“My dad would go to work and I would get the guitar out of the corner and play it, but I broke it and he gave me a whooping, so I had to give that up,” Martin says with a deep New Orleans drawl.
The moment shaped Martin’s life as a bluesman by sparking his industrious nature.
“I went to the store with my mother and the clerk threw away a cigar box and I said that’s what I need right there. I’ll make my own guitar so I don’t have to worry about getting no whooping. I cut a little hole in it and painted it black. I didn’t have no strings, so I pulled a few hairs from a horsetail. It made a little bit of sound, so I run back and get more strings from the horse’s tail and then it kicked me, and that broke up that job,” Martin says with a laugh.
Martin’s rural childhood home of McComb, Miss. was eventually replaced with New Orleans, La., and the cigar box guitar of his youth turned into a real acoustic guitar. He taught himself to play by slowing down his record player and imitating the notes, melody and lyrics. Soon, he was playing the club circuit in New Orleans and other parts of the South. Over the years, he toured the US and Europe, where he shared stages with blues luminaries such as John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley.
His stage name comes from another blues artist, “Freddy King.” Because of the similarities in playing styles, Martin’s fans anointed him “Little Freddie King” early in his career.
With the relatively recent death of fellow Mississippi bluesman RL Burnside in 2005, Little Freddie King now is one of last great blues musicians alive; he unwittingly shaped American roots rock music with easy, but melodic, blues tempos as sexy as they are candid and wild. He sings the typical blues tunes about cheating women and unpaid bills but, with songs such as “Crack Head Joe,” the distinctive, gut-bucket, southern-blues sound comes alive.
King is not a household name, but is part of the reason—if not the very reason—why the ninth annual Thirsty Ear Festival is worth the trip.
King’s spot on the bill also signals a return to the Festival’s own roots. Burnside and T Model Ford, who share a similar sound with King, are Thirsty Ear alums. To its credit, Thirsty Ear has contributed greatly to the rediscovery of many forgotten blues artists by hosting them at the Festival throughout its nine-year history.
King recently released a new album, Messin Around Tha House, his fifth studio album overall, but plans to “retire” from performing in November, with the exception of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a yearly gig he’s played for 39 years. So unless you’re planning a trip to New Orleans in the spring, it’s advisable to go see Little Freddie King while you still have the chance.
Other notable Festival acts include Richard Thompson, Buckwheat Zydeco and Junior Brown, plus local groups Hundred Year Flood, Round Mountain and many others. This year’s Festival lineup provides a good sampling of the diversity in Americana music.