Alvin Youngblood Hart

It’s a cool Memphis morning, and Alvin Youngblood Hart is sitting in his kitchen talking music—particularly the grab bag of guitar greats who have inspired him, and whose music he welds together into a jagged, grinding stomp, much to the frustration of fans who want to pigeonhole him.

Depending on who you listen to, Hart is either a brilliant bluesman or a rock ’n’ roll sellout. Blues purists hear the authenticity and power in his voice and playing, but—true of blues fans since the music crossed over to a white coffeehouse crowd in the ’60s—they have a noisy habit of crying foul when he cranks up his Firebird and launches into a cover of Free’s “The Worm,” Doug Sahm’s “Lawd I’m Just a Country Boy in This Great Big Freaky City,” Otis Redding’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” or Johnny Paycheck’s “The Meanest Jukebox in Town.” Hart could care less.

Alvin Youngblood Hart

Describing himself, with a chuckle, as “the cosmic American love child of Howlin’ Wolf and Link Wray,” Hart dismisses any limitations on his music with the wave of a giant hand.

“I’m not gonna rewrite the Charley Patton songbook,” he says. “Although there are certainly fans who want to hold me to whatever fantasy they have. All these people laying that vibe on me, they just want me to do some old tap-dance and folkie blues. I'm not inspired to write that stuff, and I’m not gonna be playing it.”

You can’t really blame people for asking, though. Hart’s interpretation of Delta blues is some of the best blues being made right now—bristling with menace and power and individuality. While most modern blues artists play the music’s forms, Hart plays its soul.

Hart first appeared a decade ago, seemingly from nowhere, surprising audiences with his 1996 Okeh debut Big Mama’s Door, a selection of pre-war blues songs picked on an acoustic guitar, then switched gears for Territory, a blues-meets-rock (by way of western swing) album released two years later. It was his 2000 rock effort, Start with the Soul, produced by Jim Dickinson, that simultaneously shocked blues purists and kicked open a door to a phalanx of rock fans.

“I’ve been around the world at least ten times, and I've won whatever bullshit awards,” Harts says. “That whole ‘blues Nazi’ thing? Well, let's just say that the more they do that to me, the more I resist.”

Alvin Youngblood Hart

Hart has made a fan-maddening habit of switching at whim between the musical styles he loves. It’s not the best move for solidifying a fan base or appeasing a record label, but Hart is an artist, through and through. And in true Memphis tradition, he refuses to compromise his musical vision. He fits beautifully into the city’s rebellious musical lineage—a kindred spirit of young Elvis Presley, Phineas Newborn, Sam Phillips, and the Burnette brothers. Hart can switch from Jerry Lee Lewis to Furry Lewis on a whim. And does. The only common denominator to the music he plays live is that it is all great, and it is all performed with the force of a freight train. That, and his screaming Gibsons—one in particular.

Throughout a career that’s transcended trends and labels, Hart has remained loyal to his Gibson Firebird. As a teenager, he wrote his first originals on his ’66 Firebird, and nowadays he favors one that rolled out of Nashville in ’02. “There’s something about that mahogany slab that gives a good rock tone,” he says of the new one, which he has customized with a P-90 pickup. Though he has been known to alternate to a 40-year old SG Special and ’80s Les Paul Custom, it is the P-90-equipped Firebird that Hart uses during his must-see live sets. “A good rock tone” is something he has loved his whole life.

Up until his mid-teens, Hart lived in Oakland, California, where he spent impressionable years idolizing a garage band that practiced in his neighborhood in the late ’60s. “There was this band up the street who called themselves the D-Dynamics. They were black mop-tops, playing Beatles songs. Before I was even school-aged, me and my buddies would go over and listen to them practicing. I heard that guitar coming through the amp, and I thought, hey, that's cool. That’s for me.”

When Hart was seven, he first attempted to master the instrument. From the very beginning, he didn’t limit himself. He’d study the Band of Gypsies and Sly Stone albums his older brother brought home, and then try to imitate Roy Clark’s honky-tonk moves on Hee Haw. His tastes only got broader.

A move to Ohio at age 15 opened Hart’s eyes to punk rock and metal. “The Stooges were the big thing,” he explains. “I was just a Midwestern teenage boy playing [Thin Lizzy’s] ‘Jail Break,’ on that ’66 Firebird.”

Alvin Youngblood Hart

It was during family sojourns to Carrollton, Mississippi that Hart became acquainted with older, more folk-oriented forms of American music. Through the blues, he says, he found solidarity with older generations—namely, his grandparents and great-grandparents, who lived in the tiny town located a few hours south of Memphis. “Getting into that music as my relatives started to disappear was something that helped keep them around,” he says.

“The music I write today comes out of all of the things that influenced me as a kid,” explains Hart. “Right now, the rock ’n’ roll of my youth comes out the easiest.”

Nowhere is that more evident than on his most recent album, Motivational Speaker. From the title track’s pure Southern rawk, replete with cowbell and chugging guitar chords, delivered via his Les Paul, to the album’s last cut, “Shootout on I-55,” which finds Hart trading licks with Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, the album is a testament to the power and versatility that Hart can summon live.

These days, Hart is not only staying true to his music, but also to his easy-going demeanor. The famed guitarist shows up to gigs wearing faded blue jeans and an old work shirt, his shoulder-length dreads crammed into a truck stop cowboy hat. And, rather than spending time glad-handing the powers that be in the music industry, he’s prone to spend weekends deer hunting on his parents’ land in Mississippi, or cooking pots of spaghetti at home.

“I’m just sticking to what I do, because obviously there are people out there who get it,” Hart says. “Sooner or later, I’m hoping to run into the right folks who can book me, and the right audiences. I’m not really looking for a new label. When you’re young and idealistic, that’s one of the things you dream of—a record deal. But now that I’ve been there and done that, it doesn’t mean much to me.”

This stubborn visionary maintains that his refusal to bend to industry pressure is something he’s proud of.  “I’m not gonna change for the sake of anyone else,” he says. “When my tombstone is laid out, all I want it to say is, ‘He did it for rock.’”

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