Buddy Guy has won a lot of awards.
That's what the music industry gives its innovators and icons after they turn 50, or their record sales show a consistent decline, or their style falls so far out of mainstream favor that it starts to look like it might never see another widespread popular resurgence. Instead of airplay and magazine covers and a PR team with a promotional budget, these artists get awards.
Guy, a certifiably legendary guitarist who inherited the title of Chicago's blues ambassador from his hero, Muddy Waters, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, years after many of the bands he directly influenced. He was 69, and appreciative of the tribute.
"Of course I was," he says. "That's the dream, you know."
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At the same time, however, he's aware of its arbitrary nature, and the contributions of the many artists who weren't singled out for praise:
"Every award I've accepted, I've accepted in honor of all the people who should've gotten ’em before I did."
What Guy would prefer to a wall full of plaques and statuettes, it seems, is the security of knowing that the musical tradition of which he's a part will never be forgotten. While the blues still enjoys a hardcore following — particularly in Europe, where many American performers largely unknown in their homeland command headliner status in theaters and at festivals — the genre has all but slid off of the contemporary-music radar screen.
Blues-influenced pop artists occasionally break the Top Ten, and there's always the occasional all-star jam on some cable music network or other (the TV equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, more or less). But the real, raw thing itself, so steeped in generations of legacy that the original Delta sound can still be heard in the notes of its youngest and most cutting-edge players, has largely been consigned to anachronism. And Guy thinks it is more a result of lack of exposure than lack of interest.
"You turn on your music television now, you're not gonna see anybody's face on it, like B.B. King or Muddy," he says. "It would be nice to see once or twice a week, let the younger generations know where some of the ideas, the beats, so much of today's music comes from.
"I think the blues and the musicians are like an endangered species. They don't play the blues on your big radio stations anymore, man . . . I don't know if there's a lot of money behind the records. You used to take the record to the AM station, and the DJ played what he wanted. Now they give 'em four or five records, and that's what you hear all day long. Thanks to satellite radio, you can hear some Robert Johnson every once in a while, (you can hear) people who dedicated their whole life to the music, for the love of the music. Now, it's the love of money."
The fact that the blues isn't exactly a hot pop-culture commodity hasn't kept Guy from continuing to explore it as deeply as ever, though. His 2001 album "Sweet Tea," for instance, found him experimenting with the kind of stripped-down, primal style purveyed by underground southern bluesmen like R.L. Burnside; he followed that stylistic anomaly with the Grammy-winning acoustic effort "Blues Singer" in 2003, and switched gears yet again in 2005 with "Bring ’Em In," a timely update of his classically soulful style that features guest appearances by John Mayer, gifted pedal steel player Robert Randolph, neo-soul vocalist Anthony Hamilton and Keith Richards, among others.
With its slick production and currently hot guest-list format, "Bring 'Em In" serves, more than anything, as a reminder that blues and R&B not only precipitated pop music, but also still have a place in it as well.
"Everybody's doing that now, I think," says Guy. "People want to see music as a baseball game. We gotta get everybody together for an all-star game, and hit a home run. That's where the whole idea came from."
In addition to his recording slate and commitment to making himself available to fans at his Chicago club Buddy Guy's Legends, the now 71-year-old maintains an almost unbelievable touring schedule. He knows that the real fans are the ones who turn up at the gigs and festivals year after year, and doesn't see himself giving up the road any time in the near future.
"Blues musicians don't retire, sir — they just drop," he says with a laugh. "I'm having too much fun. And from the era we're speaking of, B.B. and myself are just about the last two traveling. We gotta take it as long as we can, I guess."
If you go
What: Sarasota Blues Festival
When: Doors open at 11 a.m. Saturday, November 3
Where: Ed Smith Stadium Complex, 2700 12th St., Sarasota
Tickets: $20 in advance; $25 day of show
Information: www.sarasota bluesfest.com
THE RUNDOWN FOR THE BLUESFEST
Buddy Guy's not the only reason to attend the area's biggest annual blues-centric event. Here's the entire schedule.
Noon Conrad Oberg
A 13-year-old phenom from Jacksonville with a timelessly dirty style.
1:20 p.m. The AllStars
A Blues Fest tradition. Local and regional vocalists Kelly Dees, Bob Deilman, Julie Black, Freight Train Annie and Jaime Fox share an able backing band.
3:05 p.m. Zac Harmon
Former sideman and session guitarist Harmon hails from Jackson, Miss. — ground zero for Delta blues — and boasts an eclectic, crowd-pleasing style.
4:45 p.m. Mighty Lester
Big, fun, horn-accented show-blues from North Carolina.
6:20 p.m. Oteil & The Peacemakers
Allman Brothers and Aquarium Rescue Unit bassist Oteil Burbridge leads his own group through a groovy, improvisational blend of jazz, funk and blues.
8 p.m. Buddy Guy