Music News

Blues Traveler

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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.)

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Marty Jones