Featured Blues Interview – Albert Cummings
Sometimes, it really is hard to see the forest because of all the trees.
Although in this case, in the search for a guitarist’s ‘Holy Grail’ of tone, maybe it’s hard to HEAR the forest because of all the trees.
Massachusetts-based guitarist, singer, songwriter and bandleader Albert Cummings can testify to as much.
“One of the first amps I ever had was this tweed (Fender) Blues Deville – this was back before I was endorsed by Fender. Mesa Boogie made this beautiful combo amp that I could have custom made, with the leather I wanted on it and set up the way I wanted it to be … just everything I wanted. So I went and bought this hugely-expensive amp and when I made the deal, I agreed to trade in my Blues Deville. I go to the store and as I’m wheeling out my new amp, low-and-behold, I hear the tone that I want to achieve coming from out of the store,” Cummings said. “So I stop rolling my new amp out and I ask the clerk what the amp that’s playing right now is? That’s the tone I want. The guy laughs and says, ‘That’s the amp you just traded in.”
And the moral of that little tale is?
“It’s not the amp, it’s the person playing it … it’s all about the player. I don’t care who you are, 90-percent of your tone comes out of your hands. Guys will spend thousands of dollars on pedals and amps and all of this and all of that, but the bottom line is, if you plug Stevie Ray Vaughan into an amp made at K-Mart, he’s sound like Stevie Ray. That’s where it all falls. All that gear and all that stuff is important, but it’s not the majority,” he said. “You’ll always be ahead of the game if you just start studying how hard you pick and where your hand is from the bridge to the neck and you can change your tone by moving a quarter of an inch. It’s fascinating in guitar playing how the littlest things make the biggest difference. There’s no instant cure for any of it.”
Since the beginning of the New Millennium, Cummings has been leaving behind him a trail of scorched bandstands, transplanting his unique tone into the ear canals of those craving passionate, soulful blues-based songs served up with a hearty helping of blast-furnace rock-n-roll.
Cummings’ ascent has largely remained on an upward trajectory, but in what can most charitably be described as a terrible case of timing, his last album – Someone Like You – came out in late July of last year, roughly around the same time that the label it was on – Blind Pig Records – was swimming through a sea of uncertainty. There were plenty of rumors and talk surrounding the stability and ultimate survival of the near 40-year old label at the time, all of which came to a head with The Orchard’s acquisition of Blind Pig’s back catalog. The resulting effect of all of that on Someone Like You (his fourth release for Blind Pig, starting with 2004′s True To Yourself) was the equivalent of a pebble being dropped through a crack in the pavement for Cummings.
“Yeah, that basically killed any chance the album had. I thought it was probably my best album as far as representing my own personal music. It’s just Albert’s music and that’s what I try and put out,” he said. “I was Blind Pig’s current leading sales guy and even though I had vowed not to do another alum with them, I got to talking with the guys and finally decided I would do another one with them; I knew them and thought everything would be fine. As soon as I signed the deal, I found out a couple of weeks later they were selling the label. The Orchard is a distributor, but it’s kind of a digital, online type of distributor, run by young people. If you’ve been in the blues, you know that the majority of blues fans probably don’t even have a Facebook account, you know what I mean? Physical product is still key in the world of the blues. Right away, I thought it was going to be trouble and of course, the first thing The Orchard did was let the radio person go at Blind Pig and they let Debra – the press contact – go. I did one interview for that record; one. It was the worst release I’ve had in my entire career.”
Not one to sit around and cry over spilled milk, Cummings picked himself up, dusted off his guitar and is focused on what lies ahead, rather than dwelling upon things that went down in the recent past that he has absolutely no control over.
“Well, in the music business, there’s always something that knocks you back, you know what I mean? Only the strong survive in this world,” he said. “But, that doesn’t really frustrate me; I’m in it for the long haul. I play my music because I love to play my music and nobody can take that away from me. You win a few and you lose a lot of them, but hopefully the ones you win are big enough to cancel the others out. I can only hope that people can find something in this life that makes them get up and smile in the morning and do what they love. My thing is my music.”
Even casual blues fan know of the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rhythm section – Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton – better known as Double Trouble. They may also be familiar with the fact that the duo backed Cummings up on what was basically his debut release – 2003′s From The Heart. What they may not know, however, is that Shannon and Layton also teamed up and produced the disc. That had to be pretty heady stuff for a guitarist who was just trying to make himself known outside his New England-area stomping grounds at that time.
