Blues Matters - England
Gypsy Carns The Blues Playing Messenger
Wednesday 7th June 2006 Mike Rimmer went to Nashville to meet a brilliant custodian of the gospel blues tradition, GYPSY CARNS.
Despite the wrong-headed insistence of music historians and sometimes blues singers themselves that "the blues is the Devil's music," there's plenty of evidence that the contrary is true. The Church had a powerful influence on the development of this unique African American music form and by the time recording began in the 1920s, blues giants like Charlie Patton and Big Bill Broonzy included gospel songs in their repertoire while a whole heap of blues gospel "guitar evangelists" like Blind Willie Johnson and Rev Gary Davis were demonstrating that far from being a musical form only suitable for ribald celebrations of sex, bad times and hard liquor it could also be a hugely powerful music vehicle to proclaim the good news of the Gospel. With the birth of Jesus music in the late '60s, gospel blues got a new shot in the arm from newly-converted ex-hippies. Darrell Mansfield and Glenn Kaiser both went on to record superlative gospel blues recordings and though the earthy, gutsy sounds of 12 and 16 bar blues can sound like an alien anachronism to those only attuned to the slick, conveyer-belt outpourings of Nashville CCM, the blues' ability to connect with blue collars and college grads alike mean that the powerful ministries of Bible teachers and blues musicians like Tony Loeffler and Jimmy Bratcher continue to bear fruit. But possibly the best and certainly one of the most colourful exponents of sanctified blues is a guitar-toting pastor called Gypsy Carns. His latest album 'Gospel Train Coming' is a revolutionary overhaul of classic blues songs from way back and ably demonstrates Gypsy's building foundation - shifting vocals and torridly turbulent guitar licks.
General Gypsy Carns has been making music since he started sneaking into bars in the early '60s! These days he's a grey bearded motor cycle riding blues preacher. But he can still recall his early years when as a young boy he dreamed of making music. For five decades he's been playing in bands and sporadically recording. "I recorded my first stuff in '66," he recalls, "and then just never stopped. '70s, I made records and toured and stuff. '80's, made records and toured and stuff and in the 90s, made records and didn't do a lot of touring."
But everything changed for Carns in the '90s. He remembers, "I was living in LA in January '94. The Holy Spirit had been speaking to me for a year or two to dedicate my life and give the party life up and use my music as a medium for the message. I half-heartedly did that. I made a record in '93 for an Italian blues label and had a couple of love songs on there like a lot of people write, that could be a boy-girl or it could be a God thing. So I didn't really give it up. I went to bed one morning about 2:30am and about 4:30am was thrown out of bed by a violent earthquake. It shook and shook and shook. It was the North Ridge Quake. I was living in Hollywood and I really thought I was going to die. I could hear the buildings bending and creaking and people screaming. It lasted and lasted and lasted. And then I started seeing my life go before me and I thought, 'Oh my God I'm gonna die! I'm really gonna die!' I saw myself at five, 10, 15, 20 and so on. I thought, God, I'm never gonna see Caroline again! (Caroline is now his wife.) I screamed to God, 'HEY! SAVE ME GOD!' And it stopped.! Just like that. And it was dead quiet. And I knew, alright, he saved me to do this music thing. And that's what did it."
Pretty dramatic, you have to admit! But did his life change straight away? Carns is honest in his response. "I was moving back to Nashville in a couple of weeks so I moved back to Nashville. And you know how we are, I soon forgot. I slipped back into partying again for several months and then it was like, 'Alright, it's time. Stop all this BS, let's go!' So by '95 I was clean sober, officially saved and joined a church and got into the body of Christ. That's when I really became serious about my life as a Christian and in particular my music. I started writing songs and started recording. I made a record a year but it was five records before I really got a deal."
He's equally honest when describing his life before he met Christ. "I was worldly and wild," he admits. "Everything went, coke, girls, pot, booze, party, play. I pissed away my career, like a lot of people have. If I hadn't had that lifestyle, I would have been focussed on the music rather than having a good time and not thinking about the future. You know, we made good music and played hard and did all that but, to what end? You know? There was no purpose. So once I was saved and dedicated my life and my music to God, to Yahweh, it took about five years to find my niche musically and who I was in Christ, what was my purpose. It didn't just happen. But now I'm a cult favourite at 58 and I'm very happy!"
