Sam's Drink House - Timothy Duffy
"Not the same old blues crap," proclaims the savvy new marketing slogan of Fat Possum Records, the Mississippi label whose 29-year-old owner, Matthew Johnson, has put a priority on bashing the blues establishment. In a lengthy article in the May '97 issue of Spin, Johnson took a verbal poke at Alligator Records' Bruce Iglauer for putting out "shit"; on Fat Possum's website, he boasts that "there are only two kinds of blues records made today: Fat Possum Records, which don't suck, and all the others." Johnson's sophomoric posturing may qualify him as the "Beavis" of the blues world, and his label has been criticized for sensationalizing-even exploiting-the images of its artists in order to market them to a younger audience. But there's no denying that Fat Possum, which was co-founded in 1991 by Johnson and former Living Blues editor Peter Lee, has issued some of the most critically acclaimed and challenging blues records of the '90s and has succeeded in exposing traditional bluesmen like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough to the alternative rock scene, bringing expanded financial opportunities to the artists and a taste of the blues to a new group of fans.
Timothy Duffy, the 34-year-old North Carolinian whose four-year-old Music Maker Relief Foundation is profiled in this issue, has taken a very different approach to working with a similar group of older African-American artists. Funded through private donations, Music Maker puts a priority on helping impoverished blues musicians meet their daily needs and living expenses-with no pressure to perform or record-while also attempting to secure performance and recording opportunities that will bring "real money" but on each artist's own terms. While Fat Possum targets the twenty-somethings at late-night club gigs, Music Maker courts the well-heeled social elite at private parties in the Hamptons. Like Matthew Johnson, however, Timothy Duffy has rejected the established blues scene in his bid to take the artists he works with to a higher level of recognition and financial reward. "There's no money in the blues world," he contends in this issue. "We withdrew and went around the fort."
Within that "fort" the blues industry and the networks of blues societies, festival planners, and radio show hosts, discussions and symposiums are often held to brainstorm on ways in which to broaden the blues audience. It seems incongruous that Fat Possum and Music Maker-two organizations with innovative approaches toward just the sort of diversification the industry is looking for-feel the need to operate outside of the establishment, particularly when they are committed to the most traditional of blues artists. Fat Possum, which has aligned itself with a California punk label, Epitaph Records, and branched out into punk rock itself, may find it hard to maintain its deep blues momentum; Music Maker may discover it a challenge to balance the foundation's philanthropy with recent film and recording deals. But Matthew Johnson's vitriol and Timothy Duffy's idealism should be taken into consideration by a blues establishment that has perhaps been too entrenched within its existing networks and generational confines to adequately explore issues of expansion and growth.
William Ferris, the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, which publishes
Living Blues, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in November as the new chairman of the National
Endowment for the Humanities. A folklorist with a strong interest in blues (his first book was
Blues From the Delta, a 1970 study of James "Son" Thomas and other Mississippi bluesmen), Bill
was the driving force in bringing Living Blues to the Center in 1983, and in establishing the
University of Mississippi's Blues Archive. His new position likely bodes well for the increased
acceptance of the blues as a worthy topic for academic research. We wish Bill and his wife Marcie
the best in their new endeavors in Washington.