PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
November 29, 2005

Travelin' Man

by Jim Newsom

“I always consider myself an entertainer first and a guitar player second.”

Roy Book Binder was on his cell phone, driving his 21-foot camper on the way to his next gig.

“If I could just find a damn wi-fi connection up here in the mountains of Connecticut, I could get some business done!”

The 64-year old acoustic bluesman has been getting business done for a long time now, drawing from a rich repository of country blues, folk songs, ragtime stylings, Tin Pan Alley novelties and old medicine show ditties. It’s been quite a journey for the self-styled “travelin’ man,” the son of a dance-band saxophonist from Queens, New York. And Norfolk has been a recurring destination.

“The first time I was in Norfolk,” he recalled, “I was on the USS Independence on Pier 11, 1962 to ’65. I didn’t know about the folk music scene in Norfolk then, though Bob Zentz had it going. I got out of the Navy in ’65---forty years ago, hard to believe. I did the Old Dominion Folk Festival and I used to do shows at Ramblin’ Conrad’s---I remember one night we sold out three shows at Ramblin’ Conrad’s!

“Sometime about ’74 or ’75, I moved to Norfolk. I lived on Maryland Avenue, about four or five months. Me and the kid who played fiddle with me, Fats Kaplin, decided we should relocate to where we were popular.”

He has quite a fan base locally and he’ll be back Saturday night for a concert at the Virginia Beach Central Library. He’s been on the road since April and this will be his last show of the year.

“Then I go back to my wife’s house and settle down, and work on booking up the season. It’s a lot like being in the carnival business: You go out in the spring, and all winter you work on the act.

“I sold the big Airstream Cruiser and got a 21-foot van/camper that’s got everything in it. It’s got a shower and a toilet and a microwave and a generator, air conditioner, thermostatically controlled heat. It’s manageable and you can park it anywhere. I had to downsize to fit in the wife’s driveway.”

Though he’s remained true to his musical calling, originally inspired by guys like the blind guitarist Reverend Gary Davis and the obscure South Carolina finger picker Pink Anderson, Roy Book Binder did have a run of television fame on TNN. In fact, that’s how he went from “Bookbinder” to “Book Binder.”

“That happened back in the ‘80s,” he explained when asked about the name change. “I started doing Nashville TV---I was on the Ralph Emery Nashville Now show. You know those Nashville country people either have one name or three, so I went with three. They actually made a mistake on the contract and I went with it.

“I didn’t do a damn thing different. I wore baggier pants and suspenders and a bigger hat, but I did the same twelve songs. I got to sit on the couch and chat with people like Chet Atkins, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, June Carter, Boxcar Willie, Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl. And they knew where I was coming from, because what I’m doing is really old-time hillbilly music. I’m not a blues singer in the sense of I don’t do any Robert Johnson songs or B. B. King songs.”

He is a superb guitarist, though, and a wonderful story teller.

“When I started,” he laughed, “I got hired to do a gig and I only knew three songs. So I had to stretch it. I’ve got a few more songs now and a few more stories.”

After more than 35 years traveling across the country and around the world, Roy Book Binder still marvels at the career he’s carved out for himself.

“This Americana thing has never been bigger,” he said. “They really haven’t jumped all over me, but I’m out here and I’m making a living, and I never dreamt anymore than that. I told my young bride that back in the ‘60s I had a dream. I said, ‘I used to dream that I was going around the country making a hundred dollars a week playing the guitar.’ And she said, ‘Well, you’ve done it darling.’

“I couldn’t have dreamt of the successes I’ve had, the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been. It’s been an incredible journey, and it really gets better and better. I’m always thankful that I didn’t have a big hit back in 1974, ‘cause I meet a lot of those people who used to play the big venues and now they’re playing my places and they’re not thrilled.

“Every year is the best year of my life and you can’t dream anything better than that. And all my heroes became my pals, and you can’t beat that either.”

Saturday night he’ll be armed with an arsenal of irresistible tunes and humorous stories about those pals and his lifetime of experiences.

“My greatest joy is to have an audience laugh. I’m not playing to the guitar players in the front row. I’m doing it for their wives and their mothers-in-law and the friends from next door that they dragged to the gig. That’s what it’s all about---if you can make a few people laugh every day, you’ve done your job. And it’s a heck of a good job.”

copyright © 2005 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.