Singing till the good Lord says ‘Silence’

Sonny Rhodes dismisses his bass player before we sit down to chat in the dimly-lit lobby of the High Country Inn. "And no need to hurry back," growls Rhodes with his signature southern drawl.

Sonny Rhodes dismisses his bass player before we sit down to chat in the dimly-lit lobby of the High Country Inn.

“And no need to hurry back,” growls Rhodes with his signature southern drawl.

“I can get away with that sort of thing because I’m an old man,” he says with a chuckle.

Wearing a pale yellow dress shirt, a polished wood and marble cane propped by his side, it’s hard not to notice the southern blues legend.

Twice during our interview we are interrupted by admiring guests. One who even presents him with a hand carved walking stick.

“I’ll definitely be taking this beauty home with me,” he says.

The walking stick will come in handy. Getting around these days has been difficult for 68-year-old Rhodes.

This winter, Rhodes had dual-hip-replacement surgery.

The cost of being laid up for a couple months unable to play music forced Rhodes to set up a PayPal donation account on MySpace.

Now he’s back up and touring, having recently played shows in Italy and Switzerland.

Last week, Rhodes played a show in Haines Junction.

“While I was there I seen a bear, a caribou and some animal that looked like a lion. I was told it was a lynx, but man, I thought it looked like something out of a Halloween movie!”

It’s not the first time that Rhodes has been up this way.

In 2006, he played two shows in Whitehorse.

But it’s Florida, where he lives with his wife, Annie, of 48 years, that he calls home.

The South is where Sonny first cut his teeth playing music.

Rhodes, whose real name is Clarence Edward Smith, was the youngest of six children, born to a poor, black family working the Texas cotton fields.

“When I was six or seven years old we had a bad crop that year and we didn’t get any Christmas presents. Naturally I started crying and, to stop me from crying, my uncle took me out back to the barn, picked up an old Stella guitar that was in there, dusted it off and handed it me.”

Rhodes used to sit under the shade trees near his home and watch the older guys play guitar.

Practicing guitar and reading the Bible were the two things he did most growing up in the ‘40s, he says.

“People thought I was a devil child. I was a young black kid with blue eyes playing an instrument that black people weren’t known to play at the time.”

Rhodes, the only child in the family to receive any sort of formal education, was discouraged from playing guitar by his brothers and sisters, he says.

“I don’t have a straight finger on either one of my hands,” he says lifting all 10 fingers in the air.

“When I played they would try to break my fingers.”

His siblings called his guitar a “starvation box” and said he would never make it as a musician, he says.

But early encounters with blues giants T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins set Rhodes in the right direction.

“I used to search these guys out like a groupie,” says Rhodes with a laugh.

When he got older, he travelled to Austin, Texas, to see Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Mark Bloomfield play.

These musicians fused white and black music, and these influences led Rhodes to carve out his own distinct style.

Rhodes was one of the first blues musicians to use a lap steel guitar in his music.

For the past four decades, he’s played extensively through North America and visits Europe at least three times a year.

He battled the bottle for part of his career.

Drinking is “what old blues players just do,” he says, explaining how his addiction started.

When he speaks of the past his eyes well up and a couple tears spill down his cheek.

“I cry because I’m both sad and happy,” he says. “It just makes me glad to see how much I’ve overcome.”

Now, he’s working on a memoir called The Blues Within Me.

He’ll keep playing music, “until the good Lord tells him stop,” he says.

“When you get a chance to do what you love, it doesn’t get better than that.”

Sonny Rhodes plays Friday at the Yukon Convention Centre at 8 p.m. Brandon Isaak and the Whitehorse Blues All Stars open the show. Tickets are $15.

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