I know a thing or two about Colin Linden. His smile could start a fire. He loves red wine and red meat. His slide playing can make you weep. He needs very little sleep. He once had a job as a Santa Claus. He calls his mother every day. He met Howlin’ Wolf when he was eleven years old.
You’ve probably seen him around; black hat and beard. He has been mistaken for a professional poker player and a Hasidic Rabbi. He’s not that complicated. He plays guitar. He plays guitar very well.
The word prodigy is usually assigned to classical musicians, four-year-olds whizzing through Rachmaninoff. We don’t think of prodigies playing blues.
At age twelve Linden made his first public appearance at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto. He got up on stage and proclaimed, “When I left New York two years ago, I was ten. Now I’m sixty-two. So I grew fifty-two years in two years. If that ain’t the blues, tell me what is?” He ripped into some Howlin’ Wolf, and people never forgot him.
He met blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, the giant of a man with the fierce growl, when he was eleven. The Wolf was sixty-one. Most kids would have been shaking in their boots. Linden found his hero. Wolf inaugurated Linden into the brotherhood of blues, ageless music to be passed down generation to generation. When Wolf passed in 1976, Linden was already deeply steeped in country blues—Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, the Mississippi Sheiks. At nineteen, Linden made the last recording of eighty-year-old Sheiks’ guitarist Sam Chatmon, Sam Chatmon and the BBQ Boys. At twenty he recorded his first album, Colin Linden Live! At forty-nine, he has produced eighty albums and played on over three hundred.
Stepping into Colin Linden’s home studio in the Waverly area of Nashville is an experience. It’s a good-sized room, but very little floor or wall space is visible. Your first thought might be that Molly Maids should be visiting more often. CDs, cables, amplifiers, guitar cases are everywhere. But on closer inspection you see that there may be some method to the mess. It’s ordered chaos, evidence of a life in constant motion; music already made, being made, planning to be made. The fruits of that activity sit on the mantel of an ornate fireplace; awards galore, Junos, Maple Blues Awards, Grammy nominations, an IBMA, a Gabriel, a prestigious Toronto Arts Award, packed shoulder to shoulder. There’s also a framed letter from Ethan Coen asking Linden about doing a role in an upcoming Coen Brothers film. (Linden played the singing priest who marries Catherine Zeta Jones and Billy Bob Thornton in Intolerable Cruelty.) On the walls are gold records for O Brother, Where Art Thou; Down From the Mountain, Michelle Wright, Bruce Cockburn.
All are evidence of the variety in Colin Linden’s career: guitar player, songwriter, actor, producer. He has played guitar with The Band, Amos Garrett, Emmylou Harris, written songs with Gary Nicholson, Pam Tillis, Keb’ Mo’, has produced Lucinda Williams, Janiva Magness, and that’s just the short list. Oh, and he also lent his voice to the “Go FedEx!” commercials. In short, he’s a busy man.
He is currently promoting his eleventh album, From the Water, and working on the new Blackie and the Rodeo Kings album Kings & Queens due out in 2010, featuring duets with Rosanne Cash, Pam Tillis, Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris, among others.
There’s a rumor you’ll be turning fifty in April. Do you feel that milestone comes with any obligations to the generation of musicians coming up behind you?
I have always aspired to be an old blues singer, and I see myself edging towards that dream. I wish I could tell all the younger musicians, ‘Everything will be alright this morning,’ in the words of Muddy Waters.
Has your choice to diversify your career been a conscious one? What are the pros and cons of wearing—pardon the pun—many hats?
I never had the huge hit that I was always hoping for. As a result, I stumbled into all kinds of detours that have truly enriched my artistic life. Maybe I would have had a simpler life the other way, and maybe had an easier time supporting my beautiful wife and cats…
You’ve done all right and we thank you.
…but I am so grateful that I am constantly stimulated by my work, and I think that is because of this “enforced” diversification.
General life philosophy?
It’s pretty simple. Try to bring love and happiness into people’s lives with your music, and you will bring it into your own. Honor those who came before you, and inspire those who may come after.
As a Canadian, what do you like about living in the South?
The South is the “Mother Ship” of the culture I love the most. It’s forgiving, sensual, and is so connected to the music that I make.
How has your spirituality formed your life and your relationships with people?
I feel I’ve been blessed by God, with my marriage first and foremost, and with all my wonderful friends and experiences in music. I feel compelled to write about this evolving and complex relationship, and music of worship—especially black gospel music—has helped me connect with the Eternal.
Judging by the army of books on your bookshelf, you love to read.
The power of writing touches the subtleties of our thoughts. Fiction or non-fiction—I am always moved by the truth.
Well said. Your house has a pretty eclectic garden. Since your wife is more inclined to take down a tree than plant one, is this evidence of your green thumb? Is gardening a metaphor for anything?
I’d like to be a better gardener, both literally and figuratively. One of the only jobs I ever had outside of music was as a gardener’s assistant, and I really valued the Zen of growing things. I think I will be a better artist as I get to be a better gardener.
Let’s talk about food. Men seem to have a different approach to cooking and following cookbooks. Is it the process or the end result?
For me, the process is a pleasure, and the end result is a marker. If the end result turns out great, I feel a sense of accomplishment, and it serves my basic need of spreading the love of food. But if the process is satisfying, then I know I still have the potential for coming up with a new idea on something. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. The process is living. The end result is life. Who are your heroes and why?
There are so many. I really love women and find them fascinating. As a result my two biggest heroes are my wife and my mother.
Bless your heart.
They both approach life with optimism, humor, and realism in good measure. I will always admire Howlin’ Wolf, whose sensitivity and artistry—acquired without the benefit of formal education—continued to evolve throughout his life. I admire and love my friend Gary Nicholson, who is the kind of man I aspire to be—he is at the height of creativity and lives with the ethics of a holy man. I admire the President of the United States, Barack Obama, and I wish him the best in achieving his potential. My friend T Bone Burnett is a hero to me in that he venerates the art and calling of making music and imbues it with humor and passion. That guy is a genius. I also love and admire Bruce Cockburn, the great Canadian singer-songwriter-musician-activist, in that he continues to be, at age sixty-four, at the peak of his powers as an artist and still maintains his sense of wonder with this world. There are lots more…I could go on.
I think it’s nearly dinnertime.
What do you feel like?
by Currie Alexander Powers | photography by Anthony Scarlati