Sweet sweet blues with Sugarcane

"I'm always on the road," Sugarcane said. "I'm touring the east coast at the moment then I'm back home to Cairns. After that I'm off to the US for my seventh or eighth tour there. And when it comes to living the blues dream, it doesn't get any better than going to the US."

Sugarcane is inspired by the early bluesmen, the players who created the very form of the blues which was the folk music of the African Americans who worked the fields. The Mississippi Delta region is his spiritual homeland.

"When I played in Clarksdale, home of Muddy Waters, I did some songs there to some African Americans and they said to me afterwards, 'Sugarcane, you got something going on.' Even though I've won plenty of awards that's the greatest plaudit I ever received.

"I have a well worn circuit in the States. And I always fly in and out of New Orleans. I love that place. The New Orleans airport is called the Louis Armstrong airport and when you arrive they're playing Louis Armstrong. You can go shopping and hear some fantastic music just pumping through the system. They love their music and they respect their music culture."

Sugarcane, who was born to a dairy farmer in Gippsland, Victoria, moved to Cairns in 1978 as soon as he could reach the accelerator. That's where he became a musician.

"I did my first gig in 1981 as a solo player," he said. "It took me some time to realise that that was what I'm here on the planet to do. Sing songs."

For a while the music scene in Cairns was a very healthy one - as it was all around Australia. Sugracane got plenty of work in Cairns working solo and with a six-piece band. But then things changed. Sugarcane hit the road and for the last 11 years he's been doing gigs all over this wide, blue land and beyond.

"I load up the Landcruiser with my guitars, lights, PA, swag, t-shirts… I love it. It's in the ethos of the blues," Sugarcane said. "The old time blues fellas, whom I admire, used to jump freight trains and take their blues across the country. I don't jump freight trains but travelling is part of living the dream."

Sugarcane plays acoustic guitars. The early players didn't have electric guitars of course and that's the way Sugarcane likes it.

"The early blues players played on acoustic instruments," he said. "I have a two guitar attack. I use a nylon string in classical tuning and an open-tuned steel string. I use my fingers, no pick. All the old guys used finger-style. Muddy Waters once said, 'You can't play no blues with no pick'."

And Sugarcane keeps it simple.

"I use no gizmos, or gadgets, just authentic grooves, voice and guitar. I don't need them. Anyway, I couldn't stamp my foot in time to save myself."

Apart from extensively touring Australia and the US, Sugarcane Collins has also taken his blues to Turkey and Argentina.

"I went to Argentina back in 2009. I got a gig in Buenos Aires through a DJ that'd been playing my songs. I played at the Mr Jones club. They still smoke in the bars and clubs over there. So the club was smoky, drinky and rowdy - a real blues club the way it's supposed to be. I found out I was the first Australian to play blues in Argentina."

Sugarcane's show is all about the blues but he's not afraid to raise issues.

"I'm not frightened to make comments. I do a song called Pascoe River (a river in North Queensland) where I make some comments about the situation of Indigenous people. I make comments about the way we're destroying out planet Earth. I see it as part of my job. I travel the world and I see what we're doing to the planet. Every river is polluted and turned into a drain. We're arrogantly destroying the place that gives us our life. But I just throw these ideas in for consideration. I don't preach."

Sugarcane has released three solo albums. His latest, Way Down The River, won a huge response in America. It's set in the Mississippi Delta of the 20s and 30s.

"They can't believe a boy from Cairns can sound like a Delta bluesman. But if that album was about where the blues began, my next album due for release this year is a bit more Australian - but still the blues."

Sugarcane Collins will play Ballina RSL Club this Friday, February 3, from 7.30pm; the Nimbin Hotel this Sunday, February 5, from 4pm; and Lennox Point Hotel on Sunday, February 12, from 4pm.

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