He laughs and his clear eyes sparkle. He is one of the youngest 56 year olds I've ever met! I first came across Gypsy when I reviewed his 'Gforce' and 'Revelation Blues' albums. Since he was resident in Nashville and I was visiting, we hooked up and now every time I go to the city, it's Gypsy's smiling face that greets me at the airport!
I love to tease Gypsy that his wife Caroline is way out of his league. Caroline Carns is well educated, an English rose and a former dancer. In the '70s she was briefly a member of Pan's People and subsequently starred in the Benny Hill Show. These days she lives a quieter life working for a local law firm, having given up the entertainment business. The couple have been married for 10 years and are active in a local church. She was the reason that Gypsy moved from Hollywood to Nashville.
In his new city, Gypsy's new musical purpose also included a change in direction for his music. "Being a blues man, I wasn't aware of any Christian blues. Obviously it was going on - Glenn Kaiser and Darrell Mansfield and those guys had been leading the charge there. I quietly just went about developing my own brand of what I call 'Messianic Blues'. You call it 'apocalyptic' and they're both correct for what I do."
It's April 2003 and I am in Memphis, visiting for a few days and ministering in a church. A few days earlier I'd met Gypsy for the first time and invited them to visit the church in Memphis where I'll be preaching where I want Gypsy to sing a couple of songs in the service the next morning. It's a sunny afternoon and I'm in Ardent studios visiting Skillet while they record there. Gypsy and Caroline arrive and have a tour of the studios before we all decamp to a friend's house for what they call a "cook out". We English call it a barbecue. Church folks mill around filling their plates. Children run and play and as the sun sets, Gypsy gets out his guitar and plays a few songs sitting on the wooden deck at the back of the house. There's something perfect about the Tennessee setting, the sunset and this authentic blues music. It was on this trip that Gypsy gave me the nickname Memphis Mike! Perhaps I need to start singing the blues.
His most recent album, 'Gospel Train Coming', reveals Carns as the blues preacher that he really is! He's always been comfortable as a wandering solo performer playing a dobro, stamping on his stomp box, blowing his harp and singing his raw, powerful blues. His albums have run through the whole gamut of blues influences and have always been pretty electric. This new one sees a slightly softer side come out. "It's more laid back," he confesses. "It's totally acoustic. No dobros plugged through the amp, no stomp box. Only one track has harmonica on it. I recorded most of the songs on two silver-toned guitars from the '40s, which are the actual stuff those guys used. We recorded in one room. One mic, one take, no flash. The Spirit was there. I rehearsed a lot like I always do and went in and did it in one day - December 23rd, 2005."
At this point, I have to hold my hand up and admit to a role in the inspiration for Gypsy's latest release. A while ago Tony Cummings gave me a box set of music from legendary American blues preachers to review. I was totally inspired by what I heard on these old recordings and immediately thought of Gypsy. I tracked down a copy on Ebay and sent him a copy as a gift just because I thought he'd enjoy it. I didn't realise that it would influence his next recordings! Gypsy remembers, "It was a five-CD set. I just listened to it and absorbed it and two songs really stood out for me. 'Gospel Train Coming', which is the title, and 'Your Enemy Cannot Harm You' by Reverend Edward W Clayborn from 1927. He evidently had got stepped on by one of his friends really bad because a lot of his songs were about friends going wrong and friendship gone bad and that sort of thing."
