[Music] Bulldozin' Bluesman
John Horton III is sitting in the cab of his bulldozer on a cool early December morning in Swift Water, Miss. As the Aqua Farms crew rebuilds a catfish pond, he rehearses alone on his harmonica for the upcoming weekend’s performance. Only the harmonica and his name, in neat cursive just above the breast pocket of his dark-blue uniform, indicate that Horton is an accomplished blues musician.
“I’m a hoss,” the 46-year-old Horton tells me. “I would work between 50 and 100 hours a week. I’ve been bulldozing for 15 years, and no one has anything on me. I can brag about my bulldozing now. That’s my thing. To just play music, I’d have to travel, and I’m not too crazy about travelin’. I’m not goin’ to be braggin’ about my music, though. Sometimes I have to hurry out of my uniform and into my suit with my brim. People don’t believe it because of the way I can play. They say, ‘This guy’s good.’ The bulldozing is good because then I don’t have to sit around wondering if somebody’s going to show up or if somebody’s late.”
Influenced by the recordings of Howlin’ Wolf and Albert King, Horton often spends time on Walnut Street, the famed live music street in Greenville, Miss., “takin’ notes very seriously and thinkin’ about any difficulties I ran into.”
In the third month of performing live, when he was in his early twenties, nerves overwhelmed the musician, so he went to the bar and drank several glasses of gin. Horton passed out two songs into the performance. Ever since, he’s tried to stay away from some of the extreme behavior with which other blues artists have struggled.
“When I came back from Louisiana in ‘87,” Horton says, “everybody had a habit: dope, crack, whatever else. It just made me sick so I had to quit the whole scene. After a couple of months, people had told me I had to come back. I was playing at home one night, and I asked myself, ‘Why waste that talent?’ So I started back performing.”
Since the 1980s, he has opened for B.B. King and Willie Milton, toured New Zealand for two-and-a-half months and developed an uncommon 18-year relationship with a Gibson Flying V guitar named Lilly Mae. Overseas, audiences were so amazed by how tight Horton’s three-piece band was, it was bad for business. “They wouldn’t get up to go to the bar,” he says before bursting into laughter.
“John has a good feel for the blues,” Billy Smiley, Horton’s bassist for 15 years, tells me. “He’s good at improvising, and he has a lot of fun. He’s well known for that Flying V. That’s just not something you see a lot in traditional blues.”
“When I took it to a shop,” Horton recounts, “they knew it was Lilly Mae. Nobody plays that. I think I bought it for $180. Once a guy I play with, Tim, heard it. He was using a $2,000 Les Paul. After about two songs, he was asking to use my guitar. Not all the guitars made by this company have this sound. Only one in a hundred.”
When he performs with Smiley and his drummer Anthony Evans at the 930 Blues Club for the first time this weekend, Horton will hardly be concerned about how his “front-porch” variety of blues from eight miles south of Greenville might impress a new audience.
“These blues will be here from now on. There’s no dying out,” he says. “Blues are just a matter of life. You could play the light-bill blues. You see a lot of blues festivals, but not some of this other stuff. Front porch blues are all right. This up-to-date crap ain’t happenin’, the rappers and all that. Especially with the white audiences, the traditional stuff is holding up. The black side tends more to this new stuff. When I was in Monticello, Arkansas, performing in this Best Western Inn—they had never heard anything like this, not in a Best Western—a white guy gave me $100 to play just one more song, $120 for two more. People are hungry for it.”
Weekends sometimes mean over 30 hours of travel and almost 20 more of performing before Horton heads back to Swift Water for a work week of 70 hours on his bulldozer. Horton remembers when he was young, waking up to his father tapping his foot and strumming quietly at 3 a.m. in the next room. Like his father, he only gets three hours of sleep most weeknights.
“That’s good,” he says. “I might miss something. It’s that old cliché. Nothing comes to a sleeper but a dream.”