Buddy Guy plays 150 shows a year and releases a new album every 24 months, and his take on the blues, expressed through his plaintive voice and virtuosic guitar, is still scorching. On The Blues Is Alive and Well, out now on RCA/Silvertone, his impassioned campaign is two-pronged: Pay homage to his elders and make sure the genre still has a place in the world. In more than three dozen albums over six decades, the 81-year-old has yet to compromise: “Fashions come and go,” he says, “but the blues ain’t ever going out of style. The blues is the truth.”
Is your album title wishful thinking or reality?
Both. Truth is, I’m worried about the blues. When B.B. King was still alive, we had long talks about why, outside of satellite, the radio don’t play no blues. On the other hand, I got me some youngsters. My protégé Quinn Sullivan is 19, but I discovered him when he was 8. Cat named Kingfish Ingram from the [Mississippi] Delta, just out of high school, is also playing serious blues. I paid for his record. I’d pay anything to make sure this music does what it’s always meant to do: Let people know they ain’t alone. See, we all got the blues. That’s the human condition. But those blues don’t mean we got to grieve. Those blues will warm your heart. When the groove gets to your gut, those blues, brother, turn sad to glad.
Throughout the album your joy seems to outweigh your worry about the future of blues.
Hell yes, the music is shot through with joy. Always has been. When I left the Louisiana farm on Sept. 27, 1957, for Chicago, I was looking for joy. And I found it. Joy went by the name of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy [Williamson], Howlin’ Wolf. One thing those guys told me never left my mind: “Keep these blues, alive, Buddy. Don’t you ever let them die.”
You could have picked anyone to join you on the album — why Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones and Jeff Beck?
Feel like I owed the British the respect they gave Muddy. In the ’60s, when our music was dying, the Stones and their English buddies woke up the world to the blues. They wouldn’t play if Muddy wasn’t on their show. They were shocked America was ignorant of the geniuses living right here in our own backyard. They saw where the gold was buried and they dug it up.
How do you grapple with age on this album?
I didn’t know I’d be the last man standing [and] be hollering to the world about the greatness of this music. Far as dying goes, I hear my mama saying, “Sure as you come here, you going to leave here.” Mama also said, “If you have flowers for me, give them to me now, because I won’t smell them in the grave.” That’s why I like them naming a highway after me in Louisiana. I’ll get to see it with my own eyes. That takes the sting out of death. That means folks going to be traveling over me for some time to come.