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Blues survivor Coco Montoya releases career-defining album

LOS ANGLES, CA — MARCH 18, 2023 Blues artist COCO MONTOYA for Alligator Records. The Writing’s is on the Wall album. Photos by Victoria Smith
Victoria Smith
Coco Montoya

Dave Popkin: It's my pleasure now to be joined by an award-winning blues guitar master and singer-songwriter. The new album, Writing On The Wall, was just released in September to rave reviews. He’s coming through the area to visit Newton, New Jersey and the Iridium in New York. I'm speaking of Coco Montoya. How are you, sir?

Coco Montoya: Doing fine Dave. Good to hear your voice.

You too, really appreciate you doing this. Let's go back to the beginning, if we could. Your first instrument was not guitar. It was drums, like myself. At what age did you start getting paid to play gigs?

Oh gosh! I don't think I really made any money until actually I snuck into bars when I was like 19 years old. You know, I was in there playing Top 40 things and hiding out in the kitchen area, you know. It was, yeah, I was in there illegal, but it was a lot of fun, big education.

I think we're okay on the statute of limitations at this point.

Yeah, yeah, I think I'm safe.

LOS ANGLES, CA — MARCH 18, 2023 Blues artist COCO MONTOYA for Alligator Records. The Writing’s is on the Wall album. Photos by Victoria Smith
Victoria Smith/Victoria Smith
LOS ANGLES, CA — MARCH 18, 2023 Blues artist COCO MONTOYA for Alligator Records. The Writing’s is on the Wall album. Photos by Victoria Smith

So that led to you playing drums for Albert Collins. How did that come about? And I know Albert said that you were like a son to him. What did he mean to you?

Like a dad. He was an amazing, amazing part of my life. Yeah, I met Albert Collins at a chance meeting through a saxophone player that happened to be playing with us. He used to play with Albert. And we went to Whiskey a Go Go, to see Buddy Miles play. And Albert was there and I got to meet him there, but I didn't know who he was. I just, to me, he was just a friend of the sax player, you know. And seemed to be really fun. Went to his house afterwards and had a few drinks and, you know, partied a little bit, it was fun. Didn't think anything of it until the club I was playing at consistently got Albert to do a matinee show on a Sunday. And the owner was so excited, he had decided to tell Albert to use any gear that you want on the stage, which of course was our gear. And of course I wasn't too happy about that. I didn't know what was going on. But of course Albert had already set everything up, everything had been done. His drummer was a real nice guy. And so I just said, just go ahead and use the gear. And Albert insisted I sat in, and I was not a blues drummer at all, but he took my phone number and he said, you never know, I might need you. And several months later, I got a phone call, and he was desperate for a drummer, and I was, I guess, lucky enough I was available. His desperation was to my advantage here. And that's where it started. And just went up to Eugene, Oregon. I remember the first gig. And no rehearsal, just jumped in the van three hours later. I'm headed up the Interstate 5 to the first gig. And they're just verbally telling me how the show goes. So no rehearsal, no nothing, just cold turkey. So that was my introduction to the blues, you know, on that level.

Unbelievable. So then you hit the road with them and at some point he starts to teach you guitar. Now, you had owned a guitar previously, but all of a sudden you become a guitar player and a disciple. And at what point do you make the switch?

Well, gosh, you know, I played drums all the way up to maybe ‘76, ‘77. And I had to leave Albert because at that point all my bills started piling up. We weren't making a lot of money. I was at a time with Albert Collins that he had no record label and we were just hitting all the bars we could hit down the coast. He was doing that again also with Texas and stuff. He had a whole slew of people he was playing with there, Jimmy Vaughn and everybody. The guitar thing was just a secondary thing. I just wanted to play chords. I wanted to hear music. It was a secondary thing. It's all it ever was. I never thought about it as becoming a guitar player or anything. But once I left the business, I ended up being a bartender. John Mayall happened to come into a jam club a certain night. It's called The Viper Room now, it was called The Central club. And a Mayall happened to come in on jam night and heard me. And apparently Mick Taylor was leaving to join Bob Dylan's band. That's when I got the call to be one of the guitar players. There was two of us. Cal David was the first one, incredible guitar player who's passed on now. And then after him was Walter Trout. And that's how I got back into the business as a guitar player. I was totally out of the business. And then all of a sudden I was a Bluesbreaker. So lucky, lucky chances.

