Tuesday, July 29, 2008

[225] Larry Garner: A Few More Miles on Him

One of the most engaging figures in blues today is Baton Rouge’s Larry Garner. His conversational lyrics, laid-back grooves and a diesel Ford van with 296,000 miles have taken his music all over the country and the world. He grew up playing the errant American Legion gig with friends and continued to hone his craft while serving in Korea, but it was a fateful traffic jam in 1982 that really launched his career.

“My sister found me a good wife, and I took a job with Dow Chemical, started a family and rarely played in public,” he says. One afternoon on the way home from his shift, he pulled off the snarled highway. There he saw a sign that read, “Blues Jam Tonight” outside the old Tabby’s Blues Box on North Boulevard. He went back that night after his wife told him, “You know you’ve got to go to work tomorrow,” and the rest is history. At Tabby’s he played with legends like Silas Hogan, Arthur “Guitar” Kelly and Kenny Neal. Neal convinced Garner to quit his plant job and play the blues for a living. In 1995, Garner did just that, eventually playing to audiences worldwide. The Baton Rouge Blues Foundation named Garner the 2004 Slim Harpo Ambassador for the Blues.

Garner lists an encyclopedia of influences ranging from gospel to psychedelic rock, from The Soul Stirrers and Bobby Womack to Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix. “I admired lots of musicians but I never wanted to be any one,” Garner says. “I’ve always been pretty content with me. I just wanted to play as well as every guitar player I heard.”

His 2002 live album Embarrassment to the Blues—titled after a narrative about indulging too heavily after a patron sent him drinks—demonstrates his eclectic approach to this music. After the extended smooth R&B intro of “Somebody,” he explains, “The blues don’t care what kind of music it takes to sing it.”

Despite serious health problems in recent years, Garner shows no sign of slowing down. “I’m still bouncing back from triple bypass surgery,” he explains by e-mail from Belgium during his recent European tour. “It did affect me, having to cancel some work right after surgery, but three weeks out of the hospital I went to Russia. The doctors didn’t really want me to go, but American Express don’t take kindly to you getting sick and not being able to send them their money.”

Garner’s latest album, Here Today Gone Tomorrow, came out of that whole experience. “The inspiration for the title was from my near-death operation,” he says. “We can be here today and gone tomorrow.”

It turns out Garner is a lot like his Ford van. He has some impressive mileage and a little wear and tear, but there is no sign of him pulling off the road just yet.

Garner will perform Aug. 16 at Phil Brady’s and Sept. 26 at the free Live After Five concert series. myspace.com/larrygarnerbluesband


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