P.K. Dwyer didn’t take the normal route to the blues. It wasn’t until he was in his late 40s that his obsession started.
“I was looking for a Jimmy Reed guitar, but couldn’t find one,” he recalls. “So I started carrying around one of his CDs because I figured showing a picture would be easier than trying to describe it. I hadn’t heard Jimmy since my teens, but one day I stuck the CD in the player. It was like an instant conversion. I thought ‘Oh, I’ve been drifting too far from shore.'”
At that point, Dwyer says, he was 3/4 of the way through the recording a CD with his band. But he disbanded the group and stopped recording.
“I cut my hair off, started wearing a suit, and started writing all these blues songs,” he says.
This late “conversion” is recounted in somewhat different (and very clever) form in the title cut of Dwyer’s Blues Guy Now. The CD contains 10 cuts of blues heaven, all well-written, and with some blistering guitar and unearthly vocals. Dwyer’s previous disc, the aptly titled Up To My Balls In The Blues, was a harbinger. He sharpened the pen (and the playing) to make a modern blues masterpiece.
Dwyer’s road to the blues certainly wasn’t common for a guy in his 50s. He started playing at the age of 6, when he saw Elvis on television. His mom bought him a guitar for Christmas, taught him to sing and play, and off he went.
“I went to first grade with my guitar and performed ‘Hound Dog’,” he said.
He ended up in Seattle at the age of 15, and formed a band that played tunes by the Stones, Yardbirds, and other British bands. By about 1970, he was in Los Angeles, singing on the streets. “Just me and Wild Man Fisher! I didn’t really think he was even a singer, but apparently Frank Zappa did,” Dwyer says with a laugh. He then went back to Seattle and played on street corners before forming the band Jitters in the late ’70s. The band released a CD that sounds typical for the time, and Dwyer says they were popular in the Pacific Northwest.
Then things took an odd twist. In 1980, Dwyer went to the Oregon Country Fair and got involved with what he calls the “new vaudeville movement” that was forming. He went to Europe with his girlfriend and two other couples, and they performed on the street. They won the First Annual Amsterdam Street Performers Contest in 1981 before moving to New York, where a minor folk movement was happening. Dwyer got involved and was signed to Richie Havens’ production company. But it fell apart and, “I ended up moving to L.A. But there was nothing happening, so I went back to Seattle and played in bands until the blues conversion.”
Dwyer had a trio, but it became too expensive to support the whole band.
“My wife and I decided I should just do a solo thing,” he said. “She quit her job to book and manage me, we bought a little motor home, and we and the two dogs are on the road all the time.”
They travel mostly the Pacific Northwest and the I-95 corridor to L.A.
Like many American artists who perform roots music, he also does well in Europe. “I’d like to move there someday. You can make incredible amounts of money playing music you love. Any American roots music. I’ve seen 200 people on a street corner watching a guy do a bad version of “Hotel California,” and they just love it!”
But you won’t see Dwyer doing Eagles tunes. In fact, he does mostly original blues, but with a definite twist. His “$800” is one of the best post-millennium blues tunes by anyone, with an amazing lyric that harkens back, looks forward, makes you laugh, and yet conveys a serious message.
“Humor always seems to pop up, no matter what I write,” he notes. “I’ve written all kinds of tunes – rock, country, blues. It just seems to be in the words.”
As for guitars, every one Dwyer now owns came from the pages of Vintage Guitar magazine.
“Of course, I only have four right now. I got rid of a bunch of stuff because we’re on the road so much and I don’t feel comfortable leaving stuff at home. I was carting stuff to friends’ houses.”
One of the last guitars he “got rid of” was his first favorite – a ’52 Gibson D-18 he’d had for 30 years. He has also played a lot of Teles and Strats; his main band guitar in the ’80s was a ’61 Strat. His current stage guitar is a ’98 Gibson Custom Shop J-200 with a Sunrise soundhole pickup and a Pick Up the World soundboard pickup that he runs through a Pick Up the World Power Blender.
He uses several guitars to record, including a ’33 Gibson L-OO with an EMG under-saddle pickup and a Bill Lawrence soundhole pickup. He recently bought a ’47 Martin 000-18.
“I’m trying to learn to play slide on it,” he laughs.
The cover of his Blues Guy Now has what he calls “a pretty interesting guitar ” – a ’44 Epiphone electric archtop prototype he bought from dealer/VG contributor Dave Hussong.
“My guitar book says there were only two made like it. It’s a great guitar. I used it on the album and ran it through a tweed Fender Deluxe.”
Dwyer, as you’d expect, is looking to inspiration these days from some older guys.
“I’ve been picking up lots of stuff, like the Reverend Gary Davis and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I also love Ernie Hawkins, and my wife has turned me on to a lot of old jazz, like Charlie Parker and Chet Baker. I love Gypsy music, and old hillbilly music. Usually, I listen to old. Although I do like the White Stripes. [They] give me faith that the younger generation might come up with something.”
Dwyer’s current plans call for staying on the road and doing more recording.
“The next album’s going to be pretty much acoustic. I just keep getting deeper and deeper into it.”
If his recent records are any indication, while he keeps getting deeper and deeper into it, Dwyer will remain a unique artist. Like he says, “If you’re not doing something different, why bother?”
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.