With a gruff voice that sometimes howls, sometimes grumbles, Australian bluesman C.W. Stoneking sounds like a ghost from another era. With musical styles pulling from the early 20th century, blues and jazz, and painting lyrical images of a forbidden and long-gone world populated by black magic, mysterious sins, jail, shipwrecks, voodoo celebrations, decadent dances and even General Douglas MacArthur.
Stoneking grew up in the Northern Territory in Australia, the son of American poet and filmmaker Billy Marshall Stoneking, and discovered the type of music he performs through his father’s records. He started playing guitar at age 11, not inspired by one particular artist, but rather the variety of performances he discovered.
“Every time I found a new artist, especially that old blues, ’30s, ’20s stuff, with so many of those artists in that era, it’s almost like a different style of music,” he said. “You go from artist to artist, like Mississippi John Hurt is nothing like Blind Blake, who’s nothing like Son House, who’s nothing like Blind Willie McTell.”
He was particularly entranced by solo guitar and focused on that. In his 20s, he made his way to Sydney, where he began performing on the street, but found there wasn’t much of a place for a traditionalist like him.
“Australia sometimes has a tendency like they just get one end of everything and so if they’ve already got one guy doing old stuff, that’s the only one they hear about,” he said. “So being involved in that, it wasn’t like people were very interested at that point in time. Through busking, people saying to me that maybe they had a venue, or someone in a band saw me or whatever, I started to open for a lot of people.”
Stoneking recorded his first record, “King Hokum,” by himself and shopped it to labels, getting positive feedback on the artistry but doubts about the commerciality. He eventually signed with one and said it was a bad experience, causing him to swear that he would only ever self-release his work.
His second record, “Jungle Blues,” gave him the chance to add other instruments, including horns, to his arrangements and flesh out his sound to match the moods. It won him several awards in Australia. On his third record, 2016’s “Gon’ Boogaloo,” he employed older recording techniques to give it an authentic feeling, rather than a retro one and embraced the electric guitar.
“That record was recorded everything to one mic,” Stoneking said. “When I say everything, it was like guitar, bass, four female singers, drum set and some percussion. And then I put also one microphone close on my voice so that I knew I had enough level when we mixed. Mixing was like two sliders so that record, that’s real old school.”
But despite his success, he felt the pull to get out of Australia.
“It seemed like a band in Australia, often there’s two ways they go,” Stoneking said. “They either might have a record that comes out that does pretty well, and they start playing the big joints. And if they do that and only do that, then by the next year they’re back playing in the local pub again and big things slowly die down a bit. Or otherwise, you’ve got to go overseas.”
Stoneking did that, taking his act to Europe and basing himself in England for a couple of years.
“I spent all my money doing that,” he said. “If I came out in the red, that was okay because I saw the importance of that as my main thing. I was like, look, what else am I gonna do?”
While Stoneking was biding his time until he could get his band to the United States he found that, though sometimes irritating, being from Australia often got him attention and interest. He’s learned to live with that, though somewhat begrudgingly.
“Personally, I would love if I could scrub it from my record,” he said. “The extra layer of whatever possible connotations or expectation or prejudice or whatever. I would just like to be done with it, honestly. But I think some people like the novelty.”
Stoneking has lived in Nashville for the past year, the result of tight connections made while touring the states. He’s slowly working on new songs, though he says that takes time for him, sometimes years. He’s especially cognizant of not appearing to be all style and no substance.
“It’s easy to get over-focused on what the genre is,” he said. “I have to say that at the end of the day if you haven’t got a song that actually stands up in court as a song, you can sound like the genre all day long but that would be so boring. You’ll get three or four songs in and that sound effect will have worn off. You’ve got to have good songs and that’s probably the hardest bit for me as a musician.”
He does note that in Australia, the tide has turned for his type of music. Or at least, when he goes back, he feels less alien.
“Now I can talk to any of these hipsters down in Melbourne or whatever. I can probably have a conversation with someone. You could pick out probably five people in the room and they know something about Son House or somebody. It wasn’t like that before.”
Originally published at https://www.berkshireeagle.com on September 20, 2019.