With pretty big shoes to fill, Peter Green and Eric Clapton, etc. John Mayall is a legend and 10 years with that band. What did he and the rest of that band mean to you and your development?

Like you said, I mean it was big shoes to fill, but you didn't know it until you actually started doing it and plus you had guys like Cal David and Walter Trout out on the other side of the stage. They were monster guitar players in their own right. So there was a whole lot to be up against. I think I was putting pressure on myself because of my idol Eric Clapton. He is definitely somebody that I've looked up to musically for a long, long time. Never met the man, but Mick Taylor as well, incredible player, and Peter Green obviously. But yeah, it took a lot. It was really an amazing time.

I think it was great when John Mayall kind of put me on the carpet there for a second and just said, look, I want you to come out there and do what I heard in that club. I don't want you to be Eric Clapton. He says, Clapton's not here. It's your chair, he'd say. And if we do “Have You Heard” or, you know, any of those songs, you know, “Little Girl” and all that stuff, he said, I want you to do it your way. He said, don't forget the first rule of blues. He says, interpretation. You know, and he was right. He was absolutely correct. And that was freedom. It freed me up to be myself and not really try to emulate to exactly any of the big three, especially. You know?

ALCD 5014, photo by Victoria Smith
Alligator Records
ALCD 5014, photo by Victoria Smith

You mentioned the word “chair”, and it ties in there. One of my favorite songs off your new record, “A Chip and a Chair," is a little similar to a song you had done previously, “Stone Survivor." And it talks about perseverance, right? I mean, you're tending bar, you're kind of out of the business, and then all of a sudden you get this break. And some people don't get it. Like, at this point, you're a master, you're recognized, you're out there, you're touring, you have records. It's great, but you have to take a lot of no's in this business. How did you make it through that?

That's a really good question, because I think my personality growing up as a kid was not a confident kid. Mostly everything, I came to realization, most of everything that came up my way, whether it was baseball, football, basketball, any kind of sport thing, I was never really good at. And if anybody criticized me and made me feel embarrassed, I would drop it. Whatever it was, I would drop it immediately and just say, well, I don't want to do that anymore because it's embarrassing, you know. But for some reason, playing music, I've gone through a bunch of guys saying how much I stink. I mean, it's happened, guys say you're terrible, you know, and I think you have to go through that and survive it. I think Joe Walsh said that once in an interview. He said, yeah, you got to go through sucking. You got to go through that period of really being bad and people telling you to stop playing, you know, and for some reason that never deterred me. I just persevered anyway and, you know, just kept moving forward. For some reason, I just wouldn't take rejection on, you know, I just wouldn't do it. I just said, nope, I'm going to keep going on this.

Well, it worked for Joe. I just saw him last night at Prudential Center with The Eagles on The Long Goodbye Tour, and he owned it.

Oh, yeah.

He owned the crowd. I mean, he was just unbelievable.

Yeah, and to confirm that whole thing, the old bass player for Joe's old band, Dale Peters, he told me, I said, man, I went and saw you guys at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. And he goes, when? I said, when they booed us off the stage. I said, yeah, I was there for that. He said, but the next year you came out with “Walk Away” and you had a number one hit and the place was packed and they were loving you to no end, you know. He said, yeah, that's perseverance right there.

We're having some laughs, and I think in the blues, people don't really appreciate that that is a big part of the genre, right? It's just, it's clever, and it's funny, and you have a good one “Baby You're a Drag” on the new album with Bonnie Baker Brooks. It's like one of those classic blues crosstalk songs. How did that come about? That one seemed like it was fun to do.

