Joey Stuckey, guitar hero, can rattle the rafters

For Macon Magazine a few months ago:

Signs of Joey Stuckey’s curiosity and free-range eclecticism are scattered all over his downtown recording studio, Shadow Sound.

His equipment includes both knobby, old-school analog and the latest in high-end digital, and his instruments vary from the usual strings, keys, and percussion to ukuleles; a dulcimer; a Japanese shamisen used in kabuki theater; and a tarango, a Colombian mandolin with a resonant belly crafted from an armadillo’s armor. “All kinds of crazy stuff!” says Stuckey, who sings, composes, and plays his own music when he is not recording others. “If it makes a sound, I’m interested.”

Stuckey’s versatile enthusiasms achieve a kind of harmonic convergence on his latest album, “The Shadow Sound,” an omnivore’s buffet of blues, jazz, rock, and pop released by Virtuoso Music in February. “With this collection, I want to bring back the era of the ‘Guitar Hero,’ a time when names like Clapton, Page and Stevie Ray adorned the pages of every rock magazine on the planet,” Stuckey says. “Back when music was what really mattered.”

Of course, for Stuckey, music has always mattered, always has flooded his senses and pooled in the deep, sustaining chambers of his imagination. “Sound is my whole world,” he says — by default. Stuckey, 34, is blind. He survived a brain tumor as an infant, but it caused him to lose his sight and his sense of smell. Consequently, he became a sort of sonic savant, a human tuning fork.

“I don’t think my ears are necessarily, magically better,” he says. “The difference is that visual stimulus is so powerful that it dominates what you perceive. When I’m listening, that’s all I’m doing; I’m not staring out the window at the trees the way most people do. I get very excited about the hum of an air-conditioner or the burst of a car starting. There’s beauty in the sound of an elevator. My head is always full of beats and melodies, and I feel a rhythmic pulse going through me at all times. That’s just the way my spirit works.”

As a teen-ager, he discovered the hooks and riffs that drowned out most of the other racket. “I knew how to turn the radio on and off, but one day I realized that if I turned the knob, it changed to different stations,” Stuckey says. “One day I heard this very energetic music that knocked me out. It was a revelation. It was rock ’n’ roll. I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

He was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, and moved to Macon when he was 15. Yes, he is kin to the dynasty of the Stuckey pecan log — beloved snack of sweaty, Dixie road trips — and his father was one of a set of musical twins named Eugene and Talmadge (a nominal hat-tip to the populist governor) who performed as “The Stuckey Twins and the Dodge County Playboys.”

“Um, I’m Southern,” Stuckey says with a laugh.

An academic prodigy, he already had graduated from a regular public high school in Florida by the time he moved to Macon, and he enrolled, at age 16, at Mercer University. Not content simply to play by ear, Stuckey, who had studied Braille, also wanted to read music. He found a mentor in professor Terry Cantwell, and together they embarked on some tactile, Helen Keller-style lessons, with the instructor scratching music notations into sand, which Stuckey then would touch and trace. So unlike many of the rootsy musicians he records and performs with, Stuckey actually can decipher those notes.

Stuckey went on to study with jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan, and he since has established himself as “a blind musician with an insightful vision.” He modeled his playing style after rocker Jeff Beck and the jazzier Wes Montgomery, while his vocal influences include Mel Torme and Gregg Allman (possibly the only time you will see those two names in the same sentence). A cuddly, barrel-chested Teddy Bear of a man, Stuckey possesses a set of pipes girded by a mighty diaphragm that powers some high-decibel blues shouting — no amp necessary.

At 21, Joey released his first album, Take a Walk in the Shadows, and he followed it later with Live and Stuff, and Live and More Stuff: The Sequel to the Prequel, both recorded at the historic Douglass Theater.

Around that time, another mentor, punk impresario Ian Copeland, who was a booking agent for Sting, observed, “Joey is one of the most amazing guitarists I know.”

In the 1990s, Stuckey worked the soundboard at Phoenix Sound Studios, which like its namesake “rose from the ashes” of the old Capricorn headquarters, and he started opening for acts as diverse as James Brown, Wet Willie, Trisha Yearwood, Ted Nugent, Bad Company,  and Clarence Carter.

