Not many people would choose to move to Compton, the notorious south LA neighbourhood immortalised by NWA. But that’s just what guitarist Kirk Fletcher’s parents did when he was a child. “All of my family is from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, but I grew up in southern California, a little suburb of LA called Lakewood,” says Fletcher. “Then I moved to Compton with my family to start building a new church because my dad’s a pastor. That’s where I got started playing guitar.
“My dad sold the house in Lakewood and we moved to another house in Compton and he used that money to help build the church there. We already had a small church but he wanted to build a bigger church because he felt at that time we’re living in a bigger house and the Lord’s house is suffering in this small place. So he was really doing it for the right reasons.”
Many of the top session musicians now backing up the biggest stars in pop, hip-hop and R&B emerged from the gospel world, a path familiar to Fletcher. It’s not always an easy choice to make – many pastors disapprove, to put it mildly, of their children playing secular music. “My parents told me before they found Christianity, when they were out there in the world, about all of this great music they heard growing up in Arkansas,” says Fletcher. “Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and BB King was the music they partied to. I was like, well, what’s up with that? I’ve always been the guy that wants to know about that old stuff. I just love it.
“I had to find out and then when I heard it, it was all over. It just blew me away. My older brother played guitar too. He had a BB King tape – it was like a best of, it had excerpts from Live At The Regal. And then on this radio station called KLON 88.1 I heard Howlin’ Wolf, Little Red Rooster and I was like, ‘Wow!’. That freaked me out. It was the most haunting, amazing thing ever and I was only like maybe eight years old. It really done a number on me.”
Fletcher is quick to thank his big brother Walter for introducing him to the delights of R&B and funk, as well as blues. And the gospel music they played in church was a huge formative influence in the form of the Swan Silvertones, The Soul Stirrers and The Dixie Hummingbirds. “I would have probably stayed there in the quartet, gospel thing but the blues is just more hardcore,” says Fletcher. “It’s more raw and you can play more guitar; the singing is wilder, it’s talking about love, loss, good times, bad times and all that, so I dug that.”
Making that transition from praising the Lord in church to gigging out in the world required a leap of faith. Growing up, Fletcher thought he would follow his father’s path in his day job, working for the post office. “I really didn’t know about making money playing music until I was older and I started hanging around with older musicians,” he says. “Actually, my brother and a few friends started me out. He would take me out and let me play at house parties and weddings. I couldn’t really play in the clubs yet but he would sneak me out and let me play – don’t tell my dad that!
“Then I met some other musicians in church and I started playing gigs in church with quartet groups and choirs and they would pay me a little money to do that. So that’s where the gigging started – just doing gigs in church. Then it led to, okay, well, we got another gig where we can play some R&B, and then we got another club gig, so it was a natural progression. I just kept going because I needed to make some money.”
At this point in his career, Fletcher was focused purely on the guitar – he wouldn’t introduce the world to his voice until much later. His first break came when he was asked to play with Kim Wilson’s Blues Revue, led by the frontman of The Fabulous Thunderbirds on vocals and harmonica.
“I played with Janiva Magness, Lynwood Slim and people around town, but really the first guy to take me out on east coast runs and to Europe was Kim Wilson,” says Fletcher, who’d known about the bluesman from watching The Fabulous Thunderbirds on MTV. Their introduction came through Al Blake from the Hollywood Fats Band. “He took me under his wing because I wanted to play pure blues,” says Fletcher. “I was done playing all the R&B and all that stuff – I wanted to play pure blues and I just happened to meet him at a gig. We hit it off. I would go to his house every Sunday, we were hanging, and he told Kim Wilson about me. I went down and sat in; I wasn’t ready yet. I was still learning. “You can imagine playing traditional blues with Kim Wilson, I had to know quite a bit of stuff. So every day I was practising, learning every Little Walter song, every Sonny Boy song, every Jimmy Rogers, everybody.
“A year later I played with Kim Wilson again. I don’t know if I was ready but he thought I was. I think one of the things that Kim Wilson liked was I could back up the harp, I could play all the Jimmy Rogers and stuff like that pretty good, and then I could string bend, so I could go downtown and uptown. I guess versatility is what attracted him at the beginning.”
After his stint with Wilson, Fletcher started playing with another celebrated exponent of the harmonica, Charlie Musselwhite. “I really owe him a lot because he was the guy that really let me spread my wings,” says Fletcher. “My buddy John Wedemeyer who played with Charlie – he’s an amazing guitar player – was leaving the band for whatever reason. I was the guy coming on the scene and a couple of people, I think maybe Doug MacLeod, were telling me that Charlie was looking for somebody. “God bless her, I told my friend, Janiva Magness, ‘He needs to hear me play.’ He wanted to hear me play live, so I didn’t even have a gig but she let me sit in enough to let him come down and check me out. That’s how it all started.”
