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Junkyard blues

After 20 years, Smokin' Joe Kubek and Bnois King still carry on a Texas tradition



Oscar Wilde famously claimed that life imitates art far more often than art imitates life. And Texas bluesman Smokin' Joe Kubek has a story that illustrates the point.

What brings it to mind is the old Lightnin' Hopkins song that Kubek and longtime cohort Bnois King cover on their new Blood Brothers album, in which the elder bluesman cautioned, "You better stop drinking that wine, sonny boy ... oh, you're gonna mess up your mind." The decades-old classic became most relevant for Kubek when he found himself "pretty much homeless" back in the early '80s.

"I was staying at this junkyard with this guy named Bobo," recalls Kubek. "His real name was Sonny 'Bluesboy' Osborne, and he'd taken a turn in life and decided that he wanted to be a wino. He lived out in the junkyard, and he knew exactly how many cans it took to crush in order to get a bottle of Thunderbird. We used to always tell him, you know, you better stop drinking that wine wine makes you crazy and why don't you drink something good, like whiskey or gin?"

For the record, the alternative that Hopkins actually advised was hot green tea but, then again, he was always kind of straight-laced by blues standards.

The duo's "Stop Drinking" (Hopkins' original was called "You Better Watch Yourself") runs eight minutes and is clearly one of Blood Brothers' highlights. The album is their first for Alligator Records, the revered blues label named after owner Bruce Iglauer's habit of clicking his teeth in time to music. In addition to signing Kubek and King, Iglauer also co-produced the album.

So why did it take 20 years to hook up with Alligator?

"I probably had gone to Alligator in the '80s one time I think everybody has but you know how that goes," says Kubek. "We had a catalog [of albums] out when we finally got with Alligator, so it was just the right time, you know? Bruce is real good for us, man. He works hard and he pulls things out of you."

Although it may not be so obvious these days, the two musicians come from different musical and cultural backgrounds. Singer/guitarist King was born in Louisiana and has a more jazz-influenced approach, while Kubek leans more to the blues-rock style of his friend Stevie Ray Vaughan. They met up at a 1989 jam session in Dallas and have been on the road pretty much ever since.

Kubek figures they play an average of 200 shows a year. And even though he and his wife bought a house last year, a far cry from those junkyard days, the road is still their second home.

"My wife sells the merchandise; it's like a traveling medicine show," remarks Kubek, who says he always knew he'd be doing this for the rest of his life. "It's fun to be home, but after a few nights, man, it starts getting to be the same old thing, and you get antsy to be onstage."

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