Buckin' Blues

an interview with Andrew Elias

TOMMY LEE COOK GREW UP in the hills of rural southern Virginia, among the tobacco farms and cotton mills of a town called Dry Fork, and moved to Fort Myers at age 12 in 1967, during the 'Summer of Love’. He started playing in bands in middle school and about 20 years ago formed The Buckingham Blues Band. In 2002 he opened the Buckingham Blues Bar, which soon became and institution among blues aficionados in southwest Florida.

A few year ago he published his first book and started his ‘Jack Crocker’ series of young adult novels. Cook recently released two albums – Cemetery Road and Buckingham Peace of Mind – CDs full of his own brand of hard kicking soulful southern blues.

I interviewed Tommy a few weeks ago, after his return from the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn, New York.

ANDREW: On your website you describe yourself as a ‘Beatles inspired’ guitarist. Can you explain that?

TOMMY: I was 8 years old when the Beatles hit Ed Sullivan in ‘63, and was just discovering rock & roll on the radio. Having been reared on old-time country and front porch, Sunday afternoon bluegrass, I was enthralled by the sound, the look, the whole aura that the Beatles exuded.

When and how were you introduced in to the blues?

In the late 70s or early 80s a friend turned me on to Albert Collins’ music. I was blown away. His style was riveting.

When and how did you start playing guitar?

At Christmas when my best friend and I were 9 or 10 we got our first dime-store electric guitars and amps. I still have the guitar hanging in my studio. When I was 12 or 13 I had my name painted on that guitar’s head-stock by a professional sign painter, old man Carter in North Fort Myers. He charged me $5. It was a deal!

Who are some of your music and guitar influences?

The rock and roll of the late 60s and 70s comes to mind: Hendrix, Clapton, Grand Funk, late Beatles, Joe Walsh /James Gang, and of course The Allman Brothers. They bring some fond memories to mind. In the 80s and 90s: Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, Joe Walsh again. There are so many great ones.

Who are your favorites these days?

I’m a Delbert McClinton fan from the word go. He and Gary Nicholson have put together some of my favorite albums of all time. His music is timeless. I never get tired of listening to B.B. King, Leroy Parnell, The Band, Etta James, Ray Charles.

When did you start your first band?

My best buddy and I were in a 4th grade talent show the first time I played in public. That was in rural Virginia. In Junior High and High School, down here in Florida, a few of us were always dabbling with one band or another. I don’t remember any of the names we had though.

How would you describe the type of blues you and your band play? I hear a lot of Texas blues in your songs and Chicago blues in your guitar playing.

It’s been called a lot of different things by a lot of different people, believe me. I suppose to my mind it’s ‘sand in your boots, down South, raw, get with it baby right now’blues. Fun, good time, music with heart.

You’ve just released two CDs at once – Buckingham Peace of Mind and Cemetery Road. Why release two simultaneously – and what are the differences between the two?

I was working on a project that was two years along with no end in sight, just putting the work together, having fun. I realized that I had a lot of material that I liked, made with some great musicians to boot, and I wanted to get it all out at once or I’d end up working on it another year. So we mixed it, mastered it, and pressed it. The result was the two CDs.

Aside from a few Delbert McClinton songs, you have two interesting covers, one on each CD. Why did you choose to record John Hiatt’s hilarious ‘Little Head’ and Bob Dylan’s somber ‘Serve Somebody”?

John Hiatt is one of my favorites. He does so many things, and all very well, you just can’t put a finger on what he is musically. That’s the beauty of his work, it’s all over the various genres. And ‘Little Head’ is part of our act with my band. Crowds love the feel. Dylan’s song is just a remarkable tune, as is most of his work. I had heard Etta James’ version, kind of like the way we do it, and it turned me on.

Most of the tracks on the CDs are originals. How do you approach songwriting?

Some are written in a single sitting, some are ideas that have driven me mad for years, and some are ‘turn on the gear and let’s see what happens’ kind of approach – impromptu. I like doing different approaches. The song ‘Consequences’ was written on the front porch of an air-boat camp I have down in the Everglades when I was on a trip down there alone a couple of years ago. I enjoy the impromptu the most though, I suppose.

You recorded the CDs locally at Earfood Studios. How was that?

It’s a local studio built by a dear friend, Hamp Walker, right here in Buckingham. He and I did three projects together over the last few years. We just lost him a couple of months ago to a valiant fight with the reaper. He was a remarkable engineer and producer. Heaven’s done called another bluesman home.

