Austin American Statesman - Boz Scaggs Interview
[Don McLeese - Austin American-Statesman (TX) - September 15, 1994]
When Boz Scaggs played Jazzfest in New Orleans earlier this year, his set was so supercharged that it was hard to believe he had retired from touring 14 years ago and limited his musical output to two albums since then. Then again, maybe the extended hiatus was what rekindled the fire.
"It doesn't take much for me to be enthusiastic about getting into it, when I am into it," said Scaggs before embarking on a long-awaited tour that brings him to the Backyard on Sunday. "It's not that I didn't care for it so much; it's just that it took time away from other parts of my life that I needed to give more time to."
For those who primarily associate Scaggs with the dapper dandyism of Silk Degrees, 1976's multiplatinum chart-topper that spawned the smash hits Lowdown and Lido Shuffle, this year's "Some Change" album represents a return to the grittier, rootsier style that marked Scaggs' earlier solo albums. While "Sierra" and "Lost It" from the new album show his mature mastery of the bittersweet ballad, he rocks with a rougher edge on the album-opening "You Got My Letter", incorporates a Cajun tinge on "Fly Like a Bird" and builds to a dynamic climax on "Time". Where his biggest albums featured the polish and precision of studio stalwarts (who would subsequently record hits on their own as Toto), the new one is a rawer-sounding collaboration between Scaggs and drummer/coproducer Ricky Fataar, with Scaggs' guitar highlighted for the first time since the early '70s.
"This album draws a lot more on my abilities as a writer and a musician than any album that I've done since, well, any album that I've done ever," he said, "but certainly more than the Los Angeles era, the last part of the '70s and early '80s, when I was working with studio musicians and arrangers and producers. At that time, it was more of a collaborative effort. My first few albums were mostly written by me and arranged by me and my band, and it was a more organic thing. And this album really turned out to be more of that."
Thus, the album seems like something of a full-circle return for the Texas-raised Scaggs, who attended St. Marks (a private boys' school in Dallas) with Steve Miller and received his grounding in musical Americana from the influences of Freddie King, T-Bone Walker and the variety that he heard on WRR radio ("almost a college course in American roots music," said Scaggs). He subsequently followed Miller to the University of Wisconsin in Madison and later to San Francisco after Miller landed a recording contract.
As rhythm guitarist and occasional vocalist in the Steve Miller Band, Scaggs contributed highlights ranging from the bluesy lilt of "Baby's Callin' Me Home" to the powerhouse rock of "Dime-A-Dance Romance". While his contributions to the Miller band were crucial and critically acknowledged, a pair of albums and a year on the road convinced the two schoolmates that their musical paths must separate.
"We were following different musical interests," said Scaggs. "Steve was really influenced at the time by Eric Clapton and Cream, and his band became more of a power trio after I left. He was following a guitar thing, and I went on to develop my songwriting, my own musical direction."
The irony of this explanation is that Scaggs' self-titled solo debut in 1969 became known primarily for the extended, explosive guitar of Duane Allman on almost 13 minutes of Fenton Robinson's Loan Me a Dime. (Allman would then join Miller's idol in Derek and the Dominos). Still, songs as strong as "I'll Be Long Gone" helped Scaggs establish an artistic identity independent of the Miller association. With a trio of subsequent early '70s albums, Scaggs sounded like an American equivalent of Van Morrison, mining the same seam between soul conviction and pastoral country that marked Tupelo Honey.
Things changed for Scaggs with 1974's Slow Dancer, an album of sleeker balladry produced by Motown staffer Johnny Bristol. A departure from his work with his touring band, the album anticipated the popular success Scaggs would enjoy with "Silk Degrees" while setting the stage for similar transformations by Robert Palmer and later Michael Bolton. Among those who preferred Scaggs' music a little earthier and less elegant, his popular breakthrough precipitated a backlash.
"A lot of people saw me on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, sportily attired, and I had hits on AM mainline radio, so you enter a different mindset to a lot of people," he said. "Things change, and things evolve, and things grow up. I grew musically, and I see it as a progression. But to other people, it might have been something else."
The title song to "Some Change" puts a different (if oblique) spin on that era: "There was a time I was lowdown for action/Red hot as a rule/Certified guaranteed satisfaction/One happening fool." Within his current live performances, the hits from that era are more muscular and propulsive and seem to fit Scaggs' assertion that his music represents a continuum that stretches back to his formative years in Dallas.
"To this day, I've been mostly influenced and fascinated by Afro-American music, the music that has evolved out of our African-American heritage," he said. "Blues, rhythm & blues, jazz: Those are the most important musical forms to me."
By the early '80s, the qualities that were dearest to Scaggs' musical heart seemed to fall from fashion, as video and synthesizer technologies made rock more fashion-conscious than ever. While plenty of established artists felt disenfranchised during that decade (at the time when Eurythmics and Culture Club were conquering MTV, artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison and Paul Simon seemed to exist on a distant planet), Scaggs simply dropped out. After 1980's "Middle Man" album fell well short of his popular peak, he didn't record again until 1988's lackluster "Other Roads", and then retreated for another six-year hibernation until "Some Change". "Some personal things took precedence in my life in 1980 and '81; family matters became my main focus," he said. "So for a couple of years, I was just doing that and was burned out from the responsibilities of a big-time career and glad to be away from that".
"But as an observer, it was a real ugly time for music in America. A lot of commercialism took over, and synthesizers really started to catch on," Scaggs said. "These orchestrations and textures and tricks and sounds and novelties became more important than singers and songs and real instrumentalists. MTV would have to be credited with a lot of the degeneration of pure music. It wasn't music, it was in the name of music, and they used music to sell all that s--- they were selling and still are."
During that time, Scaggs limited his musical activity to the co-ownership and operation of Slim's, a San Francisco club that has proven a haven for all sorts of rootsy regionalists and a home away from home for touring Texans (as well as the birthplace of the Texas Tornados, who were brought together there as a weekend revue). He additionally busied himself with his two sons, now 17 and 16, whose tastes have given him faith that his re-emergence comes at a better time for popular music than when he disappeared.
"Of course, they have the music of their own generation, as all generations have; but there's also a healthy awareness of music from the '60s and '70s," he said. "And it's not just a clothing fad. My kids are really into Earth Wind & Fire, who I consider to be very innovative, and they're listening to early Bob Dylan records, for the words, and James Brown. And that's just real healthy."
As for some of the stars on the current scene, Scaggs said he knows what they're going through, a popular reaction similar to what he experienced with Silk Degrees.
"I was in Berkeley (Calif.) last night, and everybody's down on Counting Crows because they're accepted by the masses," he said. "You ask a lot of people what they think of Pearl Jam now, and a lot of kids feel that they've abandoned them. It's not that they're doing anything different. They've just taken another step."
Copyright 1994 Austin American-Statesman