“Joey is a joy to play with because his timing is so tight — he never misses a cue,” says Macon drummer Stephen Chanin.

Stuckey named his studio after a song he wrote as a way of explaining his blindness to curious strangers.

“In my youth, I had some trouble being accepted because of my handicap,” he says. “The best way I new to talk about being blind with out getting crazy-detailed and going overboard was to go with a familiar concept of shadows. While not entirely accurate as to how I actually see the world — or don’t — I thought it would make a easy concept for folks to grasp. Later, because being blind is part of what makes me special as a recording engineer and brings something different to my projects, I named the studio Shadow Sound Studio.”

He acquired, among other bells and whistles, the console used by Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics. It draws artists from around the globe, such as Brazilian guitarist Felipe, as well as Capricorn veterans like Jimmy Hall, and it keeps Stuckey busy with custom studio work.

“I’ve done a ton of jingles, for everybody from politicians to chiropractors, to tattoo parlors,” he says.

Stuckey, who lives in north Macon with his wife, Jennifer, a professional midwife, is nothing if not a melodious multitasker. He devours audiobooks, and — as articulate as he is pitch-perfect — he writes reviews and columns for several music magazines. He teaches music technology at Mercer while operating, a streaming, 24-hour Internet radio station that promotes indie music in all genres. In 2006, his guitar chops and hail-fellow-well-met disposition landed him the role of Macon’s “Official Ambassador of Music.”

“I’ve been so busy recording other people and putting food on the table with the commercial stuff that I haven’t taken much time for my own music until now,” he says. “And I’ve never cared much for boundaries around genres.”

“The Shadow Sound” came about as a collaboration of sorts with Virtuoso founder Victor McLean, who has worked with Quincy Jones, George Benson, and Diana Krall, among others. McLean, as executive producer, helped Stuckey sift through his “eclecticka” and remaster some older tracks, and they rounded up an all-star ensemble to play on the project, including Randall Bramblett, Chuck Leavell, and David Ragsdale, the violinist of Smashing Pumpkins and Kansas.

“Joey will be an inspiration to the many kids out there picking up a guitar for the first time, and also to music fanatics who are searching for something unique,” McLean says. “We feel that Joey will have a Phish or a Dave Matthews-type following when you consider his material and the caliber of performance that he is capable of delivering.”

The album so far has enjoyed favorable reviews and climbing sales on iTunes and amazon.

“Everybody’s favorite track seems to be the last one, ‘Truth is a Misty Mountain.’ That one was recorded live for public radio, and it’s just me and my guitar,” Stuckey says. “The album has gone over big in Belgium, for some reason, and is getting a lot of radio play there.”

With any luck, some child, maybe in Brussels, is switching radio stations as Stuckey once did, or browsing the web, and discovering this fresh interpretation of rock ’n’ roll.


We miss your sweet soul music, Otis Redding

A piece I did a few years ago for Atlanta magazine:

A Rebel flag criss-crosses that first vinyl single of “Shout Bamalama,” released by the Confederate Records label in 1962.

Consequently, African-American disc jockeys chunked it in the trash without even putting the needle in the groove to hear Otis Redding belt out his jump-blues tribute to Bamalama, a one-eyed busker who played a washboard with a thimble. It was another inauspicious break for the Macon vocalist, who was booed off the stage, in tears, the first time he performed away from church.

Redding’s galvanic talent, though, could not be stopped.

With his pained, pleading vibrato, the singer-songwriter set an unassailable standard for soul music at its rawest and most sublime. He could “worry a note,” as he put it, to wring arias from the field hollers of his sharecropping roots; the call-and-response of the choir; the wits and sweat required of black survival in the segregated South; and something transcendently his own. Filtered through Redding’s larynx, lust never sounded so sacred.

Rolling Stone magazine ranks Redding No. 21 in the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time,” and Billboard named two of his compositions, “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” and “Respect,” in the top 20 tunes of the 20th century. More musical benchmarks no doubt would have followed if he had not died at 26 in a plane crash 40 years ago, on December 10, 1967.

