Damon Fowler Channels His Roots on 'Sounds of Home'

“I like to create a song skeleton out of riffs and chords on a mid-’60s Epiphone Cortez acoustic, and then flesh it out on an electric instrument,” says Tampa’s Damon Fowler.
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“I like to create a song skeleton out of riffs and chords on a mid-’60s Epiphone Cortez acoustic, and then flesh it out on an electric instrument,” says Tampa’s Damon Fowler.

“I like to create a song skeleton out of riffs and chords on a mid-’60s Epiphone Cortez acoustic, and then flesh it out on an electric instrument,” says Tampa’s Damon Fowler. “That’s how I approached Sounds of Home [Blind Pig], and it was the difference between working with Tab on this record versus the Southern Hospitality record.”

Southern Hospitality is an amalgamation of talents that joined forces not long after GP last spoke with Fowler in 2011. JP Soars is a fellow Floridian who won the Gibson Guitarist Award at the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge in 2009, and the two guitarists’ interplay in Southern Hospitality is comfort food for Southern rock zealots. Until the ensemble regroups, Fowler is focused on Sounds of Home. “Southern Hospitality went into the studio prepared,” recalls Fowler. “But the best results came when we let things develop organically, and I wanted to capture more of that approach on my new solo record.”

According to Benoit, “Damon plays what he feels instead of trying to sound like somebody else, and he’s not afraid to try new things on the spot. Each song is going to last forever, and we’re just capturing the moment of creation. I’m not interested in trying to perfect something in the studio. I don’t have a control room with a glass window. I sit at my Pro Tools station in the same room where the whole band plays together.”

Together, Fowler and Benoit created an authentic document of the guitarist’s roots artistry. Fowler plays lap-steel, bottleneck, or standard electric according to the tune. “Thought I Had It All” brings Ben Harper to mind. Fowler’s country-inspired lines on “Where I Belong” echo Dickey Betts. And he honors his hero Johnny Winter with an inspired cover of “TV Mama.” Fowler’s own vision remains steady throughout, however, as he complements discerning playing with satisfying roughneck vocals.

“Damon is quick about determining what would benefit a song, such as the key, tuning, and playing with or without a slide,” says Benoit. “As producer, I want him to figure that out for himself. He’s going to play these songs live every night. That’s a bluesman’s artwork. A recording is only a moment in that body of work.”

What do guitar players ask you about most frequently after they see your show?

Tone. Your tone comes from who you are, not from your gear. I normally don’t use pedals. All I have on the road are my guitars and a vintage Fender Super Reverb amp. I set the volume at 7 or 8, and manipulate my guitar’s volume knob from there. Very rarely do I actually open it up all the way. Positioning your amp is also really important, especially in small clubs. I tilt the amp back, and I’ll often point it at the wall. Nine times out of ten the soundman will thank me and say that it’s perfect.

You don’t miss having the moving air directly behind you?

I got used to it. In fact, I prefer it now because I can hear my voice better. I’d eventually start losing the tone in my head from standing in front of a loud amplifier ringing the bell all night anyway.

What guitars do you use regularly on the road, and in what tunings?

I have two guitars in standard tuning. One is a stock Les Paul Classic made in either 1990 or 1991. It’s nice and light. I wrap the strings around the tailpiece like Duane Allman did because it makes the action feel right and the guitar really sing. The other is a parts guitar my friend Steve White put together. It’s shaped like a Telecaster, but it’s loaded with a pair of Klein P-90s, the pickup selector is on the upper bout, and it’s got a finish like a goldtop Les Paul. The guitar still sounds like a Telecaster, but the Kleins give it a very throaty tone—especially in the neck position. I’m holding it on the cover of Sounds of Home.

I also travel with two guitars I use exclusively for slide. One is a mid-’50s Harmony H44 Stratotone that I tune to open G. The other is a Gibson BR-9 lap-steel with a single P-90. Not all BR-9s have brass tuning pegs like mine, and they might contribute to its lively sound.

How did you get going on lap-slide?

I started on, and still use, open-E tuning for lap-slide. You can see everything in front of you more readily. The trick is getting your arm and hand muscles used to working in a new way that’s accurate when you hover over a note and add a bit of vibrato. I started getting better on lap-steel when I focused in on my plucking hand. It’s all about damping strings. Very rarely do I actually hit all the strings at once. I play a lot of one- and two-note things.

What slides do you prefer?

For the past year I’ve been using Rocky Mountain slides made of thick ceramic material with an outside coating. I’ve been using their solid bar for lap-slide, as well. It’s fat and heavy, so it’s kind of like having a steel bar, but it’s not as heavy as a Stevens or a Shubb bar.

How do you determine which instrument to play on a given song?

I don’t have a guitar formula. The rhythm has to be simple enough for me to sing over if I’m going to play lap-steel. Key is another factor. If I can’t make a song work in E, A, C#, or maybe G, I won’t play it on the lap-steel. That’s what’s great about working with a flexible producer like Tab. I might try a song in one tuning on one instrument, and then wind up doing something totally different. I brought my stage guitars to the studio except the Les Paul.

What amps did you use?

A lot of the dirty sounding slide stuff was done on Tab’s early-’70s Fender Princeton. We also used a Super Reverb, and we used Tab’s signature Category 5 for smoother-sounding songs like “Trouble” and “I Shall Not Be Moved.”

Sounds of Home kicks off with the blues-rocker “Thought I Had It All.” What’s the advantage of playing that tune in C#?

I played lap-steel on the whole thing, so I’m tuned to open E, but I chose C# because a lot of open sounds in the guitar riff work naturally in that key.

How did you achieve the gritty tone on the dripping 12/8 ballad “Old Fools, Bar Stools, and Me?”

I played the Stratotone in open G with a Kyser capo at the second fret, and that amp tone is the sound of Tab’s Princeton right before it died [laughs]. It was really singing, man, and then right after that song— no more Princeton.

“Where I Belong” is full of uplifting, melodic slide licks that bring some sunshine—kind of like a Dickey Betts track on an Allman Brothers record.

Exactly. That’s the lap-steel in E. We figured the record could use a positive sound. More people need to have love for Dickey Betts.

Why did you decide to cover Elvis Costello’s “Alison?”

Tab is a great drummer, and he loves to play “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” when we jam. He suggested that we cover a cool song like “50 Ways,” and I suggested “Alison.” We ran through it a couple of times and pressed record. Elvis’ version doesn’t have a guitar solo, but of course Tab and I decided that I should play one.

What inspired the choice to cover Johnny Winter’s “TV Mama”?

Nothin’ But the Blues was one of the first blues records I ever got. It’s badass because it’s basically Johnny playing with Muddy Waters’ band, and I’ve always wanted to do a song from it. I played that on my lap-steel through a Super Reverb.

Your slide solos are interesting because of the way you weave fretted runs, hammer-ons, and fun-sounding slide phrases together.

I got turned onto hammer-ons and some of the fun “Wheeee!” slide things because of Speedy West, who played with Jimmy Bryant in the ’50s. Speedy’s playing had so much personality and was really funny—like a cartoon. I’ve been listening to him and trying to incorporate some of that.

Did slide playing come easily to you?

I didn’t get slide playing for a while. It clicked when I discovered open tunings. Guitar playing—especially slide—is about your right hand. Once I stopped picking wildly and began to focus in on what strings I really needed to play, I developed a style.

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