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Terry Robb: Redefining American Primitivism
Because American primitivism, a transitional style that ranges between country blues and early 20th century string-band music, is often nuanced by dissonance and minor tunings, it is sometimes considered esoteric and obscure, appealing only to a musically intellectual elite. But Robb has distinguished himself by redefining this complex finger-picking style, using popular and traditional genres to open up and make this approach accessible to the general music-loving public.
Robb is that rare talent, a musician’s musician and an enormously popular performer. Onstage, his fleet fingers, wry humor, and intense focus mesmerize audiences. The passionate artistry of a Terry Robb event – whether a solo acoustic performance or a high-energy show with his electric band – often leaves new and longtime fans with mouths agape.
With the release in 2005 of his critically-acclaimed solo album,
Resting Place, recorded for Memphis’ renowned Yellow Dog Records label,
Robb has increasingly gained national attention. In his music-savvy
hometown of Portland, Oregon, Robb is a celebrity in high demand as a
performing and studio guitarist, and as a bandleader, composer,
arranger, producer, and teacher. With years of real-world musical
experience in his gig-bag, Robb brings this expertise to his most recent
role as head of the Northwest’s new recording label, PsycheDelta
Terry Robb began his career in Portland as a hot-shot guitar-slinger who could play any style of music and excel at them all. At an early age, inspired by his uncle, a professional swing guitarist, Robb immersed himself in all the blues, ragtime, folk, jazz, and country music he could lay his guitar-picking fingers on. In college, he studied music theory with the Czechoslovakian modern classical composer Tomas Svoboda; but once classes ended, Robb hit the road with Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart alumnus Ramblin’ Rex Jakabosky, who taught him new theories: the ropes of the Northwest club scene.
In the early 1980s, he struck up a friendship with the legendary Fahey, who soon asked Robb to play on and produce several of his recordings, including the extraordinary Let Go, cited by Kurt Loder of Rolling Stone as one of the top three releases of 1983 – right alongside Prince’s Purple Rain and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. Throughout the decade, Robb and Fahey collaborated on several albums, including Time God Casualty and Old Girlfriends and Other Horrible Memories.
The 1990s found Robb focusing on his own career and collaborating with fellow Oregonian Curtis Salgado on Hit It and Quit It. During this time Robb embarked on a series of national tours with stellar musicians including Buddy Guy and rocker Steve Miller, concluding the run with an appearance on the Conan O’Brien Show. In the studio, he contributed to a number of Grammy and Emmy award-winning projects, including producing a song for the Robert Redford blockbuster The Horse Whisperer, and later producing a W.C. Handy-nominated album for blues-woman Sheila Wilcoxson.
In 1994, Robb signed a contract with the Burnside label, where he made his musical home for nearly a decade, releasing both acoustic (Heart Made of Steel and When I Play My Blues Guitar rank as two of his best) and stinging electric blues albums.
Along the way, Robb’s reputation grew. As he began cultivating an original style that combined traditional blues elements with more eccentric licks drawn from the jazz world – a la guitar greats Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang – he developed a strong following of fans and protégés, as well as critical acclaim. To date Robb has won the Cascade Blues Association’s prestigious “Muddy Award” a record thirty times as best acoustic guitarist, as well as awards for best traditional act and best record. These awards have led to his induction into the CBA’s Hall of Fame. In 2009 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. His prestige has earned him offers to perform with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. His longtime collaboration with Doug Smith and Mark Hansen as the Acoustic Guitar Summit continues to be a favorite among finger-style enthusiasts.
A capable teacher in his own right, Robb began teaching acoustic guitar workshops at festivals like the Port Townsend Country Blues Festival and producing instructional videos for Stefan Grossman’s Vestapol series, before eventually opening his own Terry Robb Northwest School of Acoustic Guitar in 2001. Several of his students have gone on to successful careers in music. He continues to be a popular teacher at guitar workshops and festivals around the country.
After dominating the Pacific Northwest blues scene, Robb began seeking out new challenges. In 2004, he departed Burnside, landing at Memphis-based Yellow Dog Records. For Resting Place he worked with renowned engineer Roland Janes – who has recorded giants like Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner, and Billy Lee Riley – at Sam Phillips’ Recording Studio, located just around the corner from Phillips’ original Memphis studio, Sun Records. A group of crackerjack musicians backed him, including Stax alumnus Willie Hall (drums), contemporary Beale Streeter Charlie Wood (piano), and North Mississippi All-Star Paul Taylor (bass).
Today Robb is a dynamic solo performer, leader of the electric Terry Robb Band, sought-after producer of high-quality recording projects. In 2008, Terry founded his own record label, PsycheDelta Records, the first release being the popular 'Sista' album by the legendary Linda Hornbuckle and Janice Scroggins. His electric band has been performing regularly around the region, opening for Lemmy Kilmister (Motorhead), Slim Jim Phantom (Stray Cats), and Robert Cray. In 2009, Terry toured Northern Canada with Yukon blues singer Barbara Chamberlain and headlined the Vallamaggia Magic Blues Festival in Switzerland, playing along side the likes of Rick Wakeman. Terry returns to the Vallemaggia Magic Blues Festival in July 2011 where he will be joined by Barbara Chamberlin. The duo will also head to Germany where they will play several shows before returning home.
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