Singing the mountain blues
SILVERTHORNE – In a county known for its hippie-jam bands, Mark Schlaefer is singing the blues.
In his debut CD, “The Sweet Honey Mead,” Schlaefer blends original, old-style Delta and Chicago blues tunes with the everyday occurrences of mountain life.
“I was trying to make (the album) really true to the style of the Delta blues music, and I tried to make it about my personal life and about living in the county, like “I-70 Blues’ about driving on I-70 on a snowy day, or “Cold Muddy Water,’ which uses the Colorado River as a metaphor for Muddy Waters,” Schlaefer said.
Schlaefer merged the musical style of World War II-era blues with lyrics relating to 21st-century mountain life in his 10-song CD. He sings about his preference for low-maintenance Fords above high-maintenance women, wails about making it home to his sweet Summit County woman to the beat of windshield wipers during a snowy drive along I-70 and recounts beer-drinking Thursdays at the Backcountry Brewery’s open mic nights.
“Blues states things very matter-of-factly,” Schlaefer said. “When you listen to the music, they try to convey a lot of meaning through talking about everyday occurrences or objects, so a lot of times, there’s double meaning in the objects. It’s almost like a haiku. The more meaning you can get into the short little line the better. Blues conveys more than it appears.”
In true blues style, there’s more to Schlaefer than just a musician. Born in Seattle in 1961, he learned to ramble from place to place after living only six months in his native state. By the time he picked up his first guitar at age 16, he had lived in six different states because his father worked for the government.
“Something about always being the new guy, the stranger, the foreigner, the outsider makes you see things others might overlook,” he said. “In every person’s life there is a story, a story about their struggle with the impediments placed in their path. To sing the blues is to be a witness, a witness to the tragedies of life, but more importantly to the indomitable human spirit.”
Though his travels took him to the fertile blues land of the Mississippi Delta, the blues didn’t captivate him until he studied philosophy at the University of Wisconsin and heard blues bands from Chicago. Muddy Waters’ electrified, Delta-style blues cut to Schlaefer’s core and incited him to incorporate the style into an acoustic form.
“When I play the blues, I try to bring it back to its roots,” he said. “I try to put my own feel on these old songs. A lot of stuff I cover was written before World War II. I bring the respect of that tradition into my playing. What separates me is that I’m really focused on playing a style that’s a lot older than the blues people play up here.”
His passion for vintage blues comes from listening beyond the limitations of old recordings and extracting the deeper spirit of the music.
“Sometimes when I listen to the old recordings, it takes a little time to get past the way they’re recorded – the scratchiness – and then you get to this simple accompaniment with this voice, and it carries so much weight,” he said.
To provide a reference of what it means to listen to old blues musicians, Schlaefer recorded “Up the Road,” mixing in the sound of a record player’s needle dropping onto a 78 record and its ensuing scratchy and narrow, mid-range sound.
He also payed homage to Waters by including a photograph in his CD jacket of the Stoval Plantation outside of Clarksville, Miss., where Waters’ cabin stood.
He finds it natural to merge Southern and old-Chicago tradition with mountain living in his tunes.
“I came to the conclusion that if blues is a great art form – and I think it is – then there must be something universal in its message, and if it is universal, wherever you are, you should be able to write about it. The emotions (in the blues) are common to everyone. We’re all supposed to be up here in the mountains having a great time, so we don’t get the blues, but that’s not true.”
Schlaefer sings the blues at his CD release party at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Old Dillon Inn, which provides the backdrop for the CD’s cover shot. CDs also are available at Budget Tapes and Records in Frisco, Affordable Music in Silverthorne and on the Web at http://www.cdbaby.com.
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