Chris Cotton
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Chris Cotton


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The best kept secret in music


"Old Country Blues By Blue-Eyed Guy"

Death -- or some other danger -- lurks around nearly every corner on Bay Area bluesman Chris Cotton's new solo CD, "I Watched the Devil Die."

"The Devil gets drunk all the time/ He ask you for a nickel and he'll end up with all your dimes," barks the San Jose native in a pain-soaked baritone. In that song, which Cotton based on a dream, he survives the encounter.

On another original number, "Black Night," Cotton imagines being confronted by his girlfriend's husband. "After he kills me, he might just kill you," he tells her before hightailing it out of town.

"There's a dark element to it," says Cotton, 29. "But I think I managed to do it without sounding anything at all like Tom Waits." He's sitting beneath an orange tree in the backyard of his grandmother's Mountain View home, where he'd lived before moving last year to a cabin in the woods of Lagunitas in Marin County. Stringy bangs protrude from the brim of a red cap bearing a logo from the Shack Up Inn, a former plantation outside Clarksdale, Miss., where shotgun shacks that once housed sharecroppers have been converted into tourist cabins.

Cotton cut his just-released album last April for the Yellow Dog label of Memphis at a downtown Clarksdale studio owned by Squirrel Nut Zippers front man Jimbo Mathus. Elvis Costello recorded there the week before Cotton.

Steeped in the Piedmont style of such 1930s Carolina legends as Blind Boy Fuller and the Rev. Gary Davis, Cotton's take on the blues is decidedly old- fashioned -- similar to that of Greenwich Village folkies Dave Van Ronk and Roy Book Binder, who took up a similar calling in the 1960s.

"It's based on the most basic human emotions -- you know, love and relationships -- and societal issues like working for the man or being a slave to a corrupt employment system," Cotton says of his attraction to acoustic country blues. "I would never compare my situation to the very extreme and unfair situations that sharecroppers, and African American slaves before them, faced, but I've certainly dealt with some pretty bad situations, whether working on a ship or as a cook or as a busboy for $2.33 an hour. I understand the basic aspect of being kept under someone's thumb.

"By doing mostly my original things within this very tight genre, I'm trying to come up with new and fresh stuff while trying to retain the fundamental feel and attitude behind the music."

"I Watched the Devil Die" includes treatments of vintage material by Blind Willie McTell, Skip James, John Hurt and the Mississippi Sheiks, but most of the tunes are Cotton originals, some reflecting his troubled youth and time as a transient. He was kicked out of high school in Sacramento, dropped out of Washington State University after one semester, served 90 days in a Boulder jail after a barroom brawl, then was extradited to Washington on a warrant for growing marijuana and did three more months behind bars.

Cotton then hitchhiked and hopped freight trains to New Orleans, where he spent a year and a half busking in the French Quarter, sleeping in fields or under bridges when there wasn't enough money for a room. Next, he worked several months as a deckhand on an oil-rig towboat in the Gulf of Mexico, but on his first night back on shore, he was robbed at gunpoint of his entire $1, 400 earnings by a man who'd asked him for a cigarette.

He's paid his dues to sing these blues.

Back in Mountain View at his grandmother's, Cotton landed a job at a Palo Alto music store and, in 2000, formed an acoustic blues quartet called the Blue Eyed Devils.

"Malcolm X used to refer to white people as blue-eyed devils," he explains. "It had kind of an ironic meaning as far as us white kids from Whiteville, U.S.A., playing traditional African American music." Before breaking up 14 months ago, the Blue Eyed Devils released two CDs on their own label and played a lot of parties and gigs on the West Coast.

Cotton performs without accompaniment on some tracks of "I Watched the Devil Die" and is joined on other selections by musicians from the Clarksdale area, including drummer Lee Williams, 18, and guitarist Big Jack Johnson, 64.

Except for occasional banjo, guitar, bass and drum parts by Mathus, who engineered the CD, the sessions were done without overdubs. Many of the songs are first takes. "It's not supposed to be perfect," Cotton said of the album. "It's kind of about feeling, rather than striving for perfection."

