The Juno-winning roots artist and producer Colin Linden is up for two trophies at this year's Maple Blues Awards. In advance of his performance at the gala at Koerner Hall on Monday, we spoke to the Nashville-based musician about his Toronto-based education in the blues in the 1970s.
On your new album, Rich in Love, you sing that the ghosts have begun to outnumber the boots still on the ground. Thinking about losing B.B. King this past year, where is blues music today compared to the genre when the greats were alive and working?
It's an unusual time, because the memories of some of the greats cast such a huge, well, I don't want to use the word "shadow," so I'll say they cast a light. When you think of seeing Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters and a lot of the guys I got to know when I was growing up, the quality of their music and the power they had in the context of their lives and where they came from and where they went to, it becomes more and more admirable as times goes on. It's hard to think of any contemporary artist comparing to the real greats.
So what do you do, as a musician, with that daunting legacy?
I think we can try to make the ancestors proud. There are a lot of great traditional blues artists out there, but it's up to us to carry it on with something different. I don't know if there are any new Howlin' Wolfs or new Muddy Waters or new Blind Lemon Jeffersons or Robert Johnsons or Son Houses, but I think there are a lot of people out there who play and carry it forward with integrity and honesty.
As a kid and young adult in Toronto, you got to meet Howlin' Wolf, when greats like him would come here regularly. Did you realize then how special a blues scene it was here?
Yes, I did, actually. I was completely aware of that. I couldn't imagine a better place for a musician to grow up in the '70s. I still believe it to be true.
Did it occur to you back then that the scene wasn't going to last forever?
Well, I met Howlin' Wolf at the Colonial Tavern on Nov. 27, 1971. One of the first things he said to me was: "I'm an old man. I'm not going to be around for very much longer. It's up to you to carry it on." He, of course, was talking about my generation. But I took it to mean me personally.
It's a bit of hidden history, with Toronto and the blues, don't you think?
I have to tell you, in the 18 years I've been living in Nashville, I can't tell you how many times I've either been interviewed or I've run into musicians who said: "How did you learn to play blues up in Canada?" Yeah? How did I learn? By seeing Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and Sam Chatmon and Peg Leg Sam, and playing with Blind John Davis.
That's some apprenticeship.
I played the Riverboat with Blind John Davis on New Years Eve, 1977. These guys came to Toronto regularly and they would spend time with us. We got a chance, all of us, in my generation. We got to learn from the masters.
Colin Linden plays Jan. 16, 8 p.m. $45. St. Francis Centre Theatre, Ajax, 905-831-8661 or musicbythebaylive.com.
Maple Blues Awards, Jan. 18, 7 p.m. $28 to $75. Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St. W., 416-408-0208 or performance.rcmusic.ca.
This interview has been edited and condensed.