ONE OF THE SWAMPIEST GUITAR PICKERS TO EMERGE from the humid Southeast since Lightnin’ Slim and Tony
Joe White, Florida-born Damon Fowler had three indie
releases before his first outing, 2009’s Sugar Shack. Less
than three years later, Devil Got His Way [Blind Pig] offers
an even more concentrated dose of his singing, songwriting,
and vibe-y guitar slinging.
Fowler is poised to go international, but will nonetheless
likely remain a kind of people’s virtuoso. His fleet chicken pickin’, soaring leads, and gutbucket riffs are
compelling, but not so complex as to overwhelm
the listener. And his gnomic appearance,
with lank hair and gingery chin beard,
makes him seem more like your coolest bud
than a distant guitar god. Having survived
a debilitating road accident five years back,
the 31-year-old also exudes a tough humility
on all fronts.
Devil Got His Way features catchy, deeply
blue originals full of country soul and mostly
penned with songwriting partner Ed Wright,
along with two covers: a gorgeous Chuck
Prophet ballad called “After the Rain,” and
the carnivalesque “Tight Rope,” associated
with Leon Russell. As before, Fowler alternates
between high cries on his lap-steel, blazing
hybrid picking on a cool Tele-style guitar,
and swooping, fat-neck slide on an ancient
Harmony that boasts one pickup and a pickguard
shaped like the state of Florida. Like
Shack, Devil was produced by Scott Cable,
who’s known both as a guitarist and for his
work with old-timers such as Carey Bell and
Nappy Brown. “Damon knows what not to
play, which is unusual for his age, or for any
age,” says Cable. “And he’s really confident
in the studio, especially when it comes to
singing. Blues is in a weird spot right now.
The greats are passing and younger guys
are mostly regurgitating old sounds—but
Damon’s really his own man.”
We spoke with Fowler shortly after he’d
stepped off the latest Legendary Rhythm &
Blues Cruise—a week afloat in the Caribbean,
during which he and his hard-traveling trio
shared a bill with Taj Mahal, Bob Margolin,
Debbie Davies, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and
other blues luminaries.
How was the cruise?
Well, Taj Mahal was fantastic, but the most
amazing thing I heard was Kid Andersen, a
Norwegian guitarist who will make you stand
up and cry. I was also knocked out by Joan
Osborne with the Holmes Brothers—there
was a whole lotta soul right there.
The same goes for your new songs. Do you feel
your craft has matured?
Some people use the blues as an idiom
to just play guitar within, and they don’t pay
enough attention to lyrics and song structure.
Everyone starts out with the ol’ I-IV-V, “My
baby’s cryin’ in the rain,” as an excuse for 30
minutes of soloing. But there’s a difference
between playing guitar and playing music.
You can use basic blues structure, sure, but
it’s all about the nuances—the little things
that make a song really distinctive.
Do you consider yourself a Tele man these
I’d have to say yes, at the moment anyway.
I have a messed-up shoulder, so I need something
light, and I got this great Telecasterstyle
instrument made by Jeff Clements, who
has a company down here called Player Built
Guitars. It has a blonde, swamp ash body
with a big Fender maple neck that was made
in Japan. There’s a Rio Grande Vintage Tallboy
pickup in the bridge slot, a 1969 Gibson
mini-humbucker in the neck, and compensated
brass saddles, which make a world of
difference to the sound. I also have a Surf Green Stratocaster that Jeff made. He’s always
lending me stuff to try. I like to scratch ’em
up, pour beer on ’em, and give ’em back.
You’ve also been seen with a shiny red Les
I’ve had that since I was 14. It’s a 1960 Les
Paul Classic model, made in 1991. I wrapped
the strings around the tailpiece for more of
a country sound. I’ve got about 40 guitars,
mostly in the basement of my parents’ house.
At home I have a ’60 Stratocaster refinished
in black with one original pickup, and a ’64
Epiphone Cortez that’s my sittin’-aroundthe-
What’s your main lap-steel? And what’s that
little gold guitar that you use for slide?
