Over the last 12 months, he's served as resident bluesman at Berlin's American Academy and performed a stint in the Southern-fried rock band Job Cain. Today, Memphis' Alvin Youngblood Hart is -- once again -- on the move. After flying home from a gig in Lake Worth, Florida, he took time to talk about his latest project, Alvin Youngblood Hart's Muscle Theory.
"My drummer, Ed Michaels, has been playing with me on and off for the last four years. My bass player, Gary Rasmussen, has been around forever. He's from Michigan. He was in The Up, John Sinclair's house band, and in Sonic's Rendezvous Band, which is the greatest rock-and-roll band you'll never hear," Hart explains.
"This is my strongest lineup yet. We all came up on the same music, which is different from trying to play with those shoe-gazing rock kids," he says, with an affectionate nod to the last musicians he worked with, Memphians Mark Stuart and John Argroves. "I was a teenager in the Midwest. We moved to Ohio when I was 15, and The Stooges were the big thing then," Hart says. "I've always had a fondness for Detroit too. I got my first electric guitar there.
"I've got quite a few new songs," Hart continues, "so I'm gonna try to make a record in October. A lot of the material I've been waiting to record was inspired by the situations I've experienced in the music business, people I was working with that I ain't working with now. A lot of these songs I know inside and out. I've been playing them live for a couple of years now."
Despite the flurry of acclaim that has surrounded him, beginning with his 1996 debut, Big Mama's Door, on through his latest album, 2002's Down in the Alley, Hart has had plenty of problems with an industry that seems determined to pigeonhole him. Pointing to his 2000 rock album, Start With the Soul, which shocked blues purists while opening the door to a phalanx of rock fans, Hart claims, "There was the thing with all the blues squares, but I think most people knew what to do with [the album]. What killed it was the whole Ryko-Island-Palm Pictures merger. Before that, the people at Ryko would've done anything for me. After the takeover, they moved to New York to become a high-powered label, and all my allies disappeared because they couldn't afford to transfer from Massachusetts.
"The redemption was at the end of the year, when The New York Times Top 10 list came out," Hart says. "I was on it. That was cool."
Hart has also relinquished ties with his last home, Memphis International Records, which released Down in the Alley, a solo acoustic blues album. "I don't think that making a rock-and-roll record is their kinda thing," he says of the locally owned label. He explains that he's currently negotiating a contract with a bigger independent but doesn't want to reveal the label's name until it's a done deal.
Hart's wariness could be linked to the industry's disappointing response to his last project, Job Cain, which included guitarist Audley Freed (The Black Crowes), bassist Robert Kearns (The Bottle Rockets), and Michaels on drums. "I was trying to sell that band, but [the labels] weren't into it," he says. "I thought they were shortsighted. We took the band around the world, and people were eating it up. That's another one of those great bands that you'll never hear. Sooner or later, we'll do a reunion, but the record ain't gonna happen."
During the down time, Hart has focused his energy on solo projects. "The residency in Berlin came out of the blue," he says. "I believe I got the gig because they couldn't afford Lou Reed!" After a lengthy chuckle, he elaborates: "I was in that Wim Wenders thing on PBS [an episode of the documentary series The Blues], and he was gonna premiere it at a Berlin theater. The American Academy -- it's a retreat for academics -- wanted to get Lou Reed as an artist-in-residence, but he had a lot of outrageous demands, so they just went down the ladder until they got to me."
More recently, Hart's kept himself busy recording "Sunday Morning Coming Down" for a Johnny Cash tribute album and "Nelly Was a Lady" for a disc of Stephen Foster's music. "The funny thing about that was the guy sent me a version to reference that sounded like Paul Robeson but without the soul," Hart says, affecting a minstrel-like voice for a verse of Foster's song. "I got down with it eventually. I ended up [being] inspired by an episode of Bonanza, where this singing cowboy dude was trying to woo a girl," he says with a laugh.
Hart plans to pull out the stops with his appearance at The Hi-Tone Café this week. "It's gonna be loud," he says. "We'll be playing whatever madness we can pull out of the air." n
Alvin Youngblood Hart's Muscle Theory is at the Hi-Tone Café Wednesday, August 18th.