By Chyrisse Tabone, Rock At Night Editor
Interview: Billy “Bass” Alford
Rock At Night interviews a lot of musicians around the world but a gem lies within our own RAN family. Austin blues musician Billy “Bass” Alford, composer of RAN’s podcast theme song “Get On Down”, is the kind of person interviewers dream of. He is rich with stories of music history—often with firsthand knowledge. He is a real life troubadour who travels between the hills of West Texas and California, along Route 66, stopping at old road houses on the way, to entertain the locals that still have a penchant for a bottle of beer and a good country or blues song.
Billy spent his teens sneaking into blues clubs, playing on the porch of Texan greats such as Mance Lipscomb, and even played back-up for John Lee Hooker. He was a teen friend of Stevie Ray Vaughan and remained close friends with him until his tragic death in 1990. Billy has played everything from blues to Prog Rock to even New Wave, while living in West London back in the 1980s. Having lived the hard life of a musician, 32 years clean of alcohol and substances, a cancer survivor, and now in his sixties, Billy has come full-circle to songwriting, playing the acoustic guitar, and digging deep into his Texan roots for inspiration.
A prolific songwriter, he has been sharing his work in recent years in social media, such as Facebook, his videos have garnered upward to 40,000+ views at a time. A worshiper of Robert Johnson, he is hoping that possibly his own music can be discovered and even recorded by others.
Rock At Night interviewed Billy back in 2016 and you can hear the podcast HERE. Asking about his recent success in social media, he recounted, “I was there figuring out my play list on Facebook and then all of a sudden, my songs that had 30 to 40,000 views, started disappearing before my eyes. I went to find out where they went and received a notification from Facebook saying ‘We are sorry. We lost your music and we can’t get it back.’” When asked why he doesn’t use YouTube and monetize his work, he noted he can receive immediate feedback on Facebook. He said, “It took me from 2013 to last year to build it up to where I could get 40,000 views with one decent song. I’m like #1 in Sweden!”
Often songs come to Billy in the middle of the night, while asleep. He told the story, ”I wrote ‘S.J.’, a song about Stevie Ray Vaughan and Janna (his girlfriend). Stevie came to me in a dream and showed me a guitar chord and told me to write the song he never got to write for Janna. And the song was typical Stevie using a jazz chord with the major sevenths and ninths…you know, similar to the jazz chords used in ‘Riviera Paradise’. So, I wrote a whole song around it and it only took me a few minutes.”
Rock At Night wondered if he had any intention of recording his music. Billy explained, “A friend of mine is Ted Nugent’s right-hand man. His name is Calvin Ross. Now, I’m not a big Ted Nugent fan but have really grown to like him and his contributions. Calvin has a Otari 8-track back from the 70s. Those things used to go for like $9,000. There’s a lot of records that have been made with those. They are ½-inch tape—and I bought it.”
Billy continued saying that he has a TEAC 4-track that WAS rebuilt for $1,000 and he intended to create “killer analog records.” His plan was to record simple bass and acoustic guitar tracks saying, “I’m keeping it simple so I can have releases and showcase my songs in case one day someone wants to record them. I will burn the analog master down to vinyl and not have any cost for a recording studio. With a nice Neumann microphone and a few little analog tricks, you don’t need much to record.”
Billy intends to create albums and videos for social media in his new “rolling studio”, a 2012 Harley Davidson RV which he contends “is in mint condition and everything works.” He wants to live and work in the R.V. until he can construct his underground mansion (using storage containers) on the family ranch. “I’m going to sell metal art. I bought a few hundred gallons of hand sanitizer and I’m going to be selling that. I’m donating some to the Health Alliance of Austin Musicians (HAAM).”
In the first Outlaw Country band
Rock At Night noted that a lot of Billy’s recent music appears to be in the traditional blues style and even country. He remarked that he was in the first outlaw country band to every exist! He recounted a fascinating story, saying, “I worked with a guy in about 1968/69 when I was about 14. His name was Rick Sikes and his band was Rick Sikes and the Rhythm Rebels. He was good friends with Waylon Jennings. He was an up and coming star but he had one little issue—he liked to rob banks.
“Yeah, he did 30 years at Leavenworth. He put in the first recording studio in a federal institution. He would have been a big star, no doubt!”
Musical roots and influences
When asked about who influenced his music and career, the first names that came to his mind were Big Bill Broonzy, and of course, Mance Lipscomb. He told the story of meeting Lipscomb as a teenager, “ I was 15, and it was right after Woodstock. It was around the time of the Texas International Pop Festival which featured everybody that played at Woodstock, and was attended by about 300,000 people. I met up with a guy we called ‘Uncle Bill’, who took me down to Navasota to meet Mance Lipscomb. I had an old Black Harmony Sovereign, which I still own. I sat down on the porch with Mance Lipscomb and played ‘Sugar Babe’, one of the first songs Mance learned.
“One thing you ought to know about Mance is he was a son of a freed slave. His name ‘Mance’ was from the word ‘Emancipation’. “He used to have a lot of young songwriters come over to the house because he was an incredible songwriter. Amongst those were Ray Wylie Hubbard, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zant, and B.W. Stevenson (‘My Maria’).”
