But someday songs may be written about meeting at the crossroads of Eighth and Walnut where crowds gather on the steps of a neo-Gothic church in downtown Salina. It’s the third weekend in October and they’ve come to worship at the altar of the blues.
For Chad Kassem, who owns Blue Heaven Studios, it’s more than just a weekend of concerts. It’s a race to capture a sound that soon may disappear.
A race to capture a sound
“For 16 years now we’ve had Blues Masters at the Crossroads here in Salina, Kansas, and my goal was to document the living blues legends while they were still with us and performing and try to document them in a very high quality, so we could share them with the world, so everybody could hear them at their greatest,” Chad Kassem, owner Blue Heaven Studios, Quality Record Pressings, and Acoustic Sounds said.
“It isn’t until now that I realize just how urgent it was. I mean I didn’t realize they would be gone so quickly,” Kassem said. “Now looking back 35 of them have passed away since we started doing this, if not more of the performers that we’ve had. I mean (Clarence) “Gatemouth” Brown, Little Hatch, Bobby “Blue” Bland. I mean so many of the legends that were our friends, that we had here many times. Pinetop Perkins, Robert Junior Lockwood, they’ve all passed on.”
‘Music is my pleasure’
While many pioneers of the blues are no longer with us, Kassem believes that the musicians who remain, deserve to be heard. Like Lazy Lester who was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2012.
“I like to play music, anywhere, anytime, for anybody,” said Leslie “Lazy Lester” Johnson. “That’s my thing. I mean, like I say, music is my business, business is my music, and music is my pleasure.”
On a ‘one-man mission’
“Chad is on a one-man mission to record as many of the classic ‘blues masters’ as we call them that are around,” mastering engineer Kevin Gray said. “It’s an exciting thing to be involved with. To be able to, sort of, archive some of the great works of these blues guys.”
Playing ‘the devil’s music’ in a church
Performing in a sacred space carries a special resonance for many of the blues artists. But for some, playing the blues in a church is still a little unusual.
“The first thing they say when they walk in, they go, ‘Man, this is a church!’ and I’m, like, well yeah, we told you it was a church. ‘But, no, no, this is a church!'” Kassem said. “I mean, like what were you expecting Little House on the Prairie? You know, like the little church with the steeple and all the people?”
“A lot of people tell me, ‘Yeah, you’re playing in a church,’ So what?” said Henry Gray, who spent 25 years performing with blues legends like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Jimmy Reed. “To each his own. He bought the church and he turned it into what he wanted to turn it into. If he wants to put the blues in it, it’s no church no more.”
“It’s a beautiful venue,” said Gray. “There’s something about recording in a large space that cannot be duplicated any other way. The acoustics in here are very, very nice, very conducive to live music and that’s conveyed on the recordings.”
‘Blues is about Life’
Guitarist and songwriter Doug MacLeod says preserving this music is important because the themes of the blues are universal.
“Blues is about life,” MacLeod said. “The basic human feelings. You want somebody to love you. You want to love somebody. You want some food on the table. You want a little peace of mind. You want your kids to be all right. Those basic feelings are going to be with humans forever. And that’s what blues is about.”
The blues is his family’s story
Hailing from St. Louis, Marquise Knox, at 22, stands out among the veteran bluesman. Despite his youth, he says he has a special connection to this music.
“To me, the blues is important because it was a way of living, and it was also my family story was, indeed, the blues,” Knox said. ” So this is what makes me want to keep this particular music around because it was the first thing that we could do outside of working in the cotton fields, that was being a musician, so I’ve got to keep it going.”
Recording direct to disc
Kassem says his goal is to capture a sound that rivals a live performance. And for him, there is nothing finer than recording direct to disc beneath the 42-foot vaulted ceiling that soars above the sanctuary.
“Recording direct to disc, it’s a challenge because, you know, the artist has to perform an entire side complete and with a performance he’s happy with,” Gray said. “I mean, if anybody flubs, me, the recording engineer, the artist, we have to start the side over again. We are running about 13 to 14-minute sides, so it may be three songs per side. It’s really an enormous feeling of elation if you get a side down, everything went smoothly, everybody’s happy with the sound, the performance, I got it on the disc ok. It’s very exciting.”
Once the tracks are finished and the blues musicians have headed for home, the hard work of plating and pressing vinyl begins. Processing the freshly-recorded discs called acetates within 72 hours is essential to preserving the fidelity of the sound. So in 2011, Kassem started Quality Record Pressings. Just across town, the plant specializes in high-quality reissues of out-of-print vinyl records.
No one manufactures record pressing machines these days, so Kassem had to have old machines shipped to his plant in Salina and rebuilt to his specifications. Most days, these machines are humming, pressing re-issues for audiophiles. But Kassem says his passion still is the blues artists he records at Blue Heaven Studios. And while Kassem doesn’t count on big sales from his blues project, he often finds himself wondering if anyone else will care as much as he does.
‘I make my money reissuing vinyl and I spend it on the blues’
“What are you going to do if nobody buys it?” Kassem said. “You know, if people don’t feel the same way as you. What if, what you’re doing doesn’t mean much to other people, or they don’t listen to it, or if they don’t buy it, the don’t support it?” There is people that appreciate it. But as far as, you know, financial support, we don’t have any sponsors. It’s coming out of one, small pocket. I make my money reissuing vinyl and I spend it on the blues. As long as I can afford to do it, I think we’d like to do it.”
Pictured Above: Blues musician Lil’ Ray Neal performs during the 16th annual Blues Masters at the Crossroads at Blue Heaven Studios Friday, October 18, 2013.
Below are extended interviews with Birdlegg and Doug MacLeod.
Birdlegg is a high energy, old-school harmonica player now based in Austin, Texas. Originally a California blues man, Birdlegg was selected as Blues Harmonica Player of the Year by the Bay Blues Society in 2004. His appearance at the Blues Masters at the Crossroads was his first time on stage in Salina, Kansas.
Guitar player, songwriter and storyteller Doug MacLeod performs original songs based on his own life and experience. Recently, MacLeod was named male artist of the year at the 2013 Blues Blast Music Awards. He has been a perennial performer at the Blues Masters at the Crossroads in Salina, Kansas.