Ben Stevens has just driven from his home in Lyons, Colorado, to Denver for a taste of his favorite pizza. It's a considerable effort, considering all the pizza joints he's passed on the way to Famous Pizza on South Broadway. "You can't get good pizza in Boulder," says Stevens, an Illinois native and ex-New Yorker whose youthful face is framed by tinted granny glasses and a soul patch. "This pizza is real. It's like a slice of home for me, man."
Hitting the highway for the things he craves is nothing new for Stevens, who is set to appear as part of Swallow Hill's "Roots of the Blues" series this weekend. In the past three months he's put almost 20,000 miles on his new traveling vehicle (a former Aurora cop car that sports numbers, a spotlight and a cage between the front and the back seats), and he's played in half a dozen states. He's also found himself in some noteworthy company along the way. At a show in Livingston, Montana, he found himself peering out over his National Steel at a guy famous for his own brand of roadwork: the Easy Rider himself, Peter Fonda. The actor invited Stevens out to his farm someday to pick with him.
Not bad for a local boy. "But it's not really accurate to call me a 'local' musician," says Stevens, an enthusiastic cat whose personality is more amplified than the instruments he plays, "because I make most of my money traveling all over the country. But people will not normally consider me a national act, and it's strange. I'm only 'local' because I have a P.O. box in Boulder."
To many music fans along the Front Range, Stevens's name is familiar from the days of the late Bleecker St., one of Colorado's more acclaimed blues-based acts of the past decade. Stevens started the group in 1990 with rub-board wizard Washboard Chaz; the duo's jug-band/retro-blues sound became popular across Colorado, then spread to much of the United States and parts of Europe. The group sold close to 10,000 copies of their two recordings (I Need a Gun and a Drink and Tumbling Down), the latter of which included a guest cameo from blues legend Taj Mahal.
But in 1996 the bandmembers called it quits after coming to the shared conclusion that they'd exhausted their musical possibilities. "It was one of those things where we both felt like our time had come," Stevens says over a slab of steaming sausage-and-cheese pizza. "I was looking for other stuff, and I think Chaz was, too. For me, I'd been a bandleader, a booking agent and a record-label guy for five years, and it got to the point where I was hardly playing guitar anymore except for when we were on the gigs."
During the past four years, Stevens has made up for lost time. In 1997 he released Reservation Blues, an impressive collection of warm acoustic blues and back-porch folk songs that echoes the gifts of Stevens's heroes, players like Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson and the Reverend Gary Davis. The late Charles Sawtelle (of Hot Rize fame) produced and played on the disc, which also features guest appearances by Tony Furtado, Richard "Earthquake" Anderson and Kenny Passarelli. It's a satisfying solo effort that features a wealth of smart Stevens originals, his relaxed singing and immaculate finger-picking.
It's also marked by a conscious sense of self on Stevens's part. Rather than trying to sound like some Delta-blues wannabe, Stevens comes across as an unabashedly blues-addicted white guy from the heartland. "Actually," Stevens says, "it's not deliberate, and that's why it sounds like me. And that's the whole thing. There is something about playing in real time rather than playing from your head. Playing from your head, it gets contrived and you try to sound like people. For me it's all about the journey, and the journey for me was, 'Wow, now I finally sound like myself.' That's a huge breakthrough, and now I don't have to worry about whether I can play or not anymore. Now I'm in a new square one; I'm moving ahead. I've never tried to package myself as somebody sounding like a black guy or somebody that's truly traditional."
Stevens's stance has made it tough for some to get a handle on just what it is he's doing. "The traditional corners don't know what to make of me," he says, and at the same time, "people that want to hire me over the phone are like, 'Blues? We don't do much blues.' They think it's all down-and-out or shuffles." To help remedy some of that confusion, two years ago Stevens adopted a new term for his music: world blues. "It was a mistake," he says. "World blues? What the hell is that? It sounded like some hippie-dippy Telluride label, so I just recently changed it back to 'folk blues' on my Web site and my promo. That's what I do. Hopefully I'm just Ben Stevens, and I'm playing 'Ben Stevens' music."
Lately, it doesn't appear to matter a whole lot just what Stevens calls it: People are digging his sound. Acoustic bluesman John Hammond certainly knows a thing or two about good dobro playing, and he's played with Stevens on a number of occasions. "Ben is a very good player," Hammond says, "and a real nice guy." The roster of other living legends with whom Stevens has played includes such heavies as Piedmont-style greats Cephas & Wiggins and revered Virginian picker John Jackson. This July, Stevens will be sharing a bill with these three-chord icons when he appears at the Centrum's Port Townsend Country Blues Festival in Port Townsend, Washington. The players will also be joining Stevens on the faculty of the festival's blues workshops. Stevens will teach a class on finger-picking.
