By FRED PHILLIPS
MONROE, La. - It's been a long journey from the gospel of his youth to the often risquampé, double entendre-laden brand of roadhouse blues that Brian Sivils pumps out.
"I don't remember not singing," said Sivils, who released his first solo CD, "Once Upon a Time in the Delta," late last year - partly thanks to encouragement and help from Blues Music Award winner Bobby Rush.
"My family have been gospel singers forever," Sivils continued. "As a matter of fact, my father and his brothers had a gospel radio show coming out of Bastrop in 1949, so I remember singing gospel harmony as long as I can remember being alive."
A break from music
He performed classical music, opera and oratorio while pursuing a music degree. Then he spent 20 years as an Air Force Band singer, always working with another band on the side. But after retiring from the Air Force and moving back to northeastern Louisiana, Sivils put aside his music. It was only after his wife, Cj Sartor, encouraged him to resume his writing that he picked his guitar up again.
Work with friends who were local musicians led to a Main Street Louisiana event in Columbia headlined by Rush, who was born in Colquitt, La., and now lives in Jackson, Miss. It was enlightening even before they got to talking.
"We were expecting the tour bus and all this kind of stuff," Sivils said. "But he comes in, in a little van, and it's just him and two other guys."
Sivils mentioned that some of his band members would go into bad neighborhoods to reclaim repossessed cars. Rush countered with stories about band members who sold their instruments and had been borrowing his for nearly 20 years.
"I said, 'Bobby Rush, are you telling me my life's just going to be one chitlin' circuit experience day after day?"' Sivils said. "He just put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye and said, 'Yeah, son, pretty much."'
Rush invited Sivils to his home, heard some of his music, and offered Sivils the chance to play with him.
"As I talked to him, I found out the other slide players that he's worked with were guys like Elmore James and Freddie King. He said, 'We'll do this, just the two of us, as a straight acoustic thing.' It was an honor," Sivils said. "I was shocked a little bit.
"I support him with some rhythm guitar, play a little bit of slide and do the one thing you really do when you play with Bobby Rush, which is stay out of Bobby Rush's way."
He got more lessons playing with Rush at blues festivals and in clubs around the South.
"I've been a frontman for a long time, so I know what I'm doing, but watching him entertain and watching him connect with audiences no matter how large or how small they were ... it was a real learning experience," Sivils said.
Rush convinced Sivils to focus on his solo career. "It wasn't my nature," Sivils said, "but now that I've concentrated on it, things have gone a little smoother for me."
The totally acoustic recording was inspired by Rush's "Raw," which features a stripped-down sound with just Rush, his guitar, foot-stomping and a little harmonica and dobro.
"I thought if I did a CD project like that, it would reflect what I do live," Sivils said. "It would also showcase a little of my slide playing and my harp playing."
The record ranges from the lighthearted humor of "Dirty Lawman Blues" and "Bawcomville Doublewide Mama" to darker, more serious numbers like the title track, which Sivils compares to a John Grisham novel.
"Some of the songs I don't do live very much because they're a little more involved, and some of them are just not that fun," he said. "I'm watching the audience, and if they're having a good time, I don't really want to bum them out with a song like that."
Instead, he's more apt to pull out a song like "Bawcomville Doublewide Mama" to get people dancing and laughing. But Sivils recalls a "kind of substantial" young woman taking offense at that.
The record includes one cover, Rush's "Voodoo Man."
"Miss Clara's Farm" is another singularity. "I don't write love songs very well, but I wrote that one," he said. "It's about living with my wife out in the country."
Humor and even double entendres are longtime traditions in the blues, he said.
Sivils recalls listening to Bobby Rush with a friend who asked why all the songs were about sex. "To me, it was like 'Why is the sky blue?"'
But there's no double-meaning to a song he's working on for his next project. "I Just Want to Mow Your Yard" is about the economy.