Here’s a short little clip of Mark Harrison, Terry VunCannon, and Seth Williams being interviewed and jamming on WGFS at Guilford College!
If you didn’t know, “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” might be one of the hardest songs to find out who the publisher is, and yes, that is probably an over-dramatic statement. The only reason I’m saying this though is because I helped participate in the wild goose chase of a search for the publisher of the said song for Seth, my brother. Seth went in and recorded this song to put on his upcoming album, and if you want to record a cover song and make any sort of profit off of it you have to pay the royalties to the publisher, artist and whoever else. Which is all well and fine, it’s giving the artist what they deserve for writing and/or performing a song, but what’s not fine is when you can’t find the publisher of said song. You see, “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” is an old blues tune that has been passed down over the years and like most old songs whether it be blues, gospel or whatever else it has been recorded by many people, and the rights to the song have been passed around many times, and they’re alternative spellings of the song as well. Some songs though, fall under a law that if it was recorded before 1923 then it is in the public domain, which means the copyright has run out on it, so no worries if you want to record it, but this song we are talking about was recorded in 1931….so that loophole doesn’t work. Anyway, after hours of looking and calling in some help (thanks, Terry V) we eventually found out who owns the publishing rights now (it was Wynwood Co. Inc. for anybody interested to know) and got the royalties paid and everything sorted out, But this isn’t about me complaining about the search for the publisher of this song it’s more about what all I learned about the song while looking for the publisher.
If you’re not familiar with “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” then you’re about to be. where the song probably gained most of its popularity today is from the 2002 movie “O’Brother Where Art Thou” in which, Tommy Johnson is a blues musician (roughly based off Robert Johnson) the main characters pick up at the crossroads while on their way to “seek the treasure” and Tommy plays the song “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” around the campfire later into the movie. Tommy Johnson is played by the real-life blues musician Chris Thomas King and Chris himself actually plays the song on the soundtrack of the movie, Which is pure gold by the way, and I highly suggest you give it a listen.
However, the first recording of this song was done in 1931, by the man who wrote it, Skip James, A Delta blues musician hailing from Bentonia, Mississippi. How the recording of this song came about was in early 1931, H.C. Spier a record store owner and a talent scout who James had auditioned for took a liking to the musicians sound, that was achieved by an open D-minor tuning and his intricate fingerpicking style. After these auditions, Speir’s had James travel to Grafton, Wisconsin under the record label Paramount Records where he recorded “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” in a chair factories attic that was made into a makeshift studio. He recorded 18 tracks in one night including songs he wrote like “Devil Got My Woman” and “22-20 Blues” (the basis of Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues”). The recordings done at Paramount Records by James had a very divergent sound of the typical blues musicians at the time and were the cornerstone of his music career. Due to the recordings being released during The Great Depression, sales were next to none, and James was let go from Paramount Records and retreated back to Mississippi where he was a choir director and preacher in a church for years. During the 60s though, blues enthusiasts rediscovered Skip James and his career revitalized during this period with new artists covering his songs. Cream and Deep Purple both covered his song “I’m So Glad”. Then in 2002 with Chris Thomas King recording “Hard Times Floor Killing Blues” for the soundtrack for “O’Brother Where Art Thou” and in 2011 Gregg Allman covered “Devil Got My Woman” and many other musicians have covered different Skip James songs since.
Later recordings of “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” were done by RL Burnside, on his “Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down” album that was released in 2000 but, with the alternative spelling “Hard Times Killing Floor”. Along with Burnside, Martin Simpson covered the song as well, on his 1986 instrumental album “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, he put it on his album with the alternative spelling as well. The Documentary film directed by Wim Wenders and produced by Martin Scorsese “The Soul Of A Man” is the second installment of the documentary film series “The Blues”, the film tells the story about the lives and musical careers of blues musicians Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson and JB Lenoir. “The Soul Of A Man” features performances honoring the lives of these three blues musicians, artists like Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, and T-Bone Burnett played and Lucinda Williams did a cover of “Hard Times Killing Floor”.
