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The Washington Post
The Bluesman's Apprentice
Acolyte of Henry Townsend Repays Him With a Grammy

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008; Page C01

Scott Shuman was a college freshman with illusions of becoming the next Eric Clapton, if not the new T-Bone Walker, when he met the old bluesman Henry James Townsend.

It was 1974, at a folk festival in the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Ill., when the 18-year-old guitar-picker from Arlington noticed the sexagenarian Townsend sitting in the audience.

"Henry was wearing a tuxedo and a derby, looking very sophisticated," Shuman says on a recent afternoon at his home studio in Falls Church. "I was thinking: 'Man, that guy really looks like a bluesman.' "

Sounded like one, too, once Townsend hit the festival stage, plucking the guitar in that Delta-country style of his and talking the blues with his weathered tenor. Shuman introduced himself backstage, then grabbed a guitar, peeled off a few licks and brazenly asked if he could play with the Mississippi-born musician whose recording career had begun in 1929. On acetate.
"I was 18 and all I wanted to do in life was be a blues guitarist," Shuman recalls. "Henry says, 'What are you doing tomorrow?' And the next day, I'm in St. Louis, playing with Henry Townsend at his home on Kingshighway."

Thirty years later, they were still playing together on occasion. Such as the night of Oct. 16, 2004, when a wheelchair-bound Townsend and his old young friend Shuman -- accompanied by bass player John May -- performed at the Majestic Theatre in Dallas, on a bill that also featured Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins, David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Robert Lockwood Jr.
It was a historic summit: Four Delta-blues elders, then ages 89 (Lockwood) to 94 (Townsend), all of them recipients of the National Heritage Fellowship, sharing the stage as if somebody had called a senior-leadership meeting of the blues.

Shuman engineered, mixed and mastered a recording of the concert with another studio whiz, Paul Grupp, and the resulting CD, "Last of the Great Mississippi Bluesmen: Live in Dallas," was released to minor acclaim in 2007.

The major notice arrived last month, when "Live in Dallas" won a Grammy Award for best traditional blues album.
It was a career highlight for Shuman, who finally gave up his next-Clapton dreams to become a full-time studio guy, producing, mixing and mastering everything from independently released bagpipe albums to mainstream major-label compilations. (He's also started producing music specials for television.) "Finally, at 51, I'm at the place in the music industry that I would've liked to have been 20 years ago," he says.

But the Grammy was bittersweet, given that Townsend wasn't there for the win and all the attendant attention. He died of pulmonary edema in 2006 -- a month shy of his 97th birthday -- near Grafton, Wis., where he'd gone to play a gig with Shuman. (Lockwood died two months later, leaving Perkins and Edwards as the last of the Last Greats. Perkins performs tonight at the Glen Echo Spanish Ballroom.)

"I wish Henry could have been there," Shuman says of the Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles. "The award was my way of thanking him for everything he'd given to me. He was one of the greatest unknown bluesmen. He was never as popular as a Willie Dixon or Muddy Waters or Buddy Guy, but he was at that level. I finally got him some of the recognition he deserved."
Shuman's friendship with Townsend seemed unlikely, especially at the outset.

Shuman grew up in the Washington suburbs and his blues addiction began with gateway artists like the Allman Brothers Band and Clapton, right at around the time he'd enrolled at Washington-Lee High School. Now, here was this white kid in a black leather jacket carrying his Gibson SG through the African American neighborhoods of St. Louis to be with Townsend, a tough man from Shelby, Miss., who'd grown up in Cairo, Ill., was nearly 50 years older, was nicknamed Mule, had a knife scar on his arm and, usually, a gun in his pocket -- who'd been around.

That day in Belleville? Shuman had no idea. "I thought Henry was just some blues guy," he says. "I didn't know he knew T-Bone Walker and had played with Robert Johnson. We just made a connection. He touched my soul. He became my teacher and my best friend."

The relationship endured even as Shuman moved away and moved on, landing back in Virginia, gigging with his own blues bands, then building his studio by converting a carport into a soundproof space with a modified Hammond B-3 organ tucked into a corner.

Then, a decade ago, Shuman says he decided he needed to try to get the old band back together. It was time, what with Townsend pushing 90. "I made a conscious decision to spend as much time as I could with Henry while he was still alive," he says. That meant regular flights back to St. Louis, and elsewhere around the country for concerts and festivals. "It wasn't just about doing the gigs," he says. "We hung out, worked on cars together, talked."

There were also sessions at Shuman's studio, where Townsend was always working out new ideas, new voicings. Ultimately, he recorded in nine different decades, on top of writing something like 350 songs and playing an unfathomable number of concerts.

"He was 96 when he went out, doing what he loves to do: He was on his way to a gig," says Shuman, who was at Townsend's side when he died in a Wisconsin hospital. "I felt a sense of peace when he went."

But it's hard not to think of his friend and mentor. "Every time I pick up a guitar, I can feel him." Shuman sighs.
"It's actually been hard for me to pick up the guitar since he died."

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