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May 29, 2005

Albert Cummings Interview

by Brian D. Holland.

I've listened to recordings of myself after a show. Something might hit me as something I like a lot, and I'll say to myself, 'I've got to learn that', because it sounded so good to me that I know I'll want to do it again. To play like this I have to let myself go completely and totally expose my ability to the audience, and risk sounding like hell ... go out on that limb to get that music. It's a concept that propels me.

- Albert Cummings

That Massachusetts native, Albert Cummings, hooked up with Double Trouble for the making of his CD, From The Heart, was inevitable, in my opinion, as Double Trouble has a tendency to hook up with great guitar players.

Though he hails from western Massachusetts, his playing is reminiscent of a lot of what Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton have been associated with over the years (Reese Wynans is also on the CD). Some of his songs are suggestive of the tuneful styles of other Texas axe slinging bands, such as the Arc Angels and Storyville, two more renowned blues-rock bands Double Trouble has been part of.

Cummings' CDs are versatile, as he sometimes plays in a traditional electric blues style, yet he also does truly modern, melodic, and rocked up material. While Albert doesn't really sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, per se, his style of blues-rock lights fires and gets crowds going everywhere he appears. His voice is as pleasing to the ears as his guitar playing, a dual talent other players only wish they had. Albert writes fine songs, too.

He often tours as a three-piece instead of a four. The reason? Because he can.

Albert's debut release, The Long Way, was a self-promoted project, and was just a mere initiation into the music and guitar playing of Albert Cummings. The two releases that followed, From The Heart in 2003, and True To Yourself in 2004, were both definitive of what he's all about. For those who haven't yet caught on, his music is soulful and electrifying, and his guitar playing is brilliant.

Although I knew I was talking to a talented bluesman in the interview, a guitarist I've been listening to for a couple of years now, I was overwhelmed by his modesty and the "regular guy" air about him. The fact that he's a family man with two young kids and still works hard running a successful construction business probably has a lot to do with that. It is good to see, though, that he does take the time to travel about the country to play his brand of house rockin' blues guitar when he's not building award-winning houses.

Listen to two songs from Albert Cummings

Barrel House Blues

Lonely Bed

I have your CDs, From the Heart and True to Yourself, and I like them both a lot. Anything new on the horizon?

Albert Cummings: Well, I have a bunch of songs written, but Blind Pig doesn't want to release anything until the beginning of next year. I don't know when I'll be going into the studio, but I would imagine it'll be sometime late fall.

It was bluegrass and banjo that first got you going?

AC: Yeah. That was how I started out. I began playing 5-string banjo when I was about twelve. I played with everyone I could. My father was a guitar player. He played mainly the old 50s classics and earlier stuff. I think I just wanted to be different, so I picked up 5-string banjo and had a lot of fun with it. I kind of cut my teeth in music with the banjo, you know. But it was Stevie Ray Vaughan who made me want to put the banjo away.

My brother-in-law used to give me cassette tapes when I was growing up. He was really into guitar players, and he gave me a tape of Stevie Ray's 'Texas Flood'. I'd listen to it, and think, 'Nobody plays guitar like that. It's got to be fake, or something's going on'. But it certainly was real. I was going to school in Boston at one time, Wentworth Institute. One day I walked by the Orpheum Theater and saw two busses. One had a Les Paul and a Strat crossed on it, painted on the side. It interested me, so I went into the alley there and saw that it was Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. I said to myself, "God, this is the guy I've been listening to." I couldn't get anyone to go to the show with me, so I bought a ticket and went myself. I remember watching in awe, thinking this can't be happening. Here's this guy beating on his guitar, kicking it, throwing it up in the air. And he sounded awesome. I was like, well, that's the instrument for me.

Since Stevie Ray was obviously such a huge influence on you, it must have been something for you to end up playing and recording with Double Trouble.

AC: It's still something I can't even believe happened, because I'm from the small town of Williamstown, Massachusetts, and there's not much for blues around there, and not much for major performers, other than Williamstown Theater Fest. Actors come into town once in a while, so there are a few celebrities walking around, but there's not much music. We've got Tanglewood close to us in south Berkshire. But it's mainly classical, so there's certainly not much blues.

