Electric blue

Looking at Jim Suhler, it's hard not to be reminded of renegades from high school: the stoners and gearheads had his long brown hair and aquiline nose, their slender frames no guarantee that they wouldn't slap the crap outta you if you crossed them.

In fact, Suhler pretty much was one of those guys, a local boy who grew up in Lakewood, then went to Hillcrest High, a skinny kid who was into "fast cars, chasing girls, playing my guitar, and rock 'n' roll," which back then meant Led Zep and Aerosmith, with ZZ Top and Johnny Winter thrown in for regional loyalty.

Accurately equipped down to the high-powered Z-28 Camaro, Suhler lived the archetype that Sean Penn would later draw on for his Fast Times at Ridgemont High character Spicoli, at least for awhile. "It was the usual suburban stuff; there was a year or two where I was really into getting wasted," he recalls. "I snapped out of it." Part of his wake-up call involved the Z pretzeled around a telephone pole. "You should never take Quaaludes and drink tequila," he now advises.

Returning to an earlier flirtation with music, he soon found himself in local bar bands and working a series of McJobs that never seemed to end right: "I'd always get fired because I was a daydreamer, and I'd end up screwing up the job or something."

Suhler knew he wanted to be a musician. There were a few detours--like the band that, frighteningly, wouldn't let him quit--but he kept at it, finally landing in a band called the Overlords in the mid-'80s, a "hard-rock band with kind of a punky attitude," he explains. "Not very salable at the time." With the Overlords he played now-hallowed names like the Nairobi Room and the old Bronco Bowl. They weren't that hallowed--or that profitable--at the time, though, and the Overlords just sort of fizzled out, along with Suhler's youthful first marriage. Like so many before him, Suhler found himself at a crossroads.

"I figured, 'What do I really want to do?' and I decided that I wanted to try and play the blues. I mean, I tried to approximate it, because...(it) wasn't like I was from the Mississippi delta."

But he had an in. "I do have family (there), though, so I went over there and looked up this blues musician named James "Son" Thomas in Leland, Mississippi, near where I was staying. I went over to the neighborhood and asked around." Suhler found Son Thomas in a shotgun shack, authentic down to the newspaper lining the walls. "He was really gracious; he let me come in and we played together. It was really special."

Suhler came back from Mississippi revitalized and put together the Roadhogs, a band that featured a Hispanic harp player, Memo Gonzales, quite literally a heavy cat. "He was like...this 300-pound Mexican guy, writhing on the floor and playing the harp. We were trying to do straightforward blues, but it was pretty much a comedy act, too, a shtick...more of a T-Birds thing."

The Roadhogs expired, too, but it was Suhler's first time to run a band, and he learned a lot. Throughout the late '80s--when acts like Three on a Hill and Rhett Miller were all the rage--Suhler and his new group, the Homewreckers, continued to play the blues, selling homemade music off the bandstand and exploring the darker parts of Local Band Hell, like firing Amy Robins, the female vocalist to whom Suhler was married. "(That) was, intense," he recalls.

The band did manage to get out of town, though, and it was in a Memphis club called Huey's that Suhler got his first break. Lonesome George Thorogood was in the audience, although he was anything but lonely.

"He was at the back table, smoking a cigar and eating nachos with his entourage," Suhler says. "He was real nice, and he commented on a song that I'd done in the middle of the set, so I knew he was really listening. By the end of the night, he was up front. After the set he said, 'You know, Terry would love you guys,' so I made a mental note." (Über-producer Terry Manning has worked with ZZ Top, Johnny Winter, and Led Zeppelin.)

When the Homewreckers followed Suhler's other bands into the dustbin, Suhler--armed with a high-school chum's promise of funding--sent Manning a tape, hoping the producer would engineer it; Manning eventually agreed. In April of 1992, Suhler and Manning went into Memphis' Studio Six to make an album with Dallas musicians Paul Miles (drums) and Carlton Powell (bass), the same lineup that's been with Suhler ever since as Monkey Beat.

In fact, the threesome originally was simply Monkey Beat, a band with an album but no label. That album, Radio Mojo, was "a lot of stuff I'd been writing for and playing in bars, just trying to mix things up so people would dance: fast Chuck Berry-style things, a Bo Diddley beat, (then) some delta and B.B. King-style blues."  

A few months later, Manning--who'd promised to help the band shop a label--called back. He was starting his own label, to be distributed by Rounder, and he wanted Jim Suhler and Monkey Beat to sign on. The band did, for three albums. Suhler also signed a management deal with "Irish" Mike Donahue, Thorogood's manager, and in January of '93 Radio Mojo came out and the band went on the road with Thorogood.

Thorogood was a tremendous help. Perhaps he was repaying a karmic debt: When he first burst onto the scene in the late '70s, he was just a kid with a serious love of the blues, counting out his songs on risers a foot higher than the dance floor and dressed like his college-age audience, indistinguishable except for his guitar. After touring with the Rolling Stones, however, Lonesome George was all show biz: snakeskin suits, big-time lights, and a sax player on a stage 10 feet above the folding chairs.