“They were first, my idols, and then they became my friends and then my producers. They were really the guys that gave me my first shot at playing. Talk about guys that had been around a guitarist. I mean, I learned a lot from those guys,” Cummings said. “My first real album was with those guys in Austin, Texas … every day was a class and session. Those guys gave me my biggest boost, as far as musicianship and approach and everything that goes along with it. I’m still referencing things those guys told me 15, 20 years later. Stevie was the luckiest guy in the world, if you think about it. I mean, can you imagine being able to hang out with Albert King, Albert Collins, B.B. King? Because of Jimmie (Vaughan), they’d get to hang out and play with all those guys when they went through Austin. Double Trouble was all part of that, too, and I was so lucky to just be able to get those thoughts injected into my head. They’re so amazing.”
Cummings has also spent quality studio time with a couple of producers who are well known in the industry for their ability to work with accomplished guitarists – Jim Gaines and David Z.
“When you put a CD into your player, you can almost hear if it’s a Jim Gaines CD, because of its strength. Jim is so strong and his mixes are so strong. You know, he did Stevie’s In Step and that’s not really even his claim to fame. He’s done Huey Lewis and George Thorogood and Buddy Guy and Carlos Santana … all those dudes. I was on Cloud Nine … going to Memphis to work with Jim Gaines. I never thought I’d have the chance to work with him. But I never thought I’d have ever had the chance to work with Double Trouble, either. Jim is the sweetest guy in the world, but make no mistake – he’s the Alpha Male. He will push you and prod you, while also patting you on the back and being your best friend. I love that guy; he taught me so much,” said Cummings.
Gaines was at the helm of three of Cummings’ albums – starting with 2004′s True To Yourself and stretching through 2012′s No Regrets.
For Someone Like You, Cummings felt the need to switch things up a bit. He did so by heading to California to work with David Z.
“David let me pick from an ala cart menu – the best of the best – of the musicians that I wanted to use. I show up in West Hollywood and meet David for the first time and later that morning, he comes my musicians. First to walk through the door is Mike Finnigan (organ). He’s an absolute genius and is the number-one call on the west coast. Then, Reggie McBride (bass) walks in and I meet him. He’s Stevie Wonder’s bass player … hello! And then in walks Tony Braunagel (drums) who plays with Robert Cray and Taj Mahal. He’s an incredible guy and a producer, himself. So we all meet and David says, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this album live, Albert.’ I said, “Of course, we’ll get the drums and bass and keyboard down and I’ll put the guitars and vocals on after (as he had done when working with Jim Gaines).’ He said, ‘No … you’re going to play live, too.’ I thought he was joking and didn’t think I could even pull it off, but I think I do my best when I play live. And sure enough, it was like, ‘Roll tape’ and everything just fell into place. Bang! All of a sudden, I had this band that I felt like I’d been playing with my whole life and we created this album. The coolest thing about the album is, what you hear on there is the first time those songs were ever played.”
On day number three- that foursome of musicians expanded to five, when Jimmy Vivino stopped by to lay some guitar down.
“He lived like a mile down the street from where we were recording and had contacted me before and asked if I minded if he stopped by and played on a song. I was like, ‘Mind? Jimmy Vivino? Yeah.’ So he stopped by and he gelled right in. It was just one more guy to show me up, because the intelligence of those guys … I mean, they’re so educated. All I can do is play what I feel. That’s all I have,” Cummings said.
Modesty aside, just by slipping any of Cummings’ discs into a player, it’s readily apparent that what the man has is one Hell of a talent for playing the guitar. His playing is white-hot and sharper than razor-wire, but it’s never fashioned with a duty of seeing how many notes he can cram into a single passage. It’s expressive, straight-from-the-heart and leaves no doubt as to why he’s been called a guitarist’s-guitarist b everyone from B.B. King to Johnny Winter and Buddy Guy. But Cummings’ hands are also comfortable wrapped around wood other than that found in the neck of his guitar.
He’s also a master carpenter and has been highly sought after for that skill for years, as well.