But I'm close to Albany, New York. That's where I really started cutting my teeth with the band thing. My following started in that area. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute wanted to have a blues day. They wanted me to be the local act, plus they wanted a national headliner to come in. They asked me who I thought they should get. I said jokingly, "Why don't you get Double Trouble to come and play with me?" They said, "That's a good idea." I then sent out a demo tape, and two weeks later I got a yes for an answer, saying that they would do the show with me. The really ironic part about it was that the show was in the RPI field house, which was the last place I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. The next time I walked in there I was with Double Trouble, Chris and Tommy.

I arranged another gig that night, this one in Saratoga. We did the show up there and really blended, like we'd been playing together for ten years. We didn't do any Stevie covers; we just did whatever, a lot of my stuff. Everything we played just fell together. Afterward, I drove them back to the hotel, and on the way they asked me if I wanted to do a CD. I told them I had been wanting to, but I didn't know how to go about it. They said that they wanted to be on it, and that they'd produce it. I was so excited that I went about three exits passed where I should've gotten off. I was literally dazed driving the car.

But sure enough, next thing I knew I was mailing out demos, and then I was hanging out in Austin, Texas. I was listening to stories of Stevie, walking 6th Street, Tommy taking me around, and Chris taking me around. Then they told me Reese was coming down, too. In fact, it was the first time in a while that all three got together to do an album. And it was with me. It was such a scary experience, too. I mean, who am I to even play with those guys, and then to end up in a studio with Double Trouble. But it happened, and they were the nicest guys in the world. After a while you don't even realize you're with Double Trouble, you're just with some nice guys. Tommy and I have become really good friends since then.

Are you still in the construction business?

AC: Yeah. I'm a fourth generation builder, so I've spent the past ten years building my company. Music is growing quite a bit more, though. But I'm a believer that life will take you wherever it wants to take you, so I take advantage of every opportunity that comes along. I didn't really start getting into the guitar until I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old. I worked day and night for years getting my business built up, and when I finally got it under control I found some time to practice.

You seem to have what a lot of guitarists wish they had, the chops and the voice.

AC: Well, that's nice to hear. Thank you. But just as some guitarists aren't happy with their tone, a lot of singers aren't happy with their voice. So it's nice every now and then to hear that others do like my voice as well as my guitar playing.

I'm looking forward to seeing you live, which will be soon, at Chan's in Rhode Island. My favorites are 'Together As One', 'Barrel House Blues', and 'Lonely Bed'. Do you play all of them live?

AC: Yeah, I try to. Well, Barrel House I don't do a lot live. I love to have the keyboard with me for it, so when I travel as a trio it's hard to carry the song as it should be. It's kind of the easiest way for me to travel. The trio fits nice with the rig we have. Though there are certain days I wish I had a keyboardist, I've found that when I did have one I would let him play in spots where I'd usually play, and it took a lot of the energy away from the show. Everybody wants to keep me as a trio because they say that not everybody can pull it off. Plus, they say a lot of sound comes off the stage for three people, and that's good to hear, too.

Are you a 'theory' player?

AC: No. Everything for me is so simplistic and completely from the gut. I used to read music back in grade school when I played trumpet, but I never read music with the guitar. I think a lot of what gives me my individuality is that I can't usually sit and learn other player's stuff note for note. It's boring to me, and it drives me nuts. I'd rather listen to the original.

What about the comparisons to Stevie Ray Vaughan? Does that bother you?

AC:It's a double-edged sword for me. People have said, "You sound a lot like Stevie Ray." I just kid, and say, "You're nuts. No one sounds like Stevie Ray." He was on a plateau that'll never be reached. But of course, it's the utmost compliment. But then again, I don't really want to sound like I'm trying to imitate Stevie Ray Vaughan. There are so many Stevie Ray clones out there, it kind of makes you sick. There's money to be made when someone can play like Stevie, but I don't believe in that. That note for note stuff is just garbage to me. I mean, you've got to come up with your own stuff. It's like someone writing a book, writing it identically, and plagiarizing it in their own name. What good is that?

Why a Strat? Talk about your other gear, too.

AC: I kind of tend to beat the heck out of my guitar. A Strat is what I started on. That's what I went for went I first started thinking about buying guitars. I always wanted something with that big tone. I love the way a Gibson plays, but I just never found the right tone on one. I have a bunch of Strats, but the one I use primarily is a late '80s that came with Lace Sensors. I've since had five different sets of PUs on the guitar, and now I've got a Tele pickup in the neck position, a Texas Special in the middle, and a Pearly Gates humbucker on the bridge. I'm able to get all the sounds I want with that.

