In the annals of blues history, you’d be hard-pressed to find a living legend who compares to the inimitable Taj Mahal. With almost 50 studio albums to his name dating back to his eponymous debut in 1968, he’s etched his name onto the Mount Rushmore of the art form not just because of his longevity, but because he’s never been a myopic purist. His sound has featured influences from around the world for decades, and that’s only grown his audience. Here, Taj Mahal talks about the tie between blues and agriculture, touring amid the pandemic and his new album coming out in April with Ry Cooder.
French Davis: Could you talk a little bit about pulling together this tour — coming out of the pandemic, which is still kind of raging and what the process has been like of putting this thing together? How has the pandemic impacted you as such a prolific performer on the road for so long?
Taj Mahal: Good questions all the way around. Sixty years of being out on the road and playing music, you know? Well, you know, I’m a pretty much a pretty optimistic person, positive… I find there’s enough guys pissing and moaning about the blues. My focus wasn’t to bring people down. It was actually to take another angle on the blues and kind of do the uplifted side of the blues, you know? And when the pandemic came along, it actually was pretty good for me… I really needed to just kind of rest and relax for a while… I had a chance to just kind of think about a lot of things and play my instruments and you know, just not be in any hurry about anything. Hey, we have been through harder stuff. But I think what’s happening is that the general public, who had never really felt this kind of grab on their back, were really going to have an opportunity to really see what they were made out of. At the end of 2020, I think I did the one show in November. And then I did three shows in March of 2021, March the 13th. I played with the Phantom Blues band. This was a live stream. And the 20th, I did a show with eight different groups of young people coming up that I think are really good called Roots Rising. And that was streamed on the Mandolin Network. All of them were on the Mandolin Network. And then I did a show with Fantastic Negrito on the 27th.
FD: Big fan of his.
TM: Yeah. And so, you know, I was involved like that. I just was coming in. It’s taken my time getting back in because I just didn’t want to get started. And then everything crashed down and get started. And then we stuck. I just said, “Hey, you know what, it’s going to take a while for this to happen. This is not going to be a quick fix.”
FD: I’ve only heard the single so far from that new album you’ve got coming out with Ry Cooder, Get On Board — can you talk about how this came about?
TM: Well, you know, it was 57 years since we actually sat down and played music together to make an album. He was on the first album. We did the Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder (recorded 1966; released by Columbia Records in 1992) and then he played rhythm guitar on the first album that I did, the Taj Mahal album (eponymous, 1968, Legacy/Columbia) with Jesse Davis and all that crowd there. Both of us had a busy career, you know? And so we bumped into one another and then hooked up… And eventually, had idea to come down and see, well, maybe we should get together and try to see if we can do something. See where we are at now. We hadn’t played in so long. I think the one thing that we did do was, I got a Lifetime Achievement Americana award. And Keb’ Mo presented it to me down at The Ryman Auditorium down in Nashville. And the band that was there is Buddy Miller, Ry, Joaquin. I think Don was on bass. I don’t remember who the piano player was. Probably should know. But anyway, we went down, played a version of Statesboro Blues, which you can find on YouTube. It’s really good. We had big fun. And I thought maybe we should play something little bit more country flavored and Ry got back to me and said, “Hey, you know what, we need to stomp them down. So stomp them down to meet me, Statesboro Blues.” And so we went and stomped it down. Had a great night, you know? And so that was part of the beginning of us kind of making a musical contact. And then I took the train down from Northern California to Southern California. And we hung out for a few days and played and talked and then COVID kind of got in the way there for a while. And then we figured our way around all that in ’21. Anyway, it was really great to play with him, you know? Because I mean, the man is an incredible musician. We both hear more beyond these different idioms that people really like to kind of tie us to. There’s music everywhere. We’re open to it, you know? And so yeah, it just worked really well. Everything clicked. It’s kind of front porch, back porch, living room stomp. That’s a good feeling. It delivers the real thing.
FD: I caught this interview you did back in 2018 with UMass at Amherst. And one of the things you said was it was time to “re-weld the music to the agriculture.” I thought that was an interesting point, especially with regard to climate change. What are your thoughts on that now?
TM: As a young man coming through the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, I looked forward and saw that there was two things that you can’t do without, okay? And they are agriculture and music. Music and agriculture. And in older societies, in Africa, Europe, South America, whatever, Indigenous people, the music was tied to the agriculture. You know, it’s only in this kind of Western paradigm and matrix that they’ve been separated in such a way. And it’s always interesting because to me, some of the best music has come out of the people who work with the soil. And I just think it’s time for us to… it’s been time for us, is that we just need to really take the long look over the ages to realize that going forward, we’re not going to do this planet any good going the way we’re going.
FD: Shifting gears a little bit here, considering you being basically blues royalty at this point, not just that, music royalty at this point, when you look back over your career, if you could talk to Taj Mahal starting out, what would you say? What do you wish that you might have known at the beginning of your career that you know now that might have made things a little different or easier on you?