One can hear Billy’s heart warm as he discussed his memories of Mance, who was a “real nice man.” Mance told a female friend after she asked if he wanted more sugar in his coffee, saying, “Just put your finger in there and stir it, that will sweetin’ it up OK.”
An interesting side note is that Dylan was likely introduced to Blind Willie McTell’s song “Rough Alley Blues” during one of his visits. The song’s chorus “lay it ‘cross my big brass bed” was clearly borrowed for “Lay Lady Lay.” Dylan later paid homage to Blind Willie McTell in a song recorded in 1983 which is featured in Bootleg Series 1—3.
Billy noted that other influences include Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Jimmy Rodgers, and even George Harrison. He cites All Things Must Pass as a must-listen album, and especially admires Harrison’s use of slide guitar. He said, “If you listen to my song ‘Every Time’, it’s totally George Harrison-influenced.”
Reviving Robert Johnson
Billy has been in the process of organizing a music session at the same studio Robert Johnson recorded his iconic songs. He is friends with Michael Altman, son of movie director Robert Altman, who penned the lyrics for “Suicide is Painless” at the age of 14. Billy has been gathering the analog recording equipment in hope of using it in an Altman documentary. He explained, “We could do a song like ‘Kind Hearted Woman’, talk about the songs, etc. It’s the music that made American pop music.
“I was listening to a hip-hop song recently and low and behold, the song had a Robert Johnson lick. There’s a lot of rock people other there that think Led Zeppelin is where it all came from. Well, they are allowed to give co-credits for…”
Rock At Night filled in the blank, “Willie Dixon.”
He continued, “Yeah they have to give Willie Dixon equal writing credits.”
Billy’s opinion on the old school blues masters is interesting because he believes the last ever Delta blues song ever written and recorded was “Voodoo Chile” by Jimi Hendrix. He noted, “He’s hanging on the E-chord. It’s got all the elements of a Delta blues song.”
He continued discussing the history of blues in the 1960s, “It was really John Mayall, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page that ‘revived’ the blues in the early 1960s. You can see the progression of blues all the way from Robert Johnson up to Stevie Ray Vaughan. In my humble opinion, my generation is the last of the old school blues artists.”
When asked if he favored the bass or the guitar, since he is known as Billy “Bass” Alford, he noted he is definitely a bass player, but picked up the guitar in about 1962. “My brother had an old Sears Silvertone and my favorite song at the time was a John Lee Hooker song ‘Boom Boom’. I picked up the guitar so I could play (the song).
“And, the funny thing about it, 12 years later I was playing bass in John Lee Hooker’s band for a short Texas tour!” He explained he and the last of the old school bluesmen, including Brian Wooten (Trace Adkins Band) and Christian-Charles DePlicque (Blackbird, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s former band), were at the right place and the right time. John Lee Hooker’s band didn’t show up at a gig and we were able to fill in.”
Billy told another story of rubbing elbows with old blues artists, “There was a club in Abilene, Texas called Blue Monday. This was around 1968 and it was a black club. I used to hang out there and play with these guys. All these guys like B.B. King and Albert King used to stop by there and jam.
“There was another club in Midland, Texas, called The Ponderosa. I’d be playing there witih a guy called J. Frank Wilson. He made the song ‘Last Kiss’ a big hit. It’s a Wayne Cochran song. Boy, did I get a blues schooling in that place!”
Thoughts about the Pandemic
Rock At Night discussed the glut of artist livestreams during the current COVID-19 pandemic period. Due to the isolation, no live concerts are allowed and musicians are resorting to social media to keep their music alive. Livestreams consist of barebones presentations of an artist and a guitar—no bells and whistles of a public live performance.
When asked what he predicted would happen to music as a result of the isolation, Billy noted, “After the pandemic, we’ll get back to the song—words and melody.” Continuing, he said, “One of the best songs ever written if ‘For What It’s Worth’ by Buffalo Springfield. It’s really a simple song but it works.
Billy also expressed his sadness over the loss of John Prine during the pandemic, “the greatest American songwriter that ever lived.”
The best compliment one could receive
Ending the interview on an up note, Billy told a story about how he did a “road gas tour” down Route 66 and stopped at old road houses. He stopped at a small town in California to play once and they actually summoned him back at a later date to perform a gig for the city. After playing a few songs, he eyed a mature, attractive woman, saying, “She looked very classy. There were a bunch of hippies in the crowd, like me. She came up to me really sweetly after the show.”
The woman explained to Billy that she was Pete Seeger’s woman during the years he lived in Paris. She said that every night they would go on a barge down the river, park it, and play music. It was a very beatnik and happy period for her. She paid him the best compliment one could give a blues artist, “You, Billy, are the first person I’ve seen since Pete, that carries all the energy. You carry everything that Pete had. Listening to you tonight was like listening to Pete Seeger.” Billy was so touched and thanked her.
He said, “That was the best compliment I could ever have.”
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