Blues singer who helped honor Johnson plays in Salisbury
By Hugh Fisher
SALISBURY – Stevie Tombstone, wearing a black sport coat and a quiet smile, describes himself as “a performing songwriter” as he gets ready for his set.
Playing last night at Uncle Buck’s on East Innes Street, he brought his music – “I call it folk or country blues,” he said – to the streets of Salisbury.
From the time he was 12, he said, music has been a part of his life.
“My parents listened to a lot of records when I was a kid,” he said.
“My dad had a lot of cool country records and early rock-and-roll. We were always listening to Buddy Holly and Ray Charles.”
From the age of five, he said, he started being interested in those roots.
And although he said he’s gone in other musical directions, those country, rock and blues traditions have formed a common thread.
So much so, he said, that back about 1991 he and his former bandmates decided to honor Robert Johnson, legendary Mississippi singer and songwriter.
Performers including Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, and countless others, have called Johnson an inspiration for their guitar stylings.
“He was pretty much who they call the father of the Delta blues,” Tombstone said. “Everybody’s taken something from Robert Johnson and used it in modern music,” he said.
And Johnson’s life and untimely death, in 1938 at the age of 27, are the stuff of legend.
“The old tale is that he met the devil at the crossroads and sold his soul so he could be the best guitar player,” Tombstone said.
“The story went that he was buried in a church cemetery, and they had the body moved because of the story about the devil.”
Tombstone said that, in 1991, members of his former band worked through their management to help donate a grave marker to place at one of the reported sites of Johnson’s burial.
As a result, he said, they got negative press and some of their colleagues shunned them. The band broke up not long after, he said.
“There were some people who wanted to do the same thing who hadn’t done it,” he said.
But the stone is there today, he said, as a testament to Johnson’s legacy.
And, as part of the mystery of where Johnson is, in fact, buried, there are now two other competing stones, he said.
That experience over 20 years ago played into the title song, “Greenwood,” on his new album of the same name.
Greenwood, Mississippi, is the city where Johnson died at the age of 27 in 1938.
“The whole gist of the title song from my new record … at that time, we could hardly get anyone to tell us who he was, much less where he was buried,” Tombstone said.
“And now, ironically, it’s a tourist destination,” he said.
As he travels up and down the East Coast from his home near Syracuse, N.Y., he said he enjoys the four times he’s performed in Salisbury.
“It’s a great place, they treated me wonderfully,” he said.
“I’m real fortunate because I get to meet a lot of different kinds of people. It gives me a real perspective when I’m trying to write.”
In a time when music is more and more homogenized, he said, his album is “all about the lyrics … I hate to use the term Americana, but it is Americana.”
Some songs are narratives that grew out of talking to his wife or his son.
“Talking about a road trip, or a relationship with a friend,” he said. “I think a lot of it’ s first-person, and it’s easier for the listener to identify with these songs.”
Scott Howard, a.k.a Uncle Buck, said it was an honor to have Tombstone there.
“And we’re very blessed with the musicians we have come through here,” he said.
“These are guys out here doing it because they love it.”Downtown’s music scene is growing, both in the number of venues and the variety of music, Howard said. “We’re glad to be a part of it.”
And for Tombstone, being in the business is its own reward.
“I mean, I feel I’m successful,” he said. “I’ve gotten to play with people I idolized when I was younger. And I’m able to pay my bills.”
It’s not a matter of money or fame, he said.
“Being able to make a living is a success in and of itself. I’m able to do what I love to do.”
Tombstone will play tonight at the Blue Vine, 209 S. Main Street, as special guest along with David Myers and Ashley Honbarrier. Music begins at 9 p.m.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.