Although his music is solidly within the blues tradition, Cotton is conscious of the anti-blues bias of many radio programmers, rock critics and booking agents, who view it as genre that appeals mainly to "white guys in their 40s." He prefers to call what he and his current combo, the New Hokum 3's, play "Americana."

"Most people, when they think of blues, think of B.B. King or Stevie Ray Vaughan," he says. "What I'm doing is not really technically blues. There's not one 12-bar blues on the whole record. I would imagine that there's marketability to my music that is outside the very narrow genre of blues and that younger people -- people my age -- would appreciate what I'm doing."

- San Francisco Chronicle

"Chris Cotton is a time traveler"

Chris Cotton is a time traveler. The singing guitarist made his initial recordings during the first two years of the current decade as front-man for the Blue Eyed Devils. The quartet from the San Francisco peninsula cut a couple of superb CDs - "Hard Luck Town" and "Legend of Shorty Brown" - of mostly original songs performed in the “Bluebird” manner, an urbanized 1930s take on country blues associated with Chicago producer Lester Melrose and artists such as Big Bill Broonzy and Washboard Sam. Former Squirrel Nut Zippers front man Jimbo Mathus co-produced the second of the group’s discs at his studio in Efland, North Carolina.

The Blue Eyed Devils have since broken up and Mathus has moved his base of operations to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he produced Cotton’s solo debut. Though Cotton’s own music is as retro as the Blue Eyed Devils, urban elements are largely missing from "I Watched the Devil Die". It’s as if he’s taken his blues to another time and place, alternately capturing the back-porch intimacy and the juke-joint raucousness of rural Southern blues in his mix of original songs (including a washboard-driven salute to Broonzy titled "Blues For Big Bill") and treatments of chestnuts like Blind Willie McTell’s "Dyin’ Crapshooters Blues", the Mississippi Shieks "That’s It", Skip James "I’m So Glad", and Mississippi John Hurt’s "Louis Collins".

Cotton’s fingerpicking, much of it in the ragtime-inflected Piedmont style, is accomplished, but far from polished, and his craggy baritone voice, which suggests both Tom Waits and Leon Redbone, adds to general rawness of his presentation. Cotton performs much of the material alone using acoustic guitar, with fiddler Hamilton Rott, pianist Adam Woodard, bassist Barry Bays, and drummer Lee Williams joining in from time to time. Big Jack Johnson brings his electric slide to "Black Night", a Cotton original that romps with the type of ensemble abandon one associates with Howlin’ Wolf’s Memphis sessions.
- Living Blues Magazine

"Essence of old-time string band music"

Ex-Blue Eyed Devils singer-guitarist Cotton pursued his muse from his Bay Area home to Clarksdale, Mississippi, for this solo debut. What he found in the Delta with some aid from producer Jimbo Mathus--who played guitar on Buddy Guy's last few albums and leads his own rockin' Knockdown Society--and guitar ace Big Jack Johnson was the inspiration to blend the essence of old-time string band music and pure country blues with his folk-inclined sound.

Cotton's not much of a storyteller, but his fleet picking style, delightfully raggedy vocal cords, and taste for flat-four rhythms propelled by loose-tuned snare drums create a juke joint party feel that makes for easy listening and serves covers of Skip James's "I'm So Glad" and John Hurt's "Louis Collins" well. The best cut is Cotton's own "Black Night," where his howlin' warnings about a cuckolded husband get slicing support from Johnson's thick fills and keening slide. And the album ends with the poignant wish "Goin' Back Home," where Mathus's slide resonator guitar helps brings Cotton's pining lyrics to life.

"Album of the year!"

