Maria Muldaur has had an amazing musical journey, from her early days as part of the 1960’s jug band revival, to solo stardom in the 1970’s with her sultry hit “Midnight at the Oasis”, to membership in the Jerry Garcia Band and many guest appearances with other artists, to her ongoing explorations of the blues.
This interview was for a preview article for Maria’s concert at the Ventura Beach Club in Ventura on 3/20/15 – tickets are available here. It was done by phone on 3/15/15, with Maria full of energy – “I’m all caffeinated up!” – and insight while talking about the upcoming show and her life in music.
Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at the upcoming show?
Maria Muldaur: I have a band called Maria Muldaur and her Red Hot Bluesiana Band. “Bluesiana” [JM: rhymes with Louisiana] is a word I coined a bunch of years ago to describe the kind of New Orleans flavored blues, R&B, and what we call Swamp Funk that we like to perform. So I am coming to this particular venue with that show. We call it the Bluesiana Dance Party. You don’t have to have to dance, but if you want to – and you probably will be moved to at various points in the evening – and if there’s room to dance, then we encourage it.
I’ve made 40 albums in the 40 years since “Midnight at the Oasis” was riding at the top of the pop charts. It’s now 41 years actually. So that’s about an album a year, and I always am the most excited about presenting the newest material. Most artists are. But we’ve found over the years that there are certain favorites that people still want to hear, no matter how many new albums we had out or whatever. So I always include people’s old favorites in my show. But this show will be a lot of stuff from my more recent albums, a couple of which I made down in New Orleans. It’s very bluesy, swampy, funky.
I’m really excited about the band. First of all, my keyboard player – I call him my right- and left-hand man – for many years is Chris Burns. And then we have David Tucker on drums and vocals. And then I’m really excited to be reconnecting with one of my favorite guitar players in the whole world, a guy named Jon Woodhead, who lives down there in Southern California, and is just a phenomenal player, just really gifted. He played with us a lot in the Nineties, and then he moved away. We’re just very excited that he’s joining us for these Southern California gigs, and I think everyone should come out and hear us because it’s going to be big fun.
Concurrently with presenting that show, I’m also doing my Way Past Midnight show in other venues. This didn’t seem like the appropriate venue for that. That’s a multimedia retrospective of my musical journey over the last 50 years. I do a lot of even older songs, maybe some that I haven’t performed live in 20 or 30 years. And I tell stories about various collaborations with various wonderful artists and musicians that I’ve been blessed to know and work with. There are cool little video clips and old photos and so forth. I’m presenting that at McCabe’s in L.A. But that’s more of a sit-down look and listen kind of a show.
JM: You’re kind of in “blues mode” right now. What draws you to the blues?
MM: The same thing that draws a person to a really great home cooked meal as opposed to running in and getting something at McDonald’s, or some fast food joint. Of course you know all this, but the blues is a uniquely American musical form that is an expression of the human heart and soul, and all of the concerns of the human heart and soul. But it does it in such a way that it isn’t about victimhood – it’s about transcending whatever the problem is and surviving. It just has a very pithy, no-nonsense, un-whitewashed way of presenting whatever the issue of the song is. They don’t pussyfoot around the subject. They tell it like it is.
And as a consequence, even though it had its original heyday in the early 1920’s, it continues to enjoy an ongoing resurgence and a proliferation of popularity. Here we are almost a hundred years after the blues were officially “invented”, and there are more blues clubs, more blues artists, more blues bands, more blues recordings, more blues record companies, and more blues festivals than there ever were in the 1920’s. That’s because it’s a very authentic form of expression.
It’s also very healing. By the time the song is over, both the listener and the performer have experienced a healing of some sort. Blues can address any issue – romance, finance, there’s comical blues, there’s very melancholy blues. But the thread through all of them is there’s a transcendence that takes place in the expressing of the blues. It’s not just a passing trend in music. And it informs a lot of our American music today. It’s kind of a magical thing, and I’m never not interested in the blues. You know, I was in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band over 50 years ago, and we were listening to old 78’s of all the original blues artists and so forth, and I consider that I know a lot about the early vintage blues, the artists and the people that originated this music, but I learn new things every day. It’s just an ongoing discovery and delight to me.
JM: I was listening some of the Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band music last night, and it seems like you guys were having a lot more fun than what you imagine most of the folk musicians at the time were. Is that an accurate assessment of what it was like in that band?
