The Easy Truth
The Easy Truth
A Q&A with Coco Montoya
By Geoff Gehman
Coco Montoya seizes opportunity like a snake wrangler seizes rattlers. He hit the road with his first blues mentor, the highly influential singing guitarist Albert Collins; a mere three hours after Collins invited him to hit the road. His second blues mentor, the highly influential singing guitarist John Mayall, invited him to replace Mick Taylor in the Bluesbreakers shortly after hearing Montoya’s smoking, smoldering version of Otis Rush’s “All My Love (I Miss Loving),” a Mayall favorite. Montoya, who had switched from drums to guitar under Collins’ guidance, decided to pull out the Rush standard when he noticed Mayall, an early musical hero along with Collins, in the audience of a club where he bartended.
Montoya graduated to a solo career after 15 years in the Collins-Mayall School of Electric Blues. For three decades he’s been playing around the world, earning praise from the likes of John Lee Hooker and Solomon Burke, capitalizing on a host of assets. Soulful, spontaneous, searching guitar leads. Razor-burning, branded, dyed-in-the-wool vocals. Neat, complete rocking blues songs colored by blue-eyed soul, big-band jazz and doo-wop. A generous, gracious rapport with his instruments, his band mates and his fans.
On April 21 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will host Montoya, who cried after Mick Taylor told him he belonged in the same blues-guitar league as Eric Clapton and Peter Green. The 65-year-old will sample tracks from his new CD, “Hard Truth,” an engaging encyclopedia of idioms and emotions. Released last month by Alligator Records,, it features the flame- throwing “Lost in the Bottle,” the long-fuse burning “Am I Losing You” and a shuffling, stinging rendition of Collins’ “The Moon Is Full,” the latest recorded tribute to his late friend. The album is produced by another longtime ally, drummer Tony Braunagel, who shepherded discs by Taj Majal and Eric Burdon and who performs in the band of the singing guitarist Robert Cray, who, like Montoya, fell under Collins’ spell after watching a 1969 show.
Below, in a conversation while driving in a nasty storm to a Florida gig, Montoya discusses how he stays sane while touring under adverse conditions, how Collins taught him to feel music deeper, and how he practices the advice of another blues mentor, B.B. King: Leave that ego up onstage; it will be there when you get back.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, heart and soul?
A: There’s an oldie I just loved the hell out of: “My True Story” [a 1961 single from the Jive Five]. Definitely “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens, “Every Day” by Buddy Holly. A lot of doo-wop stuff: I was very well influenced by all that.
Q: How about the first blues tune that rocked your boat?
A: I would have to say “Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison. That was the first 45 I bought; it had to be in the seventh grade or something of that nature. I had to have it and I listened to it over and over and over. Oh, there was so much listening in that song: the vocals, number one, and then the drums, bass and the guitar player’s little [figure]. I’ve listened to it a lot over the years; that was the training ground for me listening to music really carefully.
Q: Like many of the musicians I’ve interviewed for Mauch Chunk you were pretty much thunderstruck when you watched the Beatles debut on Ed Sullivan’s show. They helped convince you to add guitar to your arsenal along with the drums, to play notes as well as beats. What was the first Beatles song you felt you mastered on guitar?
A: I probably didn’t master anything; back then I was pretty remedial as a player [laughs]. I think “Yesterday” was one of the ones I really liked; I really, really, really tried to learn to play that one. And I loved George Harrison’s “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You”; I still love that song
Q: Why did you pick fellow drummer Tony Braunagel to produce “Hard Truth”? I know that you two have traveled in the same circles for years, that he played on your albums “Suspicion” [(2000] and “Can’t Look Back” . What were you looking for in the studio that you thought he could help you deliver?
A: In this business it’s important to make friendships that have nothing to do with business, that have nothing to do with getting something somebody has. I developed those friendships with Tony and Keb’ Mo’ where I didn’t ask for anything, music-wise, until it made sense. Tony and I always talked about doing something together; we just had to find a time when it made sense to work together, when we needed to work together. I felt very comfortable with him as my producer; I was very grateful to take his guidance.
We both come from a place of interpreting something well, of performing original songs creatively and covers originally. Tony would say something like “This is the way you should do it; see if it works for you” and I might say something like: “Yes, I’d like to do that song, but in a different way.” We went through an amazing amount of songs to get the right 11; I bet we listened to over a hundred. I brought to the table “Truth Be Told” and “Hard as Hell,” which I wrote with Dave Steen [composer of songs recorded by James Cotton and Son Seals]. Tony brought to the table “’Bout to Make Me Leave Home” and “Devil Don’t Sleep.” There were no defenses up with Tony; I could let my guard down. You can’t really do that when you’re working with a producer you don’t totally trust; the studio can be a very strange place, ego-wise. That’s the great thing about working with a producer like Tony; he’s all about how are we going to best serve you, instead of trying to make you an imitation, a copy.
Q: I know you like to anchor every album with a song by the late Albert Collins, your boss, mentor and friend. Why was his “The Moon Is Full” a proper fit for “Hard Truth”?
