On January 30th, Cornelius Chapel Records released a new album from Alabama Slim, The Parlor, named after the studio where it was recorded in the summer of 2019, and featuring his cousin Little Freddie King as a special guest. Alabama Slim’s two previous records, Blue & Lonesome and The Mighty Flood were issued by Music Maker Relief Foundation who helped him to become a touring musician in the USA and join the Music Maker Blues Revue to tour throughout Europe. Though Alabama Slim grew up with Blues and has been playing and performing most of his life, the New Orleans-based musician has become much more active in his later years, and brings a wealth of real-life experience to his song writing and his sound.
Now age 81, Alabama Slim was ready to hit the road for some major performances and festivals before the pandemic shut down so many 2020 plans. However, he’s ready to go once we can “bring the music back”, having been vaccinated and looking to better times when he can rejoin both his band and a live audience. With The Parlor, we have a crossing of streams with ultra-relevant song “Forty Jive” about former President Trump that was released as a single shortly before the election, and songs like “Robbed Me Without a Gun” and “Rock Me Baby,” which pare things down to the very personal and direct in timeless Blues tradition. Alabama Slim spoke with us on the day of his album’s release to share some of his experiences becoming a recording artist and a touring musician in recent years and to remind us that The Parlor is an album that could only be performed in one way: his way.
Americana Highways: It’s great to talk to you on the day of your album release for The Parlor. I know that you went into the studio to record this album in the summer of 2019. How far ahead of that did you start thinking about what songs you’d like to feature, or was it an in-studio process?
Alabama Slim: When we went into the studio, it just came to me, and we were ready to lay it down.
AH: Did how you felt at the time influence which songs you picked?
AS: Well, yes. There was just what I had in my mind, and I said, “Let’s kick it! Let’s do our best on it!”
HMS: When was the first time that you recorded in a studio? Was it for The Mighty Flood, or had you been in a studio before that time?
AS: That was it, The Mighty Flood. That was the first time I’d been in a studio and recorded. Let me tell you something, when we did that, it was about 31 degrees outside, but I was sweating bullets in that studio. I couldn’t see nobody. I couldn’t see my bandmates, my bass man, my drummer, nothing. [Laughs] But we did it.
AH: That was the first time you were separated in a booth and couldn’t see anybody?
AS: That’s right. That’s the first time I tried to record like that. I’m used to being out, seeing a bunch of bunch of people when I’m playing.
AH: That’s a really powerful album. I especially love the album’s title song, “The Mighty Flood.” I couldn’t have guessed from hearing it that it was your first time in a studio. Did you feel you had to learn a lot to make those recordings? Or did you just do your best to play in the same way that you would play live?
AS: I tried to play like I would play live. In other words, when I recorded, it was a natural thing, as if I was front of an audience. I just played my guitar and sang my song.
AH: I noticed that some songs on that album are “big” songs with a lot of power to them, and a lot of instruments, and then some are more stripped down and personal, like “Fannie Mae,” with just you and a guitar. Do you like one type of song more than the other or do you like both of those approaches?
AS: I like them both, but what I do most of the time are songs like, “Someday Baby.” I guess that’s one of my favorites. That’s kind of a more personal song, if you know what I’m saying.
AH: When you’re playing live, do you prefer to be with a big group of people, or in a small set-up?
AS: A small set-up, I guess, with four or five people. And I think we do real swell with just four of us.
AH: I heard that you toured and did some festival work for the first couple albums you were involved with. Was that a new experience for you at the time?
AS: Yes, in the first year, we went to Paris, France. After that, we travelled to different places, like Belgium, Switzerland, and Spain. I got a chance to go to the United Kingdom, and we even played Scotland, and then London. I was enjoying that. I was excited. If I hadn’t been playing music, there was no way in the world that I would have been able to see those places.
AH: I’m jealous! Did you have time to see those places a little, or was it pretty fast?
AS: We could walk around a little bit during the day, or we’d have a day off and we’d go through the city. We saw the London Bridge and the Tower. It was exciting to me! You read about this stuff in school, but when you get a chance to lay your eyes on it and take a picture, this is exciting!
AH: I’m sure you knew that people all over the world love Blues music, but was it unusual to see it first-hand, and see the audiences in other countries reacting to the music?
AS: Sometimes when we go overseas, at first the people will just stand there or sit there while you’re playing the music. You think to yourself, “Oh man, they must not like this!” But when you get through a couple of songs, they start hollering and clapping, and that got to me. That was one of my first gigs. After that, I realized how people appreciate music over there. They really appreciate the Blues.
AH: I lived in the UK for a while and I was surprised to find that British people were so into Blues, and also into Country music, in ways that I would have not expected. It was really an emotional connection for them, and I really respected that.
AS: Right, right! They really love and enjoy, and accept the Blues. They really do. Well, I guess sometimes everybody gets the Blues [Laughs].
AH: If you’re a human being, you can connect with it.
AS: That’s right.
AH: I heard that you had your photo taken a few times as a tin-type portrait with The Music Maker Relief Foundation. What was it like seeing yourself represented that way? Did you like it?
AS: Well, I loved it. You can look at yourself in the mirror, but with a photo, you look at yourself, and you can really see yourself. I enjoyed it.
