The Bluesman's Apprentice
Acolyte of Henry Townsend Repays Him With a Grammy
J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008; Page C01
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.
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.
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.' "
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."
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
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
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.
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
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.)
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
Shuman's friendship with Townsend seemed unlikely, especially
at the outset.
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
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."
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.
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."
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
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."
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."