Rock, paper or …
Scissormen, a duo in which Boston music journalist Ted Drozdowski found Delta blues salvation
A corollary to that old saw “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” goes something like this: “Those who can, play music; those who can’t, write about it.”
But the stereotype of the music critic who wouldn’t know what to do with a guitar if his life depended upon it is just that—a stereotype. Many people who write about music also happen to be accomplished musicians.
And sometimes, the combination of a journalist’s scholarship and a musician’s appetite for novelty can take a person to some mighty strange places.
For Ted Drozdowski, a Boston-based writer, that place was a juke joint in Chulahoma, Miss., deep inside the Mississippi Delta.
Drozdowski had gotten to know the late Robert Palmer, a music critic at The New York Times whose field of expertise included rural and, specifically, Delta blues. Palmer had written a 1991 Robert Mugge-directed documentary film called Deep Blues on the subject, and Drozdowski was interviewing him for a piece he was writing. They bonded over a mutual love for John Coltrane and Sonny Sharrock. “We ended up hanging out for two-and-a-half hours that first time,” Drozdowski said.
Palmer introduced Drozdowski to Matthew Johnson, president of Fat Possum Records, then an up-and-coming gutbucket blues label. “Suddenly, I found myself in Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint one afternoon, just a couple of months later,” Drozdowski recalled. “It was about 2:30, and it looked like it had been going full-bore from the night before. There were these bare light bulbs, and a painting of Oprah Winfrey on the wall. And Junior was playing; the band was totally cranked up, literally rattling the walls. On the other side of the room, R.L. Burnside was sipping a beer in a lawn chair.
“They were just playing in this place that I couldn’t have imagined.”
Originally from Meriden, Conn., a factory town between Hartford and New Haven, Drozdowski started at his hometown paper, the Record-Journal. Then he moved to Boston, where he worked at Purchasing magazine, a trade journal that covered the industrial-equipment beat. (Drozdowski has written or still writes for a number of publications, including the Boston Phoenix, where he once was arts editor; The Boston Globe; and Tower Records’ Pulse magazine.)
In the mid-1980s, Drozdowski had been working at Musician magazine, then based outside of Boston, and he heard Stevie Ray Vaughan for the first time. “I was just so energized by his performance,” he said—“the fact that he improvised within that tradition, that he laid out so much energy and was so positive. He gave so much of himself to the audience, it was a great thrill to watch him. It got whatever dormant performance genes I had in me charged up, and I ended up joining a punk-rock band.”
That short-lived band, the Liggers, also included Drozdowski’s wife, Laurie Hoffma, a keyboard player. The duo went from there to form Vision Thing, a sextet that he described as “sonic-y alternative rock,” fronted by a woman singer. The band worked a triangle between Portland, Maine; suburban Washington, D.C.; and Cleveland for seven years and had a record deal with Boston indie label CherryDisc.
Once Vision Thing ended, Drozdowski took time off to learn how to sing and write music. Then he formed a duo called the Devil Gods with another guitarist. “We certainly had a cult of fans around Boston,” he said. “It was mostly male guitar nerds.” He also was in a five-piece improv band that included onetime-David Bowie fretless bassist Reeves Gabrels.
But it’s the duo Scissormen that features Drozdowski, on slide guitar, and a drummer. On Scissormen’s recent Jinx Breakers EP and forthcoming CD, Tarbox Ramblers drummer Rob Hulsman sat in, with Billy Conway of the late Boston trio Morphine doing the producing. On a current road trip, which brings Scissormen to two area venues, Jerome Deupree will play drums.
And the musical resonance of that Chulahoma juke joint will be permeating the duo’s music. “It was this loud, wild-ass, psychedelic music,” Drozdowski said, “fueled by tons of alcohol and all this great history—that somehow became embroiled in this hypnotic trance thing.”