With Musselwhite, Fletcher was able to stretch out musically for the first time. “He wants you to go for it,” says Fletcher. “It was cool to have the foundation of playing pretty close to the records with Kim, which I love, and I respect that and I still play that way on a lot of things, but to have that adventurous thing I could do with Charlie and kind of marry those two… I started to form my own style with Charlie and I really appreciate that. I had a lot of fun playing with him because he was established and I could go out on the road, have crowds love Charlie and embrace me. That was great.”
In Fletcher’s view, his time with Musselwhite provided a quantum leap forwards in his command of his instrument and the development of his own identity on the guitar. “I grew up playing in church – I would play three nights a week. I had the dexterity and all of that stuff, but I didn’t have as much soul and I didn’t have it together yet,” he says. “I definitely think there’s a difference between before Charlie and after Charlie in my guitar playing.”
The next step in Fletcher’s career saw him reunited with Kim Wilson, but this time as a member of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, so it was time to bid farewell to Musselwhite. “The only reason I really left, I thought it would be more gigs,” he says. “I wanted to play more. I was a young guy and I wanted to be in a van or a bus or a plane, playing all over the world. That’s what I wanted. That’s the only reason I stopped, because I’d probably still be playing with Charlie!”
Fletcher spent more than three years with The Fabulous Thunderbirds and played on their 2005 album Painted On, sharing the guitar work with Nick Curran. He’d cut two albums under his own name by that point – I’m Here & I’m Gone in 1999 and Shades Of Blue in 2004 – but the time was fast approaching for Fletcher to assert his own identity as a solo artist and to bid farewell to Wilson for a second time. “When I started to find that I wanted to get into something different, I started letting some of those childhood influences come in, and I figured it was time to go because I’d rather leave and do something else than to stay there and try to let all of those [influences] through with the T-Birds. The music deserves better than me trying to play feedback and go crazy on the guitar,” he says.
It’s clear that Fletcher’s time as a Thunderbird is dear to his heart. Asked to pick out the highlights of that period, he replies. “Playing with Nick Curran, my good buddy that we lost a couple of years ago. Playing [Austin nightclub] Antone’s, opening for ZZ Top at the big Houston dome – those were some highlights. But I guess the main one is making a record with them, because that validates you. When you’ve made a record with a band, yeah, I was in there and I done that. Kim is great and I love him to death. He’s fantastic.”
Opening for ZZ Top in a giant stadium is a very different experience to sweating it out in a smoky bar. “I like playing in blues clubs more, personally, but the big dome is fun too because you just have to think bigger,” says Fletcher. “I can’t be as subtle – it’s more of a beat-it-over-your-head thing. I played with this Italian pop artist named Eros Ramazzotti and he said to me, ‘You have to be more bold, a little more dynamic, full-on, because the subtleties get lost in a big place.’ And I don’t like that! I like playing bigger venues and all, that’s fun in a way, but I like to have all of those nuances and subtleties, so for me, a sweaty club with a Fender Super Reverb is the way to go!”
The guitarist is nothing if not self-effacing on the subject of his earliest releases under his own name. “I’m Here & I’m Gone, that was 1999 and to be honest with you, that was a glorified business card to try to get gigs,” he says. “I wanted to do something to get on some festivals and maybe go to Europe and the whole nine yards. I didn’t think more than just to do a really traditional record. It’s my solo record but it was basically me playing with a lot of other people, even on my record. In a way yeah, it’s my solo record, but still it’s not really my solo record.”
He’s equally reticent about the follow-up, Shades Of Blue. “Once again, the same thing,” he says. “I thought it was a little better but it’s an evolving thing for a guitar player that didn’t sing at that time. All I could do was have a singer.” It was only on 2010’s My Turn that Fletcher finally decided to step up to the mic and sing. Surprisingly, despite a childhood spent surrounded by gospel music, he hadn’t sung before making that album, apart from “one or two times in the choir because somebody didn’t show up. I just wanted to be a guitar player and when I first started you could just be a guitar player in a band. Things change and I realised if I really wanted to follow my own vision, I’d better start singing, and it took a long time and it’s definitely a work in progress.
“I’m a late singer. [Producer] Mike Landau and a couple of my friends who helped me record that record were like: ‘Kirk, you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to try.’ They pushed me and pushed me and I finally said, ‘Okay, I’m going to try.’ It took me a year after that record to even do it consistently live because I was nervous and it felt strange.” Apart from the pressure, there’s the often painful process of getting used to hearing your own voice played back to you. “Oh God, it’s the worst! If you can get past that then I think you’ll be okay,” says Fletcher, who has simultaneously been figuring out what exactly it is he wants to sing about. “That’s the other thing that’s evolving as we speak actually. I basically started singing songs that I do now in my live gigs that somebody else sang on my records. It’s weird. Now I want to try to figure out what I want to sing, what I want to write and what I want to say, which is very scary, but at the same time it’s very fun and a new chapter.”
