Wednesday, April 4, 2007
L.C. Ulmer is on a tear. The 78-year-old blues guitarist and vocalist—who up until a year and a half ago was not known outside his hometown of Ellisville, Miss.—is now omnipresent in the Mississippi blues scene. He regularly performs at clubs in Hattiesburg and Jackson, makes frequent trips to Clarksdale and Ocean Springs to play local festivals, and was recently featured on "Thacker Mountain Radio," the long-running live radio show based in Oxford. If that isn't enough to keep him busy, Ulmer has a recording session and tour of Europe in the works.
Ulmer has been playing music for more than six decades, and his style reflects a steady, unhurried and patient pace. Performing on acoustic guitar with minimal backing musicians (often just one other guitarist, occasionally a drummer), Ulmer unveils his music slowly, with sturdy, hypnotic rhythms and spare but heartfelt vocals.
Ulmer's development as a musician closely parallels the stories of other blues performers from his generation. Growing up in a family of musicians in Stringer, Miss., Ulmer was drawn to the guitar as a young child and was caught regularly "sneaking down" his father's guitar from the wall.
"All my people were musicians," he says. "They all had guitars but me, and I would be sneaking down one while they wasn't there. They didn't allow us to borrow them, but you know how kids are. ... And I'd hit me a tune, you know, trying to hit a tune. Nine-and-a-half years old, dragging it across the floor."
After learning the basics of the guitar, he traveled every Saturday to nearby Laurel to hang out with and learn from Roosevelt Graves, a blues musician and street performer. Ulmer proved to be a good student. By the time he was 15, he was playing at local dances and other events.
When he reached his late teens, Ulmer became bored with small-town life. "I'd heard about the pretty women in California, so I decided I had to go see them," he says, describing the allure of larger cities.
His trip to the West Coast initiated several years of travel around the country, with extended stays in California, Arizona and Alaska. During a decade spent in southern California, Ulmer developed a one-man band show. He taught himself to play the drums, harmonica and other instruments, while he sang and played guitar. The musician boasts that he was a 12-piece band all by himself. "I didn't need no help," he says jovially.
By early 1965, Ulmer had settled in Joliet, Ill. (the gritty Chicago suburb that was home to an infamous state prison), where he spent nearly 40 years in the local blues-club scene. While legendary blues musicians like Hound Dog Taylor and Jimmy Reed would occasionally play in Joliet, Ulmer was a mainstay on the local club scene. "I'd be the man that played when ... no bands were coming in town," Ulmer says.
In 2001, Ulmer decided it was time to return home to Mississippi. He reacquainted himself with Ellisville. Soon after he was settled, he began performing around the area, and discovered a new passion: teaching. After years as a one-man band, his musical proficiency extended to piano, bass, harmonica, mandolin and banjo, and Ulmer wanted to share his breadth of musical knowledge with others. Now, he has students who range from elementary-aged school children to adults.
One of his younger students has become an important part of his performances. Chase Holifield, a 15-year-old from Ellisville, began taking guitar lessons from the elder bluesman in 2005 and quickly learned the basics of the instrument. After a few months of lessons, Ulmer invited Holifield to play back-up guitar with him at a benefit concert in Hattiesburg. The young guitarist fared well and now performs with Ulmer at most of his shows.
Ulmer's performances around Mississippi have attracted the attention of many other musicians around the state, including bassist Justin Showah. The Oxford-based musician and producer enjoys the older performer's unique take on the blues.
"He's traveled around, but has retained the old-timey music styles of the 1930s and '40s," he explains. "He's never adapted to the later styles."
Showah is currently planning a recording session with Ulmer and hopes to release an album featuring the guitarist later this year on Electric Catfish Records.
While Ulmer still enjoys performing and interacting with audiences, he now focuses most of his efforts on his work as a teacher. His teaching is a way of conserving culture and teaching others a vital skill. "Years ago, folks used to can a whole lot, they put up their preserves and everything. So you've got to put up something to preserve yourself," he says.
Ulmer performs in Jackson Saturday at the Crawdad Hole Music Festival at Joe's Crawdad Hole on Lakeland Drive in Jackson. For info, call 601-982-9299.
Thanks for the great breakdown on Ulmer. I was so surprised when I heard him that he had remained so undercover for so long.