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Little Johnny Kantreed, But He Can Play The Blues TOM NETHERLAND | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER Published: April 23, 2009 Cool names and blues go together like jukes and joints. They fit. Just look at some of the names in the 19th Annual Little Chicago Blues Festival, which benefits public radio station WETS-FM. Set for April 23-25 at Down Home in Johnson City, Tenn., the festival includes appearances by Lightnin’ Charlie, The Mudbugs and Little Johnny Kantreed. Great names. Better blues. Kantreed plays a style of blues that’s stripped, a naked brand of acoustic blues that’s as raw as garden grown onions. No band. “I describe it as down home acoustic folk blues,” Kantreed said recently by phone from his home in Nashville, Tenn.. “I’ll play some songs that a blues traditionalist may say isn’t blues. I’ll do some down home and greasy chicken blues, and then I might do a John Prine song.” Rules do not bind the blues of Kantreed. In that sense, he’s akin to his musical forefathers, including Blind Willie McTell and Son House. They played what was in them, and so does Kantreed. But unlike blues men of renown like Lightnin’ Hopkins or Howlin’ Wolf, Kantreed did not play blues from the second he clasped his hands to a guitar. “Growing up in Nashville, there were about 10,000 guitar players here,” he said. “I moved to Florida and did Jimmy Buffett and Bob Seger-styled stuff, playing in beach bars.” Now, that’s a world and a half away from bare-your-soul blues. “I got married in ’84, and got away from music for about 15 years,” Kantreed said. Then, along came long-dead blues men Son House and Blind Willie McTell, via compact disc. Hooked. Spellbound and newly motivated, Kantreed returned to his guitar, only this time in the form of a dobro. “It got me into doing slide work,” Kantreed said. “I also play a cigar box guitar.” A what? “A cigar box guitar,” he repeated. “I make mine with three strings and tuned to open G. There’s no rules. The neck is a three-foot strip of poplar from Home Depot. The cigar box, I buy three for $5 from a cigar store.” Kantreed’s three-string concoction looks similar to a shrunken Bo Diddley guitar, which featured a unique and rectangular body. However, the sound of Kantreed’s guitar, which is alternately called either a Lowe Bow guitar or simply a cigar box guitar, is another thing. “Primitive,” he said, “but that’s what you want it to sound like. It goes back to the Delta when blues men couldn’t afford to buy a guitar. They’d make their guitars out of cigar boxes or whatever else they could find.” So, with three albums to his unique name, blues on his tongue and a cigar box guitar in his hands, Kantreed comes to Johnson City with a style separated. “When I pull it out here in Nashville, people say, ‘What the hell is that?’ ” Kantreed said. “I’ll bet when I play in Johnson City that I’ll be the only one with a cigar box guitar.”