Catfish Keith is an international, blues music hero. The knowledgeable English musicologist society, the British Blues Connection, have selected the singer, songwriter and slide guitarist as the Best Overseas Artist. His first four discs have all charted at number one on independent radio stations around the globe. Keith is not only touring the United Kingdom and Europe this fall, he's also performing at the Hong Kong Folk Fest and the Kuala Lumpur Folk Fest in Malaysia. In America he's been nominated for the W. C. Handy Award for Best Acoustic Blues album for a second time. He recently returned from playing Alaska. And he lives here in Iowa City.
Seeing the world is one of the best benefits of being a musician, Keith explained in a recent interview. One also gets to hear world music firsthand. He expressed great admiration for Irish musicians and Island songs. Catfish Keith picked up his moniker while working on a sailboat crew down in the Caribbean. "When I was a teenager I was lobster diving in the Virgin Islands, and this West Indian fellow started calling me 'Catfish-Swimmin'-Around' and 'Catfish-Steel-Guitar-Man.' I think he was making fun of me." He now takes pride in his Piscean name. He mentioned that some of his fans in Alaska had given themselves fish titles, such as Pikeface Pete and Walleye Willie, in advance of his visit. He jokingly noted there are lots of animals in the blues universe. Of all the places he's been, he considers Iowa City the best place to call home.
"I like Iowa City. That's why I live here," Keith said with a gentle smile. He met his wife Penny Cahill at an Iowa City show, and has called Iowa City home for almost nine years. Together they started their own label, Fish Tail Records, in 1990. Fish Tail handles all aspects of Keith's career from bookings and management to production, promotion, and distribution of his discs. "Having our own label lets us follow our artistic vision;" Keith said. Other record companies have expressed interest in his work, but he's afraid they might try to influence his music in ways in which he's uncomfortable. Besides, he likes working together with his spouse. Now the cumulative value of all the effort they've put in is paying off. Keith's career has made steady improvement, and his future promises to be even brighter.
Before Keith takes off on national and international tours, he'll be playing a number of local venues, including The Mill on April 14th. "I played some of my first gigs in Iowa City," Keith reminisced. "Iowa City was about the hippest place you could find in Iowa, meaning they had two or three places where you could actually play. One of my first gigs was at The Mill." He looks forward to being on the Iowa Grandstand at the Iowa Arts festival on June 22. Greg Brown, Bo Ramsey, Craig Erickson and other premier local talent will join him on the fetival's bill. These Iowa musicians also have their roots in the blues.
"Here in Iowa there's all kinds of different roots music, old time country and jazz, that can be tied to the blues," Keith said. He noted that playing the blues doesn't always mean the same thing as having the blues.
"Iowa's a good place to live. We're friendly." Keith spent most of his formative years growing up in Davenport. "My first gig was at the Saint Anthony's Church at Hippie Mass. Folk Mass they called it. Instead of having part of the service with an organ or just standing there with a hymnal, we'd take out guitars. I could barely play chords, but they put me in that church band. It was my first performance in front of people." He discovered country blues on his own "from dusty records at the local library."
Keith's early influences include Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Lightnin' Hopkins and Son House. "The Son House record was kind of a turning point in my life. I don't know why, but I was about 14 or 15 years old when I put it on, and it knocked me back in my chair. What amazed me most about the music was that one person could make all the sounds. When I first heard the blues I thought it was two or three guitar players at the same time, so when I discovered it was one person making all that noise I said, that's great." Later, Keith heard the recordings of legendary Davenport jazz cornet player from the'20's, Bix Beiberbecke.. Beiderbecke, along with Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden, has had a strong influence on certain aspects of Keith's work.
Keith still loves Country blues and early jazz, as well as Delta blues, Piedmont blues, ragtime, gospel, syncopated island rhythms and everything from the Mali African stylings of Ali Farka Toure to old-time American folk music. He uses a piece of a wine bottle for his slide and plays a 1930 National Steel-bodied resonator guitar and a 1993 Tony Revell Ragtime Model Guitar on his latest disc, Fresh Catfish. The disc includes covers of Bahamian Joseph Spence's lively "Happy All The Time," Barbecue Bob's "You May Think Funny," Lonnie Johnson's "Uncle Ned, Don't Lose Your Head" (originally an answer song to Louis Armstrong's "I'll be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You") and a number of original tunes purposely reminiscent of such blues greats as Blind Blake, Big Bill and Junior Parker. The disc was recorded on an old-fashioned two-track recorder ar former Chess Records engineer Jamie Goldsmith's OM Sudios in Boscobel, Wis. Most of the disc was recorded informally in goldsmith's living room.
There's a common ecological motto found on bumper stickers and T-shirts that says, "Think Globally, Act Locally." It means that if one wants to clean up the world, the best place to start is at home. Keith has extended this program one step further. He not only acts locally, he takes this program one step further. He not only acts locally, he takes his act across the globe. He makes the whole world his home through his music.
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