I only met this inductee of the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame and Iowa Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame Music Association this past February, after reviewing his latest album, Rain or Shine. He invited me to their show at The Mill, where the energy was palpable before the first chord, and once Price set to ripping his gutbucket brand of Delta blues, the entire joint got to sippin’ and shakin’.
This is what it’s all about for Price. It could be a club in San Francisco or a coffee shop in Dubuque, doesn’t matter, he just loves to get that guitar singing and see folks up having a good time. His performance at The Mill stuck with me, and I was hankering for another dose of Joe’s heartland blues.
Fort Dodge is three hours northwest of Iowa City, out into farm country. Traveling on US-20 west, the road is dead straight for 98 miles, with nothing but pastures and crop fields as far as the eye can see.
At Bloomer’s on Central, an intimate coffee shop in downtown Fort Dodge, the Brushy Creek Friends of Traditional Music were hosting, “Blues, blues and more blues!”
The place was standing-room only, filled with a mixture of retro college students and aging boomers. These are Joe’s people. He’s been bringing solid blues music to city dwellers, Iowa farmers and small town locals alike for over 35 years.
Price is a picker and slide guitar man extraordinaire. Captivated by electrified country blues, he bends a mind-numbing set of notes, and gets his boots slapping off the stage to create a tremendous display of sound, especially for a soloist.
Like many blues traditionalists, Joe favors National Resophonic guitars. These steel babies were originally designed for jazz and Hawaiian music, but became popular with blues players because the resonator and steel body is several times louder than wood body guitars. National gave Price one as a gift for his dedication to classic blues traditions.
“Joe really loves the Delta blues and National is the guitar of choice,” said Vicki Price, his partner in love and music. “His favorite is a 1930’s-era National named “Grandma,” which he doesn’t take on the road anymore.”
The other staple of a Joe Price performance is his unique style of footwork or foot slapping. It not only increases his aural presence, but seeing him seated, wailing on a guitar with both feet going is a visual delight.
Price, 57, got his start coming out of a musical household in Waterloo. His grandparents played the trumpet and ukulele, and his mom had been a flapper in the bathtub gin days of the 1920s. “She’d sing these weird little tunes to me, shake her finger, and do this little dance, it was great,” Price said.
Waterloo isn’t exactly the blues metropolis of the world but Price recalls a railroad strike being responsible for Southern blacks migrating to the area for work. As a result an African American record store opened in town, where his mom, who was a music collector, bought a considerable number of hard to find releases.
“Me and my brother Butch would listen to these jazz and blues records my mom collected back in 1935–that’s where it all came from,” Price said about his musical lineage.
He also had the opportunity to meet Earl Hooker, one of the greatest slide guitar players to ever live. Hooker, whose cousin was John Lee Hooker, moved to Waterloo for a time and Price would catch him gigging in music stores.
Once he saw the slide there was no going back.
“Earl showed me how open tuning went and told me to get a bike handlebar to use for a slide,” Price said. “So I ran over to my neighbor’s house and pulled the plastic thing off the handle and sawed the metal end off.”
He’s been twanging ever since.
Price moved to Iowa City in 1971, and two years later formed the Rocket 88’s, with Ray “Willie” Wohlert and “Blue” Phil Ajioka. This turned out to be an important collaboration for Price, as it was his conduit into the influential MotherBlues Band, and how he met Vicki.
Coming up around the same time was Burlington native Bo Ramsey, a gifted guitarist and producer. After sitting in with the 88’s one evening, Ramsey joined up and introduced the band to Patrick Hazell, who had already started MotherBlues.
This was a loose confederacy, with different guys playing in the band nightly. Hazell, Ramsey and Price decided to form a tighter affiliation and kept the MotherBlues name, since it already had cache in the region. They became infamous for their hard-nosed electric blues style, and shared the stage with acts such as Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters.
One evening in 1982, when Joe was on a break from MotherBlues, he had a show at the Gin Mill in Waukon and Vicki was bartending. The crowd kept asking to let her have a go at playing and he relented during his set break.
This year the couple will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Much of their time together has been spent on the road, logging between 40,000 and 50,000 miles a year. Joe always had a rep for sleeping in his truck, often out of necessity from knocking back too much wine. The Prices customized their current van, to add a raised deck bed in the back so their equipment can slide underneath for easy loading and unloading. They reside in Lansing, Iowa, but are away playing around 150 dates yearly.
Joe’s definition of the blues remains strict. “We’ve been listening to Mississippi John Hurt the last two days, Son House before that, and Django Reinhardt a lot,” Vicki said. “He goes through phases, B.B. King is something he still listens to, but not Buddy Guy, he’s too rock now.”
This narrow interpretation, Price sites his Muddy Waters and Elmore James as his primary influences, carries over to the vintage sound he wishes to convey. It works best playing through tube amps, which have a warmer sound and can achieve the desired roar at a lower volume than digital amps.
These are difficult to find and expensive to maintain, so the Prices have their amps custom made by Kevin Dohse, of Soldier’s Grove, Wisconsin. “The ones we tour with are equivalent to a 1956 Fender Twin,” Joe said.
The Prices also seek this attention to detail in the studio, electing to record at Wow and Flutter in Nashville, where vintage microphones, amps and two-inch reel-to-reel tape are available. One aspect of new technology they embrace is the World Wide Web. “The Internet has been wonderful,” says Vicki. “Before it was nearly impossible to get a gig in California, now you just look up a club and show them your MySpace page.”
The next tour stop was in Carroll, at Perk Central the following night, about an hour southwest of Fort Dodge. Midway through the show Joe is rocking back and forth in his chair and has those crazy feet going on “Beer Tent Boogie Woogie.”
After a couple more songs he removes his trademark ball cap, this one black with “Blues Power” stitched in red across the front, and wipes the perspiration from his brow. He has a drawn, grizzled appearance, with grey stubble on his head and face, but sharp eyes and a smile that lights up a room.
Price adjusts the brass finger picks on his right hand, and grabs “Nellie Bell,” the National steel guitar he tours with, and lights into “Hornet’s Nest,” appearing almost unconscious inside the groove. The licks just keep coming in waves and the crowd shows their appreciation.
“Everybody’s here but the cops — and they’ll be here any minute,” says Price in winking appreciation to the loud audience.
This is how it goes for the husband and wife team night-in and night-out. Joe plays the first set solo, starts the second, invites Vicki up to play some of her tunes, then they play out the set together. Meanwhile a tip jar makes the rounds.
After the final number, we trotted over to a club around the corner from the coffee shop for drinks, but Joe and Vicki couldn’t stay long. It’s Thursday night, and the couple plays in La Crosse, Wisconsin, tomorrow. They want to make Ames before bedding down for the night in their van.
Joe and Vicki will be making two Iowa City appearances on June 13. First in the morning at Market Music, from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., then at George’s, from 9 p.m. till 1 a.m. Come see why folk-legend Greg Brown has long referred to Joe as “the Buddha.”