- Monday, July 19, 2010, 7:30 p.m.
Steamboat Springs Roy Book Binder was not born into the blues.
Growing up middle class in Queens, N.Y., Book Binder wasn't far from the Greenwich Village coffeehouses that would give classic Piedmont bluesmen such as the Reverend Gary Davis a second life. When Book Binder picked up a guitar after being introduced to Davis' gravelly country blues, the marriage seemed too natural to avoid.
He spent years on the road with Davis, shared stages with acts such as Bonnie Raitt and Hot Tuna, and released four discs on the Rounder Records roots label before starting his own.
On Wednesday, Book Binder, now 65, will come through Steamboat Springs for the second time, as part of the cross-country tour he does every other year to keep himself close to a life of playing the road.
He spoke with the Steamboat Pilot & Today about $5 guitar lessons from a blues legend, staying true to his troubadour spirit and his version of the American dream.
STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY: So how did you come around to playing blues music?
ROY BOOK BINDER: I got out of the Navy in 1965 and started to go to college on the GI Bill. And the folk music thing was happening then, in the Northeast especially. And I heard the blues fingerpicking of these various people who had been rediscovered by folk musicians.
The folk music boom was an interesting thing that happened in the '60s, growing out of the protests and the war and the civil rights movement and what have you. And in New York, the rumor had it that the Reverend Gary Davis gave $5 guitar lessons when he was home. So I called him, and after the first few lessons I quit school and went on the road with him.
SP&T: What about those lessons made you want to go on the road with Davis?
RBB: The music just tickled me, and I knew I had to play that kind of music. : Asking a blues musician how they came to the blues, it's like asking a preacher how he came to preach. I had the calling and I had to go, so I gave up what one would call a normal life and went out on the road. :
If you're encouraged by the industry and the fan, you realize that it might be possible to make a living. Back then the dream was to make $100 a week playing the guitar, and that's all you needed to live. And I've done that for years, never making any detour in the music I loved.
And I never made any changes to make myself commercially acceptable. I never played an electric guitar, I never aspired to be more than I am, and it's worked out fantastically.
SP&T: When you say you never aspired to be more than you are, what do you consider yourself to be?
RBB: A traveling troubadour. I never had visions of pop stardom, because this was the only music I wanted to play.
At this point, 50 percent of what I play is original tunes. But it's still in the realm and the tradition of the music I first loved. If I didn't tell the audience I wrote this one, they might assume it's an old-time song.
SP&T: You spent 23 years touring in a motor home. What was the original motivation for that move?
RBB: When I lived in Greenwich Village in New York, you'd go out and do your shows and then you run home, and it seemed silly to me to pay rent when you weren't there.
It just made life on the road so much more comfortable - I had a dressing room and a shower and a kitchen.
I knew right off when I was a young man that I didn't want to live a traditional life that I saw on television and that I grew up in. I wanted the adventure of something, and I found it. The blues music gave me a way to make a living, and to enjoy the music.
SP&T: So for you, blues was a way to get out of the mainstream?
RBB: It's an incredible thing to not have management behind you and corporate money and all that business. Back in the '60s we were all trying to live alternative lifestyles and change the world. And I don't know if I changed the world, but I did make a lot of people smile.
SP&T: From all those years on the road, are there moments or stories that stand out?
RBB: Going on the road with an old, blind, guitar-playing preacher (Reverend Gary Davis) was quite an adventure. He was a genius of a guitar player and a devout Christian man. And he was old and blind, and I carried all his stuff.
He's been dead for a long time, but keeping the traditions of the old-timers that I met along the way, it makes you feel good. I talk about the old guys every night, and they live through my music, and hopefully when I'm gone, my students will carry me on. :
That's the story. And it's a great American story. Living outside of the mainstream and living a good life for all those years, I can't complain. And I don't, even though the price of gas is killing me. :
It's not really a career; it's a lifestyle. You have to make the road your friend, and if you're not driving from show to show, the road is not your friend - it's an agony.
SP&T: So flying from show to show, that would ruin it for you?
RBB: I think that would be a terrible grind. You might as well work for Shell Oil, you know, be a businessman.
To lead a life like this, you have to love it, and I feel more at home on the road than I do at home, after all these years.
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