It was the 2011 King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, where I first met Bob Rowell, AKA the Mississippi Spoonman. A more gentle, humble, and generous soul you’d be hard-pressed to find. He has shared his time, his stories, and his jewelry with me – when I admired a lovely necklace he was wearing, he took it off his neck and placed it around mine.
Even better, the man can coax more music out of a pair of spoons than I could out of a radio. Spoonman has participated in the International Blues Festival twice and progressed into the solo/duo finals each time. At the 2012 IBC, he teamed up with Bill Abel, another renowned Delta musician, to present an energetic and captivating multi-instrument set.
When I went to King Biscuit this year, I wanted to make it a point to spend some time with Spoonman and find out more about his musical and personal background. His house is a treasure trove of folk art, memorabilia, and musical memories, and I was intrigued by his stories about the blues music icons he has known. Also, he has had a challenging year health wise which he discussed quite openly with me with the hope of enlightening others.
I found that he opened up readily with very little prompting from me, so here is the story of the Mississippi Spoonman.
Stacy Jeffress for American Blues Scene: How did Bob Rowell become the Mississippi Spoonman? You want to tell me the story?
Spoonman: Yeah, sure.
ABS: First, where were you born?
Spoonman: I was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1952. And so was Charlie Musselwhite. It’s right in central Mississippi. Right smack dab in the middle.
My stepfather was a jazz drummer, hence the percussion. My mom married him when I was about 7 years old. So by the time I was about 9 years old, we had a music room. We always had a music room. Had a set of drums in there and a baby grand piano and a guitar. By the time I was 9 years old, I was learning how to play drums. I didn’t want to be a sissy and play the piano which I wish I would have now. I wish I’d learned how to play guitar ‘cause I have all these songs come into my head all the time.
I write a whole lot of lyrics and get with guitar players to work up the song. We lived on the Gulf Coast, Moss Point and Pascagoula. There’s a music store down there, one of the largest in the Southeast at the time called Chaffee’s. Chaffee used to play with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, and there were some other guys from the coast. Bobby Smith who played also with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. These were my stepfather’s friends. Every Sunday we’d all have a jam session, so I get to where when I was 10 or 11 years old, I was their little drummer. They carried me around to the country clubs, and I’d get to play. That got it started.
Then after my parents split up and my family went all different directions I went back on the Gulf Coast. I played with all the top 40 bands, a band called the Night People, and all those guys from Biloxi, Communication Breakdown. You go back and check back in the ‘60s, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Back when Hendrix was out and Woodstock was going on.
I was influenced a lot on drums by the Summer of Love. Played down there a lot. Then I come up and lived with my grandmother in central Mississippi, played at the VFW, Moose Lodges, American Legion. You name it, any kind of fraternal society. Started playing those at a very early age, 16 years old and on up. I didn’t have my parents, just had my grandparents. I had a new car before I had my driver’s license.
ABS: Did you finish high school?
Spoonman: Yeah, I finished 4 years of college, too. I went off in the military, Navy, stationed 4 years in Virginia. I played with a lot of different people. Country was big in Virginia Beach when I was up there, so I found some good country gigs playing with a guy named Slim Jennings. He’d played the Grand Ole Opry. I did a gig with Ronnie McDowell who did “The King is Gone.” So even though I was in the Navy I was still playing drums.
I started playing spoons when I was a little baby. At my grandma’s house I’d pull them out and play them. Beat on the dashboard. My great-great-grandfather was a peddler; he carried a box of pens and old razor blades and stuff. He’d tell me, you’d better stop banging on that dashboard unless you can make some money out of it. Everybody laughed. Elvis was hot then.
After the Navy stint, guess what was big then? Heavy metal. So I got off into the heavy metal thing and played with a band from Mississippi called Japan. We played a lot. I played in and sat in with so many different bands, like The Tangents. Charlie Jacobs was the lead singer and player with The Tangents. I moved to Jackson, Mississippi.
My background in art lead me to corporate communications. I started doing a lot of corporate brochures for the defense department, homeland security, print materials, multimedia stuff. I still played in a band, will always play in a band. I’d be playing and they’d go, hambone, hambone, play them spoons, Spoonman. I’d just entertain them playing spoons, set ‘em on fire, gee the lighter fluid, set ‘em on fire and play them. It was funny as hell.