The lap-steel is a ’54 Gibson BR-9 with
one big, fat P-90. You just plug that into an
amp and let’er go. The gold guitar is a mid-
’50s Harmony H44 Stratotone. I bought
it in a pawnshop for a hundred bucks and
haven’t done a thing to it, except to put on
new strings—usually .012s—and tune it to
open G. I use a thick glass slide on both .
No specific brand. I usually end up breaking
them after a month or two.
You’re not a pedal guy. You don’t even have a
tuner on stage, do you?
No, I never use any pedals—it’s just
straight into the amp. I have two Fender
Super Reverbs. My blackface is a ’66, and if
you run a humbucker through it you sound
like Freddie King. The other is a ’68 silverface,
with the chrome strip running around
the grille cloth. It’s a little smoother and not
as loud as the other one. I’m not that picky
about cables, either. I try to use Planet Waves
or Monster cables, but I’m just as happy with
the cheap, gray kind you get from Wal-Mart.
That nasty, insistent chord on “Cypress in
the Pines” sounds like John Lee Hooker fell down
a well and just kept playing. How’d that happen?
I’m gonna take that as a compliment
[laughs]. The song started with the Harmony
H44, tuned as usual to G. When I play slide I
use my fingers, and on this one I just started
plucking at that broken riff before adding the
slide. For an extra low-down sound, we put a
’61 Fender Deluxe—a nice old brownface—
out in a small hallway and used some ribbon
mics to capture the spooky room tone. Here,
things started with a riff, but it’s different
for every song.
Singing-wise, you sound something like two
Canadians: Colin James and Jeff Healey. But you’ve
always had your own thing.
They’re both great, for sure, but Jeff Healey
was one of my all-time heroes. Growing up,
my favorite movie was Roadhouse, so that
might have something to do with it [laughs].
I was an only child, and a weird kid, I guess.
At 14, I started a band called Tangent, and
we did exactly one gig. It was all instrumentals,
because no one wanted to sing. In other
bands, I got stuck with singing. My attitude
changed when I realized that singing genuinely
helped me communicate with audiences.
Some people just can’t hear music without
vocals. And now it has come to mean even
more to me. I would actually play less guitar
if I had a bigger band. Of course, I still like
Did you use any other new toys on the record?
It sounds like there’s a mandolin spicing up “Tight
Chuck Riley, our bassist, played that, but
didn’t get a credit. And I played a recent Danelectro
Baritone, tuned to A, on “28 Degrees.”
That’s through a mid-’60s Kalamazoo 2 amp,
with our rhythm synced to its killer tremolo
to make that funky groove.
There are bendy double-stops on “Once in a
While,” which are a little atypical for you. How do
you decide which approach to take when soloing
on different tunes?
My approach to soloing is largely determined
by the instrument I’m holding in my
hands. Our engineer, George Harris, loaned
me his early-’50s Fender Esquire for that
song. Obviously, that bridge pickup just makes
you do the twangy stuff, and I tend to wrap
my thumb around a Tele neck more than I
do with, say, a Gibson, which also affects
the sound. Of course, even with the same
instrument, the attack is different for everybody.
For example, I was shocked when I realized
that B.B. King doesn’t get his vibrato by
bending the strings. He shakes his whole left
hand. Young players are always obsessed with
tone, tone, tone, and so they should be. But
90 percent of tone comes from fingers and
strings, not from equipment.
You new CD is even cleaner sounding than the
last one, with everything spare and super-exposed.
This time, we used a lot of room microphones,
with Neumann U67 and U87 mics
quite far from the amps, which added more
space. Also, on Sugar Shack we used a ’66
Fender Princeton Reverb for everything,
whereas this time the main amp was a very
swampy ’61 brownface Fender Deluxe. I’m
really starting to enjoy the studio environment,
especially the way you can play with
room sounds and dynamics. And I’ve been
learning to translate that to my live shows,
in terms of grasping the unique qualities
of each room, no matter how big or small.
Do you think your stage setup might get a little
fancier at some point as a result?
Well, I might buy a splitter box so I can
use both my amps in more interesting ways.
But that would just mean more stuff to haul,
and to think about. I mean, I’m the road manager,
the merch guy, and the van driver—and
I also play guitar and sing a little.