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In the Moment With Albert Cummings

Albert Cummings is full of surprises. He’s been playing now for about a quarter of a century and his brand new album is scheduled for release in April. His credentials as a journeyman are legitimate and his followers will tell you, he’s known for his ‘live’ shows. Cummings has been described by journalists and fans alike, as a guitarist of ‘unbridled ferocity’ who also possesses ‘deep soulfulness.’ Albert just grins. “Mood Swings!” (laughing) “Ask my wife!” (laughing)

After an extended hiatus during the start of the pandemic and only sporadic outings last year, Cummings feels he’s used his time productively. He’s written more and spent time in the studio with Grammy Award-winning producer and audio engineer, Chuck Ainlay. The result of that collaboration is called ‘TEN.’ When we caught up with Albert in Southern California just prior to the start of his current tour, you could sense the anticipation. “Today’s a big day” he said. “We’ve got a new record coming out ‘Need Somebody’ and it’s my first one in two years and it’s my tenth album.”

You could see it in his face, but I asked anyway, are you happy with the way ‘TEN’ turned out?
“I think it’s ten times better than all my other albums combined. That’s how I feel about this record. I’ve just got a really good feeling about this one. I always try to make every record my best record…I’ve been building my whole life and I used to say every house is my best house because everything I’ve learned from everything I’ve done till that point, I’ve put into the latest one. And that’s the same way I feel about records.”

What gives ‘Ten’ that feel for you?
“I wrote all thirteen songs on the record and I feel my writing just stepped up. I wrote some songs that I really started to think about things and how I wanted to present them.”

You recorded the album in Nashville?
“Yeah, Chuck Ainlay is to me, one of the greatest producers. Years ago I looked up the top producers in Nashville and I kept coming back to Chuck Ainlay and I kept seeing that name. And I reached out to him and he wrote back to me and he was a nice guy, and a lot of people aren’t like that. I was playing the City Winery or something and told him I was playing and he said, ‘Man, I’ll come check you out.’ And he did! After he saw me play he said, ‘If you ever want to do an album, you call me, Albert.’ So Covid hit and I called him and said, ‘Hey Chuck, I’m thinking about doing an album, would you be interested?’ He said, ‘I’m not really busy because of Covid, so why don’t you come down and we’ll do it.’ He brought in all these players and said we’re gonna’ get Peter Frampton’s studio and I’m like…Peter Frampton’s Studio? He brought in Greg Morrow (Steve Earle, Billy Gibbons, Don Henley) on drums, Glen Worf (Mark Knopfler) on bass, Rob McNelley on guitar whose one of the greatest guitarists I’ve ever gotten to talk to, never mind play with and then, Michael Rojas on piano and keyboards. The second day in, my phone rings and I’m standing in the studio and Peter Frampton’s got all his guitars around you know, and I’m looking at his SG that he used on Humble Pie…the phone rings and its Vince Gill. I’m stunned; I’m talking to Vince Gill! I said, ‘Vince, I’m standing in Peter Frampton’s Studio and I’m looking at Peter Frampton’s guitars that he used on Humble Pie, and I’m talking to Vince Gill!’ Vince says, ‘Watch what you wish for, buddy! I’d love to help you out on the record if you can find a song for me.’ It was just crazy.”

“I love the blues, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve got a lot of country influence and I’ve got gospel in me, you’ll hear every shade of Albert on this new record.”

– Albert Cummings

You’ve always said that Stevie Ray Vaughan was a major influence; what has he meant to you as a player?
“Well… Everything! Still to this day… Everything! I recently did an interview with the editor of Guitar Player Magazine and Stevie Ray came up. And he used the best terminology I’ve ever heard. He said SRV was just relentless. And I said that’s the perfect word for him, he never let up. You didn’t get a break with him; he was just going to let you have it! And that was inspiring to me; I need to be more relentless.”

