Luke Winslow-King hails from up in Cadillac, Mich., but he’s been living in New Orleans long enough to steep himself in local history and culture. He moved there after graduating from high school and fell in love with the Big Easy’s rowdy synthesis of jazz, country, blues, ragtime, gospel and pretty much every other style of music imaginable.
A decade later, Winslow-King has become an accomplished musician, himself, with three albums of Southern-accented folk under his belt. He’s a New Orleans musician but clarifies that he is not a musician from New Orleans.
“People ask you where you’re from, and you’re never really from here unless you’re born here,” he explains. “It’s kind of a rule.”
After self-releasing his first two albums and gradually building up a national audience, Winslow-King signed with Bloodshot Records for The Coming Tide, which shows off his lively rapport with his backing band. As they drove into St. Louis for a two-night stand, Winslow-King spoke to CMT Edge about picking the right covers, improvising onstage and not playing Johnny Cash tunes.
CMT Edge: I want to start off by asking about the covers on this album, in particular your version of Ida Cox’s “Blues for Rampart Street.” It seems like a very good introduction to your sound.
Winslow-King: That song really meant a lot to us when we discovered it. It tells of old Storyville and a longing for the old days in New Orleans when all the cabarets were still open. Obviously it’s not the same as Storyville now, but we understand that sense of longing, and we’re in touch with people on the road who have that feeling within them, too — that feeling of wishing things were how they used to be. It’s a great song that we wanted to preserve, so we gave it that Cuban mambo feel with the 12-string guitar, a little shaker. It sounds like a romp, with an energetic step up Rampart Street.
The other one that stands out is “I’ve Got My Mind Set on You,” which was a hit for George Harrison.
Sometimes we pick a song and decide how this person would play it. What would Jesse Mae Hemphill do with a George Harrison song? What would John Lee Hooker’s version sound like? That’s how we stumbled across our version, just trying to create a North Mississippi version of the songs. It’s a lot simpler and doesn’t have all the chord changes, and we took out the bridge. It silly and playful, but we thought it would be fun for people to recognize when we play it.
I also want to ask about one of your originals — in particular, the title track, which is filled with some potent biblical imagery. Where does that come from?
I think it comes from the music that we’re into. Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Willie Johnson, those guys were preachers in their other lives. They played blues at night and gospel on Sunday mornings. We have always had a reverence for traditional gospel music. Without it, we wouldn’t have the blues. I came from a Baptist household, and I’ve always felt the power in religious music, regardless of whether or not I’m religious myself. I think a lot of people can relate to the passion in religious music. “The Coming Tide” just came to me all at once, and I didn’t question it. I don’t use any of those big words you hear on Sunday morning. Instead, we tried to have it be something that a lot of people could relate.
Do you find that different regions of the country respond differently to this kind of music?
When you’re in the South, people are expecting it a little bit more, I think. In Alabama and Mississippi, people are familiar with the New Orleans sound and are ready for it. But then as you get out of that region, it turns into a novelty, which is great if you’re a music fan and are looking for something a little different. But sometimes when we get into a college scene or we’re playing a bar, I think they wish we were a cover band. That happened last night, and we were like, “Sorry, we don’t do any Johnny Cash.” But I think most people see us as New Orleans ambassadors, so we better be listening and digging deeper on these tunes. We never claim to know everything about the culture, but we do feel a responsibility to do our best.
What makes you all jell so well together? What makes these people so good to make music with?
We all come from similar roots musically. We’ve all played as sidemen in different bands in New Orleans to learn the traditional music, whether it’s blues or Dixieland or ragtime. We’ve all been surrounded by a lot of the same influences, and we’ve just played a lot of gigs together and really had a lot of time to get to the point where we can predict what the next person is going to do to improvise. Everyone knows what the next person is going to do next. We also love to create new things. It’s not that we’re trying to preserve this music. It’s that we all still love it and think it’s alive. It’s not dead music.
How do these songs translate from the studio to the stage?
Improvisation is always a big part of what we do, and when we are onstage, we improvise a little bit more than we would on the record. On the record, there might be an improvised solo in a very specific section, but on a live show, you can improvise on the forms of the songs, as well. I can hold on to a chord for a little bit longer, and they’ll follow me. Or I can double the chorus or drop out the rhythm and have a breakdown. We can all lead each other. It’s about just listening to the song and figuring out where it wants to go because sometimes the song knows more about itself than you do.