“I’ve won eight national awards for building things and I’ve built some of the most incredible homes that have ever been built. I’m a fourth-generation builder; it’s in my blood. I even went to a construction school in Boston (Wentworth Institute of Technology),” he said. “I love to create music that’s not been created before and that’s the same way with building. That’s why I get all these big projects and houses and things. I get people that are too afraid to even try and build some of these things and these architects would come to me to create this stuff. Music and building are alike in that regard; you’ve got to have a desire to make something that’s not there.”
He’s been involved in carpentry and building projects far longer than he’s been playing the blues. Fact is, Cummings really didn’t come onto the radar screen of most blues fans until he was nearly 30 years old. Instead of his relatively late start at becoming a musician hindering Cummings, it seems to have instead been like an ace in the hole.
“People have said, ‘Man, you should have done this when you were 18.’ I look at them and say, ‘There’s no way in Hell I could have done this at 18 or 20. No way.’ For me to be honest about my feelings and to be on stage and play, I have to know myself. I have to be happy in my own skin and all that stuff. Back when I was 18, 19, 20 … 25 even, I had no clue who I was. There was no self-security. By me starting later, I had a whole different outlook. You know, life happens when it happens. When I got out of high school, my dad, who is a third-generation builder, was like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be a builder; that’s what you’ll be.’ And at that time, I had no idea that I could be anything else in the world. It was like, ‘You’re going to come to work with me and be a builder.’”
Cummings had been playing music since he was about 12 years old – starting out on the banjo, before later moving onto the guitar when he was around 15. It would be several years later, however, before his first ‘public jam session’ took place, and it was not held in some smoky juke joint.
“When I was 27-years-old, my wife and I go to a friend’s wedding and there’s a band up on stage from New York City. My friends encouraged me to get up there and play with them, which I did. That was my first time to play with a band,” he said. “I remember getting off the stage and that something had changed. I knew right then I’d found something that made me real happy and gave me something I had never gotten before. That night I also met another guy that lived close to my town that played guitar and we would get together once a week on Thursday nights and play together. That went on for a year-and-a-half and then we put a drummer with us and I started to book gigs and it just started growing and the next thing you know, I’m touring all over the place. That happened to me; I didn’t make that happen. I’ve always found that the greatest things in my life have always came to me without me trying to get them.”
It sure didn’t take long after that for Cummings to start to leave his own personal mark on the world of the blues. But even though the genre runs to his very core, it’s not really fair to simply label Cummings as just a ‘bluesman.’ There’s more to him that that.
“I’m a lover of the blues, I’m a fan of the blues and I’m deeply-rooted in it, but my music is not straight-ahead blues, even though I can play straight-ahead blues,” he said. “But you know, define straight-ahead blues? I could pick an artist and do a bunch of covers of that guy, but I don’t want to do that. I want to do my own stuff and let it come and evolve. Sometimes it comes fast and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve got an album ready right now, but I don’t know what I want to do with it. I’ve got better stuff written now than I’ve ever had. But at this point, I don’t know if I want to put something out by myself or not … I really want a team again. I just want to let people know that I’m still out there and doing stuff and still going after it. I’m still trying my best. I play this music because I love it. You know, how do you make a million dollars in the blues? You start with three million dollars.”
At this point in his career of playing music, Cummings acknowledges that chances are slim-to-none for him to instantly create a major buzz and become heralded as the ‘hot new up-and-comer’ or ‘overnight sensation.’
And the way he sees it, that’s OK.
“Blues is not a young man’s game. The older I get, the better my music is. I mean, there’s a prodigy in every town and there’s always this new guy that can play all these notes and do all this stuff, but where’s the meat and potatoes? Where’s the sense of stopping what you’re doing when you hear this music?” he asked. “That’s my goal. I want to make real music. Blues to me, is an expression of your feelings. That’s whether you’re using your voice, your instrument, or both. When you’re being honest about your feelings, that’s when you’re playing the blues. Whether you’re happy or sad or whatever you are, when you can convey that with your voice or instrument, you’re playing the blues and you’re being honest. I’ve seen people sitting at my shows crying, because I’ve hit a nerve. It’s also nothing to see me crying when I’m up there and getting into things … or smiling my head off. That’s the blues and that’s honesty and my music has to be that way.”
Visit Albert’s website at: albertcummings.com
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist, author and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.