Albert Cummings Band – Coach House San Juan Capistrano. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

Incredibly, early in your career you experienced support from those closest to Stevie Ray. Tell us
a little about your second album, ‘From the Heart’?
“It was my second album but my first studio album.” Albert nods. “Double Trouble! And talk about a scary experience. To me, Tommy Shannon is the best bass player that’s ever lived and he and I have become best friends since we first worked together. Tommy and Chris (Layton) both took me under their wing. The name of that album was ‘From the Heart’ and that came from halfway through the record. While we were recording it, they told me I had ‘red light fever,’ so every time the record light would come on, I’d tense up. So, I’m a guitarist with maybe 100 gigs under my belt…tops! I’m in the studio with DOUBLE TROUBLE! And they’d say ‘who’s your idols, who’d you listen to?’ I said ‘you guys!’ (laughing) So they took me in one night, I was having a tough time and I asked what do you think Stevie would tell me to do? And they said, ‘he’d tell you to play from the heart.’ And that’s what I got out of that. Ever since then I’ve never worried about anything except being honest. I love the blues because blues is an expression of feelings, that’s what music is to me. It’s not how to play ‘Mustang Sally’ better than the next band. It’s about what do you have, are you different, are you the same as everybody else?”

People have written about you that you range from unbridled ferocity to deep soulfulness.
Albert smiles and says, “Mood Swings!” (laughing) “Ask my wife!” (laughing) “That’s what it is…feelings! How does it make you feel? Think about the song like you’re an actor in a part. Think about the message in the song. Is it a happy song, don’t play a sad solo. Is it a sad song, don’t play a happy solo. The feeling of the song will tell you what to play.”

When you write, do you have a process? Do you write with your guitar?
Mostly with the guitar, but I have written things without a guitar. Just with a melody in my head. Then I get back and get the guitar and figure it out. I’ve got too many syllables here; I’ve got to change the phrasing. Sometimes I can have a song come out in five minutes, the bridge, chorus, the whole thing everything done. And then sometimes I’ll write a verse and say, ‘Man I really want to write that song… For years, I was too technically challenged to realize how valuable my phone is. It’s always with me with a stupid record button and I’ve forgotten more stuff! So now if I get an idea (he picks up his phone) this is the idea and this is what I’m thinking. Then I’ll go back and review it. Every time I pick up a guitar, I’ll listen to the first thing that comes out of me. It’s like the cream has come to the top and it’s usually something new to me and I’ll hit the record button, capture it and I don’t have to worry about it. But when I’m bored or on a plane, I’ll go listen to that stuff again and discover, ‘Oh, that’s perfect for that phrase that I heard and then start connecting the dots. And that’s what happened with this album. I think it was the second night in the studio, I went out to eat and I was in this bar eating a steak by myself and I had this idea for a song, ‘Two Hands.’ The hook line is ‘every single little thing that I’ve got, I got it with my own two hands.’ And I wrote that song without a guitar, while I was eating dinner and I typed it into the phone. I brought it into the studio the next day; I got in there early and worked it out on the guitar and said, ‘Hey guys, I wrote this song last night. And they’re like, ‘You wrote this last night?’ Yeah, I want to try it. And it’s one of my favorite songs on the album, because it’s so spontaneous and it really relates to the working person.”

In the moment and the spontaneity is one of the reasons I enjoy your ‘live’ shows.
“Right…and the connection. I think there are two types of musicians, and this is blues, country or any type of music I don’t care what it is, classical. There are creators and they create this music and come up with stuff that’s never been done. And then there’s performers, the performers perform what the creator’s created. That’s a cover band. I can only play Albert Cummings and if I do play somebody else’s stuff it’s gonna’ sound like Albert Cummings playing it.” (laughing)

Talk a little about opening for B.B. King.
“About the fourth or fifth show, it was in Morristown, New Jersey and I remember this distinctly, the place, the theater, the backstage area and how it happened. B.B.’s whole entourage, they all wore tuxedos, very prim and proper, you didn’t wear blue jeans on B.B.’s opening stage, it was always class and respect. I had finished the show having opened up and there was some time between when the headliner goes on and Mr. Matthews came to see me and says, ‘Mr. King wants to see you.’ And he was very gruff and I was like ‘Oh My God!’ I’m in trouble or I must have said something on stage, I must have done something wrong. And he walks me down the hallway and Mr. Matthews say’s ‘Get in there!’ I opened the door and there sits Mr. King. And I hadn’t been one-on-one with him yet and he says ‘Sit down, Albert.’ And it’s just us and he says, ‘I just want to tell you, how much I enjoy your playing. And how much I enjoy what you do with the audience. I’ve been listening to your shows’…and on and on. And I blacked out, like an out-of-body experience…Oh, my God! I wish I could remember everything.

