Rooted in the Piney Woods

Photo by Keith Kujath 

Cary Hudson’s roots run deep in the Pine Belt of south Mississippi. Raised in Sumrall with time spent in Jackson and Oxford, he toured extensively before making his way back. It’s here where he’s most at home – both with his life and with his music.

Most days you’ll find Pine Belt musician Cary Hudson at his favorite corner table at Southbound Bagel in downtown Hattiesburg. He may be reading a paper, paying bills by phone, pondering the day’s ‘to-do’ list or having a glass of water while keeping an ear tuned to anything profound those around him might say that will spark a lyric in a future song. 

Although he grew up in Sumrall, Hudson has become partial to this area of downtown Hattiesburg which he finds fascinating.

“I’m always hanging out down here,” he said. “I love this part of town. I enjoy it because I’ve seen places like New Orleans and Oxford become so gentrified that you can’t find a parking spot, or afford a house, so I enjoy downtown as is,” Hudson said. But he would like to see the businesses get more love, especially the restaurants, saying it hurts when good restaurants close because they can’t get the people in the door.

“This is the hub of town and always will be. We will never have this kind of infrastructure, like the Saenger (Theater), out west. I’m not hating on them, just saying...”

Hudson is so into this part of town that he recently bought a small vacant lot on nearby Buschman Street, where he and his tuxedo-colored dog, Elvis, along with the  Airstream he’s renovating may spend time alongside others of the same ilk who would like to see the area revitalized.

It’s here on the corner of Front and Mobile Streets that his grandfather first brought him to the then-California Sandwich Shop. The trains just outside the door remain a constant and are just as loud as ever.

A block or so away, within eye distance of his table, is the 1966 Airstream trailer that’s getting a makeover with the help of some talented friends who know more about electrical, plumbing and carpentry than he does. Elvis serves as his guard dog when Hudson is off running errands. His first dog’s name was Willie, so there’s a definite musical pattern.

“I’m on my second one,” he said, previously having restored a 1972 Airstream. “I initially got into it because I wanted to buy a house in New Orleans to be close to my kid, and realized I’d just waited too late. What I can afford in New Orleans I don’t want, and now I’m at the point, my kid is about to be grown. I have this one house (a cabin on land in Sumrall), so the Airstream is really kind of fun.”

Hudson previously had an Airstream in the middle of downtown New Orleans, but the plan for this one is to be more on the outskirts of town. 

“I’m really not a city guy,” he said.  His new location will be within 25 miles of the Crescent City.  It’s a rough plan; nothing ever goes as planned, but that’s the plan.”

The love for south Mississippi, especially the Piney Woods, is evident in the music Hudson writes and performs, as well as the music he and his friends listen to and that prompted them to start a musical weekend picnic to celebrate such with friends. More on that later.

 

A melody in his heart

Hudson said he’s always been interested in music – whether singing in church at First Baptist Sumrall during his earlier years, taking piano lessons or participating in the Sumrall school band.

As he matured, his music tastes grew more advanced. On the verge of teenagedom, Hudson developed a love for rock ‘n’ roll and on Christmas morning found a 1976 cherry red Les Paul guitar under the tree. It was something Hudson had always wanted. And once he started playing, he never stopped. He loved it that much.

Hudson claims he was a nerdy music kid. As a student, he finished third place in a school talent show with a band of buddies.

“Reading books, being outdoors and playing guitar were my interests,” he said.

He admits there were plenty of solo concerts made while looking at himself in a mirror during those younger days. But much of his time was spent thinking about music and lyrics was as he mowed the grass. “And we had a lot of grass to mow with a push mower,” Hudson said. “I had a lot of time mowing and vacuuming my dad’s drug store. I had that noise going on and the repetitive motion and I always imagined myself on stage.”

After high school, Hudson made his way to Millsaps College in Jackson. 

Like most parents, Hudson’s parents (Porter Jr. and Letitia Hudson) had their own ideas for what they’d like to see their son pursue – a medical field career.