MM: Absolutely! First of all, jug band music, which is a synthesis of early ragtime, New Orleans jazz, and rural country blues – it emerged in the early 1920’s, and finally got recorded in the mid- and late-1920’s – it’s good time music. It’s known as good time music. There’s something kind of lighthearted and slightly goofy about it. The instrumentation – it was how the people in the rural South emulated the music they were hearing on the radio. They were hearing New Orleans jazz and ragtime, but not having the money often to buy a big expensive instrument like an upright bass, they would make the bass sounds by blowing into a jug, they would make a one string washtub bass. Instead of being able to afford a saxophone they would blow in to a kazoo or play what became known as the Mississippi saxophone, which is the harmonica. And instead of having a big expensive drumset, they would create the percussion by playing on washboards, rubbing washboards with metal thimbles on their fingers. And adding anything you could find in the kitchen or in the yard to be part of your jug band instrumentation and collection of instruments. They really had a lot of ingenuity when you stop and think about it.
And the songs… some of them are comical and novelty. There’s a lot of blues influence, of course. At the time there were a lot of these folk acts where everybody wore the same outfit, and there was a very serious presentation. We got up there and we were hipsters. We were in the vanguard of the stoner movement, that’s how I’m going to put it, and made no bones about it. So being kind of lighthearted and taking things lightly, and joking around, it was all unscripted and unrehearsed and very loose, and people loved that. So that became a part of our thing, and we did have a ball.
We had our 50th anniversary two years ago, in 2013. We got together and did some shows in California and on the East Coast, and even in Japan. You wouldn’t believe it but jug bands are very popular in Japan. As we speak, there are over a hundred working jug bands in Japan. In fact, the last gig of our week or ten days there was part of a big jug band festival, where we were the only American jug band and all of the rest were Japanese. It was really a hoot, lots of fun.
This is the kind of music, like blues, that just transcends momentary pop trends. There’s something very earthy and organic about the music that seems to resonate with people. So I, myself, got nostalgic for my early jug band roots about five years ago in 2009 – God, it’s getting on there. I put out a jug band album called Maria Muldaur and her Garden of Joy, which was nominated for a Grammy. It had my old jug bandmates from before the Kweskin jug band. I was in a band called The Even Dozen Jug Band. We were all young. We were all just barely starting college. Besides myself, some of the players were John Sebastian, David Grisman, to name a few. We were a goofy collection of people. We did one album. So I got John Sebastian and David Grisman and Dan Hicks, and there’s a whole new jug generation that are playing great music, and I hooked up with some of them. Together, we put our musical energies together and put out this album. I recorded it in my living room, and what do you know if it wasn’t nominated for a Grammy. It’s very gratifying to think that this music which originated so long ago, not only is still popular but is gaining new fans all the time. New fans and new players. And these young players that are coming up are phenomenal. They’re blowing my mind.
MM: Oh my God. Well, I found myself in L.A. after being, as we were discussing, in a couple of jug bands. Then when that jug band broke up my then-husband Geoff Muldaur and I moved to Woodstock, New York. We had been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was one of the hubs of the early folk scene. And we formed our own band with the fabulous electric guitar player named Amos Garrett, and one of our jug bandmates Bill Keith was playing pedal steel as well as the banjo that he played in the jug band, and a few other guys, actually the drummer from the Mothers of Invention, Billy Mundi. We made a couple of albums.
Then when our musical and personal relationship had run its course, I unexpectedly got the opportunity to go to L.A. and make my first solo album for Warner Brothers, which I wasn’t particularly looking to do. I wasn’t sitting around going, “Gee, I wish I could ditch this band and start my own career.” I was raising a young daughter, but the opportunity came up and I took it. I found myself in L.A. with the top of the line players, all of the first call triple-scale players of the day – Ry Cooder, Dr. John, Jim Keltner, you name it, just the best of the best, Ray Brown, to name but a few. I was doing an eclectic mix of stuff. Somebody who interviewed me or did an article on me a few years ago wrote that I singlehandedly invented the Americana genre several decades before anyone gave it a name. I thought, “That’s interesting, I wasn’t thinking about that.” But on my first album there’s a Dolly Parton song, there’s an old New Orleans blues “Don’t You Feel My Leg”, there’s a Jimmie Rodgers tune, there’s a couple of tunes by some contemporary songwriters like the McGarrigle singers and so forth.
One of the songs was written by a guitarist named David Nichtern that I had planned to do. It was a beautiful little country ballad called “I Never Did Sing You a Love Song”. So we recorded that, and he drove all the way out to California, he was so excited that someone was actually recording his song. He came out on his own dime in his little Toyota in hopes of getting to maybe at least play rhythm guitar on the track he had written. He did. And I was of course extremely overwhelmed by the whole process, and finding myself in the studio with all of these heavy hitters. I was totally just barely keeping up with the whole thing. But he was very supportive of me and encouraging.