Cliff Miller is the owner of SE Systems based out of Greensboro, NC. He has been doing the sound for countless musicians and been on tour with a few of them as well. Cliff, from an early age, has always been interested in music. In fact in Junior High when he had to write down what he wanted his profession to be, he put musical technician, which he jokingly said is now just a basic sound guy. With hopes of being a musical technician, he started playing guitar in a few different bands in high school and the setlist ranged to anything from Iron Butterfly to Eddie Floyd in the bands.Between his junior & senior year of high school, he attended technical school and got his Third, Second, and First Class Radio license, he was on his way to becoming a musical technician. At 19 Cliff started working at a local music store in Asheboro selling and
servicing instruments and other equipment, along with playing in multiple bands during the course of his high school years and into his 20s. During his time working at the music store and playing in different bands every weekend, he took on another side job, being a sound guy, mostly for small bluegrass festivals and it eventually became his full-time job for several years. Early on, at one of the bluegrass festivals where he was running sound, he had the chance to meet Merle Watson for the first time and later on in the day met Doc Watson and instantly hit it off. The next time Cliff would see the father/son duo would be at the same festival the next year where he was running sound for the second year. The Watson’s brought their newly formed band “Frosty Morn” and were already on the road touring. A few weeks after his second time seeing Merle and Doc and running sound for them he would get a call to be the full-time sound man on the road for the band. It was at this point Cliff quit at the music store and became an almost full-time sound man.
It was in ‘72 Cliff went on the road with the Watson’s and their band, touring the U.S. and
Canada. During this course of time, he became great friends with both of the music legends. With being a musician himself and hearing their set every other night, it wasn’t any wonder he knew every song, and how to play them too. This knowledge of all the songs came in handy at Bluegrass ‘77 in Toronto, Canada when Merle had injured his hand and couldn’t play. Doc asked Cliff to temporarily fill in for Merle on guitar and let Merle, with an injured hand run sound that night. One show turned into two and Cliff ended up being Doc’s guitar playing for 7 years. During Cliff’s time on the road with the Watson’s, at the age of 21, he started a small sound system business called SE Systems out of his parent’s back porch. in the year ‘73. The business at the time made sound systems and eventually in cabinet speakers. When he was touring, his parents were very supportive of him and his business and helped out with the early stages of SE Systems when he wasn’t there, The back porch business after time grew and expanded, to a new building that Cliff and his dad built a 2,500 sq ft from an old Hosiery mill building slab that Cliff’s father owned in Asheboro. This building is where he started working on PA equipment himself. SE Systems was growing and so was Merle and Doc Watson, with both on his plate Cliff managed to start and grow his new company while on the road. It wasn’t until He got married and had his daughter that he would cut back on his touring schedule and focus on SE Systems and his family, that would keep him closer to home for the time being. Now being off the road SE Systems was growing out of the small time backyard company outfit and into one of the biggest sound system companies on the east coast.
In ‘88 Cliff’s business was still steadily growing when he got a call from B. Townes, telling Cliff he wanted to start a memorial festival in Merle Watson’s honor and he needed sound. The memorial was far bigger than anyone imagined, they sold more tickets then they had seats in the auditorium, in which they moved the whole event to an old softball field and used a few flatbed trailers as the stage. Friends of Merle’s and Doc’s both volunteered to play, a few who volunteered were Chet Atkins, Earl Scruggs, Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Grandpa Jones and many more musicians came to give their time and talent in Merle’s honor and to raise money for The Garden of The Senses, a garden that had plaques that read in braille so the blind could read about the plants. After the event, Cliff got a call from a lady who attended and she was asking when the next “MerleFest” was. Now it has grown into a yearly festival put on in the mountains of North Carolina that SE System provides sound, lighting, video, and staging at the end of April each year.
In ‘92 S.E. Systems outgrew their building for the second time and changed their location to Greensboro, NC in a 10,000 sq ft building and then rented the building next to it which was 6,000 sq ft. They eventually ran out of space in those to building and moved to their current location 2000 to a 57,000 sq ft building, and at the time they bought it Cliff thought they would never be able to fill up, but now is overflowing with various production equipment, for SE Systems to use at jobs along with equipment in their showroom for their customers. One of the acts SE Systems met and would do sound for when they were in the area was Alison Krauss. In 2000 the movie “O’brother Where Art Thou” was released along with the famous soundtrack to the movie, that featured musicians like Alison Krauss herself, Emmylou Harris, The Stanley Brother, and many more notable people. The soundtrack was just as popular as the movie, almost all the musicians who were featured on the soundtrack of the movie agreed to a tour together called “Down From The Mountain”. Denise Stiff, who was Alison’s manager at the time called Cliff up and asked if they would be willing to run the sound for the ‘Down From The Mountain” tour, Cliff agreed and went on the road again, but this time with Alison Krauss and other Legendary bluegrass and traditional players. After This tour, Cliff became Alison’s Production manager and engineer while on her solo and/or band tours. They did that for a few years then a second tour for the “O’brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack got put in the works, this was “Great High Mountain” which was a variation of the “Down From the Mountain” tour. The last few years Cliff has gotten off the road due to health issues caused by kidney problems and was put on the donor list for a kidney transplant. In 2016, after countless friends got tested and turned down to be a donor, one of their friends was a match and in November underwent kidney transplant surgery with no complications.