TM: Hire lawyers. I wish I had a better idea about business and had better representation when I went in to do my business. Set up the early contracts. That would have been pretty much the only thing that I could really think of right off the top of my head. Because I really was about the music. I just have been about the music. Willing to put the time in. Yeah. I would think that would’ve been it. Just have a better representation coming in, like in the early ’60s. When I started out, my idea was that I was a good guy. I was intelligent. I could do this and that and the other, but the game is really different. You know? I mean, there’s something that they’re doing different. The guys running the business at the time, you know? And no matter where it is, I mean the basic template for this country is a plantation. So, if you don’t know how to figure your way out of that thing, and you haven’t got somebody to represent you so you could get a better deal, better shape up, you know, cause they don’t want to listen to you. You’re an artist. And I just thought I could represent myself. Sort of like it’s legal system when the plaintiff gets something and represents itself in court. Sometimes it’s not a good idea because they’re not ready to handle that. But that would be the only thing, And I mean, it’s like, “Okay. You live, you learn.” But that’s not going to take anything away from the music. They didn’t make me a musician. My ancestors, you know, that’s in my DNA. So that’s something that goes with me, you know? So yeah, I would think that would probably be the thing I would say to Taj Mahal in 1966, ’65, ’66, that everything’s going to be all right, but you need a lawyer.
FD: I hear that. When you look at all of the projects you’ve taken on — and one of the things I’ve always loved about you is you’ve never shied away from experimenting and exploring all of the different influences in music that are to be explored — what do you see in front of you? Clearly you’re not slowing down and there’s plenty more room to continue doing these things, like you just finished this album with Ry Cooder, like what’s next? What are some of the projects?
TM: Well, there’s more. We’ve got music from the Phantom Blues Bland. Probably, well not probably. We have more music from the Hula Blues Band coming in due time. Maybe a 12 or 15-piece string band, ripe for that… And something else maybe. You know, a jazz standards album. I don’t know. I don’t usually forecast whatever it is. It’s like, you get there, you do it and you get it done. You know?
FD: I dig it. So, there was a lot of back and forth after the Super Bowl, and the halftime show specifically. And one of the things that I saw in social media was kind of this, basically two sides of this argument as to whether or not rap and hip hop constituted music. And one side was predictably stodgy and you know, “Well rap isn’t music. That’s just spoken word.” And the other side was like, “There’s plenty of music in rap and hip hop.” And what would Taj Mahal’s take be on something like that?
TM: Well, you know, it depends. I think that it’s musical and there’s more music. I mean, if we release some of the stuff that we did, we’ve done in our studio that’s about rap and hip hop, I’ve blended the blues with it in different kinds of ways. We’re just looking for an opportunity to get that stuff out there. You know? There’s some artists that are out here now that we’ve created some tracks for them and that was a complaint when I first got involved is that, “Well, you know, this stuff is real good, but it’s too musical.” Yeah. Sometimes they work and make it be music. And there’s other times when it’s like, just beats with basically artificial intelligence sprinkled around the outside. Whether it is music, I mean, it’s music for this particular time. They thought bebop was weird, you know? I mean, that’s where I usually dealt. That’s how I dealt with rap in the first place was that rap got the same hit that bebop got. And now down the road from it, it’s what it was. It’s what the musicians were doing at that time. They got tired of being just told to get up on stage and get hot in some gambling joint somewhere, or some speakeasy somewhere where they were under threat of maybe bodily harm, if they didn’t do what they did. So finally, their reaction to it was to play music that, if you wanted to check out what they started playing, instead of playing just for the audience, they started playing for themselves. That’s what bebop was. Now we’re looking back at it. Yeah. It’s kind of like a high class, all-American art form…
Okay, so it was the Sugar Hill Gang, but I came in on a Grand Master Flash, Furious Five. I came on your message. Your message. I came in on Rob Bass. I like KRS-One and LL Cool J. Nobody’s ever asked me what I think about it. That’s the first time somebody’s actually asked me, “Well, what do you think about rap?” I think there’s some cool stuff. And there’s some not so cool stuff. Who do I like? I like Kanye West. I love what Kanye is doing in general. I mean, there’s somebody, they keep trying to say, “This guy is crazy. This guy’s crazy. He’s really crazy. Oh, he’s crazy. That guy’s crazy.” Yeah. Right. Billions of dollars of crazy in terms of a system that’s about money. What is the guy putting out? What is he saying? He’s not saying what everybody else is saying. You know? Yeah. I really like people like Nas. I like some stuff that Nas does… I got two volumes of rap that came out on CD, like the rap hits. And man, it was all kinds of good stuff from there, you know? But yeah. I’m trying to think of… Yeah, I like the Ghetto Boys. I like Willie D. I love Snoop Dog. I like Dr. Dre. Snoop Dog because Snoop comes from… his family is from McComb, Mississippi. And if you listen to his flow and his sound, it’s got it. It’s probably about the bluesiest, in my estimation, from my ears, and what got me into him, was his whole flow was that laid back behind the beat, bluesy flow. No matter how urban or whatever is going on, he still is that laid back behind it. You got that Mississippi drawl in there. And then I like Outkast. Goodie Mob. I’ve got young people in my family, so I’m hearing the music and what they listen to. I can get into it, you know. And that’s really what the level of it is, is that it reaches me at that same level that the ancestors did. You know, I’m not going to get out here and go like, “Oh, they’re terrible. Well, they do this.” No, the music’s always going to change and it’s always going to be different. And there’s always going to be those people that are going to be naysayers, you know? And they just can’t deal with the fact that it’s going to change. And if you want work, if you like the older music so much, make sure that some of those people who play stay around and there’s place for it. And that’s how it is. If you want to hear it, make sure it stays around and don’t just sit there and let the people who are making money off it be the ones that decide what’s happening culturally with the music…There’s so much blues music out there that people never heard. It’s ridiculous for anybody to think that blues is dead. If you think it’s dead, you need to go into some of these vaults and see how much you didn’t hear with all you think you heard. And that stuff could have been put out there too, but they were looking for what was popular for the general public, you know? So yeah. Anyway, it’s all good.
Taj Mahal plays the Boulder Theater on March 25 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $45+. Visit BoulderTheater.com for more information.