Watermelon plays workingman's blues
Vicki Anderson talks to American blues musician Bill "Watermelon Slim" Homans in Mississippi ahead of his show in Wellington tonight and Paekakariki tomorrow.
Watermelon Slim, 64 next month, has been performing since the 1970s and has been linked to John Lee Hooker, Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt and Canned Heat's Henry Vestine, among others.
He's a Vietnam vet, a one-time watermelon farmer, a former Mensa member and a trucker whose time on the road inspired his music, namely albums The Wheel Man and Escape from the Chicken Coop.
With his band, The Workers, he has won numerous blues music awards. He has been described as "presenting working man blues with both hands on the wheel of life, a bottle of hooch in his pocket and his Bible on the passenger seat".
Do you prefer to be called Bill or Watermelon?
Watermelon will do just fine.
OK, Watermelon. I understand you taught yourself to play guitar when you were laid up in a hospital bed in Vietnam. You taught yourself upside-down left-handed slide guitar on a $5 balsawood model using a pick cut from a rusty can top, is that right?
Sure is. I taught myself in Vietnam; my first album, in 1973, Merry Airbrakes, was all about the war. I still play a right-handed guitar but I play it left-handed and backwards. When I've played with The Workers I've taped it to a table top with duct tape, it's a country way of doing things but it works just fine. Sometimes that table gets filled up with harps, 30 harmonicas, dobros, all manner of things.
That 1973 album was the only known protest record by a veteran during the Vietnam War and songs were later covered by Country Joe McDonald.
What brings you to New Zealand, Watermelon?
New Zealand has been No 1 on my bucket list since I was a little kid. I've been angling for this tour (laughs) - I'm big on trout fishing. I've been to New Zealand before but this tour is my first to the South Island. I played in Auckland in 2006, I think it was. I went out into the harbour and caught a 25-pound fish.
What can audiences expect to catch at your shows?
I've got my new record to be released in July, my seventh on the NorthernBlues label, it's a broad, wide record. I'll play two or three songs from that but I'll be reaching all the way back to my musical childhood. I quit my last truck-driving job to go on tour with The Workers; I've only been a fulltime touring musician since 2004. I'm edging towards retirement.
What you get at a Watermelon Slim show now is all 64 years on the table. I'm going to be playing the music of someone who knows this could be the last go-around.
In Boston in the 1970s you played peace rallies, sit-ins and rabble- roused musically with the likes of Bonnie Raitt who singled you out in 2009 as a "living blues legend". Got any good stories?
July 3, 1972, Saturday it was. We partied and drank pina coladas out of hollowed-out pineapples. Our paths have crossed over the years. I like to think the two of us are leading disciples of the Mississippi guitar style.
How many watermelons did you grow, Watermelon?
In Oklahoma I had 52 acres of watermelons. I know how to grow a good crop. I still like eating them.
Tell me about the last song that you wrote.
I wrote a new song three days ago for my fellow veterans. I've just contacted the Veterans Action Group of New Zealand. I hope we can get together, so I can do a show for them. Do you think anyone will be at the airport throwing flowers when I arrive in New Zealand?
I don't know. It's possible, I guess.
I'd love it if I got lei'd when I got there . . . isn't that what they say in Hawaii?
Either way, it's been a wild ride.
Watermelon Slim plays Wellington's Meow tonight and St Peter's Hall, Paekakariki, tomorrow.
The Dominion Post