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Blues Doctors return to stage at Crash Music

Mike Easterling
measterling@daily-times.com
The Mississippi duo the Blues Doctors perform this weekend at Crash Music at the Aztec Theater.

FARMINGTON — Taking to the stage to play a music festival in a weedy field in the tiny hamlet of Bentonia, Miss., in the middle of June — complete with 95-degree heat and 90-percent humidity — might not seem like the ideal way for a pair of college professors to spend a summer weekend.

For for Adam Gussow and Alan Gross of the Oxford, Miss.-based Blues Doctors, it was a little piece of heaven.

“That’s the Mississippi summer scene, and we’re part of that,” Gussow said by phone last week from Oxford, where he and Gross are longtime faculty members at the University of Mississippi.

Gussow and Gross, who will make a return appearance this weekend at Crash Music in Aztec, have been playing together for the last five years and have certainly found their niche as scholars/musicians.

“We’re always trying to improve what we do,” Gussow said. “But we’re guys in our late fifties or early sixties, and we’re pretty set in our rhythms. There are no major turns in what we do. … Alan and I, we’re a couple of guys from the Northeast who have been in Mississippi for a long time, and one of our great joys in being part of the local scene.”

Alan Gross, left, and Adam Gussow of the Blues Doctors are both professors at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

Gussow may be satisfied with the Blues Doctors’ place in the local musical hierarchy, but that hasn’t stopped him from leaving his mark on blues culture in a larger sense. He recently completed the manuscript for his book “Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition” and is close to having it accepted for publication by the University of North Carolina Press. Gussow expects the book to be released in the fall of 2017.

“I’m pleased, and it’s a relief,” he said of reaching the finish line for the book, which is an exploration of the many ways in which Satan and blues culture have always been joined at the hip.

The book goes far beyond the well-known, stereotypical tale of Robert Johnson meeting the devil at a Mississippi crossroads one night and deciding to swap his soul for brilliance on the guitar. Gussow rebukes a number of myths in the book, outlining how it was the fiddle, and not the guitar, that was the original “devil’s instrument” and describing how black Southerners projected a range of meanings on to the devil, making the blues, in effect, thinly veiled protest music.

The version of the book Gussow has submitted to UNC has been shortened from his original 137,000-word manuscript at the suggestion of the editors there, he said, but Gussow believes the book is stronger in its abridged form.

“They really got what it’s about, and it was good to go back through and refine my argument a bit about the devil and how people dealt with him,” Gussow said.

The difficulty of going through that editing process will pale in comparison to what awaits, he said.

“This book depends on lines from 125 different blues songs, and trying to deal with the copyrights for their use is a challenge,” he said.

As an English professor at Ole Miss, Gussow has been through all of the challenges of having a book published before. His self-published novel “Busker’s Holiday” — the tale of heartbroken young English graduate student from Columbia University who deals with his emotional pain by throwing his harmonicas in his backpack and heading off to Europe to reinvent himself as a street musician — came out last fall and is available online at Amazon.

Gussow described the book as somewhat autobiographical, hastening to add, “It’s a novel, not a memoir. But it is based on my experiences as a street musician.”

Gussow also has authored “Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition,” “Journeyman’s Road: Modern Blues Lives From Faulkner’s Mississippi to Post-9/11 New York” and “Mr. Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir.” He acknowledged the powerful hold music has on his imagination and how it permeates his writing, even his approach to teaching.

“The role I have here at the university is half English and half Southern studies,” he said. “I’m actually not assigning very much literature to my students. There’s a lot of music, a lot of history and a lot of Southern studies.”

Gussow’s impact on blues culture will be further solidified with the expected release of the documentary “Satan and Adam,” which chronicles Gussow’s experiences of playing with legendary guitarist Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee in Harlem in the 1980s and 1990s. The documentary has been in the works for two decades, but Gussow said filmmaker V. Scott Balcerek — best known for editing the 2008 LeBron James documentary “More Than a Game” and his visual effects work on four of the “Star Wars” films — recently raised more than $50,000 through an online fundraising campaign and now says he has enough money to finish the film. The documentary is expected to be out early next year, and Gussow has been told that Balcerek intends to submit it for acceptance at the larger independent film festivals, including Sundance.

Gussow traveled to Gulfport, Fla., in late May to celebrate Magee’s 80th birthday with him, and the two performed together for the first time in many years — a performance captured by Balcerek for the film.

The Blues Doctors' 2013 release "Roosters Happy Hour" features covers of such tunes as "Sweet Home Chicago," "Pride and Joy" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

“I’m looking forward to it,” Gussow said of the release of the film. “It’s been 20 years, but I have faith in Scott. He’s been following us the since the fall of 1995.”

The new footage of Magee and Gussow performing together provides a nice conclusion to the documentary, Gussow believes, and he is eagerly anticipating seeing the film himself.

But he still believes the best way to experience music is by hearing it performed live — a message he tries to convey on a regular basis in the digital age.

“If I have a little preaching to do, it’s that, yes, there is some kind of music you can get for free, but there’s some that you just have to hear live and soak up with the people who are creating it,” he said. “That is the old way of doing business. For certain kinds of disciplines — blues and martial arts among them — you’ve got to go and hang out with the people who are part of that ‘chain of transmission.’ And I like using that phrase ‘chain of transmission’ because a lot of us who play the blues think of ourselves in that way.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: Performance by the Blues Doctors

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 9

Where: Crash Music at the Aztec Theater, 104 N. Main Ave. in Aztec

Tickets: $15 at crashmusicaztec.com or 505-427-6748

For more information: modernbluesharmonica.com/the_blues_doctors.html