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Boo Hanks: Bringing the blues of the Piedmont from the back porch to the Stage

By: Sheryl Bryant
Photography by Kevin James

I am grateful to PineCone and the NC Museum of History for joining together to bring us an amazing wealth of talent from among our own with the vital Music of the Carolinas Series. This outstanding series showcases a broad range of traditional musicians who are native North Carolinians or who currently reside in North Carolina.

To tell you a little bit about each of the Music of the Carolina series collaborators, I will begin with PineCone. PineCone is a private, nonprofit and charitable organization dedicated to preserving , presenting and promoting traditional forms of music, dance and other folk performing arts in the Triangle area. PineCone is graciously supported by the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County and is (thankfully) funded in part by the City of Raleigh.

PineCone also receives funding from the NC Arts Council, a division of the Department of Cultural Resources, and the Music of the Carolinas Series is sponsored this year by Williams Mullen and the NC Museum of History Associates, with WLHC-FM and WLQC-FM as the in-kind promotional sponsors. Without these groups, this year’s series would not have happened

The NC Museum of History is one of several crowning jewels in the NC Department of Cultural Resources. The NC Museum of History houses integral pieces of North Carolina’s vast and rich history. The Museum reads like an open North Carolina storybook ; by illustrating the legacies of our forefathers/mothers through lifelike exhibits and artifacts and through special programs, we stay in touch with our past. Thankfully for the citizens of North Carolina, The NC Museum of History is also dedicated to preserving the precious music and folk arts of North Carolina that is so important to our heritage.

To the credit of the Music of the Carolina series , comes Mr. James Arthur (Boo) Hanks. Boo Hanks currently resides just over the North Carolina border in neighboring Virgilina, Virginia. Mr. Hanks is an 83 year young acoustic blues guitarist whose musical roots lie in the Piedmont Blues string band tradition. Boo Hanks bought his first guitar with money he earned from selling garden seeds. Boo also worked hard picking tobacco and cotton in the fields of rural North Carolina as a young boy. It was along this time when he began performing with his cousins at barn dances and other social gatherings to earn spending money.

Boo Hanks’ actually began playing music at the tender age of 8 years old, however it was not until the age of 79 that his first CD was recorded. With the blessings and help of the Music Maker Relief Foundation,( a virtual Godsend for musicians who need a helping hand), Boo recorded and released his Pickin’ Low Cotton a few years ago. The Music Maker Relief Foundation is instrumental in expanding professional careers of American roots musicians over the age of 55 such as Mr. Hanks. Not only does the Music Maker Relief Foundation program provide direct musical support to those persons it serves, the organization often provides basic life essentials to them as well. In just over an hour long set of 22 songs, Boo Hanks had those in Daniels Auditorium who weren’t already Piedmont blues fans converted by the end of the show. His brand of acoustic guitar playing, sometimes known as “frailing” is indicative of an older technique of guitar and banjo “pickin” whereby Boo’s thumb picks the bass sound while his forefinger picks out the melody on the treble strings. The unique and rhythmic sound creates the illusion that two guitars are being played when in reality it is just one lone acoustic guitar and his master at work.

True to the genre of blues, Boo’s songs are also stories of a hardscrabble life and dreams that come and go, and often women that do the same. Boo Hanks writes and performs songs like “Troublin’ Mind” and “Truckin’ My Blues Away”, songs that are funny and amusing, yet telling of a time where entertainment and recreation was limited to only the few things you had access to, and it appears that Boo had access to a lot of ladies. With songs like “She May Be Your Woman” Boo describes his love of the womenfolk ( a recurrent theme in each of his songs!) when he sings that he “walked from New York to Newport News” to see his special woman, or that it “takes a dern good man to have 14 women, one everywhere he goes”! Storytelling between some of his songs, Boo told us it was hard for him to relate to modern day children who expect to eat what they want, when he grew up “eatin’ what we had, not what we wanted, and if we had nothin’, well then that’s just what we ate”.

Highlights of the show for me included the songs “Pickin’ Low Cotton” and “Step It Up and Go” , but to be truthful, the whole show was one big highlight one after the other. From “Frankie and Johnny” to “Airplane Blues”, Boo was in rare form throughout the program. Songs like “Keys to the Highway” and “Your Buggy Don’t Ride Like Mine” along with the stories that accompanied these songs were priceless.

Beginning with the outstanding “Step It Up and Go” and throughout the next several songs, Boo was accompanied by an amazing young harmonica player from Fuquay-Varina, NC , 17 year old Drew Questell (one to watch!). Drew is unbelievably talented on the “lickin’ stick” , and he and Boo are near flawlessly fluid when performing together. With “Red Rooster Boogie”, Boo made that guitar talk trash while Drew made his harmonica cry like a train. What a special treat to see a local teenager so adept and skillful with his instrument while at the same time truly enjoying the ragtime blues with a legend like Boo. I can only imagine what heights Drew Questell will reach if he continues to hone his skills and experience the magic of music with the likes of Boo Hanks.

Boo seemed to be just getting his second wind when he was told he had time for two more songs. Turns out, he had time for four more songs, so he performed a few gospel tunes, starting with an R&B version of “Take My Hand Precious Lord” and a “Glory Hallelujah/Laid My Burden Down medley”. Finishing with “When the Saints Go Marching In” and a seemingly original tune about desperation appropriately called “I’m Broke and Ain’t Got a Dime”, Boo Hanks made me remember why I came. I came to hear the spirit and heart that lives in traditional roots music. I came to listen to the blues music that is so much a part of the soul of our great state. And though it’s no secret that with any kind of blues you have to work your way through the pain and sorrow to feel the triumph and joy, it’s always worth the effort. This time was no exception.

A sincere and genuine thanks goes out to Boo Hanks for sharing his talents; to Drew and his harmonica for making it real sassy; and to PineCone, the NC Museum of History and Music Makers Relief Foundation for making it possible for this music to continue to live and breathe for the people of North Carolina
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