So the original “Shout Bamalama” 45 rpm (with the song “Fat Gal” on the flipside) adds a distinctly Southern, ebony-and-irony note to “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” a sweeping exhibit of about 200 Redding artifacts that opened last fall at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon and runs until September 8, 2008. Much of the memorabilia – posters, unrecorded song lyrics, candid photos, even receipts for hay to feed his beloved farm animals — has been sealed for decades at the “Big O Ranch,” where Redding’s widow, Zelma, still resides. Visitors also can listen to oral histories, which reveal little-known facts about the singer.

“I wanted to show not just the arc of his career but the kind of complex man he was,” says Ellen Fleurov, curator of the exhibit. “A consummate entertainer, he also was an astute businessman who soaked up every possible lesson from whatever situation he was in. He was a talented A&R guy who, if he’d lived, probably would have started his own record company and gotten more involved in the civil rights movement. I think he would have been the South’s answer to Berry Gordy.”

At the time of his death, Redding, having recently dethroned Elvis as “top male vocalist in the world” in Melody Maker magazine, was mulling over television and movie offers. “Even in his relaxed time, Otis was coming up with something new to try,” says Newton Collier, a horn player who worked with Redding. “I don’t care how long you’d been rehearsing, if Otis walked in the studio, you’d say, ‘Let’s do some mo’! Wherever he was, he inspired everybody. Interesting word, ‘respect.’ He could write about it because he commanded – and got – it.”

The euphemisms stop here: Octavia Spencer’s multiple roles in ‘The Help’ phenomenon

This appears in Auburn magazine.

As an award-winning actor and an outsize personality who, even in the hammy social circuit of Hollywood, stood out for her straight-talking, no-bull charisma, Octavia Spencer was accustomed to stealing scenes, holding court, and generally being watched.

She did not know, however, that an unpublished writer was quietly scrutinizing her and finding in her a heroically cantankerous muse. As a result, Spencer is now enjoying one of those monumental, art-imitates-life twists on the Hollywood dream. She is starring in “The Help,” the much anticipated Steven Spielberg-produced movie opening in theaters on August 10, playing the role of “Minny Jackson,” the character she originally inspired in the best-selling book.

In 2002, during a vacation in New Orleans, Spencer, a 1994 graduate of Auburn, met Kathryn Stockett, a softspoken, belle-ish alumna of the University of Alabama, through some mutual friends. Both had been English majors, and Stockett was exploring an idea for her first novel.  Spencer was trying, grudgingly, to slim down for the camera.

“I was 100 pounds heavier then and on a diet,” Spencer recalls. “It was August, so it was hot, and I was hungry and surrounded by all that rich New Orleans cuisine that I wasn’t supposed to eat. I was extremely grumpy.”

Stockett, drawn to Spencer’s amplitude of form and attitude, took notes for her novel-in-progress, and the resulting “Minny” — a plump and deliciously defiant maid — became one of the principal narrators and most memorable characters in this story of race relations and female friendship in segregated, 1960s-era Jackson, Mississippi.

“Minny was probably the easiest character for me to write because of Octavia,” says Stockett, who grew up in Jackson and now resides in Atlanta. “At the time we were more acquaintances than friends, but I would watch her at parties – her mannerisms and gestures. She’s just hysterical. She’s extremely intelligent and well-educated, but Octavia will definitely tell you like it is. You can just imagine the look on her face when some skinny white girl came up and said to her, ‘I’ve written a book and you’re one of the main characters.’ She rolled her eyes and said something like, ‘that’s good,’ and walked away!”

Spencer, who lives in Los Angeles, puts her harrumphing reaction in context: “In Hollywood, everybody – and I mean everybody — is shopping around a book or a screenplay or a video or an idea at every turn.”

All of that shopping around paid off. The Help became one of the publishing world’s seersucker Cinderella stories, released by Putnam to crest The New York Times best-seller list for 103 weeks. Spencer, like book clubs around the country, was won over once she started reading.

