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Buddy Guy on Weathering the COVID Storm and the Road Ahead

The guitarist’s blues club was damaged during Chicago’s recent protests against police brutality. But he says the movement “might help us achieve more than we have”

Buddy Guy at home, June 6th, 2020

Lyndon French for Rolling Stone

“I haven’t picked a guitar up since they canceled me in Arizona almost two months ago,” says Buddy Guy on a recent morning from his Chicago home, where he’s getting ready to put on a mask and head to the grocery store. “I try to follow the rules, man.”

The blues legend, 83, is still adjusting to the longest break of his career. He hasn’t played played live since March 12th in Orange County, California. He tries to remember a longer stretch without a show, thinking to his days driving a tow truck while working as a session guitarist for Chess Records, where he played on hits by Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Little Walter beginning in the late 1950s. “This is as much as I’ve been home in the last 50 years, maybe a little longer,” Guy says. The guitarist has remained consistently active during that time, influencing everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan to Gary Clark Jr. with his tasteful but manic style. Guy has released four albums in the past 10 years and is currently working on another. When he’s not touring the world, he’s at Buddy Guy’s Legends, Chicago’s biggest blues club, which Guy opened in 1989.

Legends has been closed since the pandemic hit, and Guy wants to be smart about opening up again. “I told my children, ‘Well, I got a few bucks, we can hold on for little while and see how things are going to come out,’” he says. Guy spent his break from playing live overseeing renovations at Legends, but the club is now boarded up after incurring some small damages during the worldwide protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd. Guy says those protests are a reckoning that’s long overdue. “A lot of things go on, and they just shove it under the rug,” says Guy. “This exploded and the whole world saw [it]. That might help us achieve more than we have.”

During his time off the road, Guy has launched his own online radio station, Buddy Guy Radio, a 24-hour station that gives a platform to blues artists. “The big FM radio stations, they don’t play nobody’s blues anymore, man,” he says. “Sometimes, I think we did something to make them quit playing it. Before B.B. King passed, me and him would talk about it. I don’t know why they quit playing it. I don’t want them to play Buddy Guy every day, but play me Muddy Waters once a week.”

American Blues musician Buddy Guy performs onstage at his nightclub, Buddy Guy's Legends, Chicago, Illinois ,January 16, 2020. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Buddy Guy performs onstage at his nightclub, Buddy Guy’s Legends, in Chicago, January 16th, 2020. (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

I want to ask you about being off the road. How has life changed for you?
Well, I get bored in the house. But I was born on a farm down in Lettsworth, Louisiana, and this is a flashback. Because this time of year, of course, we were sharecropping in the fields all day, and we had a mule, we didn’t have machines. We had mules and horses. It was [just] being at home, being locked in the room, trying to stay in the house as much as you can, and there was no one near you to talk to you. So it’s a flashback for me. I like to distance from people; I grew up distancing from people except my family in the house. I almost had to ride a horse to the next house, that’s how the plantation was that we grew up in.

What do you do throughout the day?
Where I’m from in Louisiana, if you didn’t know how to cook, you didn’t eat — there wasn’t no McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken. So I never left that alone, man. I still love my boiled stuff, my beans and stuff like that. I was telling some of my kids, grandkids, this past week, this is nothing new to me. When they said we are gonna run short on meat, where I grew up in, we didn’t have any refrigerators, so there was no such thing as “I’m gonna eat a steak this afternoon.” We raised a chicken and we would kill the pig once a year, that was Christmas. So it’s a flashback to me. You take one piece of salt pork and put it in a pot of beans — that was year-round for me, just about.

Are you going out to the store?
Yeah, you know, I put my mask on and try to follow the rules, but who knows, man. My mother told me when I was a little boy on that farm, man, “You might die from the whooping cough or the measles, but if you don’t go to the store and get something to eat, you’re gonna die from hunger,” so what the hell am I supposed to do? Just lock my door in the house and don’t eat and die? I’m gonna take my chance and go to the store and get a sack of flour and make some bread or something like that.

This is probably the longest break you’ve had in 50 years.
I would say that. Even before I got the chance to make a decent living playing my music, I was driving a tow truck, so this is as much as I’ve been home in the last 50 years, maybe a little longer.

You played a show in California on March 12th. What was the mood then?
Well, what had happened [was], I left California to go to Arizona. We called up and they said, “Come on,” and [then] the governor said everything was shut down, so we went to the airport and I’ve been home ever since.

[Before that,] it was fine, man. To be honest with you, there ain’t too many blues cats left around now. It’s just a fact. Not many of us that came along with the Muddys and the B.B.’s and all those old great blues players. They’re gone, man, and I might be one of the last one or two out there, and I think that probably helps me with a few more people coming to see me, saying “I better check him out.” Because, you know, my next birthday, I’ll be 84. So when you get up in that age, people say, “I better go check him out,” because at 84, you don’t know if they’re gonna keep playing, or say “I’m just tired of it.” But as long as I can do it, and hopefully I won’t be cheating people, and giving them 100 percent, I’ll be out there. But who knows how long till I’ll be out there now?

Before the virus hit, what drove you to stay on the road so consistently?
Some people are so mad at the world. But when I play music, I see them smiling. I say to myself, “I don’t know if you were smiling before I played that note, maybe I made you forget about that little anger you had.” So I would say that 60 to 80 percent of me is saying, “Buddy go do it [and play again],” because when people think enough of you to go out and support you, they’re getting a little joy out of that hour or two hours or whatever I get the chance to play like that.

“I hope they come up with a vaccine so I can let them know I’m alive and well and trying to keep the blues alive,” says Guy, 83. “I don’t know what else to do now. I can’t go looking for a bus-driving job.”