Today SE Systems is still growing and doing jobs for all different types of events. They have the sales group where they handle all the sales in both the Greensboro and Charlotte stores, the production crew that does concerts and handle the sound, lighting, staging, video, and anything else that is needed at the event. Then they have what they call the installation side where for example last year they re-did all the interior speakers for the Bank of America stadium. Both of Cliff’s children work for the company now, along with 35 full-time employees and 30 part-time employees. His son is head of fabrication building all the road cases and anything else needed for a job. His daughter traveled with Cliff while on tour with Alison Krauss and would be Cliff’s go to for anything he needed. She mixes Front of House, Stage monitors, and mixes orchestras along with other shows and ball games as well.
Over a 2 year period of knowing James, there is no denying that this guy loves what he does for a living, and there is also no denying that it makes him very busy. With playing over 200 shows a year since 2014, when he became a full-time musician, he has played countless venues in and around NC as well as out of state and released 3 studio albums.
Even though James started his full-time music career in 2014, he has been playing guitar since age 15, thanks to his dad, who played guitar and introduced Blues/Rock music to James when he was just a kid. Growing up, the music his dad would play had a huge influence on him then, and even now as an adult it has the same effect. James first started out playing piano however, he gave it up very fast when he started playing with other people who were playing guitar. Not long after he started playing he was in his first rock band playing KISS and AC/DC covers, mainly for high school parties. The band was dubbed “Strip Poker”, which more than likely has a more interesting story behind it than the name or band itself.
After his first high school band James went on to play and record multiple different genres but, his heart has always been in rock, and since 2014 James has released 3 albums being “421 Take Me Home”, “The Book Of James: Chapter One”, and “The Book Of James: Chapter Two” which have all original songs written by James along with a few co-written songs with local NC songwriters.
As of future plans, James has a band James and Company that are playing at bigger venues and festival in and around the triad. He is also working on a solo acoustic album this winter, and plan on doing 2 full band albums very soon, one being full of original material by James and Company, and the other being a cover album of their favorite classic rock songs.
Here are a few questions to get to know James a bit better and what he’s all about.
Q. Musicians that influenced you early on
A. Bon Jovi and The Eagles
Q. Musicians that Influenced you now
A. The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin
Q. What’s currently on your playlist
A. The Eagles, Kaleo, and ZZ Top
Q. Your first concert
A. Kenny Rogers and Alabama
Q. The most memorable concert you’ve been to
A. John Mayer and The Eagles
Q. What do you love most about playing music
A. “Watching the reactions people have to it. It makes people happy, it brings people together, and it makes me feel like I have a purpose in general. I love seeing people make friends at one show, next thing you know they’re hanging out at another show and have more friends. You know you see people meet at your gig then the next year you’re playing at their wedding. It seems like it’s the one time nobody’s talking about politics, religion and the world events, everybody’s just there to sing, to listen, have drinks, and be together. Nobody’s really part when you’re playing music, everybody seems like they’re together”
With a sound as nostalgic as the lone star state itself, A.J. LeGrand is part of the small percentage of the eminent true American songwriters that have been pouring out of Texas for years.
LeGrand of Dallas, Texas released his first full-length record this year titled “Expectations”. “Expectations” consists of 12 tracks that showcase the songwriter’s ability to create a movie reel in your head through storybook lyrics taking you back with sounds that reminisce the notorious Texas outlaws with a touch of individuality that makes these 12 tracks so memorable.
Setting the mood for the record, the first song “Better Than Slowly Dying” is a slow, dark, hard backbeat track written by LeGrand that gives off major Townes and Cash vibes and gives you a good indication of what you can expect out of the next 11 tracks. The title track “Expectations” is about getting a bit of a rude awakening in life and it not always being what you expect.