I actually like keeping my amps at a fairly low volume, as low as I can anyway. I play through a Fender Vibro-King , and a Vibrolux. Actually, it depends on the room. I might pick one amp or the other. Usually the Vibro-King , though, as that kind of does everything. It's a bit raw, but that's why I often use the Vibrolux with it, as it gives it a little warmth. But the Vibrolux hasn't the gut the Vibro-King has, so when I put them together, I've got a good combo. I like to bring them up to where I can get the fattest tone without too much distortion, then I use pedals for the distortion I need.

I have a nice pedal board system that pedalboards.com made for me. They made me a beautiful rig for everything I use. On it is a Vox wah-wah, an Ibanez tube screamer TS-9, and a Klon Centaur pedal. The Centaur gives a good boost to my amps when they're on low volumes. There's also a Boss tuner in there, a Holy Grail reverb, and a Boss Digital Delay, which I use just a hint of sometimes. Everyone comments on the clock I keep in there, too. [Laughs] I use it to keep track of my set time. There's nothing worse than seeing a guitarist look at his watch.

I've found that the more I take the volume down on the Strat, the fatter the tone gets. That took me ten years to figure out, as I used to just throw the guitar on ten and do it with the amps. But if you bring a Strat down to about 5 or 6 with the amps tweaked up, you get a bigger, fatter sound. But I just started on Strats and stayed on them.

Funny thing is, I recently got endorsed by Paul Reed Smith. They've sent me a couple of guitars, back and forth, and they want to send me more. I literally love the way those guitars play; I just haven't found one that will give me the tone I get from a Strat. I do like versatility, though, and the PRSs are beautiful works of art. Every one I've played, I just end up saying, 'man, this thing is too nice to even take out of the case'. (laughing) They may find one for me eventually, as I haven't yet strung 'em up with what I use. I play with 12s, tuned down a half step. That's where a lot of the depth comes from, and it makes all the difference in the world. I stopped at the 12s because that's when I finally stopped breaking them. I use GHS strings and no one can tell me there's anything better. They're the only strings I won't break. I hit them pretty hard with a really heavy pick, and I'll snap 11s like nothing. I have a custom set of GHS Boomers made for me. They've endorsed me as well. I like them; I think they're the best. But I always keep a second guitar on stage, too, just in case.

I don't think your tone is too much like Stevie's, but either way, you do play with really good tone. I've heard a lot of blues players over the years that didn't play with good tone at all.

AC: Yeah, that's true. You know, we're all searching for that tone, and always trying to improve it, but I guess I've been pretty lucky that way. Which brings me back to Stevie Ray. He could plug into a piece of crap and it would still sound like him coming through it.

Tell me about "Beautiful Bride". It's a pretty song. Is it a true-life story?

AC: It's one of the first songs I wrote that I would ever keep. I wrote it when I got married, for my wife, of course. And I sang it at my wedding, which was the first time I ever sang publicly. That was fifteen years ago. It was a tearjerker. In fact, there wasn't a dry eye in the room. I always wanted to put it on an album, so I put it on From The Heart. It has since become pretty popular for weddings. I sing it a lot at the weddings I go to. This wealthy guy once flew me down to Texas to sing it at his tenth anniversary. I actually opened for the Beach Boys. He flew me down just to sing "Beautiful Bride".

Sometimes I have a tendency to judge a blues guitar player by that one slow blues tune he does. I like "Lonely Bed" a lot. I think it's up there with the best of them. Your guitar has real nice tone on it.

AC: Thank you. Lyrically, it was just a song that evolved from an idea, someone who had been done wrong, and was feeling angry because of that.

The words can say anything; it doesn't make any difference to me. It's just that the guitar playing is so good.

AC: Thanks again. It's one of my favorite songs; it's a crowd favorite as well. I take it into a lot of different areas when I play it live. The dynamics in it are so much fun, and I can do so much with it.

"Blues Makes Me Feel So Good" is an interesting title. I've found that some people just don't get that.

AC: That's true. Some people think the blues is supposed to make you sad. They think of the blues as crying in your beer sad music. That's exactly why I wrote that song. When I've asked people what the blues is to them, I've been told that it's kind of slow, sad music, very depressing. I said that that's how some people see it, but I see it in a different way. In my opinion, the blues can be that, but shuffles and fun songs, even the ones that are about sad topics, kind of make me want to get up in the morning and listen to my radio. It's often very happy music and it makes me feel good.

