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Episode 2: The Beast Runs Free In
Red returns with the second of his occasional reports from the Southern
US. This time he's been hanging with local legend Max Russell...
Max’s Music at 3908 North Jackson Highway,
Sheffield Alabama, is not even a ten second drive from the infamous
3914 Jackson Highway Studio. It’s a typical small town music store, bars in
the windows, beat up brick building. I’ve spent a lot of time in
this building either visiting Max or getting drunk upstairs in an apartment
rented by a friend of mine, Kevin "Sledgehammer" Sledge.
You walk in the door and you find yourself in a small room cluttered
with vintage amps, guitars, mics, and pedals. To the right is a studio
tape machine that stands taller than me. The kind of thing a man my age
has no business remembering but would give a left nut to see in action.
The only place I remember seeing one is on the sleave of the Leon Russell
and Marc Benno record, Asylum Choir II.
About a year ago I bought a ‘63
Shure Bullet mic from Max. These things are almost completely unusable
but if you catch it on the right day and the amp is facing the right
way and the levels are set just right then it’s the most amazing
thing you’ve ever heard. Max’s Music is full of little gems
When you open the door a bell jingles, a few moments go by
and a tall bear of a man emerges from the back room where a work bench
sits with mounds of guitar accessories on it. When you catch Max at work
he’s usually dressed plainly in blue jeans and a black t-shirt.
His hair slicked back in a manner that in his more image conscious days
was probably a pompadour of some sort.
When you first meet Max he’s
extremely friendly in a gruff and expressionless sorta way, but when
you get to know him you find that’s
part of his charm. People all over town have all kinds of different memories
and opinions of Max, very few I’ve heard are bad and all them are
interesting. Bill Conflict, a local punk rock legend, remembers him being "the
first kid in town to have blue hair." My opinion of Max - a generous
and warm man in the body of one of the toughest sons of bitches since
that of Howlin’ Wolf.
Due to its location in the Shoals area, Max’s music has had many
visits from stars over the years. Max - "I have had a few big dogs come
in my shop that I know of and some I thought were and some that thought
they were. I met Peter Wolf of the J. Giels Band about 5 or 6 years ago,
he was in town recording with Little Milton. He was cool, bought an amp
from me. I showed him my metal body guitar and he asked if I knew Rollin’ and
Tumblin’, we jammed right
there on the work bench. He did the hambone and I played guitar. Jack
White came in, strange dude. And most all of the session players and
songwriters come to see me from time to time."
Max’s Music is full of character but there is more to Max Russell
than this amazing little store. He is also an outstanding bluesman. I
went to see Max perform at a local bar called Big Ed’s, A rather
new bar in a very old part of town. Everytime I’ve been there they
were passing out free jello shots, wich is not my favorite way of ingesting
liquor but I’m also not picky. The crowd this night was small but
enthusiastic, when the band broke into Dust My Broom several ladies of
different ages jumped up to dance, and dancin’ ladies of any age
are alright by me.
Max performed outstandingly with a vintage Gretsch,
at least I think it was, and a pencil thin tone that peirced straight
through the eardrum and straight to the heart. His voice is a bit odd
for a bluesman, rather than the typical makeshift Clapton sound, his
is more nasally, think Willie Nelson performing Night Life but gravellier
and bluesier. His second guitar player was a beautiful gal playing a
Fender Telecaster who tore up the blues riffs even though, from what
I hear, she comes from a more country music back ground.
I sat and had a couple of beers with Max that night and discussed several
things, from the crowd to punk rock, but I had already had too much to
drink and remember very little so I caught up with Max later and brought
a tape recorder this time...
You grew up on punk rock, what corelations did you see between
punk rock and blues that made a bridge for you to cross over?
Max: I guess the honesty of the music, the fudamental
things you need to learn about being in a band and that kinda thing,
and I like the agression that it has and a lot of blues has that agression
too, but its a bit different haha, but its there none the less. I don’t
know what the word I’m looking for is, just the tuth. Both are
What was the first blues song and/or artist that you
heard that really hit home and made you realise that the blues was gonna
be a big part of the rest of your life?
