Sole man

Chico cobbler closing in on 20 years as host of KZFR’s Blues Bayou

Preston Powers talks pre-war blues in his downtown shop, Preston’s Shoe Repair.

Preston Powers talks pre-war blues in his downtown shop, Preston’s Shoe Repair.

Photo By Ken Smith

On the air:
Blues Bayou, Mondays, 7:30-10 p.m., KZFR, 90.1 FM.

Preston Powers is the living definition of a man out of time.

“I like Negro League Baseball, pre-war blues and I’m a goddamn cobbler,” Powers says with a loud laugh from behind the counter of Preston’s Shoe Repair, a crowded storefront on East Third Street that, like its owner, harks back to another era.

Packed with antiquated equipment rarely seen in this age of canvas and Velcro and reeking of rich leather and oil, Powers’ shop is as much his private parlor as it is a place of business. Before 9 a.m. the door is swinging off its hinges to allow no fewer than three buddies coming to shoot the breeze, a dog, a baby, a black delivery man who jovially refers to the white Powers as “Sole Man” and an octogenarian come to fetch her newly renovated footwear.

The blues, rather than boots, is arguably the biggest topic of conversation in this shoe shop. This July, Powers will celebrate his 20th year as host of Blues Bayou on community radio station KZFR, 90.1 FM.

“I wasn’t there when the station started but came on shortly after, back when we had to pre-record all the shows on an old Crown reel-to-reel. We rented a closet from someone who rented a larger space out at the airport.”

Blues Bayou isn’t a typical blues show. There’s no Stevie Ray Vaughan, no wailing, soulless solos and nothing you’d hear in the background of a Ford commercial: “I don’t really like any white-boy blues,” he says. “I’m not that hep to any contemporary artists. There’s really no African Americans making blues anymore.

“White people don’t have an original bone in our bodies. We persecuted these people, completely screwed them over, but our culture is just dripping with African-American artistry and culture. And of course we’ve never given them the credit they deserve. But white people, we’re pretty boring.”

Blues Bayou features only tunes from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, music that would be lost to memory 10 times over the last 90 years if not for the work of a handful of collectors and specialty-show hosts like Powers.

Powers’ passion is evident, and the simplest questions evolve into lengthy, thorough and fascinating explanations and anecdotes about guys with names like Philadelphia Jerry Ricks, Barbecue Bob, Blind Bake, Blind Willie McTell and a dozen other visually impaired gentleman. The music on the show all comes from his expansive and ever-growing collection, the commentary from his expansive and ever-growing knowledge of blues history.

“When I first started I’d just play the music. I knew some stuff about some of it and not much about a lot of it. Then about ’93 or ’94, I started reading books. A listener named Reynold, from Paradise, came into the shop with a stack of records and a copy of Paul Oliver’s Story of the Blues.

“It became like baseball to me. I mean, I can’t remember to take out the trash, but I can tell you what Roberto Clemente hit in 1960. With this blues stuff, I just read and absorbed it all, I couldn’t stop, it grabbed me by the nuts and hasn’t let go.”

Powers recommends reading the same book and listening to a few artists—Charlie Patton, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith and compilations on the Yazoo label—as a good primer for a pre-war blues education.

For the first time, Powers’ Monday time slot will undergo a slight format change in the upcoming months, a change also affected by a longtime listener.

“There was this guy, John Froh, from Grimes, that came into this shop every day for 10 years and almost every day for a few years after that. He had an amazing collection of more than 10,000 CDs and records—blues, bluegrass, gospel, jazz, country and western, all kinds of music. He also had books and subscriptions to amazing old rare blues magazines from the ’60s.”

Froh passed away a few years ago, prompting Powers to contact his family, and work out a way to keep the collection alive, as well as pay tribute to his friend.

“I’m now basically the curator of the John Froh collection. I’ve been digitizing all the music and bringing a batch into the station every week, and eventually want to start a lending library. After the KZFR Spring Membership Drive, I’m going to start doing one Monday a month where I just play music from John’s collection and give him his props.”