“People think of Muddy Waters, they think of one of the greatest blues men who ever played,” says Morganfield, who has set out on a music career of his own. “With me coming out of that background, they expect more out of me than the normal Joe Blow.”
Morganfield even agrees to parallels with Lisa Marie Presely, though he’s further along in his musical career. Morganfield’s at work on his third album, and has the 2000 W.C. Handy Award for Best New Blues Artist under his belt. In concert he’s known for a somewhat swaggering presence, booming vocals and a sure-handed slide guitar that he wields with precision and emotion. Stylishly attired and often outfitted with a bowler hat, Morganfield roams the stage like he owns it, his vocals sometimes as primal as a roar, his guitar hanging from a strap over his shoulder like an afterthought on his huge frame. In a genre where instrumental pyrotechnics are often the focus of attention, Morganfield’s natural charisma draws all eyes to him even when someone else may be soloing.
At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Thursday, June 19, that other soloist will often be harmonica player Keith “Lil’ Ronnie” Owens. Owens was invited to join Morganfield’s band last year and plays with him whenever he’s free. “It’s a blast,” says Owens, about playing with Muddy’s son. “Muddy Waters was my biggest influence, and it’s the closest thing to playing with Muddy. We mostly do Bill’s stuff — he’s definitely his own man. But even his stuff has his Dad’s quality. It’s done his own way, but it’s not far from the root.”
Morganfield doesn’t deny that the presence of Muddy Waters often looms over his music. “I always got this thing in the back of my mind,” Morganfield says. “Like he’s using me to keep his groove on. Like he’s inside of me. Like I do something a certain way, and it accidentally comes out like he did it.” But Morganfield doesn’t feel it’s as simple as a matter of genes. “A certain part might be handed down through genes,” Morganfield allows. “But playing the guitar is like a highly skilled sport — you’ve got to go out there and do the work, run the laps and play the games. I might have got certain physical attributes, like my big hands, from my daddy, but you have to do the work.”
Armed with a couple of college degrees, Morganfield is a former teacher with a couple of passions that his father, who didn’t have much of a formal education, likely did not share. As such, he has a couple of extra arrows in his songwriting quiver. An English major in college, Morganfield’s favorite writer is Fyodor Dostoevsky: “He just wrote right out of his mind, with that stream of consciousness stuff. I’m a big fan of his. And Shakespeare — I love Shakespeare.”
Asked what kind of legacy he hopes to leave as a performer, Morganfield says simply that he wants to make an impact. “I like to really touch people, leave an impression on people. I can remember growing up, and after certain shows there’d be a buzz the whole next week. That’s what I want to do.” S
Big Bill Morganfield will perform at Jumpin’ at the Virginia Museum Sculpture Garden Thursday, June 19. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets $10 at the museum, by calling 340-1405 or at Plan 9 Music.