Ben Prestage is the musical master who’s been turning heads for years. He honed his skills busking on the legendary Beale Street in Memphis, then came back to Beale to participate in the International Blues Challenge, where he won fourth, third, and second in three consecutive years! Ben recently brought his one-man-band act to the back porch to talk about his musical heritage, his influences, and his rockin’ new CD!
Ben, I’ve got a question for you that I’m very interested in. I’ve seen mentions about how your grandmother was a vaudeville performer, and you’ve got just a huge musical family heritage/history kind of thing.
Yeah, my great grandmother, actually was in vaudeville.
OH, wow, it’s even bigger. Okay. So your family’s always been pretty musical?
Yeah, my great grandmother – she was in vaudeville – she toured all over the United States. She was in a band called the “Girls Orchestra”.
They were based out of, I wanna say, the Ohio, Michigan area. They were way up there. That was my mom’s side of the family, but she toured all over the United States. They toured sometimes as the Girls Orchestra; they also toured as the Navaho Girls. They were dressed in, like this, Native American garb, and I wish I had a recording of ‘em. I know my great grandmother played trombone. I’ve got one of the pictures from it. It says “we specialize in dance music.” I really wish I knew what it sounded like, but I don’t.
But, they toured with people like Al Jolson and some big names and stuff back in the day. Then she got pregnant with my grandmother and she stopped touring that year to start family, raise kids. But my grandmother got into music too, and she played piano. She played boogie-woogie piano and stuff. So, she did that but she never really did it professionally, but she’d play house parties and she played for me when I was a kid before she got arthritis.
That’s a shame.
Yeah. She played some too. My mom played a little piano too, when I was a kid, but not a whole lot. She could read music and stuff and she could play a little bit. On my dad’s side of the family: My dad’s dad, he was the one from Mississippi, that’s where the ties are to all the blues and everything. He played in a band too, around Mississippi. They didn’t tour extensively, but they just played around their town. He played guitar and he had some brothers and sisters and everything that played, and they put together a band. My dad played guitar too. He taught me some of my first chords and everything. Yeah, there’s been music in my family for awhile. My brother’s in a band here in Orlando. They play all over the state. Yeah, there’s a lot of music in my family.
So it’s in your blood then.
Yeah, I definitely think it is. The love for music is definitely in my family as well.
Right. You’ve got a bit of a musical dynasty going on. You’re like the Nevells, haha!
Well, we ain’t that big, but…
How has that affected you and your music? Does that play any role in the music you record or perform?
Definitely. When I found out my great grandmother was in vaudeville I just kinda started researching some of the old vaudeville music, some of the old minstrel music and fell in love with it right away and, with my dad being from Mississippi, he was always into blues – Listened to the older blues stuff; the old Mississippi stuff. Not so much the newer, but the really old roots of it. So I grew up listening to that kind of music. Grew up listening to guitars and or something and my dad would say, “If you like that, you need to check out this guy or that guy.” So, he knew a lot about all of the performers. That was great because when I was growing up we didn’t have a computer or nothin’; we didn’t have internet.
Now, it’s like you go on YouTube and it’ll send you to links of other artists that are similar.
Back in the day, you had to go to a record store and I grew up in the woods. There’s was no music store around. We had to find it where you could.
Well, there’s something to be said about that though.
Definitely! I love where I grew up. I think that affected a lot of how I play as well. It certainly affected the fact that I got into music so deep, because there wasn’t much to do out there.
Yeah, that is true, when you ain’t got much to do you got nothin’ but time to practice.
Uh-huh, Walk in the wood… chores to do. But when there was free time, especially in the evenings -We only had two channels on our TV. If you wanted to watch more than that, you had to climb on the roof and turn the antenna around. Every Sunday when football would come on, me and my brother would have to go on the roof and spin it around. My dad would be yelling’ at me, “turn it more! Turn it back!” He was trying to watch football and we’d have to be on the roof trying to get a picture.
I’ve heard your name around before as being this wild kind of roots musician, and from what I understand, you’ve won a bunch of awards for this, is that right?