After that we went down to Florida, and Mr. Matthews started coming out and joking around with me and the band, it was a table-turner and he let everybody know these guys are alright. I don’t know if you knew, but the rule was after the show at the end of the night, if you wanted to say something to Mr. King, the opening act had to be last in line. Customers and fans came first and it makes total sense, right? So every night, I’d wait in lines two hours long; others would say we’re going out. I didn’t care; I’m staying here to greet Mr. King. And every night I’d do that and they recognized that…and HE saw that. And every night I’d finish the show and wait for him to go on and stand side-stage and watch him. Because you’re watching the greatest thing in the world as far as I’m concerned. This was an opportunity you don’t pass up. He will influence forever because of who he was.

The album you released just prior to the pandemic, ‘Believe’ was produced by Jim Gaines at the
FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals.
“Jim and I are great friends and we’ve done a lot of records together. Well, I’ve only done 10; Jim’s done hundreds probably…from Steve Miller to Carlos Santana. So I called Jim and said I want to go to Muscle Shoals to do an album. Do you know anybody down there? He says, ‘Albert, they got a certain sound down there.’” Cummings says in his best Memphis, Arkansas twang. “I go, Yeah, I understand. He goes, ‘It’s kind of a soul place, really not a blues place.’ I said I still want to do it, Jim. So he made some calls and got us into FAME.”

You don’t seem to have any limitations; you’re just as comfortable playing R&B, rock, blues or
country riffs in your music.
“I think Double Trouble put me into the blues world, and I love the blues, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve got a lot of country influence and I’ve got gospel in me, you’ll hear every shade of Albert on this new record. You’ll hear horn songs, you’ll hear a gospel song called ‘Meet the Man’ on there, a song I wrote about my dad and his views on death. I wrote it the day he died, I wrote it that night. It’s gospel. And then I do ballads and that shows in our crowds. I’ve got 10 year old kids to sometimes 80 year olds coming to my show. A vast, variety of people because my music is a variety and this new album, that’s why I’m so excited about it, it’s the first one where I’ve let people see that. I went to Muscle Shoals literally because I couldn’t get anybody to play my music. A lot of blues DJ’s if they don’t know you or the song you’re playing; you’re not going to get any airplay. I’m not going to get on mainstream radio…but this one might. This one might! I’m just going to be true to myself and play my music. Let it fall where it falls.”

Other than writing and recording the new album, how’s your pandemic?
“For about a year and a half, we hadn’t done anything. Then we went out for about six weeks in the mid-West, and a little bit here and there. I’ve found every place you’re playing, if you get half a house, you’ve got a sold out show. And that’s really what’s happening with the whole world. And Christina and I are building our own house right now and just started.” He smiles. “I’m making a guitar studio.”

Warren Grant lights the candle. photo: Yachiyo Mattox.

This tour starts in Southern California, who’s playing with you?
“Scot Sutherland is playing bass. Scot started with Son Seals and plays a lot with Tommy Castro. He’s played with everybody and anybody. He’s been with me for four or five years now. Warren Grant is my drummer and he’s been with me for almost ten years. Warren’s a great guy and his dad played with B.B. King back in the day. Warren’s originally from Houston but lives in New York City now.

What can fans expect from the tour?
“If you see me tonight, you won’t see the same thing tomorrow night. Every night’s a different night; every night’s a fresh night even if I play the same song. I remember talking to Tommy Shannon about Stevie because you hear a lot of live recordings of the same sets they did for a long time. But Tommy said every night was different. Same song but a completely different feel, different room, a different energy coming from the audience and I’m a true believer, if you’re thinkin’…you’re stinkin’! I don’t use set lists. I walk on the stage with the pressure of not knowing what I’m going to do. I’ll let it come to me and people sometimes yell out at me and if I know it, I’ll jump on it. Everything’s always different for me, but I can promise you it’s always from the heart. I’ll always give you everything I can give. That’s what you’ll always get from an Albert show. You’re paying good money to come see something, so I want you to see something you can’t buy in a store. And that’s literally what I try to do every time I play.”

Albert says he’s adding more dates to the current national tour, so get out for his ‘live’ show. Go to www.albertcummings.com for a location near you. And be sure to grab a copy of his latest album, ‘TEN’ when it drops in April. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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