You also own and run the Buckingham Blues Bar – where you play every Sunday with The All Stars, jam every Saturday night, and bring in blues musicians from all over the state and country. How has it been playing every week regularly for so long?

I have an ‘Open Blues’ stage on Wednesday nights. Musicians from all over the world have shown up to play: Japan, Russia, England, Canada, all over the States, just to name a few. Our outside festivals are fun too. I love to play and sing and interact with the players. That’s the most fun thing about the place. We have a great blues crowd, too. I’d play every night if I could, I enjoy it that much.

Who plays with you in The All-stars?

They’re an interchangeable, fun-loving bunch – at any given time members of other bands that come in and learn my material. That’s part of our whole attitude – guys that love to play. Rex Bongo, Ray Gunn, Danny Shepard, Dougie Jefferson, Harry Cassano, Scott Heanh, Lenny Makowski, Terry Gable and Scott Johnson are the latest of the fine players that I get to enjoy.

You also have a monthly ‘Back Yard Blues Festival’ at the bar. What is that?

We do about ten shows a year in the cool, two-acre backyard at the Blues Bar. They’ll start at 2pm and go until about dark, and then go inside the bar and finish up around midnight. Opening acts are local blues bands. The Allstars play before the headliners, and we’ve had some world class headliners: Jimmy Thackery, Jason Ricci, John Nemeth, Joey Gilmore, Damon Fowler, Robbie Ducey, just to name a few. It’s always a cool, fun-loving crowd.

You also write young adult novels – the Jack Crocker series. How did you start writing novels – and when was your first book published?

I sat down in late 2005 and wrote and published the first one. Over the next two and a half years I completed the next two in the series and am in the process of finishing the fourth.

What kinds of books are the Jack Crocker series – and who are they aimed at?

I like to say Mark Twain in 1965 is the best way to explain the work. Four kids on adventures, good and evil, right and wrong. Just good clean fun. Some of the biggest fans of the books are baby boomers reminiscing about their youth. And of course I’ve had a lot of kids dig them too.

Playing blues guitar in front of a sweaty crowd could not be more different than huddling alone to write a children’s book. How is each satisfying and which is more difficult for you?

Both are very satisfying moments. I love the feel of a crowd getting into the music when we play. It’s exhilarating, too, to say the least. Writing is certainly more personal and the journey can be a long and arduous process. Starting and finishing a novel is by far the more difficult of the two for me.

You also recently returned from the American Crossword Tournament in Brooklyn, NY. Do you attend regularly? When did the obsession with crossword puzzles hook you?

This was my fourth year in a row at the tourney. It’s a hoot. The people are fun and funny, witty and smart, and a treat to be smack dab in the middle of. Will Shortz is the best host ever, too. There were 650 contestants this year, which is about the norm. I began working on crossword puzzles for relaxation when I was in college.

Some find doing crossword puzzles relaxing and meditative – while others like the focus and mental gymnastics. Why do you enjoy doing them?

They take my mind completely away from the moment. And the various Times constructors all have unique styles. No two are ever the same. Some are tricky, others are just flat out tough, depending on the day of the week.

With running the bar and playing regular gigs at the bar and the two new CDs and the books and the crosswords – you seem to be a very busy man. What else have you got planned?

I’ve recently purchased and refurbished a 100 year old farmhouse here in Buckingham that’s gonna be home for a class I want to do on the U.S. Constitution. No politics, no current events, just some history and what the Founders put on paper 220 years ago or so. They were remarkable men and we are a remarkable nation of people.

I’ve got a new CD in the works, too. It’s gonna be difficult to find someone to help me in the studio with the loss of my friend Hamp, but I’m working on that.

And I must finish the last book of the Crocker series. I can’t move on to another writing project until I finish what I’ve started.

Oh, and the Allstars are going to play a few gigs around the state starting in June. I’ll find something to do. •

The Buckingham Blues Bar is located at 5641 Buckingham Rd. in Fort Myers. Call 693-711 for information about live music at the bar and Tommy Lee Cook’s CDs and books. •

from the May-June 2010 issue

"In the late 70s or early 80s
a friend turned me on
to Albert Collins' music.
I was blown away.
His style is riveting."
"I've recent;y purchased and refurbished a 100 year old
farmhouse in Buckingham
that's gonna be home
for a class I want to do
on the U.S. Constitution.
No politics, no current events,
just some history and what
the Founders put on paper
220 years ago."