Ted Hawkins lived a hard life, but his journey was a gift to us all. Born black and poor in Mississippi, he did time in reform school and prison before trying his hand at music after hearing the work of Sam Cooke. The talent was obviously there all along.
While Hawkins traveled the rocky road of a hard-core bluesman, his music is rooted more in folk than traditional blues. The delivery is spare, unadorned rhythm guitar utilizing innovative open tunings. You can hear the strains of the Delta in his corncob voice, dripping with soulful joy and steeped in hard lessons learned. He was the musical poster boy of the “outsider” artist, big and raw-boned and completely oblivious to the etiquette and expectations of those around him.
He made his name as a busker on the boardwalk at Venice Beach, California, and his recorded output is sparse. A few dedicated admirers worked hard to corral Ted in the studio, attempting to navigate his addictions and tendency to disappear for extended periods of time. By his death in 1995, he had produced several albums of original work and magical takes on the songs of others. Like so many other great American artists, Hawkins found more respect and appreciation on the other side of the Atlantic. His dedicated European following was primarily the result of the admiration and efforts of British disc jockey Andy Kershaw.
2015 saw the release of a tribute album, Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins, an Austin salute to the work of this great artist. Produced by our own Kevin Russell, Jenni Finlay and Brian T. Atkinson, the disc features Hawkins’ originals interpreted by Austin Songwriter favorites Shinyribs, Mary Gauthier, James McMurtry, Jon Dee Graham, Gurf Morlix, Danny Barnes, Ramsay Midwood and Randy Weeks.
Three things to know about Ted Hawkins: (1) he claimed that damaged fingers preventing him from bending notes in the blues tradition, (2) a documentary of his life and art, Ted Hawkins: Amazing Grace, was released in 1996, and (3) he died at about the time of the release of what would be his most famous album, The Next Hundred Years.