No matter that he's been awake some 36 hours straight, Graham Drout finds himself traveling the roads of America's Deep South, symbolically following in the footsteps of many of his blues idols. He's working his way back from Memphis, where his band Iko-Iko ably represented the South Florida Blues Society in the 2015 International Blues Challenge. "I can hear the ocean in my head," he swears as that endless highway brings him closer to home.
Despite the fact that Iko-Iko wasn't given the opportunity to advance to the finals, Drout still finds reason to be proud. According to him, the band still managed to make a favorable impression, and its new album, Bullets in the Bonfire Vol. 1, has climbed to the top of the blues polls in the weeks since its release. The chance to network with DJs, promoters, and other performers during the group's stay in Memphis made the time spent there a profitable experience.
"Winston Churchill said, 'Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm,'" Drout recalls, turning philosophical. "We had to win to get there, so in reality, we arrived having already won."
Drout has good cause for optimism. "I'm being dubbed 'The new Willie Dixon' in the blues press," the singer/guitarist proclaims. "All you need is one reviewer to say it and the rest will cut and paste me into the history books."
If Drout seems to be overstating the case, then perhaps it's for good reason. Bullets in the Bonfire is not only the band's first new album in more than six years but it's also the first to focus mainly on Drout's original compositions. It's an outstanding set of songs, one that's filled with the kind of skill and diversity that goes well beyond any single-minded style.
"I wanted to be a songwriter when I was still riding my bike with training wheels," Drout explains. "I chose the songs that best represented my Gulf Coast Americana theme. New Orleans and the South. No singer/songwriter stuff. Party-poppin' music for the most part. I also used the CD to put my name out in front, to let people know that I write the songs. I chose the title Bullets in the Bonfire from an experience I had while attending a Boy Scout camp out in Texas many years ago. I put Vol. 1 in front of it because I just might release a singer/songwriter CD someday, and I always dig the volume ones. Best stuff right off the top."
While Drout is clearly happy to seize the spotlight, he's also gracious in giving kudos to the competition. "The big winner at this year's IBC was a guitarist and singer named Eddie Cotton from Mississippi," he says, putting the emphasis on the champion's state of origin. "When I saw Eddie perform at the competition, I said, 'There it is! Here's our winner.' And then he won. The down-home blues is a black thing. It's a Mississippi thing. Iko-Iko can only play the notes. The Mississippi guys are the music. When I got to sing my songs at Red's Place in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the folks liked my songs. But when a 16-year-old local guitar slinger and blues singer named Kingfish got up after me, I was soon forgotten."
Drout insists that it's a testament to the enduring power of the blues that the music can still create such an indelible impression. They may not be mainstream, but that doesn't impede Drout's unflagging enthusiasm. "The blues are still here, and they are still good," he maintains. "They're not on the radio or on TV, and you don't hear them so much anymore in the voices on the Top 40. The younger cats are showing off Black Keys licks and Jack White guitar solos. They dig the Hill Country blues the way I dug Canned Heat and Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. But when you get to Memphis and Clarksdale, you can see the pot that this stew was cooked in. No Teflon pans. Just big, black greasy iron skillets that have never been scrubbed out. Ever!"
Still, the journey in general hasn't always been an easy one for Iko-Iko or for Drout in particular. Health problems have plagued band members in recent years, even to the point of putting Drout's own life in jeopardy and forcing some of the musicians to leave the fold. "You can only imagine the damage 30-plus years of rocking and rolling can do to someone," he concedes. "Carpel tunnel syndrome. Kidney failure. Heart attacks. Diabetes. Cancer. Nerve damage. Bar food! And on and on. We've had all of those issues and more. But I have a great team and an amazing second-string lineup when we needed to send in replacements. I think that it keeps it fresh. I wish that I could play with everyone all of the time. Different colors in the box, but the same coloring book just the same."
Indeed, the band's more than 30-plus years of operation has seen a steady shift in personnel, leaving Drout as its only constant. (The other members of the current band are guitarist John Wenzel, bassist Mitch Mestel, keyboard player Ron Taylor and drummer Jimmy Daniel) Likewise, the band's home for the better part of those last three decades, Miami's venerable Tobacco Road which recently shut its original doors for good, leaving Iko-Iko lacking its traditional home base. Once again, Drout seems to shrug it off.
"Tobacco Road is gone, but we all know that there wasn't much going on there for the past fifteen years as far as blues was concerned. Iko-Iko now has a happy home at Maguires Hill 16," he says with satisfaction. "Plus, I've been trying to explore new alternative venues like the state parks, and annual gatherings like the Barnacle love-in in Coconut Grove, the King Mango Strut and the Full Moon Celebration at Oleta River State Park.
As Drout puts it, they're making "life memories with truly magical events."
Drout's exceedingly upbeat assessment extends to his attitude about his home turf overall.
"The Florida Blues scene is the best in the country, and I'm not just saying that because I'm a part of it," he declares. "Florida blues societies sent eleven groups and duos to Memphis last week. A number of them made it to the second showing and also to the finals. We have J.P Soars and the Red Hots, Southern Hospitality, Ben Prestige, Betty Fox, Albert Castiglia, Damon Fowler, Josh Rowan, Bill Blue, Matt Guitar Murphy, Rachelle Coba, Sister Mary Beth, Niles Blaze, Joey Gilmore... Just Google any one of these guys and you'll see what you're missing. Then check out the Riverwalk Blues Festival coming up in February, the Coral Gables Blues Fest in March and the Biscuit Fest in Boca."
Given that outlook, it's little surprise to find Drout's sights set on the future. "I don't know what's next for Iko-Iko," he concedes. "But I sure do know it's going to be cool. This shit is legendary!"
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