Like an unlikely collision between Tom Waits and Robert Johnson, Chris Cotton melds old to new in a bewitching, 12-song disc that demonstrates more heart and sincerity than anything the blues world has spit up in some time. Born of a two-day jam session with Memphis and Clarksdale natives (including Big Jack Johnson on guitar and Adam Woodard on piano), ex-Blue Devils front man Cotton bristles with his boisterous approach to old blues styles as he skips through classics like Willie McTell’s loping “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues”, Mississippi John Hurt’s beautiful “Louis Collins” and a rousing version of Skip James’ “I’m So Glad” that reinvent each original. Yet it is his own works – the coolly calculated “Come On” and the exquisite title track that are truly eye-opening. Hamill Rott’s scorching fiddle work on the Mississippi Shieks’ “That’s It” is, alone, worth the price of admission. But it is Cotton’s mirthful approach to pre-War Piedmont blues that takes the cake and injects it with newfound life. Stand-out tracks (and be warned – there are many of them) include the deliciously slick ‘n’sloppy “Black Night” featuring Big Jack on salacious slide and the spry Woodward on piano. This is a record of the year, seven months early.

- Exclaim!

"One of the most Amazing blues releases of the year!"

You might be unfamiliar with Chris Cotton, but that could be about to change pretty soon. Cotton, the former frontman for the California-based Blue Eyed Devils, wandered down to Clarksdale, Mississippi and with help from producer Jimbo Mathus, has assembled one of the most amazing blues releases of the year. Combining the Delta, Piedmont, Jug Band, and String blues along with old-timey country as well as folk music into one album is no small feat, but Cotton has brilliantly managed to do so with I Watched The Devil Die (Yellow Dog Records). Cotton is as fine a guitarist as you’ll run across and his gravelly, expressive vocals are a perfect match for the material, which includes impressive covers of songs by Blind Willie McTell (“Dying Crapshooter’s Blues), the Mississippi Sheiks (if Cotton‘s rousing cover of “That‘s It“ doesn‘t get your toe tapping, there must be a tag tied around it), Skip James (“I’m So Glad”), and Mississippi John Hurt (“Louis Collins”), each of which are given a brand new shine by Cotton. There are also seven original tracks written by Cotton, which blend smoothly with the older songs on the disc, most notably the title track and the album’s centerpiece, the nine-minute-plus romp “Black Night,” a menacing track which could have gone on an additional nine minutes with no problem and features some outstanding slide guitar from Clarksdale native Big Jack Johnson, and Cotton’s tribute to “the greatest bluesman that ever lived,” Big Bill Broonzy (“Blues For Big Bill”). Mathus, who produced Buddy Guy’s last two albums, gives this disc a live, loose, and ragged feel, just like a jam session from 50 years ago. The musicians featured on I Watched The Devil Die also warrant mentioning. In addition to Johnson, other featured musicians include Mathus himself, who plays banjo, drums, bass, and slide guitar on selected tracks, and another Clarksdale native, drummer Lee Williams, whose propulsive boogie beat really keeps things moving along, Barry Bays (bass), Hamilton Rott (fiddle), Adam Woodard (with some great barrelhouse piano), Olga (washboard, percussion, and fiddle), and the Clarksdale Hummingbirds (backing vocals) all make solid contributions to the album’s sound. I Watched The Devil Die is definitely one disc you’ll be playing over and over again.

- Blues Bytes

"One boot firmly in the Piedmont... the other solid upside yr head!"

"...the human word is like an outworn, battered timbal upon which we beat
melodies fit for making bears dance when we are trying to move the stars to pity." -Flaubert

Which is my big ol' ham-fisted way of saying when it comes to Real Blues or what
The Straight People (More Sugar!) call blues I ain't so sure I got my homework done enough to know what the fck i'm talkin' about. However in the spirit of MY Real Blues (and Mr.Cotton's) to hell with the damned stars and bring on the dancing bears!