Being almost 84 years old, are you thinking, “I hope they get concerts back soon, because I want to play as long as I can”?
Oh, yeah, I was like that before this virus came up, man. Whenever I’m invited, I was there. I missed one gig in my life. I was in Tokyo and that was because I was ill, and my doctor told me, “Don’t go,” but I made it up. Soon as I got well, I went over there and did it, and that was the only one I ever missed.

Like I said, I’ve dedicated my life to this. Not too many blues players are left now. Even radio stations don’t play our music no more unless you have satellite. And for me to take it there, there’s got to be people who knew me before the big stations stopped playing the B.B. Kings and the Lightning Hopkins’, and all the people who influenced a lot of the British guys to play the blues back in the late Fifties, early Sixties. They’re no longer with us, so I’m trying to carry the torch as far as I can.

I hope they come up with a vaccine, so I can get back out there and let the people know I’m alive and well and trying to keep the blues alive. I notice on satellite radio B.B. King’s got his little commercial he made before he passed away, and he said, “I’m just trying to keep the blues alive.”

You mentioned a vaccine. Is that the only way you would go back on the road?
I own the largest blues club in the city of Chicago. Man, I’m in this world just like you. Whatever happens, I got to deal with it. I haven’t said no particular way [what] I would do if I’m called. I’m wearing my mask just like everyone else. I’m staying home like they ask me to do. Who knows how well it’s working.

Can you tell me about how Legends is doing? A lot of club owners are understandably scared right now.
Well, you know, I’ve been closed. My children run it. I heard rumors the last couple days that they may let them open up with 50 people. But you can’t open up with 50 people. My club is 500 capacity. But I said if 50 people would make them keep a job, I’m open to that. I’m just following the rules people give me. I’m not going to say I’m gonna open. I’m listening to experts on it, you know. Thank God I was blessed enough to save. My mother used to tell me, because we didn’t have gas heaters, we had a fireplace — she used to tell me, “Put up a dry stick for a wet day,” and that’s exactly what I’m going through now. I told my children, “Well, I got a few bucks, we can hold on for little while and see how things are going to come out.” I think a lot of people won’t be able to open their clubs back up unless they put up that dry stick for this wet day.

I read that the club was damaged during the recent protests against police brutality.
Yeah, we got all the windows broken, but they didn’t take nothing. There was a lot of glass, they broke all that, and we finally got it boarded up. My children, they run it for me, and they’re the ones giving me the reports, saying, “Daddy, yours fared out better than everything else.” They got a club called South Loop Club on State and Seventh Avenue, and they said they really ruined that, and everything else around it had more damage than mine. So I don’t know why that is. Who knows?

What was was going through your head when you were watching the protests happening throughout the country, throughout the whole world?

GERONIMO (Goyathlay, "One who Yawns"), 1829-1909 Apache Indian Chief, leader of the Chiricahua Apache, led defence of Indian homelands, 1850s-1880s, photograph, 1886Art (Portraits) - various Location: National Archives Washington DC

Geronimo, leader of the Apache, photographed in 1886 (Photo: The Art Archive/Shutterstock)

Well, you know, I was here in the Sixties, with Dr. King. The peaceful marches, we needed that. But we didn’t need all the damages. Some people took advantage of that. I don’t understand that, especially in your own neighborhood, you know. [But] with the peaceful protesters, they’re trying to get civil rights and stuff done that we should have had done, that we shouldn’t have to march about. They got these statues of some of these historical guys with slaves, but I don’t see Geronimo. When Columbus discovered America, he had to kill a lot of Indians. Geronimo’s statue is nowhere. His statue should have been put up somewhere, because he fought till the end. So I remember all that. Even when I was coming up in school and the country in Louisiana, when they taught the history to me, my teacher wanted to spank me because I asked him, I said, “Hey, how did Columbus discover America, but he had to kill all the Indians after he got here? Why don’t you tell me how they got here?” I never got the answer on that.

You’ve been around a long time and seen a lot of history. How do you judge our current moment? Do you see things getting better?
We should have seen the light at the end of the tunnel. But a lot of things go on. They just shove it under the rug, under the table, and you know, man, everybody knows what’s going on. You see this, this exploded with this gentleman [George Floyd] who got choked, smothered to death, and there’s a lot more people like that, and they shove it under the rug, because we didn’t have rights. Until something like this exploded and the whole world saw this — that might help us achieve more than we have.

Thanks, Buddy. I hope you’re able to get back on the road again safely soon.
Oh, yeah, man, I don’t know what else to do now, I can’t go looking for a bus-driving job, because they’ll look at me, ask me if I’m crazy, at eightysomething-years-old. “You’re gonna drive a truck or a bus?” You know that’s all over. I’ve dedicated my life to music and I owe it to the people that supported me this long, so I’ll be picking on the guitar till someone tell me to put it down.

Do you play guitar at home?
I haven’t picked up the guitar since they canceled me in Arizona almost two months ago. I learn how to play by listening. I listen to other stuff. I got the music television on TV and I can go back and get some of the old guys. I was watching John Lee Hooker yesterday. I go back and get a lot of those older guys from when I was 16, 17 years old and I picked up ideas from those guys. I can’t get what they got, but, in searching, I find ideas. I tell young people now about playing the guitar, it’s just like if you dropped a dime and you start looking, and all of a sudden you don’t find a dime, you find a quarter. So that’s the way I look at it. So I’ll be trying to find a lick B.B. King played, and I never can find it, but I’ll find something else looking for that lick he made.

Is there anything else you want to tell your fans?
You know, Sam and Dave made a record back in the Sixties out of Stax Records saying, “Hold on, I’m coming,” so you and everybody else out there, man — hold on, you know we’ll make it through this, man, so God bless everybody. Thank God a few of us are still alive to talk about it, and hopefully we can get it over pretty soon so we can get back to normal.