August 1, 2018 by Mike Madden
This article was written following an interview with Kirk Fletcher to promote his appearance at the Leek Blues & Americana Festival in October 2017.
So much of what we are and what we do stems from the influences of our youth. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, and the touch of security, of family, and of community. For the young Kirk Fletcher it was certainly the sounds that drew him towards his fate, driven by a musical cocktail infused with the spirits of the authentic gospel rhythms of his church, mixed with the broader and more progressive leanings of his brothers.
I caught up with Kirk in his homeland of Switzerland through the magic of Skype, and he explained how those early years were in some ways a lovable contrast.
“The thing is my brother Walter is seventeen years older, so we didn’t really grow up in the same household too much. I still saw him a lot, and he played a lot in my dad’s church. I was kind of raised as an only child as my other brother is sixteen years older than me.’
Of course, church can be an imposing, almost stifling experience, but not so in the Fletcher household.
“Well our church was definitely not at all boring. It was uproarious, crazy, singing, dancing, talking loud and preaching, all of that. Whatever you could do to join in was definitely accepted. It was the Church Of God In Christ, Pentecostal. There was the laying on of hands and that kind of stuff. It was a joyous thing. It’s funny because my parents being as religious as they were and as strict as they were, that secular music was not allowed in the house when I was young. So they only listened to gospel. Which now I look back and I think, That was awesome. The Dixie Hummingbirds and Andraé Crouch, Shirley Caeser and Aretha Franklin, all those great gospel records I had at home. As well as that I was able to go to my brother’s house when I was 10 and spend the night. He had Jimi Hendrix records, and George Benson, Grover Washington, Van Halen and everything else! I was lucky to be in that situation.”
So, Kirk’s musical upbringing was varied and somewhat unique. Now all that he needed was an outlet for his artistic force, and the answer was very close to home. His older brother Walter played guitar, the television was filled with guitarists, and of course his own gospel roots combined stunning vocals with an orchestra of instruments, including his six-stringed calling. However, there was not a single moment that marked the start of his musical career; it was always there.
“My brother drove me towards guitar. It’s hard to explain, it seems that I was already a guitar player as a child. It felt like I was just obsessed with the guitar as far as I can remember. I don’t quite understand it! My parents told me that when I was a baby I would always just sit by my older brother while he was playing, and I dragged my first guitar around the house before I could even play. I’ve always been a guitar player in some kind of way. When I got older my parents loosened up a bit. As a young teenager they gave me some rope and some room to go out and buy records. They knew I was a guitar player, and they knew I wanted to study the other great guitar players. It was the 1980s and there were guitars everywhere. All those gospel groups had guitar players, there were guitars in my father’s church, and there was heavy metal and Prince. It was the start of MTV so I saw guitars on television, and my brother had all of the guitar magazines. It was such an amazing time to be a guitar player.”
Musical styles change, and technology moves on at a terrific pace. One might think that the humble guitar has been and always will be just the humble guitar, but of course there are always those that will strive to make things better. There was the innovation of electricity, Godley and Crème’s Gizmo, as well as a multitude of special effects. However, in Kirk’s case it was the educational devices that made a difference.
“It was the beginning of video cassettes and other instructional material. There was a lot of stuff that wasn’t around in previous decades. Guys that I listened to, talked to, and admired from the 60s said that they would have to slow down the records to learn the chords. I did that too, but I had other things that helped. Of course now I would like to lift the needle off the vinyl record and play it again!”
By the late 1980s Kirk had his musical influences, his brother as his musical champion, and the desire to make his guitar sound like the heroes that he had listened to throughout his formative years. It is well documented that his first inspiration was the American blues and jazz guitarist Robben Ford, but there is so much more that contributed to the building blocks of his career.
“My initial blues experience came in 1988 at the Long Beach Blues Festival when I saw Albert Collins. I was fortunate to see Robben Ford when I was about 18 years old. There was another great guitar player Michael Landau, and there was Chris Cain. I was playing at BB King’s Blues Club with Kris Wiley and we opened for Chris. I was 19 or 20, and that blew my mind to see Chris Cain. Of course there was BB King. I saw BB King a couple of times too. Those were some of the people that I saw early on, when I just got my licence and first went out. So I knew about all these guys, the more well-known guys. They all influenced me, and not just influence, I got so much more. Trying to be electric when you come out on stage, your energy, and trying to cast all of your problems away. Come out on stage and get lost in the music. That was the main thing. Gospel music, jazz, blues, country, rock and roll, pop, whatever. Just to get lost in the music was the biggest thing I learnt from those guys.”
The blues world embraced their new acolyte. He had been tapping on the window and at last he was given the key to the door of this musical wonderland. Kim Wilson Blues Revue, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Pinetop Perkins, Charlie Musselwhite; heroes became friends, legends became fellow musicians. It was inevitable that he would want to commit his legacy to vinyl, or in Kirk’s case the less romantic aluminium and polycarbonate, also known as the CD.
