Keith B. Brown Blends Old and New

“For me, everything we consider to be popular music the world over, is in fact, blues,” says Delta blues picker and singer-songwriter Keith B. Brown. “It’s an evolution or adaptation of the same essential thing. Wherever I travel, I hear different cultures playing and singing their interpretation of the blues.”

Brown’s open-minded attitude to the blues can be heard on his recent album, Delta Soul [Juna Music/Raisin Music], which features powerful vocals and a blend of impressive slide guitar and fingerpicking. He purposefully blends the old and new, recapturing the raw emotion of Son House’s “Death Letter” and Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor,” while adding distinctive—and often provocative—originals like “Who’s to Blame” and “Niggers and Rednecks.”

The Memphis-born guitarist—who played Son House in Glenn Marzano’s film Stop Breakin’ Down, and was featured as Skip James in Martin Scorsese’s The Soul of a Man—feels a dual responsibility. On one hand, Brown wants to keep the blues tradition alive in its purest form. Yet at the same time, he wants to tell his own stories in his own way, free from constraint.

“I think a problem facing blues today is the way it has been so strictly categorized and marketed,” says Brown. “Variety and versatility have always been a very large part of my musical personality. I get bored doing the same thing all the time, so I like to mix it up a bit. Even in the solo shows, I’ll sing different kinds of songs—some traditional, some contemporary, and some in-between. The show will have a little Son House, some Skip James, maybe a little Tracy Chapman, and one sung a cappella.”

French luthier Maurice Dupont builds Brown’s steel-string guitars. “I play a Dupont DR45 dreadnought. It’s a high-performance, hand-made guitar with a red cedar top and mahogany sides. I also play a Dupont CF30 concert-size guitar that’s made of Indian rosewood and French spruce. I usually travel with three guitars—one for open-G tuning [D, G, D, G, B, D, low to high], one for open D [D, A, D, F#, A, D], and one in standard tuning. The action for the open-tuned

guitars is higher than on my standard-tuned Dupont to accommodate slide playing, but not so high that I can’t play chords with relative ease. I run a Fishman pickup into the house sound system when playing with my band or other musicians. But for solo performances, I play purely acoustically with a mic on the guitar.”

These days, Brown lives in France. “Memphis is still the place I call home,” he explains. “But I got an opportunity to tour in France during the mid ’90s, and each year after that I returned, spending longer and longer. My time in France has been a positive experience, both professionally and personally. I’m particularly looking forward to opening for B.B. King with my full band this summer in the South of France. This is a great honor for me.”