Each night when award-winning bluesman Tab Benoit picks up his guitar he does so with a clean slate. No plans, no pre-fab approach to the setlist, no rehearsals.
“You don’t rehearse the blues, man,” Benoit says with a laugh.
Perhaps, but the blues don’t just happen either. There’s a commitment, life-long in many cases, during which the true bluesmen like Benoit work to get closer and closer to an ideal sound, coaxing a feeling into sonic sentiment with a flick of the pick and a touch of tremolo. And there’s always room for improvement.
“I feel like you should never fully enjoy your music when you’re listening to it,” Benoit says. When you listen, you should feel like ‘Man, I can do it better than that.’ You should feel like your best work is still to come.”
Benoit, an underrated guitarist largely unheralded outside of the Bayou, has been striving to achieve his best work for more than 16 years now. Since releasing his debut album, Nice and Warm, in 1992, Benoit has drawn comparisons to guitar gurus ranging from Albert King to Jimi Hendrix. He’s also collaborated with acclaimed musicians Jimmy Thackery and bass and drum duo Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton, who backed Stevie Ray Vaughn under their better-known nickname, Double Trouble. His 2006 release, Brother to the Blues, snagged a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album.
But in Louisiana, where Benoit says every man, woman and child seemingly has natural musical ability, even those accolades do little to impress the Cajun connoisseurs. Staying afloat in that deepest of blues-playing talent pools however, now that’s something. And that’s what Benoit strives for, a slow growth, a consistency that transcends sudden success and pop appeal and brings him closer to the origins of American music.
“If you go out and sell millions of records and play bubblegum music, you’re kind of looked down upon [in the Louisiana music scene]. What they look for is how you’re going to handle that musical talent and how you’re going to stick to that root and make something unique out of it,” he says. “What’s important to the people in Louisiana is the root of that music, not the frillies on top. It’s not that you’re just a good player, it’s gotta say something and gotta mean something. The leaves come and go every year, but the root remains and that’s all that keeps the tree alive.”
Down on the bayou, they don’t want no Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, decked out and shiny but once a year. Give them the stooped-over Cypress, rangy, mossy, one that grows out as much as it grows up, its roots spreading wider than its sparsely covered branches. It may not be a sexy image, but it’s one that endures … just like the bayou blues.
It’s that kind of model upon which Benoit bases his career. He’s happy to take slow and steady strides, always improving his style, if not his sales figures, and always demanding the most from his music.
“I still feel like some of the things I feel don’t come out like I want it to,” Benoit says. “Somewhere in my brain and soul there’s a conversion process taking place, but it’s a slow process and it takes a lifetime to learn. Guys in their 80s and 90s are still at the top of their game. Look at B.B. King. He just gets better with age. To me, that’s the way to do it.”
After a tireless dedication and lifelong commitment, the spoils seem all the sweeter. Recently, Benoit was named Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year by the Blues Foundation. While he doesn’t quite know how the honor is awarded, he’s humbled to be recognized.
“What can I say? That community, they accepted me as part of it. And you can’t say enough about that,” he says.
“You just have to keep making music that’s real and honest and wait for them to come around to you and [your music] is finally accepted. And when you do get there, it’s a huge reward. I’m honored to be a part of it.”
• Tab Benoit performs at The State Theatre, Friday, May 23. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $16 in advance, $21 day of the show. For more on Tab Benoit, visit www.tabbenoit.com.