"His inclusion here is based on his strong talent and total fascination with the music," says Warren Argo, the Country Blues Festival's program manager. "He's his own man -- he writes his own tunes and he's got his own ideas. But what makes him so interesting to us is the fact that he's taken so naturally to the older styles. He's also a process template," Argo adds. "Other people see him and see that you can be a brash young white kid from the city, in a modern time, and wind up with a deep appreciation and deep love for the old styles. And the love makes you authentic."
Gibson Guitars has joined the Stevens camp, too. The guitar maker has provided Stevens with a prototype acoustic guitar to use and test in his travels. According to Gibson product specialist Bill Gonder, who works at the company's acoustic guitar plant in Bozeman, Montana, the company has been working with Stevens for several years, in part because of his good vibes and his musical obsessions. "He became a favorite of the plant," Gonder says. "He shows up and just takes over the place. And we like it that way." Gonder says Stevens's zeal and mileage-heavy schedule made him a good choice for road-testing the company's line of small-bodied, blues-friendly acoustic instruments.
"They love what I'm doing because I'm out there and I'm playing this kind of music," Stevens says. Besides, he and Gibson are facing similar obstacles today. "What's going to entice a child to play an instrument if his hero is scratching a turntable?" Stevens asks. "That's what Gibson is up against, and in a way, that's what I'm up against."
Stevens says he's also facing a public with a very short attention span that seems unable to focus and savor even the most timeless forms of American music. It's a group that also seems content to get its music secondhand through the media, recordings and the Internet, he contends. "People aren't going out as much anymore," he adds. "I mean, look at the national climate. You've gotta get Bob Dylan and Paul Simon out together on tour because that's what it takes to draw the people out, that sandwiching of the acts." And when they do come out, their reasons are sometimes suspect. "I was at the Dylan show last month," he says, "and you could tell there's a lot of people that go to concerts now to be seen and to hang out rather than to tune in and listen."
To help hold his audience's attention, Stevens is culling through hours of on-the-road recordings and assembling the material into a live record. He'll print a small number of copies to sell on the road and give the recording away over his Web site (www.benstevens.com). "It's costing me just a few hundred dollars to produce, and I recorded it all myself," he says. "So I'm gonna put it up for free, and people can have the damn thing. It's like a bootleg tape; the idea is to get the music out. I say, 'Bootleg the hell out of my record.'"
Following the completion of his live giveaway album, Stevens will begin work on a new studio recording (which he'll sell), that he hopes to have out by the end of the year. Meanwhile, Stevens and his new wife, Isline, are about to open a side venture -- Jamaica Joe Mountain Choice Coffee -- to supplement his musician's earnings. The venture will set up on an organic farm in Longmont (the Pumpkin Ranch) and sell coffee grown in the hills near the famed Blue Mountain region of Isline's Jamaican homeland. ("Man, I got coffee that will blow your mind," Stevens says.)
In the meantime, Stevens plans to maintain his one-man campaign to keep the more obscure forms of the blues alive. His ex-squad-car wheels are helping in the war. "I was going 89 miles per hour through Montana the other day," he recalls, "and this cop coming from the other way just waves at me. And I tell you, road rage? It's a thing of the past for me. People drive up on my tail and see that cage, and they drop right back. And I'm getting 21 miles to the gallon in this thing, and it's got a Corvette engine. It's awesome, man, the best road car I've ever had."
"I'm looking forward to the new record and these great gigs I have this year," he says, "and reaching more and more people. People have told me, 'You play blues, but it feels so good.' And they tap their feet and they smile, and that's a good thing. We need more of that in this world." Stevens recently spent time between sets talking with a man in Montana who told him he hadn't spoken to a human for six months. He'd been grieving the death of his daughter by hiding away in the woods, and the sound of Stevens's blues drifting out from the bar led the man in for a beer and human conversation. In Nederland, Stevens says, a Midwesterner in search of earthy music told him, "I haven't heard good slide playing like yours for a while. Your music brought me home."
"Sometimes," Stevens concludes, "I feel like I'm a pioneer in the old West. I'm out here in my car with a bunch of antique instruments, driving all over the country, playing songs. I feel like I'm in this secret society, because I'm really doing it -- making a living playing this kind of music. And I can drive to Bozeman and fill a bar and get the people screaming and dancing and having a great time with just a guitar and sweat on my face. That's a successful night for me: I play some songs, sell a few CDs, make some friends."
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