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Nov 2006. Interview by David Atkinson

Exponents of delta blues and finger picking guitar styles don’t come much more idiosyncratic than Catfish Keith. Whether wielding a long-scale National or ‘little bitty’ acoustic, Mr Catfish will always cause your toes to tap.

We caught up with him on his lengthy UK tour to talk influences, guitars and nicknames…

I saw you play at the Acoustic Centre in Wapping about four years ago, which was a small venue to say the least, but the UK seems to have really taken you to heart somewhat since then. How do you find playing for audiences over here?

I love touring over here. This is our 32nd tour of the UK since 1992, and audiences have really grown and we get a chance to go all over England, Scotland and Wales. There isn't too much sightseeing time, but we've made some real true friends over here and the appreciation for my music has been fantastic!

Blues is pretty derivative by nature but you've released a steady stream of albums throughout the 90's and early 00's, all of which have set you apart as a uniquely funky fingerpicker. I still remember when I heard What Fun We're Having... from Twist It Babe! How did your playing and singing develop? Can you tell us a bit about your formative years?

I started playing in the mid 1970's. I was born in East Chicago, Indiana, in 1962. When I was six or so my family moved to Davenport, Iowa.  That's where I grew up, mostly. None of the other kids at school were into what I was; you may remember this was the era of disco and heavy metal, nobody I knew was really into blues or folk music. I was always fascinated by acoustic finger-style guitar. I just loved the sound of it!  Artists such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and especially Leo Kottke and John Fahey fuelled my interest in early blues, ragtime, and all kinds of roots music styles.  When I discovered Son House, Blind Willie Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Blake, Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Barbecue Bob, Charlie Patton, Bukka White and so many others, a great treasure trove of music was revealed... and I just went deeper and deeper into it.  It is still very exciting to me how so much music and quirky, individual, improvisational delight can be made in the hands, voice and heart of one person.

This is my original vision that I had as a youth, and it has not wavered, only grown stronger.  Some might find it limiting, but it is liberating to me.

How do you approach each new recording?
I gather together a bunch of songs, usually have 20 or more in mind, go into the studio and lay them down live. I don't edit the tracks, I just try them two or three times, and if the songs don't work, I just move on to the next one.  I usually have a handful of originals as well as pieces I've recreated in my own distinct way.  When I hear the originals next to the old time songs, they sound the same to me.  Since my main influences have always been deep delta blues and weirdo old island jazz and ancient sooky jumps, that's what my original music is's all one thing to me!  Then, there is a deadline, such as a big tour coming up, and we get it done!  Often, as well as the usual solo tracks, I also record duos with some of my favourite, extra-talented buddies, such as Marty Christensen on stand up bass, Radoslav Lorkovic on piano, Madcat Ruth on harmonica, and Randy Sabien on violin.  I love the live feel and excellent recording quality of the studios I've used at home.  That's been with Jamie Goldsmith on my first five albums, Mark Johnson on a couple, and recently, Patrick Brickel and Justin Kennedy in Iowa City. 

You were a long-time friend of Jesse Mae Hemphill. You said: "Legend has it that her music has caused people to do back flips while walking down the street, crawl up trees and howl, and quit perfectly good jobs..." Was she a big influence on you?

Yes, Jessie Mae Hemphill was a great friend and huge influence on my music.  We first met her in the late 1980's down in Arkansas. She really had a fresh, original voice, was a natural songwriter with a real hypnotic, trance-inducing modal quality to her music - deep rhythms with so much soul and humour and personally as well. I love that Mississippi hill country groove; one chord, insistent and mesmerizing.  She passed away in July, and we really, really miss her...I still play my version of her "Eagle Bird" at most every concert.

Your guitars are interesting - can you tell us about the Tony Revell and the baritone National? How do they contribute to the your sound? Whatever became of the Style O that fell in the sea?

I tour with two guitars when we fly overseas.  I use the National Baritone Polychrome Tricone for my slide and open tunings. It's a fabulous guitar with a longer scale length and fatter strings, tuned way low, often to open Bb tuning; it's the same as open D, only 4 or 5 half steps lower.  I love the depth of sound, and the big sustain offered by the tricone. 

The Tony Revell is a parlor guitar built by Pete Howlett and Tony Revell in the UK back in 1993 - A little bitty body, but very big and focused sound.  On this tour I left that guitar at home, and I brought my new David Flammang EL 12-fret model acoustic guitar.  It has a real cute, curvy body shape similar to my 1926 Gibson Nick Lucas Special.  I love this new guitar and it has been surprising me night after night with it's great, bright and big rich sound.  David Flammang is a world-class luthier that lives in Greene, Iowa, and I really love his work.  The guitar is just so beautiful.  It was a Christmas present from my wife, Penny.  She's my true blue life partner. She is my manager, sound engineer, President of our label (Fish Tail Records) and we always tour together, so it's like home on the road.  I'm a lucky man. Just wish we could bring the dog too!

One guitar I miss that I usually play at gigs on driving tours in the USA is my Style 1 National 12-string.  I love the 12-string sound and it really adds a nice new flavour to the show.  You can hear it featured on a few cuts on my latest album, Sweet Pea.  The vintage National that fell in the ocean has been very successfully refurbished by Don Young and McGregor Gaines at National Resophonic Guitars

Can you tell us about Tadpole Blues?
Tadpole Blues is a re-release of my earliest recordings, done when I was in my early 20's.  These were my formative years, but my style was fairly fully formed even early on.  Whenever I hear those first recordings, everything is a good bit faster and higher pitched.  I guess that was the fire of youth; now there is more space and purpose in my sound, more stripped down to the real stuff...and two, three more decades of experience and nuance. I suppose as time marches on, one hopefully achieves "grizzled veteran" status, and I think that must be a good thing.

Lastly, how did you come to be known as Mr Catfish?
The name Catfish was given to me when I was 19, 20 years old. I lived for a period of time down in the Virgin Islands, and a fishing partner from the Islands used to call me "Catfish-Swimmin'-Around" and "Catfish-Steel-Guitar-Man."  So, when it was time to make my first album, I decided to officially become known as Catfish Keith.

You can catch Catfish Keith at the Borderline on the 21st November!