Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees, Mad Season) Talks the Restorative Power of the Delta Blues

A mainstay drummer of the Seattle scene drives to Mississippi and finds the heart of delta music alive and well in a bluesman named Ironing Board Sam.

“Fun sticks to tape.”

These immortal words were spoken by the late, great American record producer Jim Dickinson, who worked with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Big Star. These words, and a disheveled photo of Mr. Dickinson, are thumbtacked rather unceremoniously to the wall of the control room here at Dial Back Sound in Water Valley, Mississippi. Every time I find myself back in this recording studio, I am reminded of this eternal truth: fun kind of sticks to everything.

I am a rock musician by profession, and I was one of the early drummers in the Seattle-based grunge movement of the late ’80s and early ’90s, playing with bands like Skin Yard, Screaming Trees and Mad Season. I love the blues and its progeny, jazz, but I will admit at the beginning of this story that I never quite understood the deep musicology of the delta — that is, until I started coming here and experiencing it on a regular basis. I’m here again, my fourth time in a year, and it’s not just to play music, but also to learn.

I’ve just driven all the way from Seattle to Mississippi, which took about four days and nights as I tried to outmaneuver the snowstorm that walloped the Midwest and the East coast. I wanted a cross-country road trip because I love to see the landscape of our country every chance I can get, and on this trip, it was in abundance. As I drove south from Memphis, Tennessee, finally crossing the Mississippi state line, I read her welcome: “Welcome to Mississippi, the Birthplace of America’s Music.”

Here in Water Valley, Mississipi (pop. 3,392), I am playing drums for a great singer named Ironing Board Sam. Sam was born in 1939 in Rockhill, South Carolina, and he is now 75 years old. His father had been a sharecropper, and as Sam describes it, they only went into town for salt and pepper because they could grow or raise everything else they needed. Sam has a beautifully aged voice, more like a soul man than a blues man, and he makes you smile when he sings. He’s noted for having had a young Jimi Hendrix play with him on the 1965 TV show Night Train, right before Jimi moved to London to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Now Sam has signed to Fat Possum Records, best known for its revival of late-20th century delta bluesmen like R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, Pinetop Perkins and CeDell Davis, not to mention being the Black Keys’ first label.

These sessions have the same superb house band that played on CeDell Davis’ most recent hard blues album, Last Man Standing: Jimbo Mathus is again producing and playing guitar, Stu Cole is on bass, I’m on drums and percussion and Bronson Tew is engineering and playing the occasional guitar solo, or “Pentecostal tambourine,” as Fat Possum Records label president Bruce Watson refers to it, as he actively participates in the sessions.

These sessions at Dial Back Sound are great learning experiences, because as much as I have learned in my 48 years on this earth, there is so much music that I simply haven’t heard, and this is another case of me getting a crash course in old soul and r&b music. Thus I must do what all good students of music do, which is to put aside ego and listen — truly, deeply listen. All of us in the band learn how to play these old songs so that our new versions sound original and exciting while retaining the primal essence of the original versions of the songs. More importantly, we have to adapt them to Sam’s voice and his vocal range.

Today, Jimbo is dressed up somewhat like an eccentric Confederate general, with square-nosed boots, a red satin waistcoat, a pocket-watch chain and a white Stetson hat replete with pheasant feathers that looks like it came directly from Robert E. Lee’s personal haberdashery. It sets the mood for the day. Sam has emerged from the guest house wearing a three-piece velvet suit — it’s Santa Claus red, except that with his black leather porkpie hat, he looks more like a very dapper Ellegua, the African trickster-saint who hangs out by the crossroads, challenging a man’s resolve. He is in a very good mood today, excited from the previous day’s session. He tells me, “Music charges the battery of the heart, and the heart powers the brain. That’s why I’m happy!” I hope I’m this cheerful if I ever make it to 75, and if I’m not, it’ll clearly be because I didn’t follow Sam’s sage advice.

These well-dressed men remind me of those old photos we’ve all seen, of the Stax and Motown musicians who would dress so smartly during their daily studio sessions, even though they were working in a windowless environment. They knew that looking sharp made the music even tighter — it’s a kind of synesthetic aesthetic. I make a decision right then and there to dress better for every session I do in the future, even when I am sweating it out behind the drums.