I know I’m jumping all around. I’m trying to get to the point. In 1989 I was at the Elbow Room in Columbus, Mississippi, and James “Son” Thomas was there. I was watching him. He had this harp player from France with him. They’d been on a little tour or something. I was overtaken by it. I started talking to him and said, “You know what? I can play spoons.” And he just rose up and looked at me, bright-eyed. He was an old man then. He said, “You can?” I said, “Yeah.” he said, “Come on up and play some spoons. I played with some spoonmen before, with Cleveland “Brooman” Jones. He was playing the broom.”
Son Thomas was explaining that to me, about he wore down a broom and put it on a piece of plywood, a rhythm, and he’d play guitar with it. We got to be friends. We was talking one time, and I said, “I appreciate you letting me, this thing kind of works.” And he said, “Yeah it works with the blues don’t it, spoons?” I said, “Yeah it makes that percussion without having a drum kit and plus you can do everything with a pair of spoons you can do with a drum.” He said, “You know what? You’re the Spoonman from now on. You’re the Mississippi Spoonman!”
ABS: So Son Thomas named you?
Spoonman: Son Thomas named me. He was the one who did it. Then I started coming over to the blues festival in Leland, they have the Highway 61 Blues Festival. I’d come over and sit in with Pat Thomas [the son of Son Thomas] and some of the other people. Got to meet Bill Abel and all the people at the Cultural Center. Ran into Carla Robinson who plays bass with me from time to time who introduced me to John Weston, so he let me play with him and advised me to go to Mexico, Guadalajara. I was playing some with a guy named Steve Cheseborough. I got to meet a lot of these guys like Big Jack Johnson. I started hanging around Red’s [in Clarksdale] and got to know Big Jack real good. I said, “I’m going to do a CD and I want you to play on it. He said, ‘You know I will.’” They were wanting to help promote me. You’d think it’d be just the opposite.
A lot of white guys, if you’ll notice, are out there to cut heads and say, “I’m better than you, look at me, I know more licks than you. I got a flashier show than you.” The sense I got from Big Jack, Son Thomas, Sam Carr, all of them, is like, “Be yourself. God gave you a gift. Let’s watch you develop this thing and see what you can do with it.” It started really happening. I started going around and getting invited on stage. It got to where I’d go to the Delta Cultural Center and made friends with them. I decided to move to Helena 7 years ago. I just sold my house in Jackson and moved up here, like an idiot, really.
But I wanted to listen to blues, I wanted to be where the blues is really from – Clarksdale, Helena. The real deal’s here. It’s life. It’s a lot of downtrodden stuff. I have people come to my back door begging for food. I see it. I know what it’s about. Hopefully I can write about it and make it real for somebody.
ABS: Let’s go back a little bit. I’m going to take you back to some of your past. Tell me about college – you went to college where?
Spoonman: Mississippi State University.
ABS: What did you study?
Spoonman: Commercial art.
ABS: In addition to being a musician, you’re a fine artist.
Spoonman: Yeah, for almost 19 years.
ABS: So you got a day job with a corporation?
Spoonman: A big corporation as far as corporate communications goes. See that skull right there [pointing to the mantel]? Son House did that. He was an artist, too.
ABS: It’s interesting how many musicians also draw, paint, sketch.
Spoonman: The other side of the brain, I’m telling you. I make these bottles and put jewels on them and put obituary things on them of the people I’ve known. That skull right there, Son Thomas for a short time was a gravedigger. That skull has real human teeth in it. Roger Stolle wants that real bad.
ABS: So how did he get real human teeth to put in there, do I want to know?
Spoonman: Some people say he’d go around and get them from dentists. You know the blues always has a little bit of the mythical to it. Like Robert Johnson, we don’t know where he’s buried, not really. Right back up here in the hills, Robert Nighthawk’s grave, you know that? There’s a little road back up this way. And Frank Frost’s grave. He played with Sonny Boy.
ABS: How long did you keep your day job? Was there a time when you could support yourself entirely by your music?
Spoonman: Music was always extra money. The other I did to survive. If I could’ve quit and played full time, I would have. Now I got to where, after I’d been working 18, 19 years, I had a real bad motorcycle accident. Through a CAT scan, MRI and stuff like that they found a tumor.
ABS: Because of the motorcycle wreck, they found the tumor?
Spoonman: Otherwise I don’t know how far down the line it would’ve went, but blood started gushing out of my ear. When they went in there and looked, yeah, you got a big knot in here; a lesion’s come up on it.
ABS: When was this?