Yeah, that's, for me, it's a great example of Dave Steen, the guy I co-write with, been co-writing for many years now. Dave Steen from Lincoln, Nebraska, incredible writer, and that's what was great about this project, with Jeff Paris also involved in the band, and an incredible writer in his own right. We really mixed it up and got together and “Baby You're a Drag”, Dave came up with most of that there. That was amazing, you know. And yeah, and Ronnie, we brought Ronnie in on that. I've been looking for a vehicle for something to do with Ronnie and it'd be great. I've been knowing him since he was a teenager. What a monster of a talent he is and it's exciting for me to work with him.

Dave (Steen) has written so many great songs with you and for you over the last 25 years. One of the ones that's kind of deep on this record that I love, and I thought it was unique that you put a Christmas song on a non-Christmas album. But it's great. It's like right up there with some of those Alligator Records compilations. I have one from ‘92 that has a lot of great, bluesy Christmas songs. It's called “The Three Kings and Me”. That's a special song.

Yeah, that's a Dave Steen song. I heard it quite a few years ago. He played it for me and I love this. I would love to have a chance to try and sing this, because it's so a little way different from what I've ever done. And he said, well, sorry to say, Dr. John is planning to record it. I said, okay, so I let it go, but he never did record it. So I said, Dave, you still got that Three Kings song? He goes, yeah, I still have it. Everybody seemed to want to record it, just ends up bailing. I said, I want to try it, I'll give it a shot. And I'm really glad we did it. It's really a great song. It just shows the talent of the guys I've got around me.

That'll work well on the road this holiday season. You're going to be touring constantly, gigs booked through April. And you still like going out on the road?

Yeah. Well, for different reasons. I'm getting a little old now, but it's okay. I like it. I love being out there. It's a little hard because I do miss my wife. I do miss seeing her and being around her. And so when I get home, it feels extra good, as well, you know. But yeah, I still need to go out and play. And I'm glad and grateful for that. At this age, I could still do that.

Your style is your own, but I can definitely hear Buddy Guy and some of the other legends like Albert King in your playing. And you also do a Lonnie Mack song on the new record. How important was that like Southern or Texas feel like a Lonnie Mack, Stevie Ray Vaughan to what you do?

I think the influence of all those guys, you know, is if you're not listening and taking from these kinds of players and these legends, I mean, you're on the wrong road. I think the important thing is to take what you learn from guys like Stevie Ray and Lonnie Mack, Albert Collins, Albert King. Take it and like they always said, find your own identity. That's the secret of playing. You don't have to be the quickest, the loudest, the fastest. It's just interpretation. It simply is how you hear it, how you see it, and how you play it. That's really the most important thing, I think, in playing music. There's so many people out there that love to compare guitar players and who's better, who's not, who's faster, who's slower, who's, you know, none of that really factors in for me. If I can emotionally feel something from what you're doing, that's all that matters to me.

You have a unique guitar string setup. Can you discuss the guitar that you play and how you string it?

No, that's a top secret. I won't discuss that. No, I'm just kidding. No, it's a silly thing that I've talked to so many people that play like I do, and there's quite a few legendary people that play that way. Bobby Womack is one of them. Gregg Wright is another great guitar player who played with Michael Jackson. Otis Rush, you know, all these different people that have done it this way. It's usually by mistake. You don't know. You're left-handed. You pick it up that way. Nobody's there to tell you right from wrong. This is the way you hold it. You need to restring it. You need to get a left-handed guitar and restring it. I didn't know any of that. It didn't matter. None of that crossed my mind.

So, as I learned, I invented an E chord and didn't know what it was. You know, I just found it by moving my fingers around. And that's kind of how I started. And of course, I was holding it upside down, so the high E string, you know, was way at the top instead of the bottom. And by the time I found out there was a wrong and right to it. It was too late, so that's kind of how that happened. And Eric Gales is another guy. I'm sure you know who he is, monster guitar player. He's just fantastic. I think the world of him and and he plays upside down like that and every time I got an excuse for why I kind of reached my limit. I watch Eric Gales and I go, no, you haven't. The things that he can do are just mind-blowing. So I gotta keep pushing.

He's definitely a legend and you do keep pushing. In listening to all of your records recently, I think they get progressively better. And that's something with music as you continue to play and listen. I mean, first of all, do you agree with that? And second of all, to what do you attribute that?

