62-year-old hill country blues legend R.L. Boyce chats to us about his early music memories.
Since recently completing his first trip to the United Kingdom to appear on Later... with Jools Holland, R.L. Boyce has been somewhat unexpectedly propelled into the limelight. In the span of a mere 90 days, the aged guitar man has played alongside the likes of SZA and Wolf Alice, signed to Waxploitation, got his first booking agent (Tom Windish) and been nominated for a Grammy in the same category as The Rolling Stones. On receiving the news of his Grammy win, R.L. wasn’t best impressed, thinking he had only won a ticket to attend the ceremony as part of a competition.
“R.L.’s nomination is a win for underdogs in every Grammy category,” says Waxploitation Records founder Jeff Antebi, who as an artist manager helped navigate artists like Danger Mouse, and Gnarls Barkley to past Grammy Awards wins. “R.L. is a man who just plays and sings because that’s who he is. Someone who comes alive when he has a guitar in his hands. He’s as authentic as anyone you could ever meet.”
Check out the interview below.
What were some of your earliest memories playing the blues in Como?
Let me tell you something about that. It was nice, it was so nice. My first blues memory was when I ran into John Lee Hooker down in New Orleans way out on a ship. I was being sick because my whole body was swinging. I heard Howlin' Wolf and John singing Smokestack Lighting. Man, I never seen a man’s hands so big!
How was it meeting Howlin Wolf?
Boy, when he howled he howled. I’ve sat back and watched a lot of people play the guitar and when you play the guitar you gotta feel it all the way down to your soul. I’ll tell the whole world that Wolf could do that. But don’t be like him, be your own star.
You were a drummer first before playing guitar right?
I started with my Uncle. At that time he was harvesting corn and making molasses. He came up to me and said “Hey R.L. do you want to come up and play with me sometime?” to which I replied, “I’ll see about it”. I played a big bass drum which you had to lay on its side. It was made out of cowhide which my Uncle killed and skinned. When I first started out on that drum I would run into Leadbelly all the time and we would hang out and play together.
Talk to me about Lead Belly? What was he like?
Great man, great bluesman but could barely see him play the guitar. When he played he just had a guitar in his hand, it was his band that was really backing him up. Nobody is watching the man in front because he doesn't do too much. You’ve got to watch the man in the back.
Did you guys have actual music venues to play in?
Hell no. We would play at the house, at a big party. Someone would say “Hey R.L. can you come over and play some tunes?” and I’d head on over.
What was the reaction like?
I’ll tell you, sometimes I had so little room I had to say “excuse me I got to breath”.
Isn’t there another R.L. based near you who played the blues? R.L. Burnside?
Yeah, he’s my cousin. First cousin. I did a show with him at Bonnaroo and everyone used to say “R.L.” to us at the same time so I would say “which one you want? The older one or the young one? Because I’m the younger one”. Later he passed out and we had to put him in the van which was 115 degrees with a big block of ice in front of the fan.
Was there quite a big racial divide when you first started?
I didn’t play with white musicians when I first started. Back when I came up, 15 years old, you would have to be at home when the sun went down. You weren’t allowed outside at no time at night. You weren’t going out after dark. You’d better be in your house when the lights went out.
So music was an escape from all those racial issues? Did your parents play?
Yes, it was. We used to sing in church in the gospel choir but I couldn’t wait to leave. Nothing hit my soul as much as playing the blues, not gospel, not church, nothing. But gospel players are blues players.
What is the blues all about to you?
When I play the blues I can feel it from the soles of my feet all the way to the top of my head. When I play a concert people think that I’m sweating because I’m playing so hard, but really, I’ve got tears coming out of both my eyes. It’s powerful when you feel the blues. When you start playing you’ll never feel the same again.