AH: They are pretty cool. I’m glad that they brought that technology back.
AS: Yes, that tin-type is something they used to do about a hundred years ago. It really brings things out. It just looks natural.
AH: I know that after Hurricane Katrina, you were in Dallas for many years, but you were able to come back to New Orleans. What does it mean, for you, to be able to stay in New Orleans as a musician?
AS: Well, number one, I like New Orleans. Number two, there’s a whole lot of excitement here. There are a whole lotta places you can play and there’s a lot going on in New Orleans.
AH: Have you been missing playing live performances in 2020 due to Covid?
AS: Yes, indeed. Because I just love to play. I just want to play. That’s it. That really bothered me, too, because I was supposed to play at the Jazz Fest, and this pandemic came on. We couldn’t do it, and they cancelled it. I guess I must have walked around for a day or two moaning.
AH: That’s totally understandable! I did that, too. Because I had a of tickets to shows in 2020 too, and live music is a big part of my life. It was sad to have so many shows cancelled.
AS: Yes, they had to cancel four or five shows. I was supposed to be at the Jazz Festival, and I was supposed to do something in Baton Rouge, in Arkansas, and in Tennessee.
AH: That’s a lot of travel, if they’d happened.
AS: I don’t mind the travel. [Laughs] I’m 81, but I don’t mind! I’m ready to go!
AH: That is impressive.
AS: That’s right! God has blessed me to do it.
AH: How do you like to listen to music? Do you like vinyl records, or do you prefer CDs?
AS: Mostly CDs, but there are some old vinyl Blues records, because that’s all I like to play and listen to. That’s the real deal.
AH: Have you been able to work with Freddie or with your band in 2020, or did you have to stay apart?
AS: I had to keep to myself because of the pandemic. They just started trying to have some private parties again, but I’m praying and hoping that this pandemic will just ease on off. Maybe then we can get out there and start boogeying on the stage again. Me and my wife had had our first dose of the vaccine, and we’ll have the next one in a couple of weeks. We both feel alright.
AH: That’s wonderful! For the new album, The Parlor, one of the singles that was released early before the election happened, was “Forty Jive.” That got a pretty good reaction! Did you write the lyrics?
AS: [Laughs] No, I didn’t write the lyrics. We were just in the studio, talking, and I always didn’t like Trump, so I said, “Man, let’s do something!” Boom, bam, and out. That was it. I don’t know where that song came from, but it was anonymous because nobody can really claim it.
AH: It’s a great song, and you did a great job. It’s phrased very well, and it’s very clear. It says a lot of very direct things. Did it feel good to get some of your feelings out there, playing and recording it?
AS: Yes, it got a lot of frustration it. It makes you feel a little bit better when you can get it off your chest.
AH: I wondered if you had any feelings about the role that Georgia played in the presidential election and then the Senate election. The African American community did that, really, and made that impact by standing up and working hard on that. How does that make you feel?
AS: Oh, I feel good! Yes, I feel good about it!
AH: It’s so easy to feel that people can’t make a difference, but to see those changes brought a lot of hope.
AS: Right, right. The thing is that we need to help people. The Senate would just shoot things down before. Now, they can’t just shoot it down. You have to deal with it. I think, and believe, and I know, that this is going to help people. I believe that things are going to get better.
AH: Me, too. And I think we’re going to see more of this in future elections. Georgia is just the first example.
AH: Are there any musicians that you still look to, and listen to, for inspiration?
AS: I’ll tell you the truth about it. I always keep some CDs of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. They inspired me so hard and heavy. When I was a little boy, around five years old, they made those vinyls that would break when you dropped them. I listened to Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and I just went berserk. They just stuck to me. I loved the way those guys played and sang. It was different from the other music around.
AH: The songs never age, do they? They still feel like they were just recorded.
AS: That’s right! If you listen real good, the Blues is going to tell you a story. It will be actual and real life. It will be about things happening in life.
AH: The things the music talks about is recurring in human life, so it continues to feel that way for sure. On the new album, one of the songs I really liked was “Robbed Me Without a Gun”. I love that because everything about it is so true, emotionally. Everyone who has ever been in a relationship that didn’t go the way that they wanted it to can relate to that. The pain it talks about is so true.
AS: That’s right.
AH: Did you write that one?
AS: I wrote it. When you play the Blues, there’s no fictitious stuff about it. You’ve been through it. You see what’s happening, true to life.
AH: The idea of the song is a great comparison, to being robbed in a relationship.
AS: If you think about it, if you like someone, they don’t have to have a gun to rob you. They can rob you of your feelings, and your money, and everything else. They may not care a thing about you and can go on their way somewhere else.
AH: It’s the most vulnerable thing in the whole world to love somebody.
AS: That’s right. Love is something else. It’s a thing you just can’t play with. That’s what it is.
AH: What about the song, “Rock Me Baby”? Is that an older song?
AS: That’s an older one. Three or four musicians have done that one. I came to it my way. All the music I do is my way. I have to play it my way and sing it my way.
AH: Do you ever sing a song that has been sung in a very specific way in the past, but you intentionally sing it in a totally different way?
AS: Sure! That’s right. Yes, I’ve got to do it my way.