By Drew Lyon Special to The Free Press
The Mankato Free Press
---- — Bluesman Don Scott often sings other people's songs, some as old as the blues itself. But suggest that he sings "covers," and Scott is compelled to correct the record with polite firmness.
"'Covers,' to me, gives the music a bad connotation," he said. "It's our version, our rendition of the song. Like, guys I've played with in the past would ask, 'Do you do it this way?'
"No, I don't it that way; I do it my way. Let's do it a little different, other than just copying the song."
Aching to hear another take on "Smoke on the Water" or "Margaritaville" for the millionth time? Don Scott is not your bag. Dig foot-stomping acoustic blues coupled with suggestive, world-weary lyrics? After more than 40 years practicing what he preaches, Don Scott is your mojo man.
"At most (booking) agencies, you had to play 'Smoke on the Water' to be at the agency," Scott said of a period in the 1970s when he was leading the Dust Bowl Blues Band. "I refused. I played what I wanted to play."
Saturday, Scott returns to the river town where he lived throughout the 1970s when he unites with his latest collaborator, Twin Cities harmonica player Curtis Blake, for a performance at the fifth annual Blues on Belgrade in lower North Mankato.
"I still have a lot of friends here," Scott said in a June interview before an acoustic show at the Wine Cafe with Ron Arsenault and Tom "Footy" Husting, two cohorts from his Mankato heyday. "There's a lot of talent here, still a core of people here that haven't gone to the other side yet."
Scott was born and raised in Chatfield in southeastern Minnesota. He first arrived in Mankato in 1965, spending most of his days "drinking beer and playing poker" before leaving to enroll at a junior college in Rochester. It was 1966, and like many of his peers, Scott had other immediate worries on his mind besides academics.
"Rochester was not a good thing for me," he said. "I just quit going to class. I kind of knew in the back of my mind that I'd probably get drafted (in the Army). And that's what happened."
Scott was deployed to Vietnam in 1967, and remained there for more than four months. The day after his 21st birthday, while serving in the war, Scott's life changed forever.
"I got burned on 60 percent of my body," he said. "I went through all that, but never doubted that I would survive, even with the seriousness of the whole thing."
Scott recouped in the hospital for two months, and found solace in his stereo and a John Lee Hooker record. Scott continued his recovery at home before receiving deflating news: He was being sent back to active duty in Fort Knox, Ky.
After "nine months of hell" in Fort Knox, Scott had finally completed his military commitments, and spent time with his sister in Riverside, Calif. before giving Mankato a second chance in summer 1969.
"Being that close to death," he said, "I started living as fast as I could."
Living the blues
Scott first memories of blues music were heard from his sister's record collection. The album that stood out the most, a folk blues compilation (featuring Leadbelly, Josh White and Big Bill Broonzy) called "Three of a Kind," Scott still owns today. During sojourns in California, Scott frequented a local record shop, consuming the latest rock 'n' roll and blues albums.
"I was a big (Rolling) Stones fan," he said. "I was into Taj Mahal, Fleetwood Mac, The Animals. And like all the other kids, I started wondering who's writing all these songs — Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, those guys."
Inspired by Bob Dylan, Scott first strummed a guitar as a teenager, but it wasn't until he moved back to Mankato that he began pursuing the craft in earnest.
"I just gravitated towards the blues," he said. "It hit me on the head."
Scott met a friend at Mankato State, Mike Nelson, who possessed a similar record collection. They found a bassist and a drummer — "because he had a car," Scott says — and formed the Dust Bowl Blues Band.
"In the mid-'70s to late-'70s, we had our Square Deal crowd, and they followed us everywhere," he said. "It was a special time, with a lot of helpful players. We didn't get the lucrative gigs, but at the same token, we played the music we wanted to play."
The Dust Bowl differed from its contemporaries on the 1970s Mankato music scene, Scott says. Other bands might've devoted a song or two a night to the blues, but Scott's outfit was all blues, raw and unadulterated.
"We pretty much educated people around here," he said. "We really pounded them over the head with blues until they thought, 'Oh, this isn't too bad.' After they starting listening and listening to us more, a lot of them liked it."
Scott is candid in describing his condition during that era; he freely admits he was burning both ends of the candle.
"You have to understand," he said, "that after I got out of the army, from '69 to '84, I was drunk, stoned and high every day. Every day. I just learned to play loaded."
Tired after a decade playing smoky bars to declining audiences, Scott left Mankato and moved to Minneapolis in 1982, and started working for his father. Scott was still playing and recording with the Dust Bowl, but a health scare in 1984 led to lifestyle changes.
"I quit drinking for 15 years because my body was telling me I had to stop," he said. "When I sobered up, my guitar playing progressed leaps and bounds immediately, but not without many hours of practice."
After a divorce in 1995, Scott released his first solo acoustic album, "Highway 52," in 1997. Fed up with Minnesota winters, Scott then disbanded the Dust Bowl, bought an RV and hit the road, to Arizona, Los Angeles, New Orleans, North Carolina and Mexico.
"After being burned, I just hate being cold," said Scott, who still spends winters in warmer locales. "I wanted to travel around, too."
In 2008, Scott moved back "out in the sticks" to Chatfield, renewed musical partnerships and started a new one.
He met Curtis Blake in 2011 after Scott played a solo show at the 311 Club in Minneapolis. Within a month, they were blues partners.
"What he wanted to do was what I wanted to do," Scott said. "That acoustic Sonny Terry-Brownie McGee (a legendary folk blues duo) thing. ... Curtis is probably the best harmonica player I've played with."
Scott and Blake recorded a CD, "Sure Thing," which was named "Best Self-Produced CD" by the Minnesota Blues Society. The set features versions — not covers — of standards like "St. James Infirmary," "It Hurts Me Too" and "Basin Street Blues." Scott says he most proud of his original composition, "J.P. Morgan, Citibank, Wells Fargo," a defiant middle finger to the banking industry.
"Yeah, that one pretty much wrote itself," he said. "We do that one quite a bit, and it always gets a reaction."
With blues local festivals like Blues on Belgrade becoming more prevalent, Scott no longer has to educate his audience on the nuances of the music.
"The blues are never going to be popular," he said, "You won't hear it much on the radio. But it's never going away, either. It's always there."
His uncompromising ethos prevailed in the long run. Don Scott still plays what he wants to play, the way he wants to play it.
And he can't remember the last time he was asked to play "Smoke on the Water."
If You Go What: Blues on Belgrade Where: Along Belgrade Avenue in North Mankato Admission: Free, but free will offerings accepted Notes: No glass containers allowed Music lineup Noon -- Echoes 1:30 p.m. -- Don Scott and Curtis Blake 3:30 p.m. -- Barefoot Winos 5:30 p. -- City Mouse All-Stars 7:30 p.m. -- Funktion Junktion 9:30 p.m. -- Smokin' Joe Kubek & Bnois King