So at the very last minute, the producer came into the studio one day – we had recorded just about everything – and he said, “You know what, listening to the tracks I think we’re in pretty good shape. We have some uptempo stuff, and we have some nice mellow ballads. If we just had one more medium tempo song I think we’d be in great shape. I think the album would be very well balanced.” David was standing there, and I thought of this goofy little song he had written that I wasn’t particularly crazy about, but it just popped into my head. I said, “David, what about that song ‘Midnight at the Oasis’. That’s kind of medium tempo, isn’t it?” And he said, “Yeah”. Lenny Waronker the producer said, “Oh really?” So David whipped out his guitar and started playing it, and I sang it. And it had a cool little percolating boogaloo beat. The producer wasn’t wild about it either, but he thought, “Yeah, that’ll fill the bill. You want to do that?” So I did it as a gesture of gratitude toward David, who had been so supportive of me.
We called on Amos Garrett, got him in the studio, got Freebo, this great bass player, in the studio, and this killer drummer Jim Gordon, who co-wrote “Layla” by the way with Eric Clapton. He put down the groove. And of course the rest of history. It was supposed to be a little filler on the album, and guess what? For some unexplainable reason that became the song everyone fell in love with. And to this day people want to hear that song. I can’t do any kind of performance, no matter what the theme of the performance is, without doing that song, which I’m happy to do. I’m not one of these spoiled rock stars who complains about having to sing their hits. So that’s the story of that song.
A drummer that was playing with us a couple of years ago said, “You know Maria, you’re the first person to ever record a hip hop beat.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “No, if you listen to the drum groove on ‘Midnight’…” I thought he was crazy, because to me that song doesn’t sound anything like hip hop. Not that I claim to be an expert on hip hop, because I’m not. So I said, “OK, prove it to me, because I think you’re crazy.” So he brought in a few hip hp CDs and played them for me, and then played my old version of “Midnight at the Oasis”, and damn if he wasn’t right! That little drum pattern is a hip hop pattern. Of course, Jim Gordon just made it up on the spot, but that’s how these things happen. And that was nominated for several Grammys. I think it was nominated for Best Song, Best Production. I’m not quite sure, but it garnered several Grammy nominations that year [JM: It was nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year].
JM: Do you get people coming up to you after shows and telling you their romance stories associated with that song?
MM: Oh my God! If I had been paying better attention and whipping out my notebook or a little recorder and recorded all of the stories that people told me over the years about what they were doing to that song, and what that song inspired, I could’ve published quite the little X-rated book by now. Some of the stories almost make me blush. And they listened to “Don’t You Feel My Leg”, and they’re positive they conceived their children to those songs. What can I say? I just say, “Well, glad I could be of help.”
I’ve been nominated for a Grammy six times, three in the last dozen years or so, and I haven’t won yet, although I’m not giving up hope. But I have to say that hearing these stories of how my music has intersected into people’s lives and affected them, it is way more gratifying than any Grammy or any other award I could win. And not just the sexy stories, but stories about how a particular song got them through a difficult time, or an illness, or the loss of a loved one. I don’t write any of these songs, but that’s what makes me know I guess I have a knack or a gift for choosing good songs that are uplifting to people. And that’s my main goal. It isn’t the fame or the fortune, which comes and goes. My main goal is to keep making music that uplifts people.
JM: The Grateful Dead is back in the news because they’re doing the reunion shows. And you were in that scene back in the Seventies.
MM: Yeah, I was in the Jerry Garcia Band, because John Kahn, one of the major loves of my life, played bass with Jerry Garcia, and was Jerry’s musical director and even producer on most of the Jerry Garcia albums that got recorded.
JM: What were some highlights from that time?
MM: [laughs] With the emphasis on the “high” of the highlights? [laughs] Making music with Jerry Garcia. The band we had was just beyond amazing. John Kahn was a wonderful, amazing, soulful bass player. And then we had Ron Tutt, Elvis’ drummer and musical director for years. They were the rhythm twins of that band. And then, of course, Jerry who is a very transcendental kind of musician. Then you had Keith Godchaux, who was quite a brilliant keyboard player. So musically it was very, very rewarding. The scene was a little challenging for me, but I hung in there. I have basically nothing but happy memories, and feel very privileged to have been part of that for several years. And to just be part of the creative process of recording and performing those songs with the Jerry Band, and also being part of the Grateful Dead family-at-large, which is sort of a cultural phenomenon in and of itself. I live up in Marin County, where they all live. There’s still connection there.
JM: I see your name popping up in the liner notes on a number of different albums. For example, last night I was listening to the first album by Mike Finnigan, and you had a duet with him. Of these many guest appearances and times you worked with other people, are there any that particularly stand out to you?
MM: Where I guested with them or they guested with me?
JM: Either way.