A: Actually, I didn’t think we had an Albert song for the record; I was not going to throw an Albert song on there just for the sake of throwing something on. I have to have a vision; I have to pay homage to one of the greatest men in my life. I remember [keyboardist] Mike Finnigan saying: “Let’s just knock this one [‘The Moon Is Full’] off.” We were worked to death but he said: “Come on, we can do this; let’s take a stab at it.” It was the last thing we did, and we did it in one take. That’s why it’s a little rough, but I like the roughness.
Q: Most interviewers ask you about how Albert taught and influenced you as a guitarist. I’m going to take a different path and ask you how he shaped you as a drummer. Did you learn mainly through practical advice or osmosis?
A: It was probably more from osmosis, by absorbing his advice. There was no real technical knowledge he gave me; his guidance was more through feeling than thinking. Don’t question it; just do it; follow your emotions. I’ve found that the old guys couldn’t be bothered too much with explaining the blues. I mean, how do you explain an emotional thing? You don’t; you just do it. Theory is fine and dandy but with most of the guys I’ve played with either you get it or you don’t. With Albert it was always a feel thing, which made it unpredictable, which made it more memorable and more meaningful.
Q: What’s your favorite memory of being Albert’s drummer?
A: The first thing that comes to mind is the very first time I played with him. He called me up one afternoon and my mother came to me and said “There’s an Albert Collins on the phone.” That day I wasn’t doing much of anything: I was figuring out what to do with my friends, whether we’d hang out on the beach or not. The person on the other end of the line was a quiet, humble guy. “I’m looking for a drummer,” Albert said, “and I’ve got some gigs up in the Northwest and I’m just seeing if you’d be interested.” As scared as I was I said, yeah, I would be interested. I didn’t expect him to say what he said next: “I’ll pick you up in three hours.” No rehearsal time, no nothing. I literally learned the gig while driving Interstate 5 up the West Coast [laughs].
The first show was at the University of Oregon. There were maybe 300 to 500 people in this big hall; to me it felt like a million. It was exhilarating to be able to play for that big a crowd, with one of my favorite musicians, who had really helped steer me into a music career. It was probably the most exciting feeling I’ve ever had.
Q: Touring can be rough no matter the state of your finances or mind. What do you do to stay sane on the road?
A: It can be quite a grind, physically and mentally. Most of my friends who couldn’t make it in the music business couldn’t adjust to life on the road. I think it helps to reach the age of 65, to have that maturity, that perspective, that balance. I think my sobriety has helped me, although I’m not going to get up on a soap box. I don’t think I could have still been touring at this age with the bad habits I had back in the ’70s and ’80s. To be honest, the real hard work is traveling from town to town in all kinds of weather, driving a wet highway with tornados on either side of me and enduring hard load-ins and staying in some really terrible hotel rooms—that’s what we really get paid for. I just try to be ready for the next gig, to remember that I do it all for all the joy.
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade, when you considered maybe giving up performing and returning to bartending?
A: After I had left John Mayall, when I was thinking about starting my own band, I actually considered going back to bartending, back to my old day job. Some friends helped me get a vision that I could open my own “store,” as I call it. It took a while to get settled as the leader of my own group. But I’ve known for a long time that this is the thing I do best, good or bad as anybody sees it. I’m glad I get to do what I love for a living. The older you get the more you know you need to do what you love to do, as opposed to a job that pays better that you hate
Q: What’s the best tip you received from a musical mentor?
A: All I can think of is what B.B. King told me: Son, you can go up onstage and play with the confidence that you’re the greatest and there is nobody better. But do yourself a favor and remember to be humble coming off stage. If you come off stage cocky you’ll be devaluing yourself. If you come off humble, people will remember what you did better; whatever you did that night will be multiplied by a million. Leave that ego up onstage; it will be there when you get back.
As Albert liked to say, people can forget you in less time than they get to know you. That’s what I loved about Albert and B.B.: they came off the stage humble and grateful. I try to emulate my educators.
Q: So, Coco, what tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me that they wish for everything from traveling the world to world peace.
A: I don’t really have a Bucket List. Life gives me what I have and doesn’t give me what I’m not supposed to have. I’m grateful for the good things I get and the heroes I meet. Although, yeah, who doesn’t want world peace?
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I wish that people would just leave each other alone. If someone doesn’t believe what you don’t believe, just leave them alone. We should all try to be a little more tolerant of each other. I guess it all comes back to world peace.
Coco Montoya: The Scoop
He grew up in Santa Monica with a waitress mother, an auto-mechanic father and family members who listened to everything from rock to salsa, Glenn Miller to doo-wop.
He was first exposed to Albert Collins’ cool, spicy, fluid musicianship when the singing guitarist opened a 1969 show in Los Angeles for Creedence Clearwater Revival and Iron Butterfly. Two years later Collins borrowed Montoya’s drums for a gig at a club in Culver City, Calif.; shortly after, Collins invited Montoya to drum in his touring band.
Collins’ earthy tips to Montoya included: “Don’t be half steppin’ when you come up to play”
John Lee Hooker failed to convince him to jump from Collins’ band to his band.
Solomon Burke covered his song “I Need Your Love in My Life.”
Last year he and drummer Tony Braunagel, producer of his new album “Hard Truth,” performed in a benefit for Guitar Shorty, who lost most of his gear after the theft of his touring van.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He loves what Albert Collins told Coco Montoya after their guitar summit with Stevie Ray Vaughan: “Isn’t it sweet to get your ass kicked like that?” He can be reached at email@example.com.