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Fats Kaplin Celebrates Blues Mentor Roy Book Binder

Roy Book Binder and Fats Kaplin in the 1970s.
Roy Book Binder and Fats Kaplin in the 1970s.

Over the past 50 years, Roy Book Binder’s hat, spectacles and ginormous mustache have taken on iconic stature, while his acoustic guitars have ragged and danced for countless thousands of people at shows and festivals around the country and the world. He is, in short, a great American character and bluesman. Book Binder has collaborated with blues giants including the blind Rev. Gary Davis and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, the originator of Elvis’s breakout song “That’s All Right Mama.” It’s a deep story, one that includes Nashville’s own throwback troubadour Fats Kaplin.

Quietly ubiquitous in the studios and on the stages of roots music greats, Fats Kaplin has become a fixture and a go-to guy for strange and specific sounds, from steel guitar and fiddle to the accordion, mandolin, and the middle eastern oud. In the 1980s, he toured in folk singer Tom Russell’s band. In the 1990s he was part of Nashville’s Dead Reckoning collective, leading to a trio with Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch. His resume of collaboration since moving to Music City includes Buddy Miller, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Beck, and Jack White. Much beloved are his projects with his powerhouse torch singer wife Kristi Rose. And he’s a magician too.

So it’s a bit historic and nostalgic that Fats helped broker a show this Wednesday by Roy Book Binder at Kaplin’s favorite Nashville club, the 5 Spot. It’ll bring a bit of medicine show razzle dazzle and a lot of string band swing to East Nashville. I spoke with Fats about his history with the roots music patriarch they call Book.

Fats, big picture, what do you hope people know about Roy Book Binder?

Well, let's see. Roy is what they call an East Coast fingerstyle guitar player. He played some rock and roll way back in the 50s. But then he got into the music of Pink Anderson and Rev. Gary Davis (while) veering into the folk world of Dave Van Ronk and others. And he actually traveled with Gary Davis and learned from him in his later 20s. At age 80, I would say Roy's a direct link back to those traveling blues men and itinerant medicine show performers. He has traveled and played essentially his entire life.

Fats Kaplin

You’re both from New York City. How did you meet?

I met him when I was 17 years old (and he was 29), at a small folk festival in New Jersey. And I remember being a young kid just knocking around playing fiddle and some banjo. And I saw him perform. And so afterward, there was a house party, and I walked through a living room, where Roy was playing for a whole group of people. And at that point, I had a fiddle case that I had hand painted with an American eagle with a shield on it, and it had my name ‘Fats Kaplin’ on the case. So he goes, Hey Fats, you want to play a tune? Because my name is on the case, which is why I put it there. And I go sure, and we played a tune or two in the living room and exchanged numbers. And I went to his apartment in the Village and played some and started thinking about doing some shows. So anyway, I started working with him at the age of 17. He had an old Volvo, and I didn't know how to drive. No one in my family knows how to drive because I grew up in Manhattan. So he took me over to the East Village and taught me how to drive.

Why were you even looking for blues gigs with your fiddle at that point? You weren't like the other 17-year-olds in your school I imagine.

No, I wasn't. I was definitely the oddball. I come from a family of artists, and I had an uncle who was very influential to me. He played some banjo like Pete Seeger. And Pete Seeger had a show on public television in New York City called Rainbow Quest. And I used to watch it as a kid. I saw the New Lost City Ramblers. And I always say that a lot of people saw the Beatles or, you know, Nirvana, and they went that's it. I saw the New Lost City Ramblers and I went that’s it. They were playing old time string band music, exactly like a 78. And so I started listening to their stuff and going to the Lincoln Center Library and getting out the reissues of string band music, jug band, blues, whatever, just learning all of this stuff as best I could, sort of in isolation. I knew there was a folk scene, but I didn't realize how big it was. I learned as I went, but I kind of taught myself.

So in the mid 70s, as you were traveling with Roy, what were the shows, venues and audiences like?