His first inspiration was simply the search for regular work. He made a demo not with the aim of becoming a solo artist or forming a band, but rather to secure a regular spot in local clubs. He admitted that it was a glorified business card. The demo found its way into the hands of John Stedman of the JSP record label, and he wanted to record it. At the time Kirk was working with the renowned soul singer Roosevelt Caldwell, but the now sadly departed Caldwell was too busy with his own projects to provide the voice. Kirk had not yet discovered his own vocal talents, and so he decided to record the album using other singers such as Jackie Payne and John Marx. The result was his 1999 debut I’m Here & I’m Gone, and it was a well-received vehicle for his budding guitar talents.
Fortune favoured Kirk once again when his friend Randy Chortkoff founded Delta Groove. Chortkoff wanted artists for his fledgling label, and Kirk was an obvious choice. Shades Of Blue was released in 2004, and ensured that the name of Kirk Fletcher was forever enshrined in the history of Delta Groove as their first recording artist. However, it was another six years before he returned to the studio. This was for My Turn, released on the Eclecto Groove label, which was also a part of Delta Groove, so in a way Kirk was keeping it in the family. His most recent album, Live At The Baked Potato “Burning Blues”, was self-released, a challenging proposition for even the most accomplished artist. Kirk explained the difference between this and the more traditional label-based release.
“There’s just the responsibility of doing everything yourself. It takes time to make sure you can licence all the songs, and find out how to cut corners to save money. How to pay the musicians and not just put it out and not pay the guys! And just keeping track of everything like, Who’s gonna press it? Who’s gonna mix it? Who’s gonna master it? All of those type of things, and I had a lot of help from friends. That’s really important. In the end it wasn’t that painful, and the reward of doing it yourself definitely outweighs the negative for sure. It’s hard though. Would I recommend a person doing it themselves? Yes, if they were a little bit established, and if they have gigs and if they already have an agent or someone like that, I would suggest maybe try it on your own. But, if you’re just starting out and you want to get some publicity, and you maybe haven’t played with a lot of people, you might want to try to buy into a small label, and just try to get the best deal you can.”
Looking back, Kirk can identify three specific career-defining events that helped him or hindered him on his musical odyssey. It began with that fateful meeting with his first inspiration.
“Before I met Robben Ford I would have been working a day job or still playing in church. But it was seeing him, and helping out with his gear and stuff like that, and I thought, Maybe I could do this. I saw that this guy was out there playing, and doing it for a living.”
Kirk’s second epiphany came from a more familiar source.
“It was when I first joined Kim Wilson’s blues band, before the T-Birds, before Charlie Musselwhite, before everything. Kim was the first of my heroes that I actually played with, one of the first big heroes that I listened to as a kid, in The Fabulous Thunderbirds. So to play in his blues band when he only had great traditional blues players playing with him, I felt very honoured to be in that band, and I thought, Ok, I really can do this!”
However, even when he had plucked up the courage to play, even when he had shared moments with so many great blues artists, for Kirk there was one more seminal moment to come. It was, perhaps, inevitable, but it was such a change to his career that it deserves special mention.
“When I decided to sing! I’m not that great as a singer, but I decided to do everything myself. I realised that I couldn’t be Ronnie Earl, because there’s only one Ronnie Earl. He is amazing, but I couldn’t do a multi-instrumental project, so I had to figure out what I was going to do. That was the thing that really changed everything. I didn’t have to rely on a singer, and I didn’t have to rely on somebody else’s vision.”
To Kirk, adding vocals to his repertoire was just another process, similar to picking up the guitar.
“My dad gave me a tape recorder way back, it seems I always had this, and I would record myself playing. I don’t know why, but it was always just fun to hear it back, and then I would get two recorders and play overdubs, primitively. The same thing happened with the vocals. I just did a little demo of me doing Found Love by Jimmy Reed. It was kind of rough, but it was ok. Yeah, I felt it was ok. The first time I really sang was on the My Turn record. I did Found Love and the Sly Stone tune Let Me Have it All. I didn’t really sing in public for maybe another year, I was so nervous to do it. I was on a tour in Norway, and I sang, and it was pretty rough. In fact it was pretty bad. So I made myself get comfortable singing a song over and over again, and that’s how it started.”
The blues is noted for some great guitarists, many of them already mentioned here. However, it is also renowned for iconic vocals. From the Delta blues of Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup and John Lee Hooker, to the blues shouters such as Wynonie Harris and Big Joe Turner. Each brought their own personality and their own style, but generations pass on their influence as surely as the Mississippi flows to the sea. Of course, coming to the blues in the 1980s and 1990s, Kirk had the entire landscape of blues styling to choose from, though it was not really a matter of choice!