“My whole family is involved in medical stuff,” Hudson said. “My dad and his two brothers are pharmacists and I have 14 cousins who are pharmacists.” A sister is a nurse practitioner and he has other cousins who are doctors, so there was definitely a familial push to do something respectable in the medical field.

He admits that many of his family members are quite musical. His younger sister plays piano in church and Hudson said at Christmas they usually gather around the piano and sing.

 

Off to School

Hudson graduated from Millsaps with his bachelor’s in psychology, as close as he came to the medical field, and found himself at a crossroads about what he wanted to do or where he wanted to go. He decided to take some time off.

During this hiatus, his cousin, Chris, who was living in Oxford, approached Hudson about taking his place in a working band called the HiTops, that he and dormmate John Stirratt formed. Hudson signed on and headed to Oxford thinking he might attend graduate school at Ole Miss and play in the band.

“I only made it through half a half semester because we were so busy,” Hudson said of the band’s playing three nights a week. His time at Millsaps had been challenging and he really didn’t feel like going to school anymore. 

The HiTops became one of the most popular cover bands in the Southeastern Conference playing at the various SEC universities and even Southern Miss. The band was thriving and making lots of money playing frat parties and bars where college kids hung out.

“We spent our time just bouncing around,” Hudson said. “It was super fun. That’s how I spent the first half of my 20s.”

The band members decided to go in a different direction and focus more on writing original songs. During the course of about a year, they lost all of their business in bars and with most of the fraternities, “because that’s not what they wanted to hear,” Hudson said.

The band changed its name from the HiTops to the Hilltops and started touring the eastern United States – as far as Minneapolis, New York and Chicago. 

“This happened over about a four-year period and we morphed from a college cover band to an original band that was touring east of the Mississippi,” said Hudson, who would hang with the group for about four more years during which time they cut an album.

The band broke up and with the demise Hudson started a new band with Stirratt’s, twin sister, Laurie, and drummer Charles David Overton (later replaced by Frank Coutch in 1995).

After the breakup of the Hilltops, John Stirratt briefly joined a Lafayette, La., band before joining Uncle Tupelo in 1992 as bassist/guitarist. In 1994, Stirratt and Tupelo co-frontman Jeff Tweedy formed the seminal Americana band Wilco.

“We had kind of gotten together as men and women will and we had some music things and other things going on and Blue Mountain was born,” Hudson said.

They were performing the same type of original music, self-released an album, then got a record deal with a company in New York. And touring across the country became a 250-day-a-year job.

“We were gone all the time,” Hudson said of their travels across Canada and the U.S. multiple times. “But it was interesting and really exciting. We did three albums with the Road Runner label in New York and we self-released two albums.”

They even ended up with a record deal in Germany and toured Europe.

That lasted about 12 years.

When the band broke up, a tour of England was upcoming, they were touring Canada and things were going great. 

“We never made it really big, but we were almost there, which is honestly where most groups get to. I’ve always thought the Rolling Stones weren’t necessarily the best band, they just kept the band together.

“It was just the relationships were frayed,” he said. “You can wear out anything. You can wear out relationships. In retrospect, if we could have taken some time off and gone back in we might have made it.”

After Blue Mountain parted ways, Hudson started touring on his own with a similar group. And once again, like with the other group, when they lost their brand name, they took a hit.

“It was a little bit discouraging, but business was going pretty good, especially in Europe,” Hudson said.

He met a girl from Hattiesburg while playing at a festival in Monticello and a few months down the road she was pregnant with his daughter, Anna, so Hudson moved his base of operations from Oxford to the Hub City. 

That was about 17 years ago, and since then Hudson has been based out of Hattiesburg.

“I still release albums; my last one was in 2014 and I still tour some, but since my daughter was born, I don’t really. When she was born I’d already been to 48 states, Canada, Mexico and Europe many times.”

While he still enjoys traveling, he wanted a different type of life, so now he mainly plays Mississippi and Louisiana. 

“Any time people offer money, I’ll go anywhere,” he said. “And occasionally I want to go somewhere.”

He spent about three weeks in Colorado last summer and will be spending a month there this summer, because he likes it there. 

