A Q&A with Albert Cummings
By Geoff Gehman
Albert Cummings flirts with fire. He plays electric guitar as if he’s running through a blazing forest, sings as if his belly is full of burning coals, dances as if he’s jigging across a bed of hot rocks. He performs without a set list to test the audience’s temperature and stoke his spontaneity. “If you’re thinking,” he likes to say, “you’re stinking.”
Cummings was a teen when he first heard Stevie Ray Vaughan’s blistering boogie woogie. Inspired by Vaughan’s spitfire attitude, he switched from bluegrass banjo to electric blues-rock guitar. When he was 27 he traded his job as a house builder for life as a career musician. A half-dozen years later he cut a record with members of the late Vaughan’s band, Double Trouble. They backed him because they believed he carried Stevie Ray’s torch.
Since then Cummings has developed a first-rate reputation as a top-shelf heart-and-soul man. He plays with scorching intensity and authenticity whether he’s fronting his trio or guesting with Buddy Guy, whether he’s performing Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” or his own “Checkered Flag,” a race inside the mind of a NASCAR driver. On Feb. 21 he’ll light up the Mauch Chunk Opera House, which he digs for its sparking acoustics, listeners and spirits. Below, in a conversation from his home in Williamstown, Mass., he discusses lessons he learned from Vaughan, the core of a great guitar solo and how he happily becomes other guys.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that turned your world upside down and sideways?
A: The song I remember is Stevie Ray [Vaughan]’s “Rude Mood.” I was 14 when my brother-in-law gave me these Stevie Ray tapes and when I heard that boogie woogie I thought: There’s no way anyone can play guitar like that. At the time I was just a young kid interested in five-string banjo and bluegrass. They inspired me in some way but they never punched me in the stomach and said: Stop and listen to this. Stevie played guitar like he owned it, like no one had ever played guitar before. [“Rude Mood”] was one of those sparks, those spikes, that made me trade the banjo for the guitar.
Q: What are three major lessons you learned from Stevie as a guitarist, vocalist and force of nature?
A: One of the big things that Stevie did for me was open the door to the blues. When I was a senior in high school, I didn’t even know who Eric Clapton was. Then I started listening to Stevie Ray, who was able to cross over into the other world. He opened doors for me to people who influenced him. You open the first door and there’s Albert King. You open the second door and there’s B.B. King. Open a third door and there’s Lonnie Mack. And then all of those people have trees with branches you can walk out on.
Another thing that inspires me is that Stevie had this knack for channeling whatever was inside of him. Tommy [Shannon, Double Trouble’s bassist] would say that Stevie would be sitting in a chair in a hotel room and he’d be talking naturally and when he picked up a guitar he would zone out. That happens to me all the time. Sometimes I wake up onstage not knowing where I am—a very weird feeling. My wife jokes that I have multiple personalities; I walk out onstage as Albert and turn into another guy. She calls it “The OGs”—The Other Guys.
What I learned from the Double Trouble guys [Shannon and drummer Chris Layton] is that Stevie had an amazing determination. They told me that he took one [non-musical] job as a fry cook. Somehow something went wrong and he ended up covered in grease. And he never took another [non-musical] job. He just dedicated his life to music; he was going to make it as a musician no matter what. He was like that great leader who sailed to this place to fight a battle and when he got to shore he ordered his men to burn the boats. He basically said: We have no escape. We’re either going to win or die here. That’s what inspires me every day about Stevie. Never mind his playing; it’s just his will
Q: Now it makes even more sense that Tommy Shannon helped inspire you while you were making your album “From the Heart”  by telling you that Stevie would have told you to play from the heart.
A: You have to understand the position I was in. Working with Double Trouble was a hugely intimidating experience. At the time I had maybe 30 gigs under my belt. I’m like 33 years old and I’m as green as can be. And the next thing I know I’m in the studio with Double Trouble and they’re all looking at me and saying: Play something. The problem was, every time the red light in the studio would come on, I’d tense up; I had red light fever.
One night [Shannon and Layton] brought in Reese [Wynans, Double Trouble’s keyboardist], which meant for the first time the whole band was making an entire record with somebody other than Stevie. I couldn’t chill out. So they asked me: “Who’s your inspiration?”
[Sheepish] “Well, you guys.”
“Well, who did you listen to growing up?”
[Even more sheepish] “You guys.”
It was a really freaky environment. I asked Tommy: “Why am I here?” And he said: “I’ll tell you why: Stevie played with fire, Hendrix played with fire, and you play with fire.” The Double Trouble guys liked that I played whatever was in my heart and soul; I just let it rip. The point Tommy was making is that at one point Stevie was in my position; he was just a regular guy trying to make it. So just chill out. And from that point on we were together as one.
Q: Tommy also relaxed you by bringing into the studio candles, photos of Stevie before he became famous and Stevie’s hat. What are your tools or tricks for relaxing onstage?
