Behind the lines

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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.

"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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