The first thing you learn when you come to the delta is that the music here is an extremely visceral, physical thing. It is a codex of muscular movement and sinuous expression, and it is retained and expressed in the body through dance and movement and the physicality of playing the music itself. Bronson, the engineer, is particularly good at teaching me these old beats and grooves by doing a series of comedic but true-to-form “dances” that are a combination of crouches, shuffle steps and body spasms, all of which embody the hidden rhythms in this music. He dances a crusty shuffle, a stomach-ache funk, a churchy baptismal stagger (to go with that “Pentecostal tambourine”) and a hangdog shake. I learn about rhythms from watching his body movements and gestures, and we all laugh heartily, which explains more to me about this music than the seven years I spent in college and graduate school studying linguistics and musicology.

And that’s because delta music comes right out of the soil and the water and goes directly into the people themselves. It is retained in the bodies of these extraordinary men and women who take it upon themselves to preserve this great, first American music.

Sam sums this up perfectly in one of the many conversations I have with him during our recording sessions. He says, “With a real hit, the beat and the rhythm come first, and then the band kicks in to lay down the music for the singer, who then seals the deal with their voice and words. But the beat always comes first, it’s the prime mover — you gotta find that hot spot, Barrett!”

We work diligently for hours each day, cutting the rhythm tracks live, and most of Sam’s vocals, too. This music has real life — it’s alive and spontaneous, which is exactly what the old hits had before the onset of the often sterilized age of digital recording. We’re recording digitally too, but it has none of the soullessness that many modern recordings have. And that is because this old-new music breathes. My drum tempos are solid, but they rise and fall slightly between the verses and choruses, just as the human body expands with breath and then contracts with exhalation. So, too, do these songs breathe like a living thing, because they are human-made and deeply, organically alive.

As we wind down the sessions on the third and final day of principal recording, Sam reads a poem that he wrote while in a mystical state. It’s beautiful and heartfelt, as true and exacting as any passage from the Bible. But instead of God, he refers to “the Super Spirit,” which is the best way I’ve heard of describing That Which Is Unnameable. I won’t tell you the poem’s truths — you’ll have to buy Sam’s amazing album and hear his words for yourself. But he tells me afterwards that it is important for young people to hear this poem because, as he puts it, “Peace will not come from guns, it will only come from what the young people decide to do.” I am moved by his statement because, indeed, why do we not listen to the voices of young people more? It is they who will have to take over this mess of a world we are leaving them, and they should have quite a bit of say in it.

As I approach 50 years on this planet, it often seems to me that the wisest words come from the very oldest people and the very youngest, and those of us in the middle just seem to muck it all up.

Although my family is from the South, I was born in the North and I’m educated as a musician and musicologist. So I tend to think in terms of theories and the kind of academic analysis that gets drilled into graduate students. But this is the South, and here contrasts abound. This is the land of William Faulkner and Muddy Waters, Mark Twain and John Lee Hooker, Cormac McCarthy and Stax Records — Ironing Board Sam and a rock drummer from Seattle. It is diametrically highly intellectual and full of wit; it’s also gritty, sweaty and blood-throbbingly sexual.

When I come to the South, I feel a deep sense of release opening in my heart and mind, and I realize that here too, there exist Americans who have a deep intellect and sense of humor that is perhaps more rooted in music, storytelling, cooking and a deeply felt bodily experience. It is a musical, danced experience, at least as important as any education system known in the world. The oral/aural traditions of storytelling and music reach far deeper into human memory than any textbook or classroom lecture can. No book can teach this stuff, because the body can remember what the mind forgets. The body is compelled to dance, to thrust, to shimmy and to teach, each of its muscles straining to express this deep delta soul.

Here in the delta, the traditional codes of friendliness and community still exist in a social fabric that is as rich as the soil that grows the very cotton you are wearing and the corn, beans and peas you will eat for dinner tonight. Here in the delta, the seeds for each new season of music are dutifully planted and tended, as the musician-farmer-philosophers wait patiently for the next crop to sing out.

Barrett Martin is an award-winning writer and drummer best known for his work in several rock bands from Seattle including Mad Season, Screaming Trees, Tuatara and Walking Papers. He is also an adjunct professor in the liberal arts department at Antioch University Seattle, and his academic work has included talks and teaching at New York University, Occidental College, Emory University, the University of Georgia, the University of Alaska and the University of New Mexico. He is the founder of the record label Sunyata Records, and he was recently awarded the 2014 ASCAP award for excellence in writing. You can follow him on Facebook here.