Gypsy's own relationship with the blues began as a young boy in the '50s. He remembers, "I was five and I lived in Anniston, Alabama. I was born in Arkansas and moved to Alabama. I used to stay up late when I got a transistor radio when they first came out in the '50s, and listen to WLAC, which was in Nashville, a few hundred miles away. They played a lot of rhythm and blues and blues. Did I understand at five years old? I don't know. But that kind of made a pattern on my soul; the style and the emotion. The real life of what the blues are. Of course in the '60s I got away from that and played rock. I'm a rock guy too. I can rock! I CAN RAWK! I bring that edge to the blues. I played rock in the '60s and '70s and the '80s. It wasn't until the '90s that I really got back into the blues. Even when I was saved and started making records, they weren't blues, they were rock. That five-year period, I sort of just moved into the blues and started feelin' it. The Spirit led me there. It was like, 'You're not quite there Gyp! You gotta keep workin' at it and it ain't rock boy, it's blues!' So once I understood that I really went back in depth and listened and learned and went to school for the blues in '97, '98, '99. I'm always, when I'm travelling, looking for new records and listening and learning."
And now that he's in his mid-50s, what better music to make than the blues! He's got white hair, a long white beard so he isn't going to be a pop star! Some people might be surprised to find that 'Gospel Train Coming' was all recorded in one day. "That's the way they used to do it. That's the way I always do it! Every album I've made I've done in one day in one city. Stomp box or whatever. I usually fast two or three days before and get my mind right. Get in there. Clean studio. Say prayers. Set up. Get a sound. Take a deep breath and go! And by the end of the day it's done. Then you gotta mix, master and do all that. But the actual process I do in one day."
When Gypsy tells me about his hell raising days, I always find it hard to believe because he's one of the gentlest, most humble men I've met. As someone who's been on the receiving end of his hospitality, he's also one of the most generous. He's more likely to give somebody a copy of his album than try and sell it to them. He laughs, "At gigs, I just bring a box up and say, 'Hey, if you like it, take it! Write me on the website. If you want a copy I'll mail it to you.' Pay for the postage myself." It's almost as if he uses his CDs as gospel tracts to share his faith with others. "I can do that," he says, "because I make money from another source. For me it's not about selling records, it's about spreading the Word of Christ."
When it comes to his day job, he laughs, "I'm corporate trash!" He actually doesn't talk much about his day job but he admits, "I'm a high-level executive for Gibson Guitars. Official title is 'Global Director of Customer Relations'. So basically I'm in charge of customer service for the world." If there's a serious problem with a Gibson customer anywhere on Planet Earth, the buck ultimately stops with General Carns!
In 2004, Gypsy took me on a guided tour of the Gibson factory in Nashville. This isn't a museum, it's a serious business and generally they don't let members of the public wander around the shop floor watching how they turn lumps of wood into fashionable guitars that your local rock god straps around his neck. We wander around and Gypsy takes me to the places where he started in the Gibson Company, right at the bottom of the heap. Through hard work, skill and a genuine personality he's worked his way up through the company and observing how he relates to his co-workers, he may be an executive but he hasn't forgotten his roots.
I believe that even now if you gave him a piece of wood, he could still build it into a guitar! He remembers, "I started in August 1975. I was the first inspector they hired. I ran all the different departments, made the guitars, sprayed the finish, sanded 'em, set 'em up, adjusted 'em, repaired 'em. Got into supervision and kind of got burnt out on that. Moved to New York in '89 and ran an A&R office there. Moved to Hollywood and ran it there. Moved back to Nashville in '94 and ran it again. Got into customer service in '99 and I've been in that ever since."
Gypsy used to be the guy who would travel the world and hand over Gibson guitars to extremely famous guitarists. He says simply, "From '89 to '94 I met 'em all - George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, Slash, CC Deville. Anybody who was anybody and anybody who wasn't anybody pretty much. I was out maybe four or five nights every week for about seven years. So I totally got burned out on bands. It's hard to get me out to a club.unless I'm playin'!"
Gypsy Carns The Blues Playing Preacher
I wonder what the guys at Gibson make of his music ministry. "You know, I kind of downplay it at Gibson." He expands, "That's the day job. It's a great opportunity for dealing with people to bring Christian principles in. That's how I run my department and that's how I treat our customers. And that's why it's successful. We don't lie. We don't cheat people. If we can't help you out we tell you. So the values, the morality, is a big thing that blends through. I mean people think it's cool. When I was in Amsterdam last week helping to set up our new office there, I played and some people took some pictures and fired them off the next day and they've got them posted around the shop. The executives that I work with, I don't really talk about it at all. The owner, the CEO Henry Juszkiewicz likes it. And he appreciates the fact because he knew me before when I was the wild man. He's seen the transformation and respects that and he's supportive of my music."