“Frankly, I approached it reluctantly – I bristled at the dialect,” she says. Minny’s first words are: “Standing on that white lady’s back porch, I tell myself, Tuck it in Minny. Tuck in whatever might fly out my mouth and tuck in my behind too.”

Spencer says, “I thought, ‘Oh, God, not another one of those books about the South.’”

Her reading tastes lean toward Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Maya Angelou, she explains, so she feared that the The Help might be just another exercise in moonlight-and-magnolias cliché, a hoop-skirted white author rhapsodizing with the vapors over some one-dimensional “mammy.”

“I was naturally curious, though, about this ‘spitfire’ based on me, and once I cracked the book open, I ended up skipping a party to sit down and devour it, and decided it was one of the best books I’d ever read in my life,” Spencer says. “It really resonated with me as a Southern woman, and I realized immediately that the important themes and the rich complexities of these characters would resonate with readers across racial, regional, socioeconomic, and generational lines. Suddenly, I had high hopes.”

Spencer grew up in Montgomery, a bookworm in a family of seven children.

“Most people in Hollywood are dreaming of acting, of being in front of the camera, but ever since I was at Auburn, I’ve called myself a writer,” she says. “I had a minor in theater arts, but I had to be more or less dragged in front of the camera.”

That pivotal moment came when was working behind the scenes as a production assistant on “A Time to Kill.” A director asked her to read, and she landed a small part in that Mississippi-based film. On that set, she became fast friends with another up-and-comer, Tate Taylor, and they lit out for Los Angeles and lived as roommates for four years, eventually accumulating a coterie of “expat Southerners” in the dues-paying stage of their red-carpet aspirations. Taylor had grown up in Jackson with Stockett.

“We all had culture shock in L.A.,” Spencer says with a laugh. “I remember the first time my car broke down on the side of the road, and I thought, ‘Back home, 10 people would’ve stopped to help by now.’ I missed the manners and the warmth of the South, so I surrounded myself with other Southerners who felt the same.”

The reluctant actress began burnishing her resume with roles in Dinner For Schmucks, The Soloist, Seven Pounds, Bad Santa, Spiderman, Big Momma’s House, and Being John Malkovich. On the small screen, Spencer became a familiar, apple-cheeked face, starring in the series “Halfway Home,” and appearing in “The Big Bang Theory,” “E.R.,” “CSI,” “Raising The Bar,” and “Medium,” along with a memorable five-episode arc as a lusty INS agent-turned-stalker in “Ugly Betty.”

Meanwhile, Stockett almost had given up after 60 agents had rejected her novel. Tate, who had directed several indie projects, begged for the film rights before it was even published and went to work on a screenplay. In 2009, the year The Help came out to such fanfare, Entertainment Weekly named Spencer one of the “25 Funniest Actresses in Hollywood,” and then DreamWorks got behind the movie project.

“We all had run around together, and since Kathryn modeled some of Minny’s traits after Octavia, we felt no one else could play her but Octavia,” says Tate, who made authenticity his mission (read: refreshingly believable drawls), shooting the film in Greenwood, Mississippi. “When I was looking for actors, I was looking at how they talked, the way they moved. I didn’t want to do a Hollywoodized version of the South. The South is an oppressive, complicated, beautiful, tragic, loving place all in one bundle.”

Ironically, Spencer had drilled away her accent. “I partially paid my way through Auburn with public speaking scholarships,” she says, “so I had to put that lilt back in my voice!” she says. Ultimately, she so embraced the dialect that she read for the audiobook version of The Help, and won the “Earphone Award,” and Spencer accompanied the author on a book tour in which she delivered the African-American voices in the text during readings.  “Some people suggested I might be underplaying Minny,” Spencer says. “You can read her rebellious thoughts in the book, but realize that to talk back to a white employer during that era was dangerous. She couldn’t publicly express her feelings. So I tried to play it down rather than overacting and overplaying her fiery spirit.”

It comes through, though, in every knowing, sidewise glance. Spencer, as Stockett noted, can’t help “telling it like it is,” just like her alterego, Minny, who muses: “Truth. It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky-hot body. Cooling a heat that’s been burning me up all my life.”