There was a good club scene on the East Coast, places like the Town Crier, Charlotte's Web. Cafe Lena, we played all the time up in Saratoga Springs. And then at that point, a lot of colleges had either a folk concert series or a coffeehouse. So we did that. And then festivals like Philly Folk Festival.

Talk about Roy's personality. What kind of guy is he? How did he project himself to his audience?

He would generally be the same way on stage or off - very laid-back, chatty. He likes to tell stories, which he does to a fare thee well, being 80 years and on the road. He’s generally pretty easy-going and funny. Traveling with him, we were really into fishing. We would be up north in freezing cold weather and ice storms playing clubs and then we would actually drive down to Florida and go bass fishing! We got into fishing when it was a way southern niche thing.

You made the album Git Fiddle Shuffle together in 1975?

Yeah, and then another one, Ragtime Millionaire. So we did two albums together both on Nick Perls’s Blue Goose label out of Greenwich Village. We knew Nick Perls and used to go over there and hang out, because you could walk there from Roy's apartment and into the West Village. He was a real fascinating character, one of the biggest 78 record collectors I think in the world.

Roy became known as an educator in the blues. Did he play that role for you as a mentor, and do you regard him as your launch and guide in the tools you needed to be a professional?

I do in a lot of ways, because he taught me about traveling on the road and taught me about a lot of music that I didn't know about, like the Mississippi Sheiks, a big influence on me. And other types of string bands such as Martin, Bogan & Armstrong. Growing up in New York City, Manhattan, I was completely enamored with the South, and the first time I ever went south was with Roy Book Binder to meet Pink Anderson in Spartanburg, South Carolina. And it was totally eye opening.

And how have you stayed in touch over the years?

For many years now we've been in close contact. Like whenever he travels in his motorhome, he will stay with us. He’ll pull up behind the house and stay there. So we can hang out. We've gone down to visit Roy and his wife and stayed with them in Florida a number of times.

And what is happening on October fourth?

We're going to just be doing a special show at the 5 Spot from six to eight. And there will be a few special guests. I'll be doing a few things. Then we're going to let Roy take the stage, and I'm sure I'll play a couple of tunes with him. Like the old days. We'll just let him take it because it's his show. He knows how to do it. I think it's gonna be great, and he’ll turn 80 the day after the show.

Nice. How did this come to pass?

Well, Kristi Rose and I and the Fats Kaplin Gang have played the 5 Spot for years now, about once a month. We’ve been in Nashville for over 30 years, and the 5 Spot is our favorite club. I mean, the sound is great. The people who run it are great. It's real local and a great place to hear music in a good setting. And Roy was thinking, you know, where can I play in Nashville? He couldn't quite get a grip on that. And we suggested the 5 Spot and we pitched it to Todd Sherwood and of course he goes, sure, sounds great.

You've always had so many fantastic and varied pursuits. What's been keeping you busy?

Well, I'm still doing a lot of studio work. I just got done with doing the AmericanaFest here, where I played with Buddy Miller, with Jaimee Harris, and the house band for the Loretta Lynn tribute show. Prior to that, a couple of recording things have come out in the past year or so that I have been proud of, particularly Tinariwen, the Tuareg African band. Their new album came out, and I played on it remotely sending the tracks to Paris. But I had done an album with them in Joshua Tree 10 years ago, and they’re an absolutely incredible band. And then the new Mitski record album came out, and I'm on that album on a number of tracks, which is a totally different thing. And I'm about to go to the Hardly Strictly (Bluegrass) festival, which I played for 17 years in a row, with Buddy Miller. And then we're going to go into the You Got Gold week of John Prine tributes. I'll be in the house band because I was in his band the last few years of John Prine’s life, so it's been really busy, thankfully.

"Fats Kaplin Presents Roy Bookbinder" at The 5 Spot on Wednesday, October 4th. For more on Roy visit his website here.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org