Gypsy Carns is a motor bike ridin' blues preacher so it's fitting that his music ministry regularly takes him to a church that has been established to outreach to bikers. He explains, "For Harley Davidson guys it's a church called Covenant Confirmers. Pastor Ron and Cricket Baptiste are the pastors there. A lot of the folks are bikers, who believe in Christ now, and their families. It's a great place. There's a great spirit there. It's actually the fastest growing church in Robertson County, which is about 30 miles outside of Nashville. It's a great ministry. They do a lot of community work, have bike rides. There's quite a big movement in the States, bikers who have been saved and still ride, still wear the leathers, but they believe in Jesus and they live that way. Because they come from such a tough background, it's a fight to keep their kids focussed and not doing crack or sleepin' around. You know, the normal things? But it's a great ministry and I really believe in the people there and the church itself."
He continues, "They all ride Harleys. You better not show up with a rice beater! I mean these are guys who've killed people and been on death row and been reprieved or been in jail for whatever. These are hardcore people who've cleaned up. The type of thing that I do really appeals to them; the blues. It seems the Lord uses me with that type of crowd. Playing in the streets, playing in prisons, playing in bars, shoutin' the Word. At the church, I play a set basically and speak between songs and do that sort of thing. But it's in a blues style. I stomp and shout and praise the Lord with song."
Talking about his new album 'Gospel Train Coming', he tells me about his version of "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed & Burned". "The album has nine cover songs on there and I normally don't do cover songs. I write my own material through the Holy Spirit. But this one, I wanted to pay homage to the people who inspired me to be a blues preacher. If you go to BMI and you research the song, this particular version is by Reverend Gary Davis. But many, many people.I mean Darrell Mansfield, Glenn Kaiser.everybody plays this song. I've never really played these songs before because I've always written my own stuff. So even though it's a cover song it was new for me to do this. So I just tried to be true to the genre."
He continues, "My ministry has been geared around End Times and repentance of sin and the Second Coming of Christ. In particular the Jewish nation. To witness to them about Christ and to let them know that he is the Messiah and they need to accept that, or there will be retribution and payback. I mean I know the Jews are God's chosen people and there are many that do believe in Jesus.
I'm going over there to Jerusalem in August to play. Play in the streets. Play at the Wailing Wall. Pray for me because it ain't going to be easy! There's a group that are Jews that believe in Jesus and they get a lot of persecution within Jerusalem, from the city. And I support them. But this year that is the main focus for me. To go there and to preach in the streets and send the message."
Otherwise Gypsy has a unique way of playing live. "I don't really think about playing," he confesses. "I pray about it and gigs come in. I'm playing this weekend at the Nashville Folk Festival. Last week I was in Amsterdam travelling for Gibson, and I played there. So it's not like I have a set booking schedule that I even think about. I just say, 'Lord where do you want me to go? Where do you want me to play?' I get an email or the phone rings or I see something in the paper that I pursue. I play at least once a week somewhere, whether it's a church or downtown Nashville on the street . I go down there and just play the Word. Like these guys who have their case open and they're playing for change, I'm on the same circuit, standing on the street singing about Jesus and giving away my CDs."
The style is true to the blues preaching tradition which is at the centre of his latest album. Times change but Gypsy is using a tried and tested method of reaching out to people, taking his music to where people pass by, hoping to hook them. He says, "I was in Amsterdam walking around with my guitar singing about Jesus and people were looking at me like, 'Who in the heck is this guy?!' But you know what? Some people listened. I gave some CDs away, I got to talk to people about Christ. And that's what it's all about. Am I famous? No. Am I selling a lot of records? No. But am I spreading the Word of God? Yes. For me it's about saving souls."
Gypsy Carns - The Blues Messenger