BLUES BYTES – C.W. STONEKING
Interview By Bob Gordon
He’s a little elusive and rather enigmatic in an interview scenario – a bit like drawing blood from a Stoneking, one might say – but C.W. Stoneking isn’t one to ramble about or romanticise his music or his style, even if music journalists have done so for years.
It’s always been the case that his music does the talking, and indeed there’s much to revel in with it. Blues, vaudeville, ragtime, country, revivalist, calypso, gospel and more, it’s a hypnotic old blues Americana gumbo concocted by someone who is uniquely Australian.
C.W. grew up in Katherine, Northern Territory, the son of US-Australian playwright/teacher Billy Marshall Stoneking and author Paty Marshall-Stace. Stoneking’s father originally came from Orlando, Florida, and was a music collector and aficionado. The young C.W.’s first introduction to the blues came when he stumbled across an old cassette called Living With The Blues, a compilation that featured the likes of Memphis Minnie, Blind Willie McTell and Brownie McGhee. He wasn’t yet besotted by the form by any means, but it was literally instrumental in his journey, and from there the guitar was not far away.
“Speaking of that time, when I was 11 years-old and living at my parents’ house, it wasn’t my main thing, but it was something I liked,” he says.
“I liked it, and it was a small bit of familiarisation I had with the blues. Then I met people some years later who were focussed primarily on playing blues.”
It helped steer C.W. on his way, towards a very individual kind of music journey
that didn’t pay heed to what was contemporary or popular in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, as a teenager moving into his 20s. He played with blues musicians and busked constantly, digging into histories and walking the hallways of music by the likes of Robert Johnson, Son House and Buka White.
“It’s just the same as anybody, I guess,” he says of finding a musical niche and falling down that rabbit hole. “I started to get into that style of music and as a guitar player I liked the approach to the guitar on a lot of that stuff. It’s just one of those things where you get into a category of interest, sometimes people just keep on looking into it.
“There wasn’t anything like Spotify back then too, so you’d get a little clue by reading something that’d say this is similar to these other guys you’ve never heard of. Maybe one day somewhere you’d find one of those dudes and you’d be like, ‘oh that’s him!’. It was sort of like that.”
After releasing two albums of traditional blues songs, C.W. unveiled his first original album, King Hokum, in 2005. It was eventually nominated for ‘Best Blues/Roots Album’ at the 2007 ARIA Awards and won the award for ‘Best Independent Blues Release’ at the AIR Awards that same year.
The die was cast, C.W. was out on the extended road with His Primitive Horn Orchestra and folks were taking notice. Among other nominations, his 2008 album, Jungle Blues won ‘Best Blues and Roots Album’ at the 2009 ARIA Awards and ‘Best Independent Blues/Roots Album’ at the AIR Awards.
Stoneking’s next album, Gon’ Boogaloo, was released in October 2014 and took out Best Blues & Roots Album the following year at the ARIAs. ‘He’s strutted out of the steamy lands of the Jungle Blues (his masterpiece from 2008) with a bag of deeply funky Hound Dog Taylor fuzzed-out electric guitar riffs and soulful blues tunes, and given them the Stoneking treatment, guaranteed to have bare feet slapping the bar room floor’, raved the Sydney Morning Herald, in a four-star review.
There’s not been an album release from C.W. since Gon’ Boogaloo, so he’s used to being asked when the next one might come out. He’s not sure himself…
“It’s really hard to tell,” he says. “At some point during the whole (pandemic) thing that went down I was playing a bit of music and then through the course of that I lost my booking agent in the States and my manager – who is now my manager again – quit me, and I just didn’t know if I was going to play music again at all.
“I have been playing a bit since then but I’m still not 100 per cent. I feel like it got took away so quickly, so now I’m doing things that seem less likely to get took away, like fixing up a house.”
So you’re not forcing anything?
“No, I couldn’t tell you what the music’s gonna be. That’s if there is one. Who knows? You can’t tell the future, I guess.”
All the more reason to catch C.W. Stoneking & His Primitive Horn Orchestra at Blues at Bridgetown on Saturday, November 11, at the Blue Owl’s Nest stage.
“We didn’t play for a while,” he says, “from 2012 until last year. I’ve got two of my OG members, who I used to play with a lot back in the day, and a couple of new guys because the other original band members moved overseas. But we have fun playing. It’s pretty nice, I guess. It’s good.”
C.W. Stoneking & His Primitive Horn Orchestra – Saturday 10.55pm Blue Owl’s Nest