The demonic outback blues of C.W. Stoneking

The adjectives flow like sand pouring out of a boot when it comes to describing the music of C.W. Stoneking. The first thing you notice is the last thing you can forget, and that’s his voice, an amalgam of vocals that would get booted in the opening round of “American Idol,” and I mean that in the good sense: Tom Waits, of course, and Pops Armstrong, with some Leons Redbone and Russell and the Rolling Thunder-era Dylan.

And of course the Devil, the one you sell your soul to, the demonic part of the performer, even though he usually appears dressed all in white except for a flashy bowtie. Not palpable evil, rather more of Satan’s sassier side, putting out just enough hoodoo that you may opt to cross the street if he was walking toward you.

It’s a perfect blending for the blues, and Stoneking, who appears Saturday night at Shannon’s At the Top, is, at base, a blues musician. But it’s blues that has been twisted and reformulated by a lot of influences, perhaps chiefly the fact that he grew up in Katherine, a small town in the desolate Northern Territory of Australia.

It was no shrimp-on-the-barbie Australia, and it was an isolated area that certainly had an effect on Stoneking’s music. In “Early in the Mornin’” he sings:

Lord, that dirt road long…empty

The fields, dark at night

Ain’t nothin’ for a person to do

Tween dusk and the break o’ daylight

“I sort of lived in a bubble when I was growing up,” he says. His late father, the American poet and playwright Billy Marshall Stoneking wound up in Australia, joking once that he saw the conservative bumper sticker, “America, Love It or Leave It,” and “So I left.”

“I learned a lot about blues from reading books, and when I was young, CDs were coming out, so everything was getting reissued,” says Stoneking. “So I knew from my reading what kinds of things to go out and look for. And, my dad had lots of old rock and roll records and doo-wop.”

Stoneking plays an array of guitars, both acoustic and electric, though he’s partial to a 1931 National Duolian Dobro.

“I got my first guitar when I was 11,” he says. “I was off on summer vacation and my mom said she had one out in a shed, so I got it and started teaching myself music. We had some music books layin’ around with chord charts, and I learned by playing along with records.”

Stoneking’s love of an eclectic selection of genres has resulted in a unique sound, a blues of a different hue. The patchwork of influences has worked itself into his sound over the course of his career, which includes three albums — “King Hokum,” “Jungle Blues” and “Gon’ Boogaloo” — and a shelf full of Australian music awards.

While he moved around his home country during his youth — “I lived in the desert in Central Australia for a while, I lived in Sydney for a while, and England for a bit” — he brought early Calypso and Caribbean music into his musical arsenal. “Once I start to make a record, I start trying different sounds,” he says.

While Stoneking often is accompanied by a band, with a New Orleans vibe, on his current tour he is playing solo. His opening act is Nashville musician Sierra Ferrell. His show starts at 7 p.m. at At the Top, 201 Pine Ave. Tickets are $45-$20, and you can buy them here.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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