowd this night was small but enthusiastic, when the band broke into Dust My Broom several ladies of different ages jumped up to dance, and dancin’ ladies of any age are alright by me.

Max performed outstandingly with a vintage Gretsch, at least I think it was, and a pencil thin tone that peirced straight through the eardrum and straight to the heart. His voice is a bit odd for a bluesman, rather than the typical makeshift Clapton sound, his is more nasally, think Willie Nelson performing Night Life but gravellier and bluesier. His second guitar player was a beautiful gal playing a Fender Telecaster who tore up the blues riffs even though, from what I hear, she comes from a more country music back ground.

I sat and had a couple of beers with Max that night and discussed several things, from the crowd to punk rock, but I had already had too much to drink and remember very little so I caught up with Max later and brought a tape recorder this time...

You grew up on punk rock, what corelations did you see between punk rock and blues that made a bridge for you to cross over?

Max: I guess the honesty of the music, the fudamental things you need to learn about being in a band and that kinda thing, and I like the agression that it has and a lot of blues has that agression too, but its a bit different haha, but its there none the less. I don’t know what the word I’m looking for is, just the tuth. Both are true.

What was the first blues song and/or artist that you heard that really hit home and made you realise that the blues was gonna be a big part of the rest of your life?

Max: Thats a little far back. I can’t remember the first one, but I guess my favorite one would be somebody like Johnny Winter because he kinda crossed over into the rock’n’roll, and then he came back to his blues roots later on and if you listen to highway 61, that kinda thing. They were rock’n’roll songs but because he rocked ‘em up, but it was really blues. Then going back to the people that he listened to and other blues musicians in general, listening to their heroes and mentors, you start realising these guys litened to these old blues guys from way back so you dig a little deeper and then you listen to their heroes and then you wind up listening to Son House and Robert Johnson and all the good stuff, but Johnny Winter has always been one of my favorite blues players.

Some of the earliest blues songs I remember was different peices of things that my dad use to sing that his mother sang for him growing up. One song in particular called Deep Elam Blues, an old, old blues song, he always wanted me to find a copy of it and learn it. He always called it Deep Fellam, he was kinda on the deaf side, and I finally figured out what the song was and figured out what the song was about, about this area in Texas called Deep Elam. Its where all the people went to go to work back in the slave days. His mother and dad and everybody were share-croppers so they shared the land with the slaves so it kinda came through my family some what, a bit watered down though cause daddy didn’t know all the words. He blew a little bit of harmonica and I can remember all those. They weren’t called blues at the time they were just called tear jerkers you know. Mama use to sing these old tear jerkers and we’d sing a little bit of it, you know. The beat was there and then, in the rock’n’roll stuff, there’s a lot of blues there, you just gotta take the volume away.

You perform solo acoustic delta style as well as with a band with a more jump chicago style.does one of these styles sit as a favorite and name some of your heroes from both styles?

Max: As long as it boogies, as long as it jumps, as long as its got energy whether its a slow or fast song. Muddy Waters is one of my big favorites. Just anyone that can blow a harmonica and got a good shuffle drummer. I like it. A lot of people, these purists, they go around, I won’t name any names, but they kinda erk me some what you know. They call themselves blues musicians and purists and all that stuff , but they’re standing up there learning these songs out of a book and they don’t put their own twist on it. Its not even a personal type of thing, they just happen to play twelve bar songs and then they tell you the history of the song. They’ve done all their homework but there’s nothing there. It’s kinda paper thin, ya know. They’re making a lot of money doing it though.

Tell us about your guitar sound, your amps and guitars and what not?

Max: For the acoustic stuff, my favorite is my metal body. Its an old national made in 1929 that I bought in a flea market for a hundred and fifty bucks. A couple million dollars probably wouldn’t get it now. Thats my favorite guitar. Most of the old songs you listen to, they got something similar to that type of guitar. They got kinda haunting reverby echoe sounds that are kinda hard to explain. Sometimes it might have been the room that they were in, but the metal bodies have a sound that you can’t get out of anything else. I use a couple of open tunings, G and D, that give me a good percusive sound with my thumb.