I just finished listening to Chris Cotton's new CD titled I Watched The Devil Die. I'm awful sorry to say the best language I could come up with at the final note (without my usual swearing) was WOW! You'll be adding your own abundant and imaginative expletives after you hear it for your self. I'm at least honest enough to admit I know about enough about Piedmont style and other finger pickin' styles to keep my mouth half shut about Mr.Cotton's technical skill. On the other hand the fellow I work with is versed. His word as nail hit on head upon listening was Exceptional! Most finger-pickin' sorts have sounded high-brow, tight and pretty clean to my mud and woods tuned ears. Mr. Cotton despite his dangerous knowledge makes it roll out and around the ol' dirt road just as natural and rockin' as can be not forced faux and special. Mr. Cotton covers some of the masters works here. Mr. Willie McTell's Dyin' Crap Shooters Blues, The Mississippi Sheiks' That's it, and of course mr's Hurt and James with Louis Collins and I'm So Glad. But this man's a fine songwriter too. Six of the twelve here are his and fit quite comfortably up against the old timers. Each
song sounds like it was played (not performed) at a late night pickin' party among good friends. The song Black Night sticks out for the help and heft of Mr. Big Jack Johnson's after-hours slide and as well for Mr. Cotton's xtra fine band's joyful playing on such a dark and menacing song. Mr. Jimbo Mathus' production here as usual brings you in to the room and sets you nicely in the hot seat front and center of the action goin' down live and naked and hot in the Mississippi midnite hour. I just gotta hope Yellow Dog Records P.R. Machine is fired up to overheatin' overdrive on this disc 'cuz if work this good isn't hailed in all the so called blues mags and beyond then sombody someplace ain't payin' attention. Of course most folks don't listen cuz they're too busy bein' dazzeled by the stars and wouldn't Hear great music if it was a dancing bear bitin' their ass.
- Deep Blues

"You will definitely like this disc!"

Californian guitarist/ singer/ songwriter Cotton cut this CD in Clarksdale, Mississippi; produced and recorded by Jimbo Mathus at his tiny studio in the former home of radio station WROX. Backed up by bass, drums (the excellent Lee Williams), fiddle and piano, Cotton has produced a knockabout session of small group blues including a killer original in ‘Morgan City, Mississippi’ and a super version of ‘Dying Crapshooters Blues’.

Big Jack Johnson is featured on slide on ‘Black Night’ (an original, not the better known song) however the standout song has to be ‘Blues For Big Bill’ (Broonzy obviously!) This session came as a real out of left field surprise, I liked it a lot and if you like small group (mostly) retro acoustic blues then I think that you will definitely like this disc. - Blues & Rhythm

"Rising Roots Artist Records Retro Solo Debut"

Blues purists and Blues Roots fans rejoice! San Francisco's Chris Cotton has recorded an album faithfully dedicated to the origins of the genre. Says Cotton, however, "Call it Americana. Most people, when they think of Blues, think of B.B. King or Stevie Ray Vaughan. What I'm doing is not really technically Blues. There's not one 12-bar Blues on the whole record." Playing in the Piedmont style of such 1930s Carolina legends as Blind Boy Fuller and the Rev. Gary Davis, Cotton's treatment of the Blues sounds distinctly old fashioned.
The Piedmont Style, says Cotton, requires "playing the bass line and the melody concurrently and all the chords in between - all at the same time."

Cotton cut his just-released album in April 2004 for the Yellow Dog label of Memphis at a downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi, studio (Delta Recording Studio) owned by Jimbo Mathus, who produced the CD. Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers, Buddy Guy's band, and his own Knockdown Society, is well-studied in Roots and Blues. As producer, Jimbo added some tenor banjo, drums, bass, and slide guitar parts, plus the co-mixing to analog tape. Mathus's studio also contained the vintage equipment (RCA ribbon mics and '50s era amplifiers) to give the record its old-timey sound.

Other studio artists on the CD include Lee Williams (drums), Hamilton Rott (fiddle), Barry Bays (bass), Adam Woodard (piano), and guest Big Jack Johnson on "Black Night."

"I Watched the Devil Die," the title track, is a Cotton original. The surprising upbeat and jaunty tone of this song hides its low-down lyrics. "The Devil gets drunk all the time/The Devil gets drunk all the time/He'll ask you for a nickel and he'll end up with all your dimes/You want my soul, motherfucker? Stay away!" Cotton warns. This Ragtime tune is footstompingly catchy.

"Dying Crapshooter's Blues," a cover of Willie McTell's classic song, will hook you. It's the best slow Blues song on Devil. The tambourine and washboard percussion intro behind the guitar makes you perk up your ears to listen for a rattlesnake. Cotton's vocals are full-bodied and poignant here. It's a shame that the lyrics aren't printed in the liner notes as his originals are, because "Crapshooter's Blues" is one of the most descriptive and clever ballads in the Blues genre.