“I don’t know if I could say I really styled my singing after anybody, but I definitely have Influences. I have people like Kim Wilson who I got to see every night, and that was amazing. He is one of my favourite singers of all time. And Bobby Bland. Of course, I can’t sing like Bobby Bland, but he’s somebody I listen to and sing along to around the house. Other people like Merle Haggard, he is a big one because of the pure, soulful phrasing, just more straight ahead than a lot of other R & B singers. I like Bobby Womack too. I’m in to real direct singers like The Righteous Brothers, and The Carpenters. I know it’s weird, but all of those singers, they move you without going crazy with the vocal acrobatics. It always kind of excites me when they can use what they have to create a bigger picture. Bob Dylan might not be what the world would consider a great vocalist, but he sets the mood. He sets the whole thing with those wonderful songs. To me that’s amazing.”
“So yeah. I regret that I didn’t start singing sooner, and that I didn’t learn how to read music. I basically know the names of most of the chords that I play and that’s about it. I can read a little bit, but not as much as I would like to. But I’ve had to play so many different kinds of music that I know kind of where it’s going, or I can hear it just because I have had to do it so much. So, because I have played all of that music and with so many different people, I have to know where it’s going. Robben Ford, Kim Wilson, and singing. They were really huge.”
As with every great musician there is always something more, and Kirk is already moving on to the next stage of his creative development.
“Right now I’m going through another thing just writing all my songs, and just trying to become more of a songwriter. A writer of lyrics. Being so inspired by all different kinds of music, and by a person, and by the way they did it. If I really like their music I read up on them and find out what they did, and how they did it, and how they write songs and get creative. That’s really a big one for me.”
Kirk now calls Switzerland his home, which certainly helps for the majority of his shows as he concentrates on Europe. He finds it easy enough to catch a train to Germany, Italy or France, but further afield can be problematic. Air travel is certainly not something that he looks forward to.
“I love to play with people, that’s fun, but the travel is really crazy. The problem with flying is that everybody flies! There’s the first-time flyers, the elderly people, the kids, everything is all a part of it and so you have to be patient. I’ve done it for 20 years or so, and flying has become really, really stressful. Something as simple as trying to get your guitar on board the plane is a crapshoot now. It’s, Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Maybe they’ll give you a hard time, maybe they won’t. You get paid to travel. You get paid just to make it there. You don’t get paid to play. I know it goes along with everything, and I’m grateful that I’m able to do it, and I try to keep it in perspective. The music is the good part.”
Kirk’s good humour shone through our conversation, even as he described the stress of international travel, and it is that laid back though immersive approach to his music that audiences can now look forward to. He has certainly come a long way since his time with The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
“I’ve never actually had anyone ask about The Fabulous Thunderbirds, other than maybe seeing me with the band. The T-Birds have changed a little bit over the years. At different times they have had different incarnations, and I was just in one of those incarnations. Some people don’t even know that I was in the T-Birds. Recently I had more people asking about my association with Joe Bonamassa. Even then they kind of know that that was just a couple of special projects. He’s a friend of mine so it’s…, well it’s pretty cool. The fans don’t really ask about the past. They come to see me and I’m happy that they are there. Everything seems really nice. One of my favourite venues is The Borderline in London. It is fun, with a great crowd. It sounds good, and I can play loud! The audience has kind of grown with me. I like to play clubs, and blues fests! I have to say that most of the fans and the people who come to see my shows are there for the right reasons. They are wonderful, and it’s cool. I can’t really complain at all. I guess I get some people that know me from my first few records where I play more traditional styles, and they may go, Oh man, he’s not really playing traditional any more, but they will be a small part of the audience that are die-hard traditional blues fans. I don’t really have that in mind. They either like it or they don’t, and I’m just being me. I’m not doing it for any other reason. Not to be rich. Not to be famous. I’m doing it just to play music. When you think about BB King and Bobby Bland and all those guys, they were the blues and they definitely did more soulful stuff, more R & B. Whatever they want, it’s all good with me!”
2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the passing of Elvis Presley. Most musicians have been influenced by the icon of rock and roll, and Kirk is no exception.
“I used to see his movies on TV as a child and I thought, Oh man this is so cool. Being a guitarist it was mainly Scotty Moore, but Elvis, I think he was the perfect combination of being in the right place, right time, right colour. This beautiful, charismatic singer, and to be able to have that appeal to the masses. At the time there was Little Richard, Chuck Berry and that kind of stuff, but Elvis brought it to everyone. He was incredible. For me in the 80s it was Michael Jackson and Prince, they were a part of pop culture and not just there for the music. Elvis was the Michael Jackson of the 50s.”
Kirk Fletcher’s evolution into the consummate blues performer is almost complete. He is currently working on an as yet untitled new album that he hopes to have recorded by the end of the year, though he admits that it is a work in progress. He is writing most of the songs himself, which he hopes will give it a heartfelt and personal appeal. He can happily include guitarist, singer and songwriter on the liner notes, which has a satisfying ring to it, but he still has ambitions. Who would he most like to play with? Eric Clapton. Favourite blues artist from any era? After a pause, brief but telling, there was only one: BB King. Though he admits that it was difficult to pick just one from a list of about 8 million.
As he explained earlier, the undoubtedly talented Elvis Presley benefited from the right place, right time all those years ago in Memphis. Perhaps Leek in 2017 will be the right place, right time for Kirk Fletcher!