Don't Ever Play a Note You Don't Believe

Doug MacLeod's got nothin' but the blues

When the Weekly last tuned in to KLON-FM's Nothin' But the Blues a year ago, host Gary "The Wagman" Wagner was in a snit. Such a snit, in fact—complaining about how the public jazz station's directors had given short shrift to the blues—that he up and quit, turning the control panel over to veteran bluesman Doug MacLeod, who would now get to select the background music for all those middle-aged weekend SUV warriors and garage putterers.

Trepidation. Would all these blues loyalists who plug into the signal out of Long Beach State from across the country (Nothin' But the Blues sometimes claims the largest listenership of any public radio program) get shrifted, too?

Nothin' like that.

See, MacLeod defines himself as "the antithesis of automated radio." He joins Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King as musicians who've worked as DJs; in the studio, he likens himself to a chef who never serves three courses of the same fare, dropping in something unexpected like a sorbet to cleanse the auditory palate. His blues mentor was a long-lost musician named Ernest Banks, who lectured him, "Don't ever play a note you don't believe, and don't ever sing something you don't know about."

And so when he signs on at 2 p.m., MacLeod comes prepared to play the blues.

He plans only the first four songs, and then he sets up his playlist according to whatever moves him. He's in heaven, rocking and rolling in his chair, shoving this disc into a tray to test out a few bars, setting that old LP on a turntable for the same reason—all just minutes before it goes out on the air.

He's a musical multitasker, pouring himself coffee and answering the request line. He's old-school polite, always trying to oblige if the piece can be found in KLON's library. His voice has the sweet roughness of the honest blues singer—which he just happens to be. He seems steeped in Mississippi mud, but he moves quickly. He swivels over to a sheet of paper to write down the playlist—the artists and their legatees (many of the blues originals being deceased) have to be paid for the air time.

With the expertise of someone with nine richly performed CDs behind him (four electric and five acoustic), he gives me a tutorial in the difference between a dobro and a national, both guitars known for their tin resonators. (On a dobro, beloved of bluegrass pickers, the resonator sits on the guitar's face concavely. On the national, associated with blues players, it bulges slightly off the face. Or do I have that backward?) A 10th CD is due next month. He wrote every song he's recorded, except for one cover of Willie Dixon and one of Muddy Waters.

Improbably, he was born in New York City, grandson of Gaelic folksinger Malcolm MacLeod. His family moved shortly to St. Louis, where the teenaged Doug picked up a bass guitar to ingratiate himself with the black musicians who peopled the bars and dance floors of his youth. He moved on to guitars when he noticed that even ugly guys playing guitars attracted more women than bass players.

He also moved on to Europe, where, like many American bluesmen, he found audiences more receptive—and profitable. He was hosting a Eurojazz radio show when KLON came calling last year. With MacLeod firmly aboard, KLON now calls itself a "jazz and blues" station, and listeners notice a lot more blues coming out of their boxes after MacLeod signs off Saturdays and Sundays at 7 p.m. It seems to go on, mixed in with an array of eclectic sounds, well past midnight.

Like the hilariously earthy "If You See Kay" (say it out loud) by Memphis Slim. We agree that the double-entendres were more fun than the straight-out obscenity of gangsta. He tells me he did some session work for a gangsta artist who really was a gangster; he left the studio hoping the man liked his work. His son Jesse, he says, turned him on to "underground hip-hop," which he appreciates for its more positive thinking; he finds echoes in it of an old artist named R.L. Burnside.

Or maybe it's some gospel, typically on Sundays. That the blues carries a spiritual component is so obvious to MacLeod it's scarcely worth comment. It's not about wallowing in misery; it's about getting through. It's all-American tough-minded optimism. Maybe even pragmatist/pyschologist William James would have liked it.

We're off now on a conversation about "American roots" music: how white players would listen to their black counterparts to pick up basic phrasing, how blacks absorbed Scots-Irish "reels" played throughout Appalachia. MacLeod compares the evolution to the mating ritual of two snakes: weaving together, darting apart. Somewhere in the mid-20th century, he speculates, "society" insisted that country remain country and blues stay blues, never mind the obvious early similarity.

I challenge him to play something by Jimmie "The Blue Yodeler" Rodgers, the godfather of country who popularized some basic blues structures to white listeners back in the 1920s. He promises he will after he gets his audience re-educated. He believes that Americans have been "de-educated" about the blues, notwithstanding the blues boom of the 1990s.

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