Behind the lines

From reds to feds to blues

If you don't know what a "wet line" is, check out Samuell Boulevard between Sibley and Boone, the boundary that separates where liquor may and may not be sold. Of the 16 establishments that line this section of street, 12 are either liquor stores, beer stores, or bars. One of the latter is a cinder-block hut called T.D.'s Lounge, which--when Bob Kirkpatrick plays there--is a near-classic blues bar.

Not that Kirkpatrick's a stereotypical bluesman. Far from it. Assure yourself of this by checking out his South Oak Cliff house, which is a sprawling edifice far more palatial than most encountered in blues culture. Or examine his past: A folkloric bluesman would never have waved off a chance to tour with Bobby Bland in favor of familial obligations, or kept a 30-year job with the feds. Kirkpatrick has done both.

In 1996 he recorded Goin' Back To Texas (JSP), a CD that showcases his stentorian voice and B.B. King-style guitar work. As is typical for acts that sign with the U.K.-based JSP label, it was not long before he went overseas. When most bluesfolks say they've "toured Europe," it means they've played a bluesfest and a beer joint, and come home. But in October '97, Kirkpatrick was overseas for nearly a month, playing a passel of dates in the U.K. and Ireland and doing a short residency at the Maxwell Cafe in Paris.

Kirkpatrick had worked with several federal agencies and was with the Department of Agriculture when he retired in 1986. He'd been playing locally since the '60s, but had taken a break in order to enjoy some leisure time.

When T.D.'s opened in 1987 (originally on Spring and Lagow), it was the site of his first "comeback" appearance. Any blues fan who's had a bellyful of the child prodigies that were (and are) a trend in the genre might well feel he'd found the Grail upon encountering Kirkpatrick. When KNON volunteer deejay Don O (host of that station's weekly "Best of the Blues" broadcast) wandered into the Office Lounge on Gaston one night and heard him, he whipped out his cassette recorder and made a tape of the show to send to John Stedman (the "JS" in the JSP label). Under JSP's auspices, Kirkpatrick was soon in the studio. With members of his working band, he wrapped the 12 cuts of Goin' Back To Texas in a mere three hours, the album heralding his arrival in the blues world of the '90s.

Born in the boonies of Louisiana in 1934, Kirkpatrick learned guitar rudiments from musically inclined and religious family members. They played no blues--which they didn't regard with the mythic dread of some churchgoers--but they still felt the music ranked on the nether side of God's wont. There was none of the proverbial sneaking into juke joints for young Bob, however. His first paying engagements were school shows where he'd go and strum guitar for songs and dances by rural kids only a tad younger than himself.

He grew up early--not in Louisiana, but in Korea. Drafted in 1950, he was supposed to get nine weeks of basic training, but got only seven before he was shipped off to war. For a month he led a nine-man rifle team that blasted away at the Reds with World War II vintage M1 Garands.

Soldiers who toted the M1 remember its being heavy (nearly 10 lbs. unloaded), but Kirkpatrick missed its comforting heft when he got his next assignment: a recon unit whose mission was to sneak behind enemy lines, make on-site observations of activities, and bring back the poop for intelligence use. He was given classic weapons for such work--a piano-wire garrote and a bayonet. No guns.

"If we had guns and were fired upon, they said, they supposed we'd fire back," says Kirkpatrick. "That way we'd give away our positions and not be able to bring back the information we went over to get."

Few tasks of war are more perilous than the covert duty Kirkpatrick was charged with, but he made it through an incredible two years of them. When he was discharged in 1955, he understandably yearned for a quieter life and enrolled at Grambling College. Still, he figured it couldn't hurt to take a few club dates, so he bought a Gibson Les Paul Jr. and free-lanced in several bands, eventually hooking up with Ivory Joe Hunter, who lived in Monroe.

Dallas R&B luminary Ernie Johnson was a distant relative of Ivory Joe, and recalls youthful visits to the Monroe house where he saw Hunter with a "suitcase full of money." Lilting, moon-eyed love songs like "I Almost Lost My Mind," a million-seller for MGM in 1950, and 1954's classic "Since I Met You Baby," Atlantic's first pop hit, were his stock in trade.

"I loved to work with him, playing those songs, because they were so beautiful," Kirkpatrick says. Hunter is a credited R&B progenitor but has had little influence on modern artists. Kirkpatrick is a welcome exception: His compositions like "Every-ree Day" and "Old Friend of Mine" [both on Goin' Back to Texas] are plainly in the Ivory Joe mode.

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