Artist Highlight – Roger Stolle
Roger Stolle must never sleep! His Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store has been labelled “one of the 17 coolest record stores in America” (Paste magazine) and is included in “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” (Workman Press). His music/video productions include Moonshine & Mojo Hands web TV show, We Juke Up In Here DVD/CD, M for Mississippi DVD/CD, Hard Times DVD, Live at Seventy Five CD, Round Two CD, Club Caravan CD, Jack Daniel Time CD, etc. He is production assistant for various Broke & Hungry Records projects, an artist liaison for Blues Divas concert film and he has also been quoted in The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, The Economist, and more. His music industry credentials include:
• Keeping The Blues Alive Award recipient (Blues Foundation)
• Blues Music Award recipient and 7-time nominee (Blues Foundation)
• Founder/owner Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc., Cat Head Presents recording label and the founder of Cat Head Mini Blues Fest
• Co-owner Three Forks Music, LLC and co-founder of Juke Joint Festival, Clarksdale, MS, Clarksdale Film Festival, Clarksdale, MS, Clarksdale Caravan Music Fest, and Delta Busking Festival, Clarksdale, MS
• Board member Clarksdale Downtown Development Assoc., WROX Museum, Clarksdale, MS, Clarksdale Revitalization, Inc., GrowDelta Advisory Board
• Partner in Three Forks Music, LLC.
• Member Blues Foundation and Clarksdale Chamber of Commerce
Tell us briefly, if you can, your journey with Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art?
I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and stumbled into advertising after college. I was recruited for a management position in St. Louis in February 1995 and, as a long-time blues music fan, started visiting Mississippi in search of the real deal. My first juke joint experience was around 1996 when I spent a night at Junior Kimbrough’s place in Chulahoma, Mississippi. He played. RL Burnside played. Their kids and grandkids played. It was an all local crowd. The walls were covered with folk art, and moonshine was passed around. It was like walking into a history book — kind of an “Alan Lomax” moment.
After that, I knew that blues was more than just a musical genre. It was the voice of a culture.
Through my seven or so years of visiting Mississippi from St. Louis, I slowly zeroed in on Clarksdale as the center of it all — both past and present. The buildings, museums and history were all here. The problem was that the downtown business district was in the throes of death, and the live blues was only maybe two nights a week then. So, I decided to get involved.
After a 13-year marketing career, I quit my awesome Corporate America gig and moved to Clarksdale to “organize and promote the blues from within”. I started by opening Cat Head — “Mississippi’s blues store — before going on to start new blues festivals, produce blues CDs, direct blues films, write a blues book, do blues radio work and so on. I try to pull the real-deal, culturally-connected blues scene together just enough to promote it to the worlds by all means necessary. Folks can read more about my journey and mission at www.cathead.biz.
What has been your greatest achievement as a advocate for the arts?
I suppose my blues career — if that is even a phrase– highlights include co-founding Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival and co-producing the film M for Mississippi. Those are the things most people know me for, outside of my Cat Head store itself. But, honestly, I think my biggest achievement is working with our local blues musicians and venues to finally bring live blues to Clarksdale seven nights a week.
Twelve years ago when I opened my doors, we had what I used to call the “two-hour visitor to Clarksdale” most days of the week. They would visit the Delta Blues Museum, eat lunch at the then-new Ground Zero Blues Club, maybe shop Cat Head and then hit the road for Memphis or New Orleans. I realized early on that it was the town with the nighttime music that got the overnight visitor. Today, Clarksdale has live blues seven nights a week, around 8 festivals a year and two-full time blues museums. The downtown has new stores, galleries, restaurants and overnight accommodations. Collectively, we’ve really made an amazing turnaround.
What is your greatest challenge?
Ha! Well, frankly… the biggest challenge with any blues-related endeavor is making a living. Tourism is an up and down business. It waxes and wanes with the season and the economy. And, of course, blues has never been the easiest way to make your first million. Still, I’ve been doing this for over a decade now, and I’m here to stay. I love it.
What about the Mississippi Blues moves you?
That’s a great question. I’m a white guy who grew up in the suburbs of Ohio. Why on earth does Mississippi blues appeal to me and move me in the way it does? I don’t know. I guess you could ask Elvis or Eric Clapton or Jack White the same question. I certainly didn’t grow up within the cultural context of blues. I think it has something to do with the honesty and truth in blues music. Blues is much more about feeling than technique or structure. I think all of us can relate to the feeling contained within the music. Maybe some of us just get a little more into than others.
In your book Hidden History of the Mississippi Blues, is there one story that stands out?
It’s hard to pick just one story, but I guess one that sent shivers down my spine was the story of Mark “Mule Man” Massey’s time at the infamous Parchman Farm. Here’s a guy who went to prison as a bit of a troublemaker and came out a bluesman. Parchman gave him the blues, for sure, but he literally learned to play the music while behind bars.
How important are music and other art forms in our schools?
You know, for a while, the State of Mississippi was running an ad campaign that said something like, “Yes. We can read in Mississippi. A few of us can even write.” The photos showed famous Mississippi authors like William Faulkner, John Grisham, Tennessee Williams and Richard Wright. The musical version of the campaign pictured everyone from Elvis to Muddy Waters. If we want to continue to turn out so many of the world’s great authors, musicians and artists, then it is important that we prioritize arts programs in our schools. We also need to support after-school programs such as the Arts & Education Program at Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum. Education and exposure — to me, those are the two words to talk about. Kids today can Google everything. They can listen to any kind of music they want at the touch of a button, but if no one guides them to America’s blues music foundation, then they’re likely to just listen to whatever the Corporate suits want them to hear. How can we make something new if we don’t know where we came from?
What’s next for you?
Our newest project is a blues web series called Moonshine & Mojo Hands. It will stream on-line for free starting next year at www.moonshineandmojohands.com. It builds upon our past “blues road-trip” films M for Mississippi and We Juke Up in Here. Essentially, we bring viewers on the road with us to visit blues musicians, culture and history around the Magnolia State.
“I love what the folks at Mississippi Arts & Entertainment Center are doing. MAEC is doing what all of us should be doing in our big or small ways — promoting the who, what, when and where of Mississippi’s arts and entertainment worlds. I look forward the Center’s big opening in 2017.”