JM: Well, Mike Finnigan – I’m glad you brought up his name. He is just one of my favorite musicians of all time. I had the pleasure of meeting him right around the time I was about to tour behind my second or third album for Warner Brothers, so I’m going to say 1975 or 1976. He was in my touring band from way back then. What a band I had! I had Mike Finnigan on keyboards and vocals – we must definitely say that his vocals were featured prominently, Earl Palmer, the legendary drummer from New Orleans on drums, and Amos Garrett on guitar, and so forth and so on. That was a musical combo that I have very fond memories of.
Oh God, let’s see, besides Jerry… Working with Dr. John… over the years, because I kept on doing it even after I stopped recording for Warner Brothers. In the 1980’s we did an album together called Sweet and Slow, but we also did a lot of performing around the States and abroad, just him playing piano and me singing, and sometimes we’d sing together. I got kind of addicted to that funky, New Orleans, rolling piano playing sound that he had, and he taught me a lot about New Orleans music, and that’s what kind of led me to evolve into my Bluesiana sound. I kind of got addicted to it. So I would say him.
And of course singing a song called “Louisiana Love Call” written by a guy named Marty Grebb, who’s also a fine keyboard player by the way from that neck of the woods. I did that song with Aaron Neville. Singing with Aaron Neville for a singer is just like dying and going to heaven. It’s like an out of body experience. I also had the pleasure of singing “Amazing Grace” with him a cappella a few times, and that was wonderful.
I got to do a duet with Hoagy Carmichael on a song that he wrote called “Old Rocking Chair”. And my collaboration with Benny Carter and the All-Star Big Band – that’s how I came to work with Ray Brown and people like that. You know who Benny Carter is? Benny Carter is right up there with Duke Ellington in the pantheon of great American jazz artists and composers and arrangers. He played alto sax and trumpet, and was an extremely prolific composer of music. He was a contemporary of Duke Ellington, and he migrated to L.A. and was in L.A. when I started recording in the early Seventies. He did tons of movie scores. He was an older gentleman when I met him. Anyway, he put together this all-star big band which I recorded with for Warner Brothers on some of my subsequent albums. That was unbelievable. These are the cats that played with Duke Ellington, with Billie Holiday, etc. So that was certainly a highlight.
You know, singing with Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt. We were all contemporaries who hung out and palled around together, and encouraged and supported each other as we were fledgling songstresses back in the day.
And the list goes on and on. I’ve worked with James Booker, thanks to Dr. John when he couldn’t make some sessions and sent James Booker in his place. So I had the incredible thrill of having him record with me. And at a certain point, as a little footnote, when Keith Godchaux was no longer in the Jerry Garcia Band, they were able to track down James Booker thanks to the fact that he’d worked with me on some of my recordings, and there are actually tapes floating around of James Booker playing with the Garcia Band, which is quite amazing.
So the list goes on and on. I’ve just been so blessed. J.J. Cale, John Sebastian of course. Two of the original old blues queens that were contemporaries of Bessie Smith – Sippie Wallace and Victoria Spivey. I recorded and performed with Sippie Wallace, and Victoria Spivey very early on, when I was still living in New York City, took me under her wing and kind of mentored me in how to be a good performer and how to sing the blues. These are just a few highlights of my adventures in music.
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
MM: I would tell them that there’s great benefit in going back and schooling yourself on what the musicians before you did. I mean, everybody now wants to [says dramatically] express themselves, and there’s a lot of thrashing around of people trying to do that. So much of what songwriting is nowadays is what I call Dear Diary music. I just can’t even bear to listen to it. There’s a reason why shrinks get $200 an hour to listen to this stuff.
You know, everybody wants to be a star. The advice I would give is there’s great merit in going back and learning from the masters. If you want to be a blues player, if you want to be a jazz player, whatever your chosen instrument is. You may have some natural talent that you start out with, but you can deepen your sound and hone your skills by listening. It won’t mean that you won’t be an original, even if you try to copy them note for note. It’ll still come out through you, and you’ll still make it unique and make it your own. It’s much better to get onstage and play something informed by everything that went before. Even just very informally, not like you’re saying, “Now I’m going to do the licks of so-and-so.” It just deepens what you’re presenting.
Also, I would say if you’re doing because of pop stardom and the riches that go with it might be nice, you’re in for maybe an exciting but probably a pretty short ride. I mean, I myself have been doing this now officially 52 years, and still enjoy it. My heyday as a pop star is long gone – come and gone – but I’ve continued to find interesting things and projects to create and present, and continue to do interesting musical collaborations and so forth. Nothing I do is really a nostalgia act. I’m presenting new stuff all the time. And that’s because I’m doing it because I love it. The fame and glory and the high payday were not my goal at all. It was just to basically learn and immerse myself in all forms of American roots music. I think that if you’re doing it because it’s your passion, and you put that first before the big money part, I think you’ll have a very interesting and wonderful adventure.