I have a Martin for the prettier songs but for the most part its my metal body. I got an old harmony, i’m a guitar junky, thats like Big Joe Turners guitar that he made a 9 string out of. I use an old Harmony Stratotone made in the 50's. I use old tube amps with a good reverb. I got an old Gibson stereo amp that I use to record some with, Fender amps and an overdrive pedal. I play an old Telecaster made in 1966. Its a single pick up Esquire. A good overdrive pedal cause most places won’t let you get loud enough to use natural distortion. I like older instuments ‘cause there’s something in the age of the wood that has to do with the resonance and the feel. There’s something about the wood with the finish worn off the neck that just gives you chills Its almost like rubbin’ on a woman.

What about your band, who are they and what do they do?

Max: Terry Richardson on upright and electric bass. Brandon Bingham, from Mississippi, on drums. Jan Grant on guitar and vocals. Me on guitar and vocals. And the occassional sit-in on keyboards.

You’re a country music fan as well and its a part of your set. i see no difference between country and blues, so who are a few of your heroes from that side of the tracks?

Max: George Jones right of the top. Buck owens. Lefty Frizzell. Waylon. Essentially from it was rockabilly. It started getting into the sixties and seventies and stuff that was pop and slicked up and basically the cookie cutter stuff they put out of Nashville kinda like what they’re doing now. really wasn’t that good. Anything that Chet Atkins produced I didn’t like. Some of it I did, like the Everly Brothers stuff he did and his stuff I love, but the slicker stuff where he was...people like him I’ll say, not just him...they were in control and they were pushing the Nashville sound when they should’ve done it like Waylon and Johnny Cash and told ‘em that this is how we do it and if you don’t like we’ll go somewhere else. And they need to do that now, too, but there ain’t no Johnny Cashes left, haha.

I’ve been listening to your album "Alabama Moon", you have a song on there called "alabama moon" and you mention alabama several times on the album. do you think that growing up in this area has effected the way you’ve progressed musically?

Max: Its held me back, thats for sure. Hahahaha

The Shoals area, Yea HAHAHA

Max: yea the Shoals Area, hahahaa

What i mean, though, is would it have been different for you if you grew up in, say, london, or do you think you wouldÕve progressed the same and that its something inside that makes you a bluesman rather than where you're from?

Max: I think I probably would have progressed the same way cause its in my bones. It’ll come out in your music if you grew up in a certain area or you’ve been stifled, you’d probably have the tendency to push it a little bit. It’d effect anybody, I think if I’d have lived in London, I probably would’ve been one of the guys that brought Blues back to the states like the Stones and all the other guys. They actually searched out music like I have over the years. Just suffering through having to listen to AM radio around here all my life and not being able to listen to what I wanted to listen to. I still got my first album I bought. It was Chet Atkins greatest hits and I bought I so I could sneek a Grand Funk 45 in the house cause daddy wouldn’t let me have it. The blues came on later.

I spend a lot of time on the internet for bands doing anything vaguely similar to what it is that you and i do and i’ve found a lot more people over seas playing this music than i find people over here who even care about it. is this something you find to be true?

Max: Sure. I live in a hit recording capitol of the world. Its a music mecca but there’s no place to hear any music, no entertainment value. People in the area seem like they could care less about what’s come out of the area and whats going on now. Being on the internet now and checking out all the people in the world, there seems to be more interest coming from anywhere else but the States. Especially the South. I talked to a guy named James Harmon, a great harmonica player who’s actually from Anniston, Alabama. Back in the mid 80's he came through town and I saw his name on a billboard at a local club and thought, " I can’t believe James Harmon is in town." He lives in Huntington Beach right now, so I stopped in to see him. I was the only person in the crowd.

A blues guy of that caliber comes to town and there’s only one person in there. So I got aquainted with him a little bit and he said that the South is terrible for a Blues musician, they don’t treat ‘em like they should be, but you go up North they treat you like a king. You go over sea’s and they really treat you good. It seems like, when you get above the Mason Dixon, I don’t know if its ‘cause they got less to do outdoors so they gotta spend more time in doors ‘cause of the weather or whatever or they just have more of a thirst for the music. Its weird, but thats the way it is man.

Blues musician Papa George
It seems to be pretty hard all over for a Blues musician. Its been a long time since the Blues showed its face on the billboard top 200, but its now ugly head can always be found in the dark corners of the honky tonks and dive bars that make up its small but loyal scene. Maybe we’ll never again see a day when a Kokomo Arnold can walk outside of the shadows of pop music, but with folks like Max Russell still stomping around, we can hold our ugly heads high.

Check out more about Max on myspace:

Read our review of Max's CD 'Alabama Moon' here