Saturday, June 15, 2019

Musician Rutledge Knows Hoboes

For the Commonwealth - The CheeseBoro

Contrary to rumor, Bobby Rutledge really did not walk from Washington state to Greenwood for last year's Balloon Fest. "It's not true that I walked," says Rutledge, who was not on the bill but was invited onstage at the last minute to play two songs. "I'm a lazy man by nature. Even lazier with 60 pounds of outdoor gear on my back." 

And that is really how he gets around — carrying a big pack and a guitar case. Rutledge, 32, a self described hobo, has never owned a car and only recently signed his first lease (on an apartment in Leland). He was born in Seattle and has lived most of his life on the road, hitchhiking and camping out. This year, he's listed on the Balloon Fest bill, one of the artists at Sunday's blues and gospel extravaganza. Rutledge ran away from home at 15, becoming a street kid in Seattle. He picked up a guitar to play pop and rock tunes for change. "Then someone taught me how to live out of a backpack and how to hitchhike," he says. Rutledge's world expanded. "I vagabonded around the West for about 10 years." 

When the Grateful Dead toured, Rutledge would join the horde of people who followed that rock band around, camping out and mingling and grooving to the music. Along the way, Rutledge says he "made a couple of failed attempts to settle down." When his dad offered to pay for him to go to college, Rut-ledge chose to study guitar repair. Afterward he returned to Seattle, hoping to land an apprenticeship, but found the town glutted with would-be guitar technicians. "I was going to have to wait two years just to get a minimum-wage job," he says. A few years later, he moved to Port Townsend, Wash., and tried to settle down again, with a girlfriend and her child. "I became a dad, took a job — and failed again," he says. The relationship ended, and Rut-ledge moved out to live in a school bus in the woods. But it was in Port Townsend that life.

Jenny Humphryes m Bobby Rutledge recently signed a lease on an apartment in Leland, but he has spent most of his life on the road, hitchhiking and camping out. He says he still has to "hobo from dig to gig" because he doesn't have a car. 

Rutledge picked up his first Robert Johnson song, "Kind Hearted Woman," after his dad bought him a CD by the great Delta bluesman of the 1930s. "I had been playing on the street, strumming chords, but I wasn't get-ting any better," Rutledge says. "Robert Johnson's music was the push that got me off that plateau. Keeping the beat with your thumb, playing a completely different melody with your fingers — I completely rethought my approach to the guitar." Rutledge immersed himself in the country blues. "I found out Robert Johnson had listened to Charley Patton, Skip James, Son House, Willie Brown." He sought out those recordings, and instructional books by Woody Mann and Stefan Grossman. It wasn't only the guitar-playing in those old songs that grabbed Rutledge's attention. "Mose old blues singers were singing about hobo-ing," he says. "I knew all about hoboing! They were singing to me. I could relate to those words." It was time for Rutledge to get on the road again. 

"I decided to leave Port Townsend. I didn't know where I was going. I had been all over the West. Then I thought about Dockery (the plantation near Cleveland where Charley Patton and other early blues musicians lived and played). "I should walk that property, I should visit Patton's grave, visit Robert Johnson's burial sites — which I still haven't done yet." So Rutledge hitchhiked down to the Delta. "Patton's grave was the first place I went to," he says. 

"A rice fanner found me in Hollandale with my 60-pound backpack and guitar case and took me there. I met Billy Johnson (director of the Leland Blues Museum and Highway 61 Blues Festival), played the first half of `Cross Road Blues' for him; he said, `I want you to play at the first Leland festival."' Although Rutledge had been playing music for most of his life, it had only been on the street. The Highway 61 Festival in Leland was his first time playing on a stage. "I had never played in a club before, either," he says. Three years later, Rutledge is more settled than ever. "My first home is in the Delta," he says. "I'm just trying to keep my belly filled, make sure I don't owe anyone too much money." He works part-time as a guitar tech at Brim's Music in Greenville. He has a self-produced CD out, and a regular gig, Tuesdays at the Bourbon Mall. And he plays local festivals and Greenville clubs. "I want to expand the circuit," he says. "But it's tough, because I don't have a car. I still hobo from gig to gig."

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