If you haven’t seen heard Catfish Keith play, odds are good you haven’t seen anyone like him. The shorthand for what he plays is acoustic blues, but you’ll hear hokum, Caribbean and Hawaiian influences as well. He’s toured overseas 41 times, and is just back from 2 1/2 months in Denmark, Ireland, N. Ireland, and the UK. Tho he lives in Washington, Iowa, Keith just plays locally a few times a year, usually at the Mill. This Saturday night, for instance.
An astonishing virtuoso on guitar, he’s recorded 15 albums on his own Fish Tail Records label, the most recent being Honey Hole. Subject matter on this includes blues standbys like sex (Sweet Honey Hole, Best Jelly in the Neighborhood) and drugs (Weed Smoker’s Dream, Lotus Blossum).
Can you tell us a little about how you research the older styles you play?
Well, John, I’ve been in love with the real deep blues since I was a kid. I was always endlessly curious and have always been digging deep to discover more great music. A common thread in all of this is a heartfelt human quality, and a virtuosity that made one guitar sound like a whole band or orchestra. So I take all of these essential American music styles from the old days and make my own sound with them. It’s a sound that has a lot of twang to it, big string bends, chiming harmonics, and the full human spectrum of joy and sorrow, everything that being human is.
I get into early blues artists, with life-changing sounds, such as Son House and Charley Patton, and have learned as well from some of the greats that were still living from that era: I’ve studied and got to know Johnny Shines, Henry Townsend, Honeyboy Edwards and Jessie Mae Hemphill personally. They were friends and mentors. My musical grandparents, so to speak.
Then, my musical fathers and mothers, uncles and cousins include people like John Hammond, Dave Van Ronk, Paul Geremia, and some great musicians from around here like Greg Brown and Joe Price, Bo Ramsey, Pat Hazell, Robert One Man Johnson and Al Murphy. So it’s definitely a tradition handed down.
But I did forge my own thing out of all of this: Hawaiian, Caribbean, Hillbilly, Blues and Early Jazz. And the artists that I made my sounds from were giants: Lonnie Johnson, Django Reinhardt, Howlin’ Wolf, the Carter Family…it goes on.
But I’ve always dug deep, and continue to do so. It’s not something you hear on the radio or TV, I don’t even bother. I just keep finding these great old records, and keep learning big repertoires of great musicians, like Leadbelly and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Any of my songwriting is informed from that, to me it’s the same thing as playing the old songs, but in my own way, always.
You and your wife Penny Cahill make such an effective, efficient team. What are some of the roles she plays in your career?
Penny is my manager, sound engineer, she’s Pres. of Fish Tail Records, our record label. And she has endless curiousity as an archivist, loves to videotape, take photos and preserve magic great moments of our life and travels. We’ve sort of intuitively forged a career out of just my music for over 25 years now, and I love it that she enjoys it, sometimes even more than I do!
You used to describe your old dobro as a cross between a hubcap and a garbage can, then accidentaly dropped it in the ocean.
Yes, I did drop my old National in the ocean once. Didn’t help it. www.catfishkeith.com/neverdropyoursteelguitarintheocean.htm
Now you sell high end guitars. How did that come about?
I love great guitars. Ones that are brand new, inspired by vintage instruments. We now live in the peak of the golden age of the guitar, there are a bunch of wonderful luthiers and small manufacturers that make the best guitars you will ever play. So my selling guitars came about as a natural extension of loving this music. When someone gets a new National or Flammang or New Era or Bown or Fraulini through me, I get a vicarious thrill from it, as if it were my new guitar; I love that “angels singing” moment when they open the case for the first time! It just goes right along with playing and teaching and touring and recording. I love it.
Catfish’s YouTube page is full of great performances, and five of his albums are available from the Local Music Project. There’s nothing like hearing an elite player live tho, and Saturday night’s your chance.