A: Every little thing can affect you when you’re playing live. You’re on a great run and a chord goes bad or some technical glitch embarrasses you and all those good vibes go running off and you have to pull them back. Somebody yelling out can totally change my thoughts, even if it’s yelling in my favor. Eventually I learned to turn those problems around, so they were in my favor. Now, when someone screams at me, I think: Okay, maybe everybody in the place isn’t getting it but one person is getting it and I’m going to play to that one person. It’s a channeling thing.
It reminds me what Chris [Layton] told me: Being a musician is great for one hour a day–and the rest of the day is hard work. I’ve been a builder all my life and I know what a hard day’s work is like. But you really realize what it’s like to be exhausted when you’re getting up early to drive six to eight hours a day to get to gigs, and that goes on for a few weeks, and no matter how tired you are, you still have to give people what they want, which is basically all of yourself. So staying comfortable on the road is a matter of sleeping as much as you can and eating right.
Q: Of course that means touring with your personal chef.
A: [laughs] You mean my personal chefs–plural. After all, I don’t like to eat the same thing every day.
Q: I’m always curious about the afterlife of songs, how they surprise you after you release them to the world, how they zag when you expect them to zig. What tune of yours has gone where you never expected it to go?
A: What my songs do for me is they evolve as I play them. Now, I’m not a guy who goes into the studio with pre-rehearsed songs. I go in with rough ideas and I shape the songs with literally what everybody gives me. If I like what the bass player is doing, I will go there with him. If it’s not what I’m after, I’ll tell him: “Can you try something else?” Either way, I won’t fight it.
I’m getting to the point that I’m sick and tired of listening to mixes. I’m more like: Get these songs out of my hands and into the world. So I’ll play a song live and really dig into it so that a year later I’ll be playing it a lot different than I did on the album, which means the song has found itself.
Some people love some of my songs; others don’t love them. I’ve never had a hit. In fact, one of the most popular songs I play live isn’t even my own. It’s a souped-up version of “Hoochie Coochie Man” that moves into [Little Feat’s] “Dixie Chicken.” I just happened to put the two together off the cuff and they just fit
Q: Did you really weasel the main riff from “Spirit in the Sky” into “Hoochie Coochie Man”?
A: Not consciously. I’m not the sort of guy who thinks, Hey, let’s play “Spirit in the Sky.” Sometimes things will come out onstage that I thought I didn’t know how to play [laughs]. They go in there and stay in there and come out in a different way. It’s my form of melting pot.
So if you heard “Spirit in the Sky,” chances are it’s in there. I guess I’m just channeling. I remember what B.B. King told me: “We don’t steal licks, we borrow them.”
Q: You play without a set list, which can make concerts quite adventurous, as if you’re performing without a net. Can you remember a gig when the lineup of songs was way all over the map, maybe a night that became a little surreal?
A: Boy, it happens very frequently. Because I don’t use a set list, it makes me jump off the ledge. If you have a set list in front of you, you’re always worried about what comes next. This has to follow that, you have two seconds to get this done–all that very regimented stuff drives me nuts. I like to be flowing and free: I just can’t limit myself to following what’s written down.
The first two or three songs I’m testing the audience. As I’m playing I’m thinking: What do they like? And then I’ll follow them; I’ll like whatever they like. I’m there to entertain them, to give them a great show. I can’t do that with a set list. I might put down songs the audience might not like. If that happens, how can I move them where we need to go?
The Mauch Chunk Opera House is a place where I can go where I want to go. It’s got a crazy good sound, a great feel, a haunting vibe. I can totally relax and hit them hard and bring them down. I can have total silence; I can hear a pin drop. There are four walls, but no limitations.
Q: What makes a great guitar solo, one that tattoos body, mind and soul?
A: What makes a great guitar solo for me is simply one that reflects the message of the song. If it’s a happy song and somebody plays a sad guitar solo, then it doesn’t fit the message. What snaps my head around is when I hear a guitarist really express his feeling instead of somebody else’s feeling. I don’t hear a lot of people who understand that, that you can bare your heart and soul with your fingers on this instrument made of metal tied to wood.
Q: You have a knack for catchy sayings like “If you’re thinking, you’re stinking” and “Be yourself because everyone is taken.” Ever think of a second career as a bumper-sticker sloganeer?
A: [laughs] Hey, I’m open to anything.
Albert Cummings: The Scoop
He didn’t know he could sing well until he was ordered to sing in public by his basic-training drill sergeants.
His tune “The Blues Make Me Feel So Good” won the Blues Festival Guide’s 2013 theme-song contest.
He names his guitars. His No. 1 Stratocaster is called “CC” after his wife Christina.
His No. 1 perk is performing with heroes like Jimmy Thackerey and Johnny Winter.
The No. 1 item on his Bucket List is meeting Eric Clapton. “I don’t care if I play out with him; I just want to hang out with him.”
He’s under Jim Thorpe’s 19th-century spell. “It’s like I stepped back in time to the point that I wonder: When are the Civil War soldiers coming? I’m surprised it’s not filmed more. Put a little dirt down on the streets and you could have yourself a good period piece.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He has a major jones for Albert Cummings’ fire-walking, fire-sprinting version of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.