Yeah, I actually have. One of the first things I actually won – I never actually won it – I went to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis and got fourth place, third, and second place three years in a row. After I got second, I didn’t go back. I had a paying gig the next year and the next year I was busy. I love that competition. I love the festival atmosphere. I just never made it back. I got fourth, third, and second place there. I was two time recipient of the Lyon/Pitchford Award (10’06”) for best diddley-bow player. They have that at the IBC, but the person who puts the award on, John Lowe, is not officially affiliated with the IBC. He makes all the big cigar box guitars. He makes the best ones out there. He handmade the one that Richard Johnston plays. Anyone that’s really serious plays his stuff. I received that two years in a row and became friends with him. Once we were friends, he said, “I can’t give that to ya anymore!” I got the one for most unique performer at the Songwriter’s Showcase of America.
This year, I got nominated for Best Overseas Artists for the British Blues Awards. Which, is basically Europe’s version of the BMA.
Huh, that’s pretty prestigious stuff. It sounds like you’ve really been raking it in lately.
Yeah, the past year or so, I’ve be working very hard; working a lot and it’s finally starting to get out to everyone a little bit more.
How’s the new album doin’?
It’s doing really good. So far, you can only see it in the live shows. I just got it online for sale two or three weeks ago, and that’s going really well. This is probably only the first or second interview I’ve done in relation to that. Last week, I got out a CD to about 300 or 400 radio stations. There’s a list on Facebook. There’s a fanpage and there’s an official page with a link to the radio stations and request lines. So you can actually request songs off the CD. I just started promotion on it over the past few weeks. Before I did much promotion, they were doing pretty good online.
Tell me about the CD’s name. It’s a little odd.
Yeah, the name is a little odd. It actually came from the title track of the CD. Basically the song is actually an abstract song about being a one-man band, and the lyrics are actually in the liner notes and if you read ‘em you’ll see that it’s a one-crow murder, a one-wolf pack. And a murder is a group of crows. Like a flock of seagulls, or a pack of wolves… I said I’m a one-crow murder, basically, like, I’m doing this all by myself. Maybe it sounds like more than one person, but it’s just one person. At the end of this song it talks about, “I’m all these things. I’m all that. But, I’m none of it without whoever’s listening at that time.” In reference to that song, it’s like “Yes I do all of this by myself. I’m a one-crow. It appears I’m a one-man band and all of that.” Now, I feel like, there’s more people to it. There’s more people behind the scene and basically just the listeners and the interviewers and reviewers of the CD are the ones that really make it happen. If you read all the lyrics and look at it like that, from an abstract point of view, you can really see that from that song.
This is a great album; the music especially, but I also love the album artwork throughout. I don’t know who did it, but they did a fantastic job.
Yeah, I did all that too. I did all the art work, all the graphic design work, all the liner notes; everything.
I drew everything out, Photoshopped it all together, edited it for the CD. The only thing I didn’t do was mix it and master it. I had a friend that recorded it and mixed it and he knew somebody that mastered it for me. But other than that, I did everything else – I played every instrument on there and did all the artwork.
Wow, that’s pretty impressive. This is cool. This is really good artwork. I didn’t realize you do it yourself. I love the little pictures that are related to every song. I think that’s a cool little edition you tossed in there.
Cool, oh, yeah. I tried to get a little visual of each song and any song that was covered, I put the bio of whoever wrote the song in there because I think it’s important to give credit to those people.
Tell me a little bit about the CD. You’ve got a little bit of Tampa Red, some R. L. Burnside, traditional delta kind of stuff?
Yeah, there’s a lot of influences. I love old blues stuff, especially the kind of off the wall stuff. Anything that gets away from the straight ahead 12-bar blues. Tampa Red did a lot of that and so did R. L Burnside, where they both had their own distinct sound and style. I think this CD’s a little darker than any CD I’ve ever done. It definitely has a darker edge to it than anything I’ve done, but then I also tried to break that up with a couple of songs like “Fishin’ in the Dark” and “Amsterdam Rag.” Mostly original, I think three or four cover tunes in there and the rest are all original songs. I treid to cover the gambit of what I do in a live show as far as my blues side. With the latched feel and finger style guitar and ragtime guitar. Sometimes in my live shows, I’ll do more country-flavored music, more like Hank Williams or pull out the banjo or fiddle or something, but I didn’t think any of those songs fit with this CD so I kind of left the country music off of this CD and stuck more with the roots. Real southern roots now.
