Chris Cotton’s Piedmont Renaissance

How does a kid from Northern California get the blues? Well, for Chris Cotton, it was all about hitting the rails. In the time-honored tradition of the hobos who spread the music of the South throughout the United States at the turn of the last century, Cotton hopped a freight train and headed for parts unknown. He eventually ended up playing his guitar on the streets of New Orleans, and while there, he learned from fellow street musicians a style of blues that’s mostly unknown in today’s Delta-blues saturated era: the Piedmont style.

“I learned Piedmont playing on the streets and in some of the small clubs in New Orleans,” says Cotton. “At the time, I was really just playing straight Delta or country-style blues. I met a couple of people that played Piedmont, and I learned quite a lot from them.”

Cotton explains that the Piedmont style comes from the Carolinas and differs from its Delta and Chicago cousins in several ways. Piedmont music has a ragtime feel, eschews the ubiquitous 12-bar pattern, and sticks to major keys most of the time. Also, the right-hand picking style is complicated and took a lot of time and patience for Cotton to master.

“From a technical aspect,” Cotton explains, “you’re playing melody, rhythm, and bass lines all at the same time. Some of the more complex Piedmont pickers also do a lot of thumb rolls, which took me a long time to learn. It’s not a roll like on the banjo. It’s basically a quick one-two where you start a thirty-second-note before and ‘roll up’ to the tonic with your thumb.”

Cotton’s gear collection is spartan, in the blues tradition. “I usually take only two guitars out when I play. I’ve got a Larrivée 00-10 (with a Fishman Matrix pickup) and a National Delphi. I typically mic the guitar and go direct into the board.”

On his first solo record, I Watched the Devil Die, Cotton revives the ragtime feel of Piedmont picking in gritty, gin-soaked songs that sound like they could have been recorded 80 years ago. He makes the style seem like second nature, and his playing has a fluidity that belies the complicated nature of the parts. “I wanted to get away from a lead-guitar approach and get back to the really rootsy American style,” says Cotton.

One of the album’s standout tracks, “Black Night,” is a nine-minute juggernaut that brings out the pain and passion of Cotton’s playing. Its minor key is in contrast to most of the songs on the record, but it showcases Cotton’s mastery of setting the mood.

“I had written it as something like you could hear Fred McDowell sing, with the minor third hanging on the bottom of the chord, and a really discordant feel for the verse,” says Cotton. “That was the last song that we ended up recording, and we did it all in one take.”

I Watched the Devil Die was recorded with minimal overdubs, because Cotton wanted to preserve the feel of the sessions at all costs—mistakes and all. “The only overdub on the record is Jimbo’s banjo part,” he says. “Everything else is live. There’s an energy that happens on the fly, whether you get it in one take or ten takes. Maybe there are some things that aren’t quite right, but the energy between the musicians transcends a little imperfection here or there. The soul—the pulse—of what you’re doing is what’s important. It gives life to the song.”

Still, Cotton doesn’t see I Watched the Devil Die as a throwback album. “I’m try-ing to create music that’s modern, but at the same time that’s not entrenched in current times. I’m trying to take this traditional form of American music and make it into something that’s listenable today.”