Yeah, I think you can get better. I don't think you ever stop learning. I think that's an endless road. You got to keep listening. You got to keep learning. You got to keep, you got to rediscover things. I think I remember an interview with Eric Clapton where he said, yeah, he saw a video of himself and he goes, God, I used to play that lick all the time and now it went away. He says, like he rediscovered it again and he said, why am I not using that anymore? I don't know. It's amazing. So you rediscover things and you discover brand new things. And that's all a part of the love of playing music is to keep discovering, interpreting.

Coco Montoya - I Was Wrong (Visualizer Video)

You brought your road band into the studio to do Writing On The Wall and the results are terrific. What was that experience like and your reaction to the finished product?

Well, you know, it's very strange. The time we were thinking of doing an album, I had already started saying, you know what, my guys have been with me so long now. I just said, I think this is time for this kind of thing to happen. I wanted to take the guys in there and see. Who else is going to play better with me than guys who have been on the road with me for years? So, it made sense and I let everybody know that that was my intention. In this business, usually they want you to get in there with some great musicians. Don't get me wrong, some of my best friends have played on my albums that are legends in the business and I'm grateful for that and I've got great memories and I'm very proud of the music we've done. But this was a time that I wanted to have my boys come out and show what they can do in the studio and that was really important for us. It was the right time for this to happen and my guys stepped up to the task and you know, Rene Beaver's on drums has been with me for a long time, long time. Nate Brown on bass and Mr. Jeff Paris on keyboards. And Jeff jumped in with both feet and ended up being co-producer with Tony Braunagel. And it just, it fit. Everything fit perfect with the songs and everything. Everybody was just, everybody was just connected. So it was a great experience, an incredible experience. Hope to do it again.

It was really enjoyable and the roadhouse piano and the organ and all that adds a lot to the record. Before I let you go, you started young as we talked about, so you must have crossed paths with some of the real blues legends. Can you think back to a couple times where you're like, I can't believe this is happening, like you're sitting in with somebody or somebody comes and sits in with Albert Collins or you get to meet somebody in a bar and you're like, is this real?

That would happen so often, Dave. I was so lucky and blessed with the experience I had with Albert Collins and the experiences with John Mayall, people that we'd run into and get to, Brian Auger, all kinds of people. I got Mick Taylor, having Mick Taylor come and sit in with us, Albert King, of course. I got to know him pretty well. And the times I played behind B.B. King, sat with him and talked with him in a dressing room. And, you know, just so many people. The list goes on and on. Elvin Bishop is another good friend of mine. Robert Cray is another guy I respect a lot. We've had some fun hangs. And the great Jeff Healey from Canada. Yeah, those guys, especially all the old blues guys, they always had something very nourishing to say, even if it might have been a gruff or a little, you know, rough on the edges. But they were always watching over you and watching you as a young guy, stepping in the dog poop, you know. They'd stop you and grab you and say, easy, boy, you're about to do that, you know. And so, I mean, I think the blessings of being around John and being around Albert was to be meeting people like B.B. King and Lowell Folsom and people like that, Shakey Jake Harris, I think the list goes on and on. And yeah, that never gets boring. That's an education right there. It's like kids at a campfire, you know. You sit around and listen to these guys hold court and there's nothing like it. It's an amazing experience, but keep doing it. Even with the younger players, you know, some of them surprise me in their knowledge and the way they're coming at it emotionally. I just love it, you know. Never can get enough of that. What makes it worth doing.

Coco Montoya's new album, Writing on the Wall, just out, tremendous. Check it out. Also coming to the tri-state area October 7 in Newton, New Jersey, Newton Theater and Iridium in New York City on October 11. Coco, it's been a real pleasure.

Thanks so much for the time, Dave. Thank you so much for having me. This wonderful station has been around such a long time and I'm just grateful to be a part of it every once in a while again, checking in with you guys. Thanks for having me.

Dave Popkin is a WBGO News/Music contributor, veteran sportscaster, educator and musician