Max: Thats a little far back. I can’t remember the first one, but
I guess my favorite one would be somebody like Johnny Winter because
he kinda crossed over into the rock’n’roll, and then he came
back to his blues roots later on and if you listen to highway 61, that
kinda thing. They were rock’n’roll songs but because he rocked ‘em
up, but it was really blues. Then going back to the people that he listened
to and other blues musicians in general, listening to their heroes and
mentors, you start realising these guys litened to these old blues guys
from way back so you dig a little deeper and then you listen to their
heroes and then you wind up listening to Son House and Robert Johnson
and all the good stuff, but Johnny Winter has always been one of my favorite
Some of the earliest blues songs I remember was different
peices of things that my dad use to sing that his mother sang for him
growing up. One song in particular called Deep Elam Blues, an old, old
blues song, he always wanted me to find a copy of it and learn it. He
always called it Deep Fellam, he was kinda on the deaf side, and I finally
figured out what the song was and figured out what the song was about,
about this area in Texas called Deep Elam. Its where all the people went
to go to work back in the slave days. His mother and dad and everybody
were share-croppers so they shared the land with the slaves so it kinda
came through my family some what, a bit watered down though cause daddy
didn’t know all the words. He blew a little bit of harmonica and
I can remember all those. They weren’t called blues at the time
they were just called tear jerkers you know. Mama use to sing these old
tear jerkers and we’d sing a little bit of it, you know. The beat
was there and then, in the rock’n’roll stuff, there’s
a lot of blues there, you just gotta take the volume away.
You perform solo acoustic delta style as well as with a band with a more
jump chicago style.does one of these styles sit as a favorite and name
some of your heroes from both styles?
Max: As long as it boogies, as long as it jumps, as long as its got energy
whether its a slow or fast song. Muddy Waters is one of my big favorites.
Just anyone that can blow a harmonica and got a good shuffle drummer.
I like it. A lot of people, these purists, they go around, I won’t
name any names, but they kinda erk me some what you know. They call themselves
blues musicians and purists and all that stuff , but they’re standing
up there learning these songs out of a book and they don’t put
their own twist on it. Its not even a personal type of thing, they just
happen to play twelve bar songs and then they tell you the history of
the song. They’ve done all their homework but there’s nothing
there. It’s kinda paper thin, ya know. They’re making a lot
of money doing it though.
Tell us about your guitar sound, your amps and guitars and what
Max: For the acoustic stuff, my favorite is my metal body. Its an old
national made in 1929 that I bought in a flea market for a hundred and
fifty bucks. A couple million dollars probably wouldn’t get it
now. Thats my favorite guitar. Most of the old songs you listen to, they
got something similar to that type of guitar. They got kinda haunting
reverby echoe sounds that are kinda hard to explain. Sometimes it might
have been the room that they were in, but the metal bodies have a sound
that you can’t
get out of anything else. I use a couple of open tunings, G and D, that
give me a good percusive sound with my thumb.
I have a Martin for the
prettier songs but for the most part its my metal body. I got an old
harmony, i’m a guitar junky, thats like Big Joe Turners guitar
that he made a 9 string out of. I use an old Harmony Stratotone made
in the 50's. I use old tube amps with a good reverb. I got an old Gibson
stereo amp that I use to record some with, Fender amps and an overdrive
pedal. I play an old Telecaster made in 1966. Its a single pick up Esquire.
A good overdrive pedal cause most places won’t let you get loud
enough to use natural distortion. I like older instuments ‘cause
there’s something in the age of the wood that has to do with the
resonance and the feel. There’s something about the wood with the
finish worn off the neck that just gives you chills Its almost like rubbin’ on
What about your band, who are they and what do they do?