"That's It," a pulse-raising fiddle and banjo spectacular tribute to the Mississippi Sheiks, is one of the shortest songs on the album, but it packs a lot of 1930s roots power in 2:43. During this track, one might imagine one of those old silent movies where the cops chase the prison-striped crooks through all sorts of obstacles in fast-forward speed. Try and dance if you dare risk a heat attack!

In "Blues for Big Bill" Cotton describes Big Bill Broonzy as "the greatest Bluesman that ever lived" in this original track. "Some people don't like me/They want to put me down/Come on now, you'll need C.C. around," sings Cotton as he tries to convince his baby to "hear these Big Bill Blues." Genial and familiar-sounding, this song features Cotton's guitar and vocals backed superbly again by Hamilton Rott's fiddle.

Other standouts are Skip James's "I'm So Glad" and "Black Night," with guest Big Jack Johnson on slide guitar. "Black Night" is a 9:18 excursion into North Mississippi Hill Country Blues with the hypnotic droning rhythms brought out of the hills by the Fat Possum stable of artists.

- BluesWax

"Ten out of Ten!"

California-bred Chris Cotton is definitely bursting with the spirit of the great Piedmont blues artists who preceded him. Cotton was the frontman for the band The Blue Eyed Devils that achieved a modicum of success before disbanding. On this CD Cotton is flying solo and he has chosen impressive company. It is not your standard 12-bar blues, but has the elements of blues nonetheless. There are many styles of blues, all reflecting a regional lifestyle, and Piedmont blues encompasses the elements of country, ragtime and folk blues songster. The CD was recorded in Clarksdale, Mississippi at the Delta Recording Service run by Jimbo Mathus when he is not on the road with Buddy Guy. The flavor of the region is reflected on this presentation which has a relaxed but authentic essence.

The opening cut "Morgan City, Mississippi" is a tale written by Cotton about hitching a ride with the sheriff and it swings with a ragtime beat and a gravelly vocal interpretation. "Come On" is a country-flavored composition on which Cotton demonstrates creative guitar fingerpicking to compliment his worldly worn vocal style. The title cut, "I Watched The Devil Die" has a juke joint flavor that is engaging for its raw beauty. The cover of Blind Willie McTell's tune, "Dying Crapshooter's Blues," features Cotton's aching vocals and makes one wonder how much more haunting can it get! The Mississippi Shieks tune, "That's It," features Mathus on tenor banjo and Hamilton Rott on fiddle on this upbeat instrumental which is delightful and at the end there is light laughter in the background (like they knew they nailed it!). The inventive interpretation of "I'm So Glad," a Skip James tune features Cottonís mournful vocals. "Black Night" is Cotton's gleeful composition that really rocks for a whole nine minutes and twenty-two seconds complemented by the incredible slide guitar of Big Jack Johnson and is a real winner. Cotton's major musical inspiration is Big Bill Broonzy and he pays tribute on the tune "Blues for Big Bill" with robust vocals and a masterful fiddle accompaniment. "Goin' Back Home" is a somber but hopeful ending with the Clarksdale Hummingbirds adding a nice background touch.

What can I say, other than I loved this CD and, out of twelve cuts, there is not a miss in the bunch. On a scale of ten, I would definitely give it a ten and if I didn't own it, I would go right out and get it. It is one of the most refreshingly creative offerings of the year!

- Jazz Now


The Blue Eyed Devils
"Hard Luck Town" LP
Self-released 2001
(Cotton, Klynn, Markovits, Wheatley)
Out of print

The Blue Eyed Devils
"The Legend of Shorty Brown"LP
M.V. Records 5258 (2003)
(Cotton, Klynn, Markovits, Wheatley)
This album had 180 radio adds Nationwide and was nominated for a California music award.

Chris Cotton
"I Watched the Devil Die" 2005 LP
Yellow Dog Records
This record debuted at # 20 on the Living Blues Charts and is currently at # 17 in May 2005 and was also at # 16 on RMR. It been added on almost every Living Blues reporting station in the World.


