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 days?
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 Paul.
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- house acoustic.
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 to noodle.
Did you use any other new toys on the record? It sounds like there’s a mandolin spicing up “Tight Rope.”
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.