“I told myself when Anna graduates high school (next year) that I’m going to go back out, look for a record deal and tour again, but I may not. I’m really happy rooted in Hattiesburg.

Hudson plays New Orleans every week – whether Voodoo Garden, House of Blues or Chickie Wah Wah, as well as around the Pine Belt, Mobile, north Mississippi and other nearby states/locales.

Cary said his daughter, a junior who attends Cabrini, a Catholic girls school in New Orleans, has a lot of musical talent. He’s not sure if she has any ambitions of doing anything with it. “Strangely enough she’s interested in medical things, like my whole family just does that,” he said. “She’s really good in biology.”

But she also enjoys singing and recording with her dad and has participated in the Christmas show he’s done at T-bones for the past two years. Her dad proudly brags about her beautiful voice which has gained her Louisiana State Honors Choir for three years.

“My lifestyle right now is real chilled out, and relaxed, but when you are a young musician, you should be touring 250 days a year because that’s what your competition is doing,” Hudson said. “I don’t necessarily wish that on her. Being gone that long or much isn’t conducive to a home life and normal life. It’s just not. I just want to be a supportive, cool dad. And hope that she doesn’t run up a lot of student loans. That’s my main job.

“I didn’t follow my parents’ wishes necessarily, so I can’t expect her to be any different. She’s a great kid, a great person. I’m just fortunate to have her.” 

As I told her about a year ago, “All I have to do is get you through college and I’ve made it through adulthood without a real job. All the way through.” 

As far as having a normal 8-to-5 job, it’s never been in the cards. Hudson said he’s hit a point in his life, he doesn’t remember when it happened, “but this is what I am and what I do and it’s cool.” 

 

A drawer full of lyrics

Hudson has a method for keeping up with potential lyrics he might use in the future – a series of worn notebooks, one of which he carries with him at all times. He jots down things from time to time, such as experiences along the road.

“If somebody says something that’s funny or something kind of deep and well phrased, I’ll write it down,” Hudson said. “It’s becomes a habit of mine, like little phrases pop into your head. All of us humans feel the same way. We all feel attraction, repulsion with different people, but what you have to have is a phrase that gets that.”

He gave Hank Williams Sr.’s ‘Mind your own business,’ as an example. “That’s a good phrase he heard somebody say or ‘Hey, good lookin.’  We’ve all thought that, “Hey good lookin, what ya got cooking?’”

Hudson considers the drawer full of notebooks he’s gone through as a storehouse of ideas. He doesn’t have any idea how many there have been. He does admit they get a lot of wear and tear. At the beginning of each there’s a list of Hudson’s ‘chores” for the day, which he said normally doesn’t get done. He also jots down business ideas as well as potential lyrics such as ‘Living on the street of dreams, In sweet Ole New Orleans,’ which you’ll hear in one of his songs.

Once the notebook is full, Hudson tears outs the stuff he doesn’t need, with the exception of his lyric ideas, and throws it in a drawer. When it comes time to make a record, he goes to the drawer to peruse these ideas. 

“I think that’s how a lot of songwriters do it,” Hudson said. “Different people have different ways of writing. A lot of people treat it like a job when they sit down for a certain amount of hours a day. I mostly don’t do that.”

Hudson said he writes when he feels the inspiration, learning to prioritize it. 

“When I have an idea, if I can, I will stop and make a voice memo on my phone of the music or if a lyric, write it in my notebook, because it’s important and it may go away,” he said. “I think all of us have those little things we’re not taught to value, so I value that.”

Hudson said there are times when he’s really passionate about a particular song and when that happens, he’s determined to get it written.

“But in general, I don’t want to be in that headspace all the time, because it becomes obsessive, and it’s right brain/left brain, and just not conducive to everyday life to be that way all the time. But when it’s time to do it, I’ll get out the notebooks. It’s not a certain number of hours, it’s more project oriented. It doesn’t matter how many hours it takes, I’m trying to craft a song that I’m happy with.”

 

Mentors

Hudson counts several individuals among his musical mentors.

“I’ve had a few,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate – a great piano teacher, Sarah Mann, a great band director, Mark Chapman and Don Odom as my choir director in church.”

