Notice to patrons of Sweet P’s Barbecue and Soul House: Yes, Ted Drozdowski will play slide guitar with the bones from your plate of barbecue ribs, but clean the meat off of them first.
“Rib bones are totally acceptable, as long as the meat is all off,” Drozdowski told The Daily Times this week. “There shouldn’t be any meat left on them anyway. Barbecue is to a blues fan as ganja is to a Rastafarian.”
Playing slide guitar with a rib bone might seem odd, but Drozdowski — bandleader of Ted Drozdowski’s Scissormen — has played with far stranger items, including a giant jawbreaker, a stripper pole, a lit candle and a Razor Scooter. It all started when the editors of Blurt magazine, an online publication, sent him a list of items and defied him to play his signature style of slide guitar with each one.
He managed, and he still pulls out such novelty playing from time to time when he’s feeling particularly playful. But Drozdowski’s music is about so much more than gimmicks, and it has been since his upbringing in the industrial heart of Connecticut. Raised on a diet of rock and in love with the blues that influenced it, Drozdowski made a pilgrimage to Mississippi at the encouragement of a journalist friend, and there he discovered his calling.
He quickly worked his way into the crowd at a juke joint owned by blues legend Junior Kimbrough in Chulahoma, a place where guys like R.L. Burnside would perform and drink beer alongside any number of blues musicians who may never make headlines but whose talent makes them undiscovered gods. He struck up an acquaintance with both Kimbrough and Burnside, and not long after, when the two went up to perform in Drozdowski’s hometown of Boston, they looked him up and urged him to switch from psychedelic rock to the blues.
He threw himself into his blues education, switching from standard to open tuning on his guitar; learning to play with his fingers instead of a pick. Putting together Scissormen, he recorded a debut album (“Jinx Breakers”) that was produced by Billy Conway of Morphine, moved to Nashville, released an acoustic-based second album and kept traveling to Mississippi to learn from his old friends. He’s released two additional studio albums, was the subject of a DVD and has started work on the next record.
“I just finished recording a project I’ve wanted to do for years; I just had to get everything in place,” he said. “I finally had the finances, the players and a support system in Nashville, and I was able to make the album I’ve wanted to make for a half-decade. Part of it was looking for the right musicians, but I finally found them.”
The 11 new tracks, he said, also mark a maturity in his songwriting, as well as in the sound of his project. For years, he’s been rooted in the blues of the Mississippi Delta and the Hill Country, but with both his subject matter and his music, he’s expanded his horizons.
“I’m trying to up my game as a writer, and I think these songs are more multi-dimensional and more lived in,” he said. “This is more generalized than the last record, with more universally thematic stuff about survival and songs about my family. One song, ‘Black Lung Fever,’ is a true story about my grandfathers, who both died in coal mines before I was born. Then there’s a song about R.L. Burnside and the night he spent hanging out in our house once when I lived up north.
“This time, I applied more studio technique. Some of the tracks have seven or eight different guitar parts on them. There’s a lot of overdubbing and texturing, and I used as my model two Jimi Hendrix albums — ‘Axis: Bold As Love’ and ‘Electric Ladyland.’ They became guitar models for the record because Hendrix was so masterful at creating interesting guitar textures and lots of movement in the parts he played.
“I feel like I’m stepping a little bit away from a straight-up juke joint style presentation on this record,” he added. “I can present any style I want to with this band, which is exciting for me.”
Of course, once he gets into a place like Sweet P’s, all bets are off. With his wireless microphone and flamboyant performance style — strutting between tables, sometimes getting on top of them, wringing the neck of his guitar like an adulterous lover in the death grip of her jilted man — he knows when to get back to his blues basics and thrown down roadhouse style, just like he did all those years ago down in Chulahoma.
“Live, we’re just three guys, but for the most part, we’re still cranking it up,” he said. “These songs have sections I can expand for improvisation, and we push it out pretty often, because it’s a lot of fun. We just played a show in Nashville that was a tremendous amount of fun; probably the most I’ve had playing in eight or nine months. We blew the music in all kinds of directions and did some stuff that surprised me.
“I don’t think there’s a cap on it, which is great, but it’s time to really concentrate more on writing now. I’m in Nashville; the very best blues bands in Nashville right now, probably what unites them is the strength of songwriting. There’s a pretty high bar set, and you have to meet the bar or get crushed by it.”