Corey Stevens is the consummate hard-working axman. He always aims to play every song better than he's ever played it before, he tries to give every fan his money's worth, and ... he strives to have the most impeccable yard in his Los Angeles neighborhood.
"I'm obsessed with working around the house," the blues singer said in a recent phone conversation. "I have a huge house and it's like a full-time job. I love manual labor, mixing dirt, pouring cement. It gets the endorphins flowing and helps you sleep better. I'm in my 40s and it's a challenge to stay on top. If I don't play my best, I feel horrible. So I try to stay in shape."
Stevens will play with his band at about 10:15 p.m. May 1 after an opening act at the Blue Ox Bar in Brainerd. Stevens' work ethic has been honed over the course of four studio albums; the latest, "Bring on the Blues," will be released June 10. But he learned the value of hard work and perseverance at an early age, growing up in Centralia, Ill.
"My parents drilled into me the idea that this is the greatest country in the world to live in," he said. "I loved being where I was."
As a youngster, Stevens bought LPs by the Beatles and Chuck Berry. But as a teen-ager, he switched to albums by Mick Taylor, the Allman Brothers, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix.
If you go
Who: Corey Stevens and his band with an opening act
When: 9 p.m. May 1 (opening act plays first)
Where: Blue Ox Bar
Web sites: www.coreystevens.com, www.theblueoxrocks.com
"I had good taste as a kid," Stevens said with a laugh.
After studying music at Southern Illinois University, Stevens knew he had to go to the big city to make it in music, so he moved to L.A. in the 1980s. But before the record labels came knocking, he had a little detour as a third-grade teacher.
"It really inspired me to become more organized and professional," Stevens said. "Going from being a street musician to a teacher, you develop finesse in how you talk. It gives structure to your life, getting up at 7 in the morning and having the responsibilities. Of course, I still played music, so it was a balancing act.
"Some people think there's a lot of glory in the image of the starving artist, but I think it bogs you down. I felt freed, not having to worry about money anymore."
In today's climate, hard work is crucial if blues artists want to be so much as a blip on the radar. Only two percent of radio stations in the country have a blues format.
"What is mainstream? Who decides what qualifies as mainstream?" Stevens said. "I look at music on the radio and TV and I'll tell you, I don't see a lot I like. A lot of the singers, they're just girls with great bodies. And I'm a guy, so I watch it. But the environment is not conducive to breaking in as a blues artist."
However, the upper Midwest is a little more inviting than Hollywood, Stevens said. Minnesota is like a home away from home for the blues man. He'll make his first appearance at Moondance Jam near Walker in July and return to the Fargo Blues Festival in August. The Twin Cities, where his Midwest tour manager is based, has especially impressed Stevens.
"They really support live music like no other place," he said. "The Twin Cities is one of my best markets. I have many friends in the Twin Cities, and all they talk about is (local) music. It goes against the grain of what the record companies think.
"Blues is really popular with a lot of people. They'll hear a familiar riff and the place goes nuts. Blues is the prototype of a lot of music. There's blues in everything."
(Next Thursday: In Part 2 of our interview, Stevens recounts the record label dispute that made his new album into his most angry and cathartic yet.)
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