M897 Artist Spotlight: November 2013
SWEET WILLIE TEA
Lessons in the Blues with Sweet Willie Tea
Story by LCC Radio Staff Reporter Karen Hopper
We fell in love with Sweet Willie Tea. This one-man band appeared on the Grand River Radio Diner in October, and we knew we had to ask him to be the M897 artist for November. Sweet Willie Tea is one guy, one bazillion instruments, dozens of bluesy Americana tunes, snakeskin cowboy boots, and a hat.
He wins me over totally as he schools me in the blues. He pulls out his guitar and demonstrates the twelve bar blues chord progression, “One,” he says as he plucks and strums, “four . . . five . . .” He explains that this is why musicians can jam together. Not being a musician myself but being someone who works around music, these are ideas with which I’m sort of vaguely familiar, but Willie’s enthusiasm is contagious.
Sitting across from him, as he smiles and talks about music theory while playing his guitar, I feel that there are few things in the world so fascinating and innately beautiful as twelve bar blues.
Willie has been doing the one man act since 2010. His previous incarnation, as the frontman of The Cidy Zoo (notable for the song “Talk Louder”), ended, for the most part, when an accident injured his left arm. Doctors told him that the nerves in his arm weren’t severed, and that he would probably regain functionality. But they couldn’t tell him when that would be.
His ability to play guitar hampered, he started to learn how to play the harmonica and one-handed piano. The injury became a musical rebirth.
“I don’t care if I ever play another top forty song,” said Willie.
He calls himself a “luddite” when it comes to instrumentation, focusing on the harmonica, cigar box guitars, and a simple drum. He eschews the use of electronic instruments.
Following his musical passion has proved successful; he won the Detroit Blues Society Blues Challenge in 2013 and won the Canada South Blues Challenge in 2011, and each time went on to finish in the semi-finals at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis.
His mobility as a one-man band makes it easier for him to play more gigs in a week. He now typically plays three nights a week, and sometimes as many as five. Willie is happy with this niche; he wants readers to know that he plays house parties, too. “But it’s gotta include food,” he deadpans.
“Let people know it’s important to “like” my Facebook page,” adds Sweet Willie Tea.
You won’t find much ego when you talk to Willie. I ask him if he considers Peter “Madcat” Ruth (another Grand River Radio Diner favorite) a contemporary, and he laughs, “He’s better than I am . . . I consider him an inspiration.” He names Dr. Ross, another Flint musician, as an inspiration as well, then goes on to gush about a young artist whose demo he is due to record in his personal studio.
And the music lessons aren’t over. “There’s a worldwide network of one guy bands,” Willie says. He tells me briefly about the history of European versus American style one-man bands. European one-man bands kept their drums on their backs and would walk around town before being chased off, whereas American-style guys owe their starts to juke joints and people who wanted to dance.
The old-time sound is popular in mid-Michigan, with several acts branding themselves as “old timey.”
“I think it’s a pushback against too much technology,” says Willie. He calls hyper-adjusted modern music recordings “sterile” and “too perfect.”
“An imperfect recording of a perfect performance is better than a perfect recording of a contrived performance.”
Sweet Willie Tea’s most recent CD is Freshly Brewed, No Lemon. His next album, due this spring, has a working title of Second Cummins, a reference to his family’s old farm in Cummins, Michigan, and it will feature some re-recordings of older material.