The THELMA is hosting another incredible artist this month when Albert Cummings paints the night air blue with his electric guitar and vocals. When he bends his first note Friday night, March 11th, you won’t believe he’s made his living most his life as a carpenter.
Search YouTube for his version of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s “Barrel House Blues.” Watch and listen. Then get your tickets.
Michael: You’re from Williamstown, Massachusetts. Not normally thought of as a hotbed of blues music.
Albert: What are you talking about? (laugh) I think ‘the blues’ is a state of mind around here more than a type of music. I started musically in bluegrass, which is about as far away from the blues as you can get. I played 5 string banjo because when I was a kid I couldn’t fit my hand around the neck of a guitar.
M: So bluegrass was cool in Williamstown?
A: Not really. My friends were into AC/DC and everything else rock n’ roll in the 70’s. But my dad played guitar during the big band era, with an orchestra. By the time I came along he was no longer in the band, but would get together once in a great while with other musician friends and play like say, when my sisters got married…they played the weddings. That was always my inspiration, that and when his buddies came over to the house and had impromptu jam sessions.
M: So there was always music, and always a guitar around.
A: But I couldn’t get my hand around it, but I loved. And I watched my father, and he was so good, and I was intimidated by his talent…you know how kids are, ‘Oh, I could never do that, or be that good.’
M: And then a brother-in-law influenced you.
A: He’d give me cassette tapes of David Bromberg, Danny Gatton, Marshall Tucker Band…he kept feeding me this musical information. I liken it to when you get a gallon of paint, and they put all the right pigments in a can, shake it up, and you get the color you want. Well, he was giving me all this music, pieces and parts. I was like a sponge, but still couldn’t play…I was like 12 or 13. And then one day he gave me a cassette of this guy called Stevie Ray Vaughn.
M: And then it all came together?
A: I instantly thought, ‘This guy can’t be real. This has to be fake.’ I thought there was no way a guy could play a guitar that way. What I knew of guitar playing was what I’d seen and heard my father play. Maybe he’d improvise a little bit, but always stay pretty close to the melody. When I heard Stevie Ray I thought it had to be two guitars…that can’t be one guy and one guitar.
M: By the age of 15 your hands were finally big enough to set the banjo aside, and pick up the guitar.
A: I bought a guitar for $13 at a tag sale. I played it through high school. Then I went off to school in Boston in 1987. That’s when fate stepped in. A bus left a stop, and behind it was a marquee with a Gibson Les Paul guitar, and a Fender Stratocaster, and I crossed the street and looked at the window to see who was going to be playing, and there was a little sign that said, ‘Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble – Tonight.’ I was totally excited, ran back to the dorm, told all my buddies that we had to go to this show. Nobody had heard of him. I went by myself. I remember Stevie came out on stage wearing a huge Indian headdress, and when he started playing, my jaw hit the floor.
A: The exact opposite (laugh). I figured, ‘Well there’s no sense in playing guitar. I’ll never be able to play like that!’ He was such a force. He had such natural talent.
M: So you put music on hold?
A: Finished college. Went into the family business of construction, got married. I’m 27 years old, and only fooling around with guitar a little bit. Until while at a friend’s wedding…there was a band, and my friends were pushing me to go play with the band, and I said, ‘No, I’ve never played with a band…only for myself.’
M: But you did get up there.
A: Reluctantly so. And when I did, I felt this natural wave come over me. And I thought to myself, ‘How am I this old, and I don’t know what this is yet?’ It felt right. And I still didn’t know much about guitar. I knew some basic chords, this n’ that, but I didn’t even know how to bend a note.
M: Then you went back to studying Stevie Ray’s music?
A: Yeah. And wondered who he had liked, and inspired him. Well that took me to Albert King, Freddie King, BB King…it took me to all these artists. So the long answer to your short question is Stevie is what brought me to the blues in this little town of Williamstown. He opened the door, and once I got in the hallway I was able to find all the guys he studied, and I’m still walking down that hallway. And I have one of those personalities that when I sink my teeth into something, I really go after it.
M: I’ve seen and listened.
A: Nothing holds me like music. The power of it, the experience, the happiness and joy it delivers. Sometimes frustrations come with it, but it is absolutely the love of my life and I love every minute I can do it. I’m happy and excited to play anywhere (laugh) and am really looking forward to coming to the Thelma.
M: You have six CD’s?
A: 6 and a half (laugh). The first CD “The Long Way,” which some people still like, was just a demo to try and find bar dates around Albany, New York. I went into a studio with a drummer and told him, ‘If you stop playing, you’re paying for the studio time.’ In an hour and a half we recorded eleven songs. We just kept going.
M: It still holds up?
A: I listen to it now and say, ‘Wow, I sure have grown.’ But I look at a picture of myself from then, and I’ve sure changed in that way too. Everything evolves. With every CD release I say it’s my best because it just keeps getting better. I’ve been in the building business all my life, and I always say with every house I build, the last one is my best house. Everything I’ve learned up to that point, goes into that product…whether it’s a house or a CD. If I learn something from this house that I didn’t know in the last one, I’m putting it into the next one. Constantly trying to improve, raise my bar.
M: And you still run a construction company?
A: Up until a few months ago, but music is starting to take me away. After Fond du Lac we go to the United Kingdom, then back to California and Texas. Then it’s Italy with talk of Norway and Switzerland. So right now I’m not taking on any more construction work.
M: Your company has won national acclaim.
A: Several awards, and featured in a lot of magazines. I’ve gotten way more accolades for my construction than for my music (laugh).
M: Your music is your main focus?
A: I’m always reluctant to answer that question, I’m a guy whose old enough that I still need to feed my family (laugh). I like to keep both doors open. Music is starting to take off, and I truly believe it’s my time to do it, so I’m going for it.
To see Albert’s brilliance as a carpenter visit cummingsgc.com
To see and hear Albert’s brilliance as a musician visit the THELMA March 11th.