Texas guitar-slinger Long John Hunter plays party blues, bred in one of the most party-intense atmospheres a musician could ask for. For ten
years between 1957 and 1970, Hunter rocked from sundown to sun-up at the Lobby Bar in Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso. In
a town where the curfew was determined solely by how long one was able to stay on one's feet, Hunter's job consisted of doing whatever it took to
keep things at a fever pitch for a well-juiced audience of Mexicans, New Mexico and west Texas ranchers and cowboys, Fort Bliss soldiers, tourists,
and teens and college students crossing the Rio Grande in search of sex, drugs, and other contraband from switchblades to firecrackers (plus, of
course, the oft-rumored, never-actually-witnessed donkey show). To this day, Long John can work a crowd like few other musicians -- and in the
'90s, for the first time ever, he's started being seen and heard by more than a lucky few in the Lone Star State. Now, finally, he's just as well
represented on record -- amazingly, Border Town Legend is his first widely-distributed album ever. Born in 1931 in Louisiana, raised in a
sharecropping family in Arkansas, John had no interest in music until he caught a ripsnorting 1954 B.B. King show in Beaumont, Texas (where
Hunter was then working in a box factory). The next day, he bought a guitar; that weekend, his trio, the Hollywood Bearcats, played a local beer
joint. What they lacked in ability and seasoning, they made up for in energy and showmanship; before long, their Crazy Girl b/w She Used To Be
My Baby , pressed on a labelless single, was getting local airplay. Don Robey picked it up for Duke Records and John moved to Houston -- but to
this day, the guitarist believes Robey signed him only to stifle the competition Long John posed to other Duke-Peacock acts. Hunter worked
regularly in the Houston clubs with people like Albert Collins and Philip Walker, but he never cut another record for Robey. Then, in l957, a friend
told him about the wild west town of El Paso. Long John and the Bearcats were heading there in no time. Their first night in town, they crossed the
river into Juarez and wowed an informal cutting contest at the Lobby. John's group promptly became the new house band. He was given a weekly
pay-check like he'd never seen before, as well as an apartment, a car and driver, clothes, and a pair of bodyguards. In his shows, he'd literally
swing from the rafters, or take advantage of his long cord to stroll the sidewalks outside the club. As his original musicians peeled off, his band
came to include such characters as a narcoleptic guitarist who dazzled for the first two songs before falling asleep while standing onstage, a
vocalist who had someone beat him up in the alley behind the club every night so he'd sing better, and another singer who didn't speak a word of
English but memorized the lyrics to hundreds of songs ("and he was a good singer, too," Long John says admiringly). When he began there, "I had
it in my mind that if the music didn't sound like B.B. King, it wasn't music," John says. Real blues was a real novelty in west Texas, where country,
rock and Mexican music ruled. In addition to B.B., he played some Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and more. But John quickly concluded he needed
blues were few and far between. From 1961 to 1963, Hunter recorded a series of jumping, uptempo Texas blues singles on the Yucca label out of
Alamogordo, New Mexico, that were gathered on Texas Border Town Blues (on the Dutch label Double Trouble) in '86. He made such a lasting
impression that no matter where he plays in Texas today, somebody is bound to come up to him afterwards to talk about the night he got drunk for
the first time while watching Long John at the Lobby. Invariably, the next question is, "Where have you been since then?" The answer, people are
surprised to learn, is that Hunter never stopped working.
After leaving the Lobby, he played for five years at the King's X in El Paso, then
hit the Texas/New Mexico small-town club circuit.
As the only bluesman working towns like Roswell, Hobbs, Lamesa, Big Spring and
Sweetwater, he had few outside influences while extending his guitar style until it sounded like nobody except Long John Hunter. He might spin out
one line with a fat, muscular tone, then come right back with a flurry of notes each as trim and sharp as a pinpoint. Hunter plays economically,
displaying a unique sense of timing, and using silence as a dramatic device. ("I'm not a fancy guitar player," he remarks, "but I do pretty good at
what I do. I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but I always get my point across.") His vocals match his guitar, shifting effortlessly from pinched
and nasal to robust and full-throated, with a delivery invariably marked by a knowing sense of humor. In 1985, he cut his first album, Smooth
Magic, financed by a mobile-homes mogul in El Paso. He didn't record again until 1993, when Ride With Me was released on a Texas indie that
folded almost immediately. But that one got him out on the festival circuit, both in the United States and abroad, and Border Town Legend should
go a long way further towards transforming him from a west Texas myth into a contemporary blues pace-setter. He is aided by Art Lewis, his
longtime El Paso saxman, and an all-star lineup of mostly Austin musicians. It is unmistakably Texas blues, but played with a raucous rock and a
rollicking roll that won't quit. "It's pretty much what I've always done," declares Long John Hunter, "and I think it'll keep working until it's time to sit
down." Hopefully, that time is still a long way off. -- John Morthland John Morthland is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Texas Monthly.

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Long John Hunter

Played for five years at the
King's X in El Paso