For a guy who’s released several of the best country blues albums in the past decade, Ernie Hawkins is relatively unknown.
Ernie caught the blues bug back in his teens, even though he wasn’t even sure what it was. In high school, he says a guy passing through his native Pittsburgh asked him if he knew who the Reverend Gary Davis was. Like lots of teenagers, Ernie at the time was a fan of early rock and roll, but even then says he gravitated toward the bluesier early guys. At the urging of the fellow he went out and found Davis’ “Harlem Street Singer.” “That one really did it for me. I’d probably call that the best record ever made.” Further research carried Ernie to an album on Folkways called The Country Blues, which featured tunes by the likes of Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Robert Johnson. And, from there, the first Robert Johnson release “helped me through high school.”
Ernie played guitar as a teenager, but a summer at an uncle’s farm helped a lot. There, a neighbor named Pete taught him elements of a style that still sticks with him. He especially remembers Pete as being an excellent fingerpicker.
“School” really started right after high school. After graduating, Ernie says he moved to New York City. He remembered his high school visitor talking about Gary Davis and got in touch with Davis. At that tender, young age, he took the subway and a bus to Davis’ house. It was 1965, and Hawkins says New York seemed “like a much nicer place back then.”
For the next year, he’d go three or four times a week to Davis’ house. He got to know Gary and watched him play guitar.
“Most of the parts I didn’t get right until I actually saw him play them. He was such a great teacher. I wasn’t the only one around. There were always kids hanging around trying to learn. And Gary didn’t mind that. He wanted to teach it… he didn’t want it to die.”
Hawkins says Davis was a unique teacher in a lot of ways.
“He was not just a genius of music, but a great man and a very spiritual and deep person. In some ways, I feel he is a very strong presence in my life and in other people’s lives.”
Hawkins headed back to Pittsburgh after a year in New York, and admits things get “a little fuzzy” in the late 1960s. He, like so many others, wandered to San Francisco. His memory of it is that it was “a very wild place.” He eventually headed back to Pittsburgh by way of the Southwest.
In the early ’70s, he went to school and brought blues guys into the area to perform, including the Reverend Gary Davis. That’s where his “very roundabout route” to music started to take a turn. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh, then spent five years in Dallas, getting a Ph.D in Philosophy. He also met some great players there, among them, Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Realizing he was not cut out for an academic life, he headed back to Pittsburgh and once again took up the guitar as a profession. After playing there for a bit, he moved to Austin, Texas, before home beckoned again in the mid ’80s.
Though his records prove him to be an amazing acoustic blues fingerstylist, he actually spent the next 10 playing in electric blues bands.
“The odd thing was, I still fingerpicked,” he laughs. And those 10 years, he added, “…really made me start to miss the acoustic.”
So, in 1996, he cut Blues Advice, a sometimes brilliant record that features Hawkins on chestnuts by Blind Blake, Skip James, Son House, and, of course, the Reverend Gary Davis. Quite an introduction to the world of blues. That record helped get him recognition – and gigs. He also enjoyed overseas work, especially in Japan, where he says, “Players and listeners are extremely educated about this music.”
Two more CDs followed, inlcuding the recent Mean Little Poodle, which follows the path of the first record and gives Hawkins a chance to showcase his chops and feel of traditional acoustic blues. He’s also recorded videos for Steffen Grossman.
“The videos have really helped get my name out there, and helped me sell some CDs.”
He has recorded and produced four DVDs of Gary Davis Gospel Guitar for Grossman. Those videos help him carry on the legacy of the blues – and he regularly meets young players who are trying to learn.
“They get caught up in the oral tradition of the blues, and that’s what’s great. Whether the blues are popular or not, they’ll always get passed down.”
Hawkins prefers Gibsons for playing the blues. He’s got a late-’30s J-35 and a J-50 from the late ’50s. He has also been using a ’96 J-200.
“I had an old one and I let it slip through my hands,” he said. “Those they made in the ’70s and ’80s weren’t that good, so I got another. A student brought this one in in 1996. It was one of the best guitars I had ever heard. Turns out it was too big for my student and he gave it to me.”
For inspiration these days, he still listens to the old guys and some of the younger guys like Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart. He says he has also been listening to a lot of African players.
“A lot of them are very, very close to American blues in terms of sounds and rhythms,” he says, adding that roots music from pretty much anywhere is a personal favorite.
Hawkins is unique in a number of ways. He’s a fabulous player that somehow has slipped under a lot people’s radar. He also is helping to carry on a traditional music, while adding to it. That’s the kind of thing that has to be rewarding in a lot of ways. If you want to check out Hawkins or his music, visit erniehawkins.com.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.