Even a slow, sad blues song makes me feel good. It doesn't even have to sound uplifting.

AC: Exactly! And "Blues Makes Me Feel So Good" is a great audience participation song. I sing, "The blues...", and they sing, "Makes me feel so good!" back. People love to hear that song, so it has become one of my favorites because of that. We were just out in California doing a show with B.B. King, and when you hear 4,000 people sing that back at you, you know it's making them feel good!

We've pretty much discussed your onstage gear, but I like to ask about practice gear, too, as readers are always interested in what the pros use to practice with.

AC: I just have a reissue Fender Super Reverb that I play through in the house. I have a room that I go in and kind of dub around with it. The volume's on like two, so I don't disturb anyone in the house. I don't have anything real small, as a real practice session for me is a gig. I'm too busy with my business and all, and although I wish I had more time for it, practice is usually a gig.

I've found that with my style of guitar playing I learn more at gigs anyway. I kind of get lost on purpose sometimes, where I have to find and dig myself out. Those are the fun gigs for me, where I just say, 'Okay, I'm just going to move my hand up, hit a note, and do whatever I have to do'. I don't care what that note is; I'm going to make it go with something. Eventually it all falls back into the original melody. It's amazing what that idea, that theory, can do for your playing. I've listened to recordings of myself after a show. Something might hit me as something I like a lot, and I'll say to myself, 'I've got to learn that', because it sounded so good to me that I know I'll want to do it again. To play like this I have to let myself go completely, and totally expose my ability to the audience, and risk sounding like hell ... go out on that limb to get that music. It's a concept that propels me. Some players won't do that. They like to stick where they know, and it often gets repetitive when you do that. I'm guilty of that, too. Some nights I can't get myself lost, because I know I might lose it. But most of the time I can just go ahead and let go.

How's the tour going? It's growing bigger every time I look at the listing.

AC: It's a little bit tough for me because I'm still running the business and I have two sons. So, it's not like I can go out for three months at a time and really enjoy it. I like to be with my kids as much as I can. Everything's a growing process, so it's not like I can completely make a living off of playing the guitar. I sure wish I could, but I'm still working it and building it, and I've still got to keep a small crew going. It's how I buy groceries. I could play every night in the week with the small club thing, but that's not what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to expand and bring it to the next level.

Who are the other members in this band?

AC: Right now I have Dan Broad on bass and Aaron Scapin on drums.

Who do you like on the blues scene today?

AC: Well, Ronnie Earl is one that I love to listen to. I admire him utmost.

Who else do you listen to?

AC: I love anything I can get my hands on. Albert Collins, Hendrix. Hendrix was one of the last ones I got into. But I love listening to his stuff now. Stevie spoke about him like I speak about Stevie. It's an endless journey if you want to go on and study him. He had no pattern. You know, with most players, they stay where they're familiar, and they stay in that one area. Hendrix had no pattern, and he just jumped all over that neck getting everything. I love Coco Montoya, too.

I read on your website that you opened for B.B. King 19 times.

AC: Yeah, but it's up to twenty-three now! He's such a nice guy, too, and we've become good friends. We've even hung out together and rapped for a while, and talked about everything. It's such an honor. And playing with him is another lesson. Sometimes I just watch him from side stage, as there's an infinite amount of knowledge there.

From The Heart:

Your Own Way
The Long Way
Regular Man
Tell It Like It Is
Together As One
Barrel House Blues
I've Got Feelings Too
Living On The Highway Now
Ready As I'll Ever Be
Rock Me Baby
Beautiful Bride

Albert Cummings: guitar and vocal
Tommy Shannon: bass
Chris Layton: drums
Reese Wynans: keyboards
Johnny Moeller: rhythm guitar
Riley Osbourne: keyboards

UTR Music Group 2003

True To Yourself:

Man On Your Mind
Work It Out
Come Up For Air
Blues Makes Me Feel So Good
Where Did I Go Wrong
Your Sweet Love
Lonely Bed
Follow Your Soul

Albert Cummings: guitar and vocal
Tommy Shannon: bass
Riley Osbourne: keyboards
B.E. "Frosty" Smith: drums

Blind Pig Records 2004

Albert Cummings website (tour dates and information available)
Blind Pig Records

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