From schoolyard friendships to a late discovery of Neil Young, the man whose nickname of Bosley was, thankfully, shortened, talks the university of life, generational renewal and getting better, even at 74. He’s not for the money, but he is for the show, so no more waiting for the go ...
William Royce “Boz” Scaggs, is, appropriately enough for a man who grew up in Piano, Texas, a quietly spoken gentleman. And not just because he apologises for a minor phone snafu that delayed our conversation.
He is polite and respectful, even when a potentially provocative – although intended mostly jokingly - question is put to him that maybe in some ways his success is built on failure.
More specifically the fact that it was in part the combination of his school friend Steve Miller being kicked out of their Texan high school (enabling him to focus on his music that led to The Steve Miller Band, which was to feature one Boz Scaggs) and Scaggs himself failing a couple of subjects in his second semester at University of Wisconsin, that focused his career on music.
“Well …that’s an interesting take,” he says with a drawn out delivery and a small laugh. “I was in a place and time at 18 years old where I could go to university and that was my excuse for going many miles away from my home in Texas. But it wasn’t to go to school.
“I didn’t have great illusions about that, to tell you the truth. It was one of the most wonderful times in my life, my first time out of my home state, and I welcomed the big world in great fashion.”
Playing music, meeting people from all around the country, eventually moving back to Texas – this time to the larger but hardly central in the early 1960s town of Austin – taught him a whole lot more than those two semesters of school.
“That’s called the blues: taking some experiences and making it part of your life,” he says, neatly returning us to the centre of discussion. Not just the fact that his new album - the third in a series looking at his musical roots, having previously covered soul and country/early rock - is called Out Of The Blues (read my review HERE), but also the way those high school and post-college days were all about getting a grounding in the music that would inform everything he did from then on.
These three recent albums, which include Memphis and A Fool To Care, are mostly covers such as Mixed Up Shook Up Girl, Corrina Corrina, Whispering Pines and I’ve Just Got To Forget You, and wholly devoted to getting the feel of the songs right: a tribute to more than the writing, and a note of thanks for all he learnt.
“I feel those are pretty much the building blocks of my life,” Scaggs says. “I’m likening it to a return in some ways. I think it’s part of the natural cycle of things to wander about and to revisit [but] I don’t know that everyone allows themselves to do that and embrace it as I have.”
If this is a case of going back to where he came from, and an experience of “pure joy” he says, it’s coming with two key differences from straight nostalgia. One of them is perhaps expected: “I think I’m a better singer. I have enough of my own style to bring it to the various material that we took on.”
The other is the influence of the next generation of Scaggs in keeping the elder statesman fresh and exploring.
Over the past five or six years, Scaggs has joined his eldest son, Austin (clearly it isn’t just in song choices that Boz pays tribute to key parts of his early life) and friends, who had an amateur band which began with Dylan covers and expanded into a kind of classic alternative rock catalogue including The Band, Neil Young, Curtis Mayfield and even Englishman Richard Hawley, whose song There’s A Storm A’ Comin, was recorded for A Fool To Care.
“It’s been a great education to me,” says Scaggs. “What I have done comes from a tradition, and this record is very much a statement to that but there is no question that this generation has been devouring the music of our generation, and the tradition that I drew from. And when you connect, it’s very heartening and very confirming.”
The most striking result of this is the appearance on Out Of The Blues of Neil Young’s stark “ditch trilogy”-period song, On The Beach. It’s a bold move, not least for the strain of bitterness that’s at the core of it, with bitterness not being a characteristic of the 74-year-old Scaggs.
“I don’t know a lot of Neil Young. He’s certainly been a strong presence since I got into professional music but he doesn’t come out of the same vein of music that I chased down,” confesses Scaggs. “One of my son’s friends brought me On The Beach and I was immediately attracted. I love minor blues - my version was Loan Me A Dime on my first record, with Duane [Allman, who played on that self-titled 1969 album, before forming the Allman Brothers Band] - and I seek them out because they resonate with my soul.
“That song is a modern blues: it’s got the lament and the pain that all great blue songs have, though harmonically it goes some places most blues don’t, which was part of the appeal for me. We rehearsed it in the afternoon and it just worked: I performed that song as if I had known it all my life. It just felt right.”
And it does, a successful song borne out of a loss or even a failure. Which is where we came in with William Royce “Boz” Scaggs.
Out Of The Blues is out now through Concord.