Feeling a bit camera shy


Chris Cotton has made a career out of wandering. When the West Coast native (California born, he attended college in Washington State) decided to see the world, he started by hitching rides, working short-term jobs, and sleeping on empty rooftops and in crowded squats. After a sojourn in Colorado, Cotton decided to head south, catching rides on freight trains for a month ‘til he eventually landed in New Orleans. Even in the Big Easy, Cotton refused to settle down, taking a job as a deckhand on an offshore oilrig.

The one constant in Cotton’s life has been music. He was raised by a trio of women: his mother, an aunt, and his grandmother, who plied him with piano lessons at an early age. He resisted, and instead begged his aunt for $25 to buy an electric guitar. She acquiesced, and Cotton – just ten years old at the time – was soon churning out chords on the beat-up instrument.

Although Cotton made the typical teenaged progression with music – experimenting with rock’n’roll and metal – he gravitated toward the blues after a chance encounter with a borrowed Muddy Waters album. The scratchy grooves reminded him of the dozens of concerts his stepfather had taken him to – B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and more – in the Bay Area when he was just a kid, and, as unlikely as it might seem, an inspired Cotton fell into the role of itinerant bluesman.

Picture a young white kid, guitar strapped around his neck, playing for change in New Orleans’ Jackson Square. Imagine the gritty sounds coming from an impromptu combo of gitbox, washboard, and stand-up bass. Throw in a percussive banjo lick, a punctuating horn blast, and the wail of a harmonica lament. This was Cotton’s proving ground: no four walls, or a stage, just the humid streets of New Orleans. Cotton listened as much as he played, learning the Piedmont style of picking (“playing the bass line and the melody concurrently and all the chords in between – all at the same time!” he explains) from older, more talented musicians.

Cotton was a quick study, and his energetic fretwork breathed new life into the pre-war Piedmont blues. His heroes, guitarists like Big Bill Broonzy, Reverend Gary Davis, and Blind Willie McTell, hadn’t walked the earth for many decades, yet Cotton was determined to decipher their ancient secrets. Cotton also channeled the jug band style used by the Mississippi Sheiks and the Depression-era hoedown technique favored by the Skillet Lickers, studied early country musicians like Jimmy Rodgers and Hank Williams, Sr., and combined their primitive, frenetic methods into a singular, rootsy approach. His own compositions, vigorous footstompers like “Morgan City, Mississippi,” and “I Watched the Devil Die,” manage to walk a traditional path while remaining true to his own youthful spirit, passion, and energy.

After further honing his craft, Cotton returned home to California, where he formed his first band, The Blue Eyed Devils, with harmonica player Brendan Wheatley. Rounding out the group with a fiddle player, bass man, and drummer, Cotton and Wheatley played more than six hundred shows and recorded two original albums under The Blue Eyed Devils moniker.

Then, in early 2004, Cotton decided to go it solo once more. After woodshedding at home, he ventured south to Clarksdale, Mississippi to record his solo debut at Jimbo Mathus’ Delta Recording Studio. Mathus, an alumnus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Buddy Guy’s band, and his own Knockdown Society, was an easy choice for producer: the Mississippi-via North Carolina guitarist is well-versed in Cotton’s style of blues, and, in 2003, he cut The Blue Eyed Devils’ second album, The Legend of Shorty Brown. Plus, Delta Recording had the necessary vintage equipment on hand: RCA ribbon mics and ‘50s era amplifiers, set up with plenty of space for guest musicians like Clarksdale native Big Jack Johnson, who dropped in to play on a few tunes.

Like most good blues records, Cotton’s upcoming Yellow Dog Records debut sounds like a house party caught on tape – world-weary men effortlessly strumming their guitars and bass, while passing around a jug of whiskey for sustenance. The barrelhouse piano, is, of course, pushed up against one wall; Cotton’s gravelly voice reigns over the debauchery. The scene is timeless – harkening back to the days when the distinction between blues and country was hopelessly blurred. It’s an aural portrait that owes a debt to Southern bluesmen and Americana pioneers alike.