When he moved to Oxford, Hudson said he also found some different types of mentors, which were these old guys playing blues in jook joints out in the country, who were rough around the edges and all the way through. 

Hudson recounts going out to hear these guys and working part-time for a few of them, learning and making money.

Hudson played a few gigs for Bobby Rush and R.L. Burnside, and would go see Junior Kimbrough, Son Thomas and other musicians in North Mississippi. 

Growing up in Sumrall, Hudson learned about country music, classical country, but classic rock is what he studied. But when he went to North Mississippi he learned about the blues from these old guys.

“I consider myself part of a lineage of players that pass along the blues,” Hudson said. “I play a lot of different kinds of music, but I play a particular North Mississippi style of blues. I have a line in a song that talks about going to a jook joint, ‘A sign above the door said no dope smokin’ inside.’ Presumably it was fine in the parking lot, but don’t be smoking dope inside.”

Hudson said mixing church and piano lessons with those jook joint visits and throwing in a little classic rock radio is his musical gumbo.

Instrumentally speaking

While the guitar is Hudson’s main instrument, he still enjoys playing the piano. And he’s been playing it a lot more recently because he’s at the age where he’s running into competitive motion issues with his joints, and the piano provides that needed break.

He admits he enjoyed the piano and lessons until he was about 12 or 13 and started getting into Led Zeppelin. 

“The piano wasn’t cool anymore,” he said. “I wanted something that was shaped like a woman’s body, that I could put in a car and take with me and stand up and pose with.”

But with his Led Zeppelin obsession and the Les Paul guitar he’d received for Christmas, he made a living until he was about 40, then he switched gears and started playing more acoustical music, while sitting in a chair.

“I still play the electric, but so many great guitar players here (in Hattiesburg) are standing up and blasting out lead guitar,” he said. “You guys, you can do that and I can be the old guy sitting in the chair, playing the blues; it feels great.”

While he considers himself to be a guitar player, Hudson also plays the harmonica and likes to dabble with other instruments. “But being a musician, I can play different instruments, but really the guitar is my true love. I’m enthusiastic about it.”

In fact, Hudson was voted as Gibson Guitar’s No. 5 (of 10) alt/country guitarist.

Hudson said it would have been a bigger honor if he had been voted Top 5 alternative or Top 5 country instead of alt/country. 

“Of course, it’s a huge honor,” he said. “That’s what my band was considered – alternative country/Americana. When you look at the other guys in the list it’s a huge honor. To me, my relationship with my guitar is like a paddle and canoe, I don’t consider myself to be very good, at all, but I really love it and I enjoy it. I think if anything comes across when I play, it’s that I really like it. There are guys in this town who can play circles around me on the guitar, but I don’t believe there’s anybody that enjoys it more.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t still have that original guitar that Santa left him under the tree, but he has one just like it. The original was stolen while Hudson was loading out after a performance in Baton Rouge in 1989.

“It was heartbreaking, so I went out and got another one just like it and kept going,” Hudson said.

Hudson isn’t a guitar collector, with only four to his name. “I’m more like a Willie Nelson-type guy,” He said. “I have my guitar at any given time.”

His collection includes the 1976 Gibson Les Paul, a 1937 Epiphone Archtop, a 1973 Martin acoustic guitar and a little travel beach guitar.”

Hudson is a huge fan of Django Reinhardt, the gypsy guitar player, and he’s someone he would have liked to have played guitar with, but admits “if I was to play with him, I wouldn’t have been able to keep up.” There are also some of the old blues guys who have passed along, like Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson, who Hudson would have loved to have performed alongside.

Any dream venues he’d like to play? 

“I’ve played a lot of them,” Hudson said. “But in a business aspect, I’m not that ambitious anymore. While I haven’t played all of the big venues, by any means, I got to play as the opening band in a lot of venues. I played The Troubador (west Hollywood), the Fillmore (San Francisco), Red Rocks (Colorado). We opened for Dwight Yoakam and Willie Nelson there. It’s not that I have no ambitions, but they are more artistic places.”

