FROM HOMELESS AND BOOZE TO GLOWING REVIEWS A LEGEND ON THE STREETS OF DECATUR, GEORGIA, THE HARD-LUCK BLUES MUSICIAN FULFILLS A LIFELONG DREAM BY CAPTURING ‘LIGHTNIN’ IN A BOTTLE’ ON HIS RECORDING DEBUT FOR BACKSPACE RECORDS
Frequently Down But Never Out, The Self-Taught Singer and Guitarist Captures The Humor And Hurt Of An Authentic Blues Lifestyle That Includes Battling Drugs, Alcohol, Loss of Family and Homelessness
Guitar Red is the real deal, a “busker” who spends most mornings on E. Court Square, sometimes in front of the Brick Store Pub, whose management is kind to him, where he frequently plays for hours. On a good day, he goes to sleep with a pocketful of tips. But not every day is a good day. No matter. For Red, it’s all about authenticity, staying true to who he is.
That sort of integrity, not to mention a spirited roller coaster ride of humor and hurt, shines through on the 11 tracks of Lightnin’ In A Bottle, which he recorded live (with the exception of a guitar solo and clavinet piece) at Backspace Records studio in December 2007.
His titles chronicle his hard luck, down but not yet out life: “Box Car No. 9,” “Ain’t Got Nobody But Myself,” “Three Legged Dog Blues,” “Chain Gang Blues,” “Decatur Boy Blues,” “Song About A Jimi Hendrix Song” and “I Believe.”
In an article called “On The Road With Guitar Red,” a writer called The Blues Blogger says, “Red’s work is raw but refreshing at the same time. I really enjoy the vibe and groove that (he) creates…The selection of tunes shows off Guitar Red’s personality, allowing him to play through his hardship in a passionate, playful and witty manner.”
Graham Clarke of Blues Bytes adds, “Even though he’s lived a tough life (losing his family in the span of a decade, battling alcohol, drugs and homelessness), he has used his music as his means of expression and as a coping mechanism. He writes songs that mix humor and pathos in equal blends and is a fiery guitarist and passionate singer.”
Wrapping his rave critique with a flourish, Clarke boldly muses, “Wonder what it was like in the days when there was (a street musician) on nearly every street corner in these Southern towns? However it was, I’ll imagine not many of them could have held a candle to Guitar Red.”
But perhaps John Vermilyea from Blues Underground Network says it best when he writes, “From the opening track ‘Box Car No. 9’ to the closing track ‘Song About A Jimi Hendrix Song,’ Lightnin’ In A Bottle, thanks to Guitar Red’s streetwise savvy, delivers a true debut blues masterpiece.”
True to classic blues form, Guitar Red’s backstory is pretty simple. In 1975, the Walls family left Morristown, New Jersey for Atlanta with hopes of greener pastures. The outcome was dramatically different. Ten years later, Red’s parents and brothers and sisters were all dead, and he felt tired and overwhelmed with life. Drinking and drugs became his pacifier and he essentially gave up on himself. But he never gave up on music.
Backspace Records founder Ben Rowell was the rhythm guitarist for the popular Gainesville, Florida band Big Sky for over twelve years. When he decided to start a label, his first instinct was to develop pop/rock singer songwriters. That narrow notion quickly expanded when he first heard Guitar Red, who quickly overcame Rowell’s long held belief that there’s no such thing as a truly authentic blues player anymore.
“My buddy Dean asked me at dinner on my birthday last year if I’d consider recording a blues artist,” he says. “My inclination was the real deal doesn’t exist anymore. Dean said, ‘If that’s what you are looking for then you’ve gotta see Red.’ So that Sunday I peeled myself off the couch and drove to downtown Decatur to take a listen. Within the first thirty seconds I realized Red was more of the real thing than a bottle of Coke.
“His songs are fresh and traditional all at once,” he adds. “We sat down to chat and he told me about his hardships and life in general. Uber famous acts use (use being the most appropriate word) Guitar Red on their albums and unethically send him on his way with a bottle of Jack and fifty bucks. People listen to Red on the street and enjoy his music free of charge.Guitar Red is just happy playing his guitar. I knew Red was special, so we struck a deal (much in Red’s favor so he could put a roof over his head) and here we are.”
Red was so overwhelmed when Rowell offered to record him he began crying. “No one ever wanted to record my own songs before.” Before this, his professional experiences were decidedly a mixed blessing. According to Red, over the past few decades he cranked out studio work for a long list of well known artists and was a member of the funk, hip hop and blues band The Positive Force. Many of those associations were predatory, according to Red who said artists would use him for his guitar work and “pay” him with a bottle of liquor. “It really hurts me when somebody takes my music, it’s like stealing a part of a person.”
Still, he’s optimistic about the future and excited that people beyond the streets of Decatur will be hearing him thanks to the official release of Lightnin’ In A Bottle. “One day,” he says, “I woke up and realized it wasn’t so bad being Guitar Red after all. When you find yourself it is the greatest gift. You just know where you are going.”
As with their other releases, a portion of the label’s profits from Lightnin’ in a Bottle will go towards organ donor organizations. All of Backspace’s recordings are dedicated to the memory of Mack Lindsey, their friend, business partner and heart transplant recipient.