Richardson on upright and electric bass. Brandon Bingham, from Mississippi,
on drums. Jan Grant on guitar and vocals. Me on guitar and vocals. And
the occassional sit-in on keyboards.
You’re a country music fan as well and its
a part of your set. i see no difference between country and blues, so
who are a few of your heroes from that side of the tracks?
Max: George Jones right of the top. Buck owens. Lefty Frizzell. Waylon.
Essentially from it was rockabilly. It started getting into the sixties
and seventies and stuff that was pop and slicked up and basically the
cookie cutter stuff they put out of Nashville kinda like what they’re
doing now. really wasn’t that good. Anything that Chet Atkins produced
like. Some of it I did, like the Everly Brothers stuff he did and his
stuff I love, but the slicker stuff where he was...people like him I’ll
say, not just him...they were in control and they were pushing the Nashville
sound when they should’ve done it like Waylon and Johnny Cash and
told ‘em that this is how we do it and if you don’t like
we’ll go somewhere else. And they need to do that now, too, but
there ain’t no Johnny Cashes left, haha.
I’ve been listening to your album "Alabama Moon",
you have a song on there called "alabama moon" and you mention
alabama several times on the album. do you think that growing up in this
area has effected the way you’ve progressed musically?
Max: Its held me back, thats for sure. Hahahaha
The Shoals area, Yea HAHAHA
yea the Shoals Area, hahahaa
What i mean, though, is would it have been different
for you if you grew up in, say, london, or do you think you wouldÕve
progressed the same and that its something inside that makes you a bluesman
rather than where you're from?
Max: I think I probably would have progressed the same way cause its
in my bones. It’ll come out in your music if you grew up in a certain
area or you’ve been stifled, you’d probably have the tendency
to push it a little bit. It’d effect anybody, I think if I’d
have lived in London, I probably would’ve been one of the guys
that brought Blues back to the states like the Stones and all the other
guys. They actually searched out music like I have over the years. Just
suffering through having to listen to AM radio around here all my life
and not being able to listen to what I wanted to listen to. I still got
my first album I bought. It was Chet Atkins greatest hits and I bought
I so I could sneek a Grand Funk 45 in the house cause daddy wouldn’t
let me have it. The blues came on later.
I spend a lot of time on the internet for bands
doing anything vaguely similar to what it is that you and i do and i’ve
found a lot more people over seas playing this music than i find people
over here who even care about it. is this something you find to be true?
Max: Sure. I live in a hit recording capitol of the world. Its
a music mecca but there’s no place to hear any music, no entertainment value.
People in the area seem like they could care less about what’s
come out of the area and whats going on now. Being on the internet now
and checking out all the people in the world, there seems to be more
interest coming from anywhere else but the States. Especially the South.
I talked to a guy named James Harmon, a great harmonica player who’s
actually from Anniston, Alabama. Back in the mid 80's he came through
town and I saw his name on a billboard at a local club and thought, " I
can’t believe James Harmon is in town." He lives in Huntington
Beach right now, so I stopped in to see him. I was the only person in
A blues guy of that caliber comes to town and there’s
only one person in there. So I got aquainted with him a little bit and
he said that the South is terrible for a Blues musician, they don’t
treat ‘em like they should be, but you go up North they treat you
like a king. You go over sea’s and they really treat you good.
It seems like, when you get above the Mason Dixon, I don’t know
if its ‘cause they got less to do outdoors so they gotta spend
more time in doors ‘cause of the weather or whatever or they just
have more of a thirst for the music. Its weird, but thats the way it
It seems to be pretty hard all over for a Blues musician.
Its been a long time since the Blues showed its face on the billboard
top 200, but its now ugly head can always be found in the dark corners
of the honky tonks and dive bars that make up its small but loyal scene.
never again see a day when a Kokomo Arnold can walk outside of the shadows
of pop music, but with folks like Max Russell still stomping around,
we can hold our ugly heads high.
Check out more about Max on myspace:
Read our review of Max's CD 'Alabama Moon' here