Fletcher is already thinking ahead to his next album, for which he hopes to run a crowdfunding campaign through a service like PledgeMusic or Kickstarter, aiming for a release in 2016. The idea for crowd-sourcing came while Fletcher was on the road with Joe Bonamassa. “I’ve just done this Joe Bonamassa tribute to the three Kings,” he says. “I was talking to Michael Rhodes, a fantastic bass player who lives in Nashville, and I was like, ‘Man, getting together with some guys from Nashville would be cool and, let’s see, hmm. How can I come up with some money to make this happen?’”
The guitarist says he has a notebook full of ideas that date back to when he played with Charlie Musselwhite and a collection of voice memos on his iPhone to work with. While he wants to expand his sound and branch out in new directions, he’s very keen to avoid falling into a familiar pattern for blues guitarists. “Most people think that if you want to do something new or if you want to take the blues somewhere else, that means you want to play rock blues. That’s absolutely not what I want to do,” he says. “There’s energy in the music of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Bobby Womack. That music isn’t rock but it’s got energy. I want to make music that has energy to it but is not rock. There are so many neglected areas in blues, I feel that I was blessed enough to have people come along in my life to show me stuff like that and to marry songwriting with a good message in the song.
“I think people like Los Lobos did it on that Colossal Head record they had, and also the new Alabama Shakes record is fantastic. If I can figure out a way to marry something like that with blues and traditional blues, that would be cool maybe. So I’m going on that path. I’m listening to a lot of blues, a lot of old-time country music and a lot of roots music. That’s where my head is right now.”
In the meantime, there’s the Live At The Baked Potato album to provide a snapshot of where Fletcher is at this point in his career. “The one I put out all by myself, so I’m proud of that,” he says. “I had just got off tour with Eros Ramazzotti a couple of years ago so I had a little bit of money to pay for the live recording and to put it out. It was very empowering and I plan on doing it more. That was the kind of tip I got from Joe Bonamassa – taking your career and your music and doing as much as you can yourself.”
Fletcher has now completed two tours with Bonamassa, paying tribute first to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in 2014, then this past summer doing the three Kings tour. “Basically I just came out to play some second guitar for my buddy,” says Fletcher. “I love to play rhythm guitar and he knows that and he likes the way I play rhythm. So it seemed like a win-win situation. I wasn’t featured as an artist too much on that but that’s completely fine with me because it’s his show. He was gracious enough to let me play a little and I had a great time.”
Moving forwards, Fletcher hopes to bring his singing up to the level of his six-string work. “I’m just trying to get my voice closer to my guitar playing where it’s one and the same,” he says. “A person who is a great example of that is Otis Rush. His voice and his guitar playing sounded inseparable. “I’ve really tried to fine-tune my guitar into what I like to hear and I can pretty much get close to what I’m hearing in my head, not in ideas and all this technical stuff, but the way it can just speak to me. I feel if I can ever get my voice to speak like I can with my guitar, I’ll be happy. Then if I’m happy, maybe it can make other people happy.” For Fletcher, the guitar and the voice are tools for self-expression and moving the listener. Achieving that is something that’s more of a journey than a destination. “I don’t want everybody to just be bombarded by a bunch of guitar licks,” he says. “I want them to feel it, like Peter Green and BB King and Otis Rush, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Rogers. That’s what I’m reaching for. I want to be one of those guys some day. I’m sure it will be a lifelong mission.”
Etch A Fletch - The artists that shaped Kirk Fletcher’s style.
Kirk Fletcher’s sound reflects all the influences he has absorbed over the years. “When I first started playing blues, jump blues was making a resurgence with bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, so I played with a lot of harmonica players that would play Chicago blues and jump blues,” he says. “I listened to a lot of Count Basie, Charlie Christian, even Louis Prima to really get a fatter sound behind the harp or somebody singing.”
Fletcher picks out the great saxophonist Maceo Parker as someone who has shaped his groove. “If I ever play something funky or over a funk groove, I want to think more like Maceo Parker than a guitar player,” he says. “They have these little, short phrases or they’ll lay on one phrase over and over again and that’s just invaluable to me. “Robben Ford was big on that too. I don’t play like Robben Ford but I definitely have things in my playing that I learned from him, like playing all over the neck, and phrasing, trying to play like a horn player, and some of his philosophies have really rubbed off. There’s this live record, Jimmy Witherspoon & Robben Ford Live – I really learned a lot of concepts from that record.”
Fletcher was introduced to Ford by his tech Jeff Rivera. Fletcher used to carry amps and change guitar strings for Rivera just for the chance to hear Ford play. “He would take me along to gigs when Robben would play in town and I would be a fly on the wall, eating it all up. The other thing about that was I could see that it could be done – you could go out and make a living playing music. You could tour the world. They did it so I could try to do it too, so that was an eye-opener for me.” Like Ford, Fletcher isn’t interested in simply recreating a studio recording on stage every night. “I don’t like playing the same thing over and over again unless it’s just the meat of the song,” he says, “but I might even play the rhythm slightly different because that’s how I am. I don’t like to eat the same things, I don’t like to go to the same places every day, I don’t play the same guitars all the time. Variety is the spice of life to me.”**