For years locals have dreamed about a "Denver sound" that would help establish the Colorado musical universe in the minds of talent scouts and A&R types associated with the record industry. But even though the lack of such a sonic signature may be partly responsible for the low profiles of many worthy acts, the eclectic nature of the music community has allowed area artists to develop at their own pace without worrying about issues like conformity. And as demonstrated by the work of Denver-born Corey Harris, arguably the finest young blues musician in the country, anything can happen around here.
To elaborate: The two albums Harris has made for the Alligator imprint--1995's Between Midnight and Day and the just-released Fish Ain't Bitin'--have precious little in common with the kind of music you can hear in most Colorado nightspots. His blues is a deeply felt take on the styles that have echoed from the Mississippi Delta region throughout this century, and while his place of birth might cause doubters to call his authenticity into question, the discs themselves effectively quash any complaints. Give them a spin, and before long, you won't care about Harris's origins. You'll simply be glad he's around.
Now in his late twenties, Harris calls New Orleans home these days, but he spent the majority of his life in eastern Colorado. He was born at St. Joseph's Hospital and lived "near the Points," as he puts it, as an infant. His family was located in Greeley for a time, but between the ages of six and eighteen, he resided in Littleton, a part of the metro area not known for its melting-pot demographic. "I never felt like I belonged there, and a lot of the time I was made to feel that I didn't belong," concedes this graduate of Arapahoe High School. "But that's a given--that's often the truth of race relations in this country. And thankfully, I had my family. So really, it was good to be there."
So how on earth did a kid from Littleton get turned on to the Delta blues? It was easy, Harris insists. "I heard the blues at house parties and family gatherings from when I was little," he says. "The people I grew up around were all from the South. No one was from Denver; they all moved there for jobs. And wherever people move, they tend to carry what they were doing and what they liked with them.
"When you look at it that way, it really doesn't make much sense when people are surprised that I come from Denver. I mean, Jimi Hendrix came from Seattle. Taj Mahal came from Massachusetts. There's an old saying: The roots of a tree cast no shadow. Well, everyone has roots, and they come out in the creations that they make."
Harris's mother, a retired schoolteacher who for the most part raised Corey and his sister on her own, had wide-ranging musical tastes; among the records he grew up hearing were ones by Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderly, Paul Robeson and Otis Redding. But it was the blues that Harris gravitated toward--particularly the music of Lightnin' Hopkins, which he discovered when he was twelve. "He was the first guy who made me say, 'Man, this is it,'" Harris notes. "It was amazing the sounds that he could make all by himself. And what made it even better was that he was doing it in only two keys--and sometimes in one key. He really worked it. He didn't need to be technical about it; he just blew you away."
Despite this reaction, Harris took some time to commit himself to the blues. His first instrument was the trumpet, which he played during the years he spent at Isaac Newton Junior High. "I was in the marching band, and we were good--state champs," he boasts. "But I got tired of the trumpet, maybe because I didn't think it was as cool as the guitar. The guitar was the thing for me, so I switched." After mastering the rudiments of his latest ax, he formed a band he declines to name. "I guess you could call what we played pop," he allows, "but I really don't know what it was. It had a kind of rhythm, but it wasn't very good."
Still, this experience wasn't negative enough to make Harris turn away from music. After the group broke up, he continued to write his own songs and poetry even as he threw himself into other challenges. Following his graduation from Arapahoe High, he enrolled at Bates College in Maine, where he earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology. A grant subsequently paid his way to Cameroon, where he studied a form of pidgin language that contains elements of English, Portuguese and numerous African tongues. (In addition to that and English, Harris speaks four other languages.) His guitar accompanied him on his travels, and he remembers fondly the experience of playing alongside African musicians.
Such impromptu gigs helped Harris solidify in his mind the roots of the blues idiom. While he is intrigued by such arcana, he does his best to prevent his songs from seeming academic. He insists that he's a musician, not a musicologist. As he puts it, "I think blues is a feeling and a mystery--and to think that you can approach it, or the knowledge of it, through scholarship is silly. It's something you have to feel and know, which is why I've never really wanted to turn it into a scholarly type of pursuit the way some people do."