Thorogood would take Suhler and Monkey Beat with him to radio shows and in-stores, helping the fledgling band sell CDs and gain name recognition. He also taught the musicians to hit the ground running and to be aggressive, to "approach it like a prize fight," as Suhler explains. When the band went back into the studio to record its second album, Shake, Suhler's hard-rock roots surfaced, aided by the memories of his second, Homewreckers-vintage divorce. Manning homed in on Suhler's darker side.

"I felt fucked over personally, and I took all that energy and put it back into my songs." The songs on Shake are definitely not preservationists' blues. Rather, they take the blues as groundwork, dressing it up in black leather and Angus Young's twisted schoolboy outfits, revealing a rocker proud of the Marshall stacks that loom over his roots. "I'm not ashamed of that part of my past, and I don't deny it. It'd be phony for me to try, unlike a lot of these white guys in their baggy suits and berets; to me that's a Disneyland parody, a black-face minstrel thing."

"It's usually the white writers who specialize in the blues who are (so) judgmental about content and music and approach. I've played with this guy named Mose Vincent, from Memphis, a piano player, and he's probably 80, 90 years old, (and he's typical of) the older black musicians I've played with; they're not like that at all."

Suhler continues, warming to his subject. "There seems to be a sort of...paternal attitude that a lot of writers for magazines like Living Blues have, that you can't do that with their music, you know? If you take that mind set, Little Walter should've never played his harp into a microphone, because it wasn't like Sonny Boy Williamson. I mean, I'm not trying to rank myself with these people, I'm just saying that these things have to evolve."

Where does that leave someone who's evolving into the blues from a solid love of AC/DC and the Allman Brothers? Screwed, mostly, according to Suhler's view of the industry. "The labels hear it and think it's the blues. Blues magazines and blues clubs, or people on the intellectual circuit, think it's rock, so I'm cursed by both."

Literally. Let the Dogs Run, a 1994 duet with another local blues hero, Mike Morgan, was a credible-enough exercise in white-boy string-slinging that garnered participatory endorsements from state-level luminaries like Mike Buck, Doyle Bramhall, and Keith Ferguson; Living Blues eviscerated it.

"(The magazine) vocals, because out there you sing Muddy Waters, and (that's) just laughable. In hindsight, I think a lot of that criticism was valid." Suhler admits, blaming himself for going along with his management's advice of covers, covers, covers.

Despite his status as a local fave, Suhler's currently in a state of flux; his contract with "Irish" Mike Donahue has expired: "After our last tour with Thorogood, he said, 'I don't know what else I can do for you,'" Suhler reports, adding that he has explored other options without luck, disqualified perhaps by the current glut of beret-wearing posers and his less-than-academic, full-bore take on the music he loves.

And love it he does, with a no-bullshit sincerity: Suhler's duked it out with uppity patrons and less-than-serious band members alike, brawling both on stage and in front of it. "My bullshit threshold is very low in clubs," he avers, mentioning the stress of doing all his own bookings, leading a band, plus trying to provide for a daughter from his first marriage. "My life is just consumed by running up and down the highway, booking gigs, and rehearsing. When I'm not doing that, I'm just trying to rest; I haven't had a real break in six or seven years. If you take too long of a break, people just forget about you."  

Bearing that in mind, he's about to finish his contract with Terry Manning, going down to the Bahamas where he did Shake, at Chris Blackwell's Compass Point studio, which Manning now runs.

"I got to play Bob Marley's old acoustic guitar," Suhler enthuses, recalling Shake. "The room is great, and they [AC/DC] did Back in Black there. To me, Angus [Young] sounds like nothing more than a hyper blues guitarist--it's the emotion. There's a thread that runs through all of it to me, Charlie Patton to Robert Johnson to T-Bone [Walker], Freddie King to Stevie [Vaughan] to Angus. Some people may not see it, or like it, but I do."

And the new album? "I think we're going to have more fun with this one," Suhler says. "The last one was real dark. I think we may do more of a conceptual album (although later on he claims, "I hate using that word") with a lot more regional references...almost with a Rio Grande Mud/Tres Hombres feel to it. We haven't really done any preproduction on it, just short phone calls to talk about direction."

And what then? "I'm not going to worry about that. I'm going to do this record and tour and try to get something going. We'd like to jump to another label, (but) if nothing really happens, I wouldn't mind taking a short hiatus just to recharge and see what I want to do next--get some new inspiration."

Then, just for a minute, that old high-school head comes creeping back, and you think about that age's most common heroes: the pilot, the gunfighter, the movie star or musician. They're all different, but they are almost always the same: loners, just like that somebody in the garage way past dark, practicing the fingerings to "You Shook Me All Night Long" or adjusting the needle valves on the carb until it's just right.

"I'm not a 'meet and greet' kind of a guy," Suhler confesses. "I'm more withdrawn. Some people think I'm really weird, (but) anything I've done, at least I've done it on my own terms. I don't have to play any songs I don't want to play, and that's very gratifying, because I've done it the other way.

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