CURTIS MARLATT SINGS THE BLUES

By Scott Mullins

He has composed a classical music theme for public radio station WFPK and his bands have fronted Bruce Springsteen, The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead and the Doors, among others.

At 40, Jon Curtis Marlatt has a very interesting and eclectic musical background. In 1962, after hearing a friend of his older brother play a baritone ukelele, Marlatt got his first guitar. But it wasn't until 1964 when he heard the gritty, blues-rock sound of the Yardbirds, and the group's guitarist Jeff Beck, that he decided to get serious about his playing.

In 1966 he joined Stonehenge, a band that Marlatt described as "one of the most happening bands in the area at that time. The band just skyrocketed, it really took off. On December 7, 1968, we opened for the Grateful Dead at Bellarmine and we also shared a double bill with Steppenwolf."

With the band requiring more of his time, Marlatt did not return for his sophomore year at the University of Kentucky where he attended on a swimming scholarship. His high hopes for the band were soon shattered when he was drafted and sent to Vietnam for two years.

Four months of his tour of duty were spent touring in a rock and roll band as part of the Special Services. "I plan on writing a book about that period because it was the most dangerous, fun, and adventurous time I spent in Vietnam," Marlatt said. "I've got stories that are as crazy, if not crazier, than anything you've seen in Apocalypse Now."

After returning from Vietnam, Marlatt joined the Lexington-based Hatfield Clan with Rodney Hatfield and David White (now of the Metro Blues All-Stars) and Lee Carrol (now with The Judds). The band toured extensively throughout the South, opening for such acts as The Allmans, Wet Willie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bruce Springsteen and others.

It was during this period that an Athens, Ga. newspaper referred to Marlatt as "the best slide guitarist in the South next to Duane Allman." That's extremely high praise coming from a southern newspaper during the legendary Allman's heyday.

During this time Marlatt almost tasted commercial success. "We came very close to signing with Capricorn Records but at the last minute they signed a band called Grinder Switch instead," said Marlatt.

Marlatt's next move was to take advantage of his G.I. Bill by enrolling at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. With classmates like jazz artists Pat Metheny and John Scofield, Marlatt felt like an outsider. "Here I was, a self-taught blues slide guitarist, rubbing elbows with all these bebop whiz kids with bad attitudes. But that didn't bother me, I knew why I was there and what I wanted to get out of it," Marlatt said.

Marlatt emerged from Berklee in 1978 with degrees in audio engineering and composition and arrangement. "It did nothing but help me; I really blossomed thee. Now I can write for a symphony orchestra, a big band, anything. And with the audio degree I can produce my own stuff," Marlatt said.

His own "stuff" is an amalgamation of the eclectic styles that have influenced him over the years. These include early Delta blues of the 1930s to the rock and roll, r&b, and Chicago blues of the 50s, soul and acid rock of the 60s, all the way up to the most contemporary sounds in blues, jazz, pop, and even Brazilian music.

Marlatt is currently writing material and getting his band ready to go into the studio, with Scott Mullins producing, to record a professional demo tape to send out to record labels. The tape will also be released locally on Mullins' Rollin' and Tumblin' label for sale to the public.

Like most Louisville artists who write and perform their own material, Marlatt is extremely frustrated with the Louisville music scene. "When I came back from Boston I thought Louisville had the potential to grow and I wanted to be an integral part of that," Marlatt said. "But I've run into nothing but brick walls, and the worst offenders, and it all starts with them, are the commercial radio stations."

"All they play are tired 20-year-old rock standards or the same old tried-and-true top-40 hits over and over again. So, the people get so conditioned to what they're hearing that they want to hear the same thing in the clubs. In turn, the bars want to book only top-40 bands, and so the booking agents only want to handle top-40 bands. It's really frustrating," said Marlatt.