Upon his return to the U.S., Harris moved to Louisiana and took a job teaching French and English. But whenever he wasn't in school, he was on the streets, playing his music for passersby. Before long, he came to the attention of fellow musicians and blues lovers in the New Orleans area. Among these fans was producer/scholar Larry Hoffman, who produced a Harris session in 1994. The folks at the Chicago-based Alligator imprint subsequently decided to use the recordings as they were; they form the basis for Between Midnight and Day, which hit stores the following year.
In listening to the disc, you've got to give credit to Alligator for leaving well enough alone. With a few modest exceptions, such as the kazoo that's heard on a rendition of Blind Boy Fuller's "I'm a Rattlesnakin' Daddy," the tracks on Midnight feature nothing more than Harris's voice and guitar--but they don't want for anything else. Harris displays impeccable taste in material, drawing from the oeuvres of such classic bluesmen as Charlie Patton ("Pony Blues"), Sleepy John Estes ("Going to Brownsville" and "I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More") and Fred McDowell ("Write Me a Few Lines"). Moreover, his three originals--"Roots Woman," "Bound to Miss Me" and the title track--mark him as a tunesmith of great honesty and tremendous promise.
Appropriately, the CD earned Harris widespread acclaim and a 1996 W.C. Handy award as acoustic blues artist of the year. But these plaudits didn't stop him from making some changes on his next offering, Fish Ain't Bitin'. "It was one of my goals to showcase more of my original stuff," he confirms. "I had more original tunes that I could have put on my first album, but I really wanted to stick with the three that are on there and have the rest be covers. This time, though, I wanted to have more originals--and I feel like I've achieved something in doing it. It's a fuller picture of what I do live."
Indeed, the nine Harris-penned ditties on Fish are just as strong as his versions of two traditionals ("Frankie and Johnny" and "Jack O'Diamonds") and six covers associated with players such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Memphis Minnie. The title cut, for instance, finds Harris using traditional instrumentation to deal with a very contemporary topic.
"I wrote it thinking about what's happening to people in rural areas and how, even if you want to live off the land, sometimes you just can't anymore," he says. "I lived in Napoleonville, about an hour and a half from New Orleans, for a while, and I would go out to look at the nice river and trees--and all of a sudden, I'd see this layer of smog. You couldn't even see the factories that were making it; they were five miles away or more. But you could see the smog. That's the way it is all over Louisiana. The rivers between Baton Rouge and New Orleans are called 'Cancer Alley' because of the high concentration of cancer there, even for people who don't smoke. So that's what 'Fish Ain't Bitin'' means to me--there are all these fish, but you can't get to them. And even if you could, they might make you sick."
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Also new for Harris is the brass instrumentation that turns up on much of Fish, including "Fish Ain't Bitin'" and the boisterous opener, "High Fever Blues." The musical mix is a potent one that adds dimension to Harris's pieces without diminishing their emotional veracity. Just as important, he notes, "it was fun. Right now I'm still touring without a band, but maybe within the next year or two, I'll be able to afford to take some other musicians with me." Of course, some purists may object to Harris fiddling with his style. But the prospect of taking some heat, he says, "doesn't bother me at all."
Such obliviousness to criticism bodes well for Harris's future. Whereas some young bluesmen, including Keb' Mo', have fiddled with their sound for what might seem to be commercial reasons, Harris prefers to stick to his guns. "I like roots music," he says. "I don't really listen to the radio or to the people who are on the radio much. Hip-hop radio sometimes, and stations that play jazz and blues, but that's about it. So I can't really pretend to be something else just to get played on the radio. And I don't want to be perceived as someone who is putting on airs and hustling things just to make a little money.
"I'll put it this way: I want to make music that I'll be proud of. I never want to listen to anything I made and not like it. And so far, I've done okay."
Corey Haris. 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 19, Brendan's, 1624 Market Street, $4, 595-0609.