C.W. Stoneking fell in love with the blues when he was in his teens. Born in Katherine, in Australia’s remote Northern Territory, CW was the son of an American school teacher with a passion for music. He vividly remembers being eleven years old and stumbling across Living With The Blues, an early blues compilation, in his father’s collection: “When I first heard it I thought it was kinda funny music”, he told a Dutch interviewer a few years ago, “because it was so deconstructed and not really adhering to any rules that I’d been told music [should] fit into. And the more I listened to it, I just liked it more and more.”
Soon his curiosity led him to Son House, Robert Johnson, Skip James and Bukka White, gospel blues, Chicago blues, ragtime, Hokum blues, with each sub-genre revealing more amazing music. It seemed like there was an endless universe of blues to explore, one that was much more interesting to Stoneking than the mundane world of late ’80s pop that was all around him at the time.
Flash forward a few years and CW has taught himself the banjo and electric guitar, but his prized possession is a 1931 National Duolian dobro. This was same instrument that Blind Boy Fuller and other blues legends chose to play. “I liked it because it was loud,” Stoneking says, “When I first started playing old blues it wasn’t so easy to get a gig, and I spent a lot of time busking and things like that…I knew all the old blues guys who used to busk used them and it was for a good reason.”
Although he’s a brilliant musician he enjoys the lighter side of performing as well. He has a larger-than-life stage presence, beginning with his dapper outfit: tropical whites, a bowtie and slicked-back hair. He exhibits a sly diffidence in his between-song patter too, “I tell a lot of stories onstage,” Stoneking tells me, “and then I tend to ramble. I talk that sort of stuff just for my own entertainment.” His busking experiences taught him well: the first rule is to entertain, after that it’s plain sailing.
The blues is a living art form, albeit one that has been neglected by most contemporary musicians, and Stoneking has made it his mission to move the music forward whilst maintaining the authenticity that make this music so unique. Like a fruit tree sprouting new branches upon ancient root stock, CW writes and performs all his own songs, and he has now recorded three complete albums of wholly original material: King Hokum, Jungle Blues and, his latest, Gon’ Boogaloo. Each one is as different from the other as the diverse strands of the blues that inspire him.
Armed with his trusty steel guitar, Stoneking paid tribute to some of his musical influences on his semi-official bootleg album, Mississippi and Piedmont Blues, 1927-1941. A limited edition that was only available at his gigs, it featured songs by Sleepy John Estes, Memphis Minnie and Blind Willie McTell sitting alongside obscurities by Bobby Grant, Geeshie Wiley, Joe Callicott, Mattie Delaney and Blind Blake. The diversity of songs he covered demonstrated the breadth and depth of his blues scholarship. As well as repaying a debt to his musical forbears it also gives a valuable insight into what shaped CW’s own songwriting.
Gon’ Boogaloo sees CW reconnecting with the electric guitar for the first time on record. That doesn’t mean he’s abandoned his antique blues stylings, far from it. In fact the recording of Gon’ Boogaloo is the most primitive of his career. It’s also the most audacious. Recorded live with no overdubs in just two days, the performers were grouped around a single ribbon microphone, with one other additional tube mic. for CW’s vocals and guitar. This bare bones method of recording sounds preposterous to most modern artists but Stoneking knew it was the best way to capture the vitality and the integrity of his sound. It was almost as basic a recording technique as the one Alan Lomax used when he travelled the Southern United States recording delta blues singers in hotel rooms in the 1930s.
The results speak for themselves. Gon’ Boogaloo sounds magnificent and as a songwriter Stoneking has surpassed himself. He draws influences from old calypso, early rock ’n’ roll, ’60s girl groups, late-’50s R’n’B and gospel, among many others. His lyrics, as always, are colourful and sometimes fanciful, but they’re underpinned by personal experience. Stoneking likes to cloak his personal insights in larger-than-life stories: “I work better with something to hang it on,” he told me. “I can run free with the metaphors in there and it doesn’t come out sounding preachy.” Gon’ Boogaloois the record he was born to make and is easily the best of his career.