The beautiful loser

Keith Ferguson keeps a loose grip on Fabulous past

On another day's visit, I drop by the porch with New York rock diva Phoebe Legere. She straps on her "squeezey-gut" accordion, about to launch into "La Vie En Rose." Ferguson lies on the hammock. Sweet Liz Henry, who organized his house, is slumbering on the couch. Others lie across the porch in various zones of consciousness.

Il ne parle tous bas
Je vois la vie en rose
Ferguson opens one eye. Then the next.
"Oh, I like your smile," Phoebe says.
"Cost me 200 bucks," Ferguson answers.

At the very last note of the waltz, absolutely on cue, the transformer near the top of a tree that intersects the roof begins to explode. Showers of sparks rain down on the porch. Hippies scurry from all points into the front door.

Liz and Keith offer permanent residence to Ms. Legere. Some other fellow eyes the squeezey-gut, perhaps wondering how much it might fetch downtown at Rockinghorse Pawn.

Ethnic musicians have a tendency to serenade Keith Ferguson, if only to watch his spectacular, gold-toothed smile. When the Tail Gators toured with Los Lobos, there was the unforgettable image of Los Lobos circled 'round Ferguson's hotel mattress one evening to awaken him for the stage. Each had their conjunto instruments--the bajo sexto, the guitarron--like mariachis harmonizing in Ferguson's beloved Spanish.

It has been a few years since Ferguson sojourned to the guitar-making town of Paracho, in the pine-forest mountains of Michoacán.

"I never had any trouble with Mexican customs. But America's convinced everyone's bringin' back tons of dope. Don't ever say you have a plane to catch. Believe me. You might as well just arrest yourself," says Ferguson, offering one more reason he now shuns touring. "When I came back on Christmas through Houston, I brought a custom-built bass. They took me in the little room in handcuffs, just hopin' I had a plane to catch, which I did, then went through all my stuff and got smart with me. They were dyin' to incarcerate someone on Christmas Eve, but they couldn't find anything."

These days Ferguson prefers watching the Mexican soap opera Calienas De Magura (Chains of Bitterness), starring Daniella Castro, five days a week. It's set in San Miguel de Allende, his favorite town.

Ferguson formed the Tail Gators with Don Leady in 1984. The next five years would be his favorite stretch in a band. He co-wrote "Mumbo Jumbo," the title track to the group's best album. He says now he loved every minute of being in that band: making more money than he ever had in his career, and being able to trust his bandmates when it came time to split the take.

"You could trust everybody, [and] you got your money--a lot of it," he says now. "Don was always writin' new songs. He'd play it for us once, then we'd cut it. That's the way we did records. We worked our asses off, the physical labor of playing all night onstage. I'd be happily replete--drained--each night. Then 700 miles to the next gig. We never had a roadie. But after a while Don fixed it to where I carried a bass, Mud Cat [Smith] carried a snare and symbols, Don carried a guitar, and the clubs would furnish everything else. We'd fly to Boston, rent a car, and drive to Maine. I didn't have to pay any other creatures."

Yet, Ferguson says, he receives no royalties, "not enough to get cigarettes," from his acclaimed albums. "I got a big check the other day--three dollars and 22 cents--from BMI. Then I got a letter from [Nashville publisher] Bug Music sayin' I owed them money. It's surprising how niggardly everyone connected with the music business becomes over money. People tell you you're important, but apparently not important enough to give you money you've earned."

And then, Ferguson feels the weight of banishment from the entire Antone's blues community. Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's old guitarist, once asked Ferguson to back him on a record that was supposed to be released by Clifford Antone's blues label. Ferguson insists Antone won't release the record because Keith is on it.

"[Clifford] just hates me," Ferguson says. "He told somebody once he can't meet a girl anywhere that doesn't like me, and it pisses him off. He redid that book, Picture of the Blues, just to get me off the cover. Me and Kim and Jimmie and Muddy Waters. They redid the cover just to get me off of it. They couldn't get me out of it, just off of it."

"Keith is a real musicologist," Clifford Antone says. "What made us friends was his love for the most lowdown music that existed." But Antone denies that the Sumlin record remains unreleased because of Ferguson, he denies omitting Ferguson's mug from the book cover, and will discuss nothing on record about their bitter relationship.

So all Ferguson's got now is this woodsy refuge surrounding his old front porch. His reclusive mother has her own home on the grounds, as did his grandmother, who recently passed on in her mid-90s. No matter how much his profession shuns him, Ferguson remains patriotic about the land. He loves the hawks flying overhead, the snakes that fetch rats, the ecosystem.

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