Bluesmen love that old saying about rolling stones. They love to live that saying too, staying on the road for weeks at a time. It can be a great break for them, playing to new audiences and getting some much-needed time away from the hassles of writing and thinking back home. But it can be a pain in the ass for anyone trying to get in touch with them. Cleveland's Austin "Walkin' Cane" spent almost a month in Australia and France, pretty much cutting off all communication from everybody but his family.
He returned a couple days before summer started and a couple weeks before the release of his new album, A World of Blues. He played some festival shows overseas, including the International Festival of University Music in Belfort, France, where he was the only American artist invited. Like most of Walkin' Cane's gigs across the Atlantic, the concerts went well. He sold some CDs, he made some new friends, and a bunch of people who didn't understand a word of English were turned on to his music.
For the past three years, Austin Charanghat has gone the solo route. His longtime band split up, leaving the 41-year-old blues singer, guitarist, and songwriter out there all alone. A World of Blues, which Charanghat is releasing this week with a party at Brothers Lounge, was recorded at one of those solo shows: a March gig at Brothers. Don Dixon helps out on bass, and Dave Morrison plays harmonica on some songs, but this is mostly Charanghat, his National guitar, and a bunch of tunes he penned with his pal, singer-songwriter Chris Allen.
"You got nobody to bounce off of," he says of solo life. "It's intimidating. If you're having a bad night or you don't feel well, you can't rely on anybody. You have to have a shot and get through it. It's a weird transition after playing with a band for 10 years."
A World of Blues is Charanghat's 10th album. Many of its songs first showed up on his 2008 release, Murder of a Blues Singer, which he recorded with an electric group. Here, he strips the songs bare, emphasizing his gritty voice and weeping guitar runs played on the slide. It may be the most intimate album of his 20-year career.
Back when he started playing professionally, around 1990, Charanghat was doing what he was expected to do. "I did the college thing and got my degree," he says. "I was thinking about being a weekend-warrior type of guy, maybe just play on the weekend and try to get my shit together. But after a while I balanced it out: 'I can't believe I'm going to work for somebody for eight hours a day.' It didn't matter to me. I was just doing it for the money. Music was in my head all the time."
After he started playing out, people started making a point of seeing him. And then more people came to see him. (Charanghat got his nickname from the cane he needed to walk with because of a birth defect. His left leg was amputated in 1996. He no longer needs a cane, but he still uses the nickname.) Charanghat's music sounds like the guys who influenced him: Willie Dixon, Mississippi John Hurt, Tom Waits. Over time he developed some style of his own, but he's never strayed too far from the blues greats he still covers in concert.
And he still loves touring — still the most reliable gauge of how fans react to your music and still the best way to hone your skills. But at times it can get tough, especially since he has a wife and two boys at home. Sill, that alone time comes in handy, he says. "I can sit in a hotel room and play guitar all night long, and it's not going to bother anybody."
Charanghat is currently hammering out details for his next couple of albums. He has an electric one planned for a fall or spring release. And somewhere down the line, probably sometime in 2013, he'd like to complete a "more expensive" album with horns and big arrangements. In other words, he doesn't plan on gathering moss anytime soon. "You learn as much as you can and then you refine it," he says. "You realize what's important, you realize what's needed, and you realize what's good for you. Music is the only way to go for me."