Which reminds me, whenever we’re going to interview someone, we always stick it up on our Facebook page to let people know who we’re interviewing them to see if they have any questions, and somebody asked if you plan to record “Devil Went Down to Florida” anytime soon, and how your fiddle playing was doing?
Yeah, that was one song that I thought about putting on the CD because I have had a lot of requests for that song recorded. Basically, what it is… I changed “The Devil Went Down to Georgia;” I arranged it for acoustic guitar. So, I can play everything on finger style guitar. I do all the parts on acoustic guitar. I change the storyline a little. The story sounds the same for the first couple of verses, but the devil went down to Florida and “he lookin’ for a soul to steal, and he sees this guy, who’s a guitar player. The guitar player accepts the challenge for the duel. It’s exactly the same – except, what it comes down to is that the devil plays, like, this really great guitar piece in the middle of the song. Then, Johnny comes back and does his verse, but Johnny actually loses the bet that time and actually loses his soul and everything. Then, at the end, it says, “No one told Johnny he [the devil] was better on the guitar than he was on the fiddle.” So there’s a little twist of humor in the ending. After he loses his soul – it’s darker than the original version – but then there’s the twist of dark humor at the end. It’s just like a showpiece on the guitar. I thought about putting that on the CD but it’s too upbeat. It would fit better on another album. I would like to record that.
I love the little New Orleans plug you got in here. I really like the way you arranged that song with the New Orleans riffs and feels; the old meets new with “Rebirth” and “In the Night.” I like that track
Cool, man. I’m glad you caught that. Some people don’t catch that, if they’re not that into that New Orleans stuff. That was the hardest song for me to do on the drums, for sure. I had to pull off the drum part with my feet. During the second live thing, the split drums was kind of tricky. They recorded the guitar, the drums, the vocals all together and they overdubbed a lap steel part and a harmonica part. Other than that, everything’s recorded live.
Did you do the one-man band thing on this whole album.
Yes. There is – I think on “Three Hots and a Cot,” I overdubbed a woodblock part and a clave part for the drums, but pretty much everything else, the drums are recorded live. What I tried to do, I’d go in there and record a song and play it live. So I do the drums and the guitar or the diddley bow part and whatever – and even the harmonica part – I do that at one time and then I might go in there and, if I wanted to have some rhythm harmonica under my vocals, that’s just one thing I haven’t learned to do as a one-man band is to sing and play harmonica, so I did have to overdub harmonica on a couple tracks and overdub a steel part on top of the guitar. I can’t play two stringed instruments at once, but other than that I recorded all the songs how I play ‘em: live with just minimal overdub; you know, what I could get away with.
God! that’s amazing. You’d never know listening to it!
I think if you hear the songs live you won’t notice much difference. Like, if you see me live, you won’t notice much difference from the album in the songs.
And, you’re touring now aren’t ya’?
Yes. Yeah, I’m on the road right now.
How long you going to be touring for?
[Editor’s Note: Most of these tour dates have already passed, but you can see a full list of Ben’s tour dates here]
I’ll be gone two, two and a half weeks. I’ll be in Georgia tonight, then South Carolina for two nights, then North Carolina. Then I’ll be in Pennsylvania, New York and as far out west as Indianapolis. Then I’ll be in Florida for about a week and then I go overseas. The whole month of June I’ll be in Europe.
July and August I’ll be covering the whole United States – probably as far as California. We don’t have the whole tour set up yet; we’re still working on routing. So, we’ll probably start in Florida and go up north to the New York area and go as far west as California during the months of July and August.
Somebody else on Facebook wanted me to ask you if you sleep with your beard under the blankets or on top?
Depends on how much I’ve been drinking!
Alright, cool. Is there a place where people can see your tour schedule and check out your CD?
Yeah, I got a new website. It’s benprestagemusic.com
Yup. You can get CDs, my bio’s on there, I got a news page for anything new happening that’s going on – any upcoming releases, there’s a whole list of radio shows I’m going to be on – pretty much any news is on there. Pretty much anything you need’s on there.
Okay, thanks for the chat, Ben! This was fun! Anything else you want to add?
I mean, just come on out, see me live! If you like the CD, I think the live show’s probably even better. I like the CDs; but, yeah, check it out.