Hudson enjoys playing the Saenger Theater here in town and he’s happy to play in Hattiesburg, whether Blue Jazz, The Hippo or elsewhere.

The first song Hudson remembers that got his attention outside of the church was “Heartbreak Hotel” by fellow Mississippian Elvis Presley.

“I remember being a kid about 10 years old and hearing Heartbreak Hotel and it was so weird,” Hudson said. “When you’re 10 years old you’ve never experienced romance or heartbreak, but I could feel it. It was like, I’m 10 years old and I feel like I’m in a Heartbreak Hotel; I don’t know why. I feel like I’m on lonely street and I was actually having a great childhood.”

 

Partnering

Hattiesburger Katrina Miller has become Hudson’s most consistent music playing partner during the course of the last several years.

“We have a great partnership that’s really cool,” Hudson said. “We’ve been doing this for six or seven years and are planning on making a record this year, which is overdue.”

As a busy Realtor, a wife and mother to three children, Hudson and Miller don’t really go out and tour. The duo will be playing in Arkansas pretty soon and have been to Chattanooga and Nashville.

“I think they (the Millers) do a good job balancing family life and playing music and I try to be sensitive to the fact that they have a family, but she’s great,” Hudson said.

When Hudson’s dad first saw the two playing together he thought his son had only hired her because she was so pretty. But Hudson said it was actually Miller who approached him about playing.

“She a really good musician and I’ve played with a lot of fiddle players; it’s my favorite instrument other than the guitar,” he said. “I tried to play it for a while, but Katrina’s just my favorite. She can play classical and bluegrass-influenced music.”

Miller is also learning to play blues under Hudson’s tutelage and he said she’s getting it

Cary, his daughter, Anna, and Katrina have recorded eight songs for a Christmas album, which Hudson hopes to have ready for next year. He’s also writing songs for an album for he and Katrina, so he hopes that within the next year and a half to have a couple of more albums to release.

And while recognition is nice, Hudson said it’s not something he has to have.

“I think the one thing that makes me feel good about my life is that I don’t at this point need a big truck or the spotlight constantly,” he said. “I don’t need a lot of attention; I’ve kind of gotten my share and that feels good.” 

Hudson has been performing about 150 times a year. He’s slowed things down as he focuses on getting the Airstream finished.

“I’ve tried to consciously bring it down to about 100 a year, but I have other things that I need to be doing. I’m just managing,” he said. “I have 12 albums that I’ve released and you have to manage that just like you manage real property. You need to also manage your intellectual property and I’ve done a poor job. I was beating myself up a couple of weeks about what a poor business person I am and then I was like, ‘Well, business has been open for more than 30 years, so you’re doing something right.’ I patted myself on the back and got up and went on about my business.”

 

No END IN SIGHT

Hudson’s most prized possessions (outside of his treasured relationships) are his guitars and his cabin in Sumrall close to the Bouie River. He and his dad built it about 15 years ago and Hudson finds it a peaceful place to write music. “It’s dear to my heart,” he said and something he looks forward to passing down to his daughter one of these days.

There’s no end in sight for Hudson, who admits, “Musicians don’t quit. I mean we don’t quit even when we should. I have a lot of esteem for BB King, who Blue Mountain had the opportunity to open for at Ole Miss and it was a true honor.

“I don’t ever see myself stopping playing music, but I go through phases where if I had a record deal and was making money again, I’d certainly go tour. I’m passionate about music and writing, but as far as traveling, I’m pretty happy doing what I do, being a regional musician. I don’t ever see myself stopping that. And New Orleans, in particular, is a place that embraces the idea that music is not just for kids in their 20s. You can be a grownup and an elder statesman, and they honor it. And to an extent, Mississippi does. 

“I love Mississippi and write all my songs about it. I think sometimes we don’t appreciate some of the things we have. But I mean I’m sitting here, I choose to live here. I’m not rich or famous, but I make a nice living and do what I want to. I’m definitely artistically ambitious. I write songs, I write music, but I’m not as ambitious in a business sense as I once was. At 55, I take things as they come rather than running out there trying to get them.”a

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