It makes perfect sense that Robert Belfour is playing this weekend's Blues & Bones Festival in Denver. Belfour plays exceptional acoustic blues, meat-on-the-bones stuff that smolders in the spirit of blues greats from the '30s and '40s. He's also no stranger to the joys of a slab of ribs blessed with a few hours of hickory smoke. "I love to cook outside -- I do a lot of that myself around the house. I get my barbecue sauce and ketchup and everything else, and I mix it all up with a whole lot of stuff. I put beer and vinegar in it, then I cook it up," Belfour says from his home in Memphis, before detailing his methods for making his personal blend of sauce. "You've got to know how to do it right," he notes. "My sauce, it ain't too sweet and it ain't too bitter."
The same could be said of Belfour's music. At sixty, he plays stripped-bare acoustic blues with a haunting feel, enhanced by John Lee Hooker-style riffs and guitar work that is somehow both complex and primitive. It features a ghostly weariness that's anything but sweet, capable of sending chills across the skin. By Belfour's own description, the music is a blend of things sewn together with what seems like little thought; the results, however, are always compelling and sometimes even highbrow.
"It's got a deep feeling to it and a deep blues sound to it," Belfour says of his music. "I feel what I do. Most people that hear what I do, the way they explain it is it makes them think back on things. They say they love it." His lyrics are "just part of my life. I'll think of something and the way I came up, and then I'll think of a word that matches it. You know, things come across your mind in your late years, or you hear somebody say something, and you can make a song from it. Then another word will add to that word. But it is a concentration thing, any kind of way you write."
Belfour's remarkable gifts are concentrated nicely on his current disc, What's Wrong With You, on the Fat Possum label. The disc's opening track, "My Baby's Gone," is a galloping, incessant shuffle that frames Belfour's down-home concerns about a lost woman. "Black Mattie" is a night-howl lament highlighted by a droning bottom end, Belfour's lonesome moan, and steel-string barbs that punctuate the whole affair. The title track is another ghostly blues song, a numbing creeper about more chilling loss. Like most of the grizzled, ragged blues on Fat Possum, the disc is visceral, unplugged music, a perfect antidote to the soulless, lite fare being proffered by many major blues labels today. Belfour is raw and real. His is the sound of a full-grown man with a fully grown understanding of woe.
The disc's unadorned, caveman quality owes something to the bare-naked recording methods employed by producers (and Fat Possum owners) Mathew Johnson and Bruce Watson. But the bulk of the blood-under-the-nails quality comes from Belfour himself, a proud self-taught musician. He took up the guitar in his early teens, copping licks from blues songs he heard on his radio. And while most kids his age were running with groups of fellow youngsters, he kept to himself. "I never did hang with a bunch of boys," Belfour says. "There's always somebody gettin' into something, and you wind up in more trouble than the one that did it. Coming up as a kid, I stayed by myself; that's the way I was raised. I'm still that way."
Belfour did take the time to hang with a few local guitarists, notably the late Junior Kimbrough, who lived near Belfour's Mississippi home. (Kimbrough would also become a Fat Possum artist, releasing a few recordings on the label before passing away a couple of years ago.) For Belfour, music was a more a form of recreation than a job; he played private parties and social events for pleasure -- and little or no dough. ("Sometimes they'd give me a little corn whiskey," he says.) He moved to west Tennessee a few decades ago, where he worked in the concrete industry. After retiring, Belfour revisited his musical endeavors when his wife, Norene, encouraged him to take his music to the sidewalks of nearby Beale Street, in Memphis.
"Before then, I wasn't playing nowhere," Belfour says, "but I'd go down there and hang out in the park while she was working. She'd walk around in the park on her break and see them people making money playing. She told me, 'You ought to get down there; you as good as they is.'" Apparently, she was right. "I just took the crowd," Belfour says. "It was mostly bands there, [and] I was playing by myself -- they had never heard anybody playing like that." Before long, he had earned a loyal audience of afternoon listeners and was reaping a few dollars from his fans. (He's also earned some additional respect from his wife of 41 years: "I'm the wife of that bad boy," Norene Belfour says when taking a call for her husband.)
Belfour then caught the ear of a Memphis State music teacher, who helped him land a few cuts on a German compilation of Memphis blues players that was released in 1993. A few years ago, a fan tipped Fat Possum to Belfour, and the label released his current disc last year. While it's been a hit with Delta blues fans, Belfour makes it clear that his music is not Delta music per se. "It's the country blues, really," he says. "It's got some Delta blues in it. A lot of people think I'm from the Delta. But I'm not from the Deep South. I'm mid-South."
The guitar technique that Belfour employs also doesn't reflect many of the details of his more popular Delta peers, and for good reason. "I never heard any of them older people from around in the Delta until my later years," he says. "I really only learned something about 'em since I started getting these writeups in magazines and these places where I play.''
But like the blues made by his Deep South peers and musical ancestors, Belfour's music features a few back-porch touches that reflect his self-taught nature and resourcefulness. For example, he prefers to play a guitar with an unwound G-string that he makes himself. "I learned how to take a knife and strip it when I was a kid," he says, referring to the string as the one "third from the bottom." With the customized string, he says, "I can get a better sound. I can bend it any kind of way to make the chords I make. So if I get a set of strings and that string ain't stripped, I strip it myself."
Belfour also plays in a highly personal way, one in which he tunes the guitar to a root note in his head. "I tune to my voice; I don't use a tuner," he says. For his John Lee Hooker numbers, Belfour employs a "Spanish" tuning style that he's keeping a secret. "I can't give that out," he says. As for his guitar of choice, that's also a mystery. "I can't remember the name of it, I just never paid no attention to that," he says. "If it had a good sound and could hold a tune, I never worried about no name of it. I just play it."
These days, more and more blues fans are hearing Belfour's playing. For the past several years, he's been making regular appearances in Europe, where he plays blues festivals and conventional gigs. This summer he'll be part of a four-day affair in France, in which he'll be a featured performer. He says he's still amazed that at an age when most people are retiring, he's enjoying a new career. Sure, it requires some traveling, but he's not moaning about that. "You've got to make some money some way," he says. "And I love playing, anyway."
Unfortunately, Belfour's initial gigs close to home on Beale Street have dried up. "They done changed everything down there," Belfour says, noting that a revitalized, prepackaged Beale Street no longer welcomes the street performers who helped create its legendary status. "You gotta go inside to play now -- it's all different. The last time I went down there and played, the police come around and told me, 'No, you can't do that. You gotta have a permit.' I don't even mess with it anymore."
Not that he's hungry for his old gig.
"I play in France and Norway; I played in about thirty states last year," he says. "I didn't think I'd ever get off Beale Street."
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