Spoonman: Probably about 12 years ago. I was about 50. I’ve been dealing with the VA since like 2006 with different surgeries and stuff. They’ll go in there and they’ll cut it all out. And then it’ll heal up and it’ll come back. It grows like tree roots. That’s how it does under your skin. Anybody that thinks they got any little red bumps, don’t just say it’s not, go to a dermatologist, don’t fool around with it. Contact me and I’ll send some pictures, and they can see for themselves how bad it can get.
ABS: Is this melanoma?
Spoonman: No, this is aggressive basal cell carcinoma. Aggressive. One of the most aggressive cases they’ve seen. I got out of the hospital last Thursday. I was in Memphis for almost 6 weeks. After the main surgery when they relocated the tissue, that’s what all this white is up here. They sewed my ear up by the way so I’m listening with 50%. I lost 50% of my hearing. I took radiation and chemo at the same time to try to kill any of those cancer cells which might be floating around after the surgery. I’ll report back up there in a month, MRI and CAT scan. They’ll see what’s happening. They took out the joint part of my jaw bone, the round part that goes in the hole? I don’t have one here.
They took that out and part of my cheek bone and they took out all the inner bone of my ear, the bone that makes up your ear around the timpani, the ear drum?
ABS: So are you being treated at the VA in Memphis?
Spoonman: Yeah, and University Hospital in Jackson.
ABS: Are they good to you?
Spoonman: Yeah, they good to me. [He showed me picture of a very long incision on his thigh where tissue taken to transplant onto the right side of his face.] This whole side here was like something rotted out to the skull.
ABS: The pain has to be excruciating.
Spoonman: Yeah, I take all kinds of pain medication.
ABS: Has this been one long continuous battle since they found it?
Spoonman: Yeah, at least since 2005. It keeps coming back. But here’s the way I deal with it. Most of the time I hang out I’m here. I’m writing songs. I have almost enough to do a CD, original material. I’ve got all these musicians I know who are kind enough to want to play with me and ask me to play. The Sonny Boy Blues Society has took me under their wing. I don’t know why. They said they get a kick out of what I do. I can just go on and on.
I had something to do with percussion all my life. So what’s happened is, I’m trying to put it back into the blues world, because it used to be there. There used to be spoon players. I want to be able to take spoons and use them as percussion behind all this guitar playing and complement the bass player. I experimented with the electronic spoons. I can hook them up and make them sound like a snare drum. I started doing that a long time ago and I know Artis the Spoonman who played with Soundgarden. I used to talk with him a good bit but I haven’t talked to him in a long time. He lives up in Seattle.
[Spoonman proceeds to show me how the electronic spoons work.] This hooks up to a midi sampler. It’ll take a lick when these 2 spoons hit together that triggers that click, and this click goes into a midi sampler where they have all these sounds sampled, they have all these different snare drums and cymbals, anything percussion. I have a foot switch and jump from a kick drum to a snare drum to a hi hat, any sound you want.
ABS: What’s the prognosis?
Spoonman: Try to stay well. The last time I had major surgery, it was not as bad as this one but it was bad, over a year and a half ago. Didn’t look like anything was wrong except they’d taken out a mountain of skin, you could see my little ear drum way down in there. It looked fine, no lesions, no gooey stuff. But what happened was all of a sudden it just came back, getting red. It had been growing all that time up under there. I’d been going in for checkups and they’d been cutting little biopsies. That’s how fast, how aggressive basal carcinoma is. Extremely invasive. It started wrapping itself around the bone. They said, “We have to take out some of this bone now.” I can play. I know I can get up on the stage, no problem. I put on a good show, I hope everybody likes it. I put all the energy I have into playing.
ABS: You were in the IBC Finals this year for solo/duo with Bill Abel. Tell me about that experience.
Spoonman: I’ve been to IBC twice; I was a finalist twice. I don’t know if three’s a charm. There are so many good people out there that I’d like to play with one more time. Believe me, if I went up there, it would be the very last time.
ABS: What was your set up the first time you were at IBC in the finals?
Spoonman: The Sonny Boy Blues Society sent me up there. I was with Steve Cheseborough. My main focus right now is getting well, writing more songs, doing an original CD and trying to live a peaceful – underline peaceful – life without a lot of strife and crap.
ABS: That doesn’t seem like too much to hope for. You have a lot of friends that care a lot.
Spoonman: I have a lot of friends. I have a lot of good friends in music. I’ve had a lot of friends die. Some of my best friends passed away. One thing after another. That’s the blues, that’s life, and life goes on.
I love to play music. I’m going to do it as long as I can. Anybody who knows me knows where I live ‘cause they can come here anytime they want to and see me, we’ll jam, we’ll play.