Behind the lines

From reds to feds to blues

"He was a laid-back guy, and he paid me what I thought was pretty good money," remembers Kirkpatrick. "Only time I saw him get upset was if guys weren't playing his music right. That'd set him off in a hurry."

Kirkpatrick left Ivory Joe after two years to concentrate on his college courses, but he continued to play in other bands. Many are the nights he performed with a headache that he'd gotten from trying to study under the dome light of his car while a bandmate drove to a job. Finally the stress resulted in a neurological disorder so severe that doctors in a Shreveport hospital told him to lay off both school and music for a year.

To recuperate, Kirkpatrick came to Dallas, which his people regarded as less lively than rural Louisiana. As he healed, he hired on with the feds, initially in an office with the V.A. Hospital.

"In the early '60s I started playing with Charles Ginyard, a plumber who played upright bass and had a group going," says Kirkpatrick. "We did soup-to-nuts, but it was mostly blues. He wanted me to do the singing, and I was leaning deeply into B.B. King's style, with a little bit of T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins."

With Ginyard, Kirkpatrick played Allen & Johnnie's on the corner of Ervay and Grand, and Ruby's Grille on Lamar. One night Ginyard got tickets to a Bobby Bland show at the Empire Room on Hall Street, so he went and eventually engaged Bland in conversation. It happened that Bland had heard Kirkpatrick play at a musician's union gala and had a shocking offer to make. He would dump his longtime guitarist Wayne Bennett on the spot for Kirkpatrick, if Kirkpatrick would take the job.

"I knew Wayne; we'd been in the military together," says Kirkpatrick. "He was still as good a guitarist as I'd ever heard, but he was weakening. He had his habits, whatever, and was getting weak, so Bobby asked me if I'd go on the road with him. Well, my kids were young. The oldest was only 12, and I didn't want to leave 'em. Bobby said, 'I admire ya for that.' I didn't think it was a big decision; I mean, my family came first."

Kirkpatrick could stay in Dallas with his family and still get his musical jollies. He teamed with organist Clem Williams and gigged at the Elks Lodge on the corner of Atlanta and what's now MLK nearly every weekend for 16 years. They played the occasional Elks convention in Waco or Austin, but usually it was the hometown lodge, which was lucrative enough, considering how little travel and set-up time it involved, and stimulating enough because talented local guitarist "Nappy Chin" Evans often came by to sit in.

From 1970 to '73, Kirkpatrick's brother was on the board of directors of the Newport Folk Festival, so it was a given that Bob would play the fest those years. Each time, he was backed by the Muddy Waters band.

"Because of the festival, a scout, if you will, from Folkways asked me if I was interested in doing a blues album. I told them I was. Later I was in Baton Rouge working for the government, and Folkways made contact with me. They made a date for me to do the album in New York, flew me up, put a group with me, and flew me back. I don't think it added anything of significance to my career."

The LP was Feelin' The Blues, and it got scant attention except from a reviewer in Living Blues (then all of 15 issues old), who liked it. The reviewer also said he was surprised it came out on Folkways, and for good reason. The label had never been interested in music as citified as Kirkpatrick's. Maybe Folkways was trying to catch up with the times, but virtually no promotion was put behind the LP; save the vigilant LB wag, it received little notice.

Which didn't faze Kirkpatrick. He still had the Elks and the feds; and so it went, until the '90s.

That's when everyone even close to the front lines of the blues experience started sharing a certain feeling of urgency. For blues record companies, it was just business, as they discovered they could sell a new CD fairly briskly but an old one (made before, say, 1995) was dead, dead, dead. For fans and pundits, it became a race to tout the newest SRV clone for pushing the envelope and the newest out-of-tune delta wino for authenticity. They queued up as if for a podium to shout "support the music"--as if blues was some frail lily that, without our cosseting, would go away.

Kirkpatrick strides into this fray, even though he needs it about like he needed the Folkways LP and could wave it off with the same ease with which he declined Bobby Bland's job offer. It's not enemy territory, and he probably doesn't have a garrote and bayonet with him on this incursion. But watch Kirkpatrick closely, because if things in the '90s blues zone are not to his liking, he can slip behind front lines of his own, where satisfactions are many--and of his own devising.

Bob Kirkpatrick plays J&J's Blues Bar in Fort Worth on Friday, January 23, and the 8.0 Bar in Dallas on Saturday, January 24.

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