Standing in the Crossroads
Standing on the Rib Room’s stage in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Chris Cameron, ‘99, teases his guitar until it wails with recalled pain from the soft weeping of sorrow to the gut stabs that cannot be borne. In his suit jacket and button-down shirt with his scruffy beard and glasses, he resembles a professor more than a musician. He throws his head back, letting the guitar speak of the agony in blues, giving voice to what cannot be spoken in words. The pain forces its way into the room’s corners and cracks, mining its depths.
Counting the costs
There comes a time when decisions must be made.
Cameron weighed the cost and benefits of whether to pursue his childhood dream of playing the blues or a steadier career in business. He’d won the International Blues Challenge and the Albert King Award for Most Promising International Blues Guitarist at age 18 in 1997. He performed with Bonnie Raitt, Tab Benoit and other blues greats. He had the skills. He had the passion. But he knew there would be an accounting.
In 2000, Cameron stumbled into a dirty hotel room with suspect sheets after singing afternoon matinees and evening shows Wednesday through Saturday. Come Sunday, his weary voice graveled with hoarseness. A pocketful of cash from the tour proved he could make a living as a blues singer. But he knew there would be a cost.
A few years later, Cameron drove to his house to pick up a guitar and an amp for his friend, a well-known bluesman, to use. The friend once had everything, including his own line of guitars. But he lost all after his record label sued him for not fulfilling his contract when he became ill. Cameron understood the cost for chasing the blues.
In 2004, Cameron stood in line at an Austin, Texas, club to buy a CD from blues piano great Pinetop Perkins, who at the end of everything was trying to make a little money for another day of food and a roof over his head. Cameron knew he could make it as a blues musician. But he knew that there’d be a cost.
“You can be famous in the blues circle, die and nobody knows who you are. Even in blues, when you make it, there’s no money,” he said.
Floyd Cameron, Chris’ father, feared that his son would give up his education and scholarship to Westark Community College to chase the blues.
“It’s your ace in the hole,” Floyd said in advising Chris to pursue his studies.
Chris made his choice. He enrolled at Westark pursuing his associate degree while playing everywhere he could, including the Fort Smith Riverfront Blues Festival. He earned his bachelor’s degree in business through the University Center, began a career in sales, then went after his MBA. He wanted the security of health insurance and retirement followed by the daily return to a house filled with family and a bed with clean sheets.
“Some kids are predisposed to be wanderers. I’m not,” he said.
Developing the blues
Chris wasn’t passionate about football like his brothers who would go on to play in college. He wandered from activity to activity until the guitar caught his attention at 12 years old.
Floyd thought his son would pluck at the borrowed guitar for a week before leaving it behind in the detritus of youth. But Chris continued to strum and pick then learned chords and more from an old country music picker. Watching their son’s interest grow into passion, Floyd and his wife decided to buy Chris a guitar. A family friend retrieved a red Stratocaster from under a bed and offered to sell it. Floyd arranged a weekly installment plan and sold his hunting dogs to raise the down payment.
“I got rid of some of the best rabbit hunting dogs in the state of Arkansas,” Floyd said.
But Floyd watched his son’s passion turn into fervor when an Englishman awakened Chris to music that would cause him to debate his future. He found Eric Clapton when he turned on VH1 after cable television arrived in his hometown of Alma, Ark.. He watched video after video showing Clapton’s hands creating magical music on the guitar. Clapton’s mention of his influences such as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and other bluesmen sent Chris and his family on five-hour drives to Memphis to visit music stores and find that soul grinding music. On one music expedition, he discovered the complete recordings of Robert Johnson.
“That music changed my life,” Chris said.
As a 16-year-old driving around with his friends in his green ’68 Mustang, he’d pop in that cassette and listen as Johnson played his way through “Crossroad Blues,” “Love in Vain” and “Walkin’ Blues.” Grunge music ruled the airwaves in the 1990s, but in Chris’ life he only had ears for the blues. His friends knew not to ask to listen to anything else.
Blending dark and light
A full band and six backup singers join Cameron on stage and light filters into the darkness. The bar becomes a church as one of the backup singers raises her full, warm voice and reminds all that, “You can’t hurry God.” Audience members raise their hands in witness. Cameron in his suit and slicked back brown hair, sways, his head tilted back and his mouth open, lost in the song. The bar crowd becomes a congregation of faithful believers that he leads in singing “I will sing hallelujah, I will sing O Lord.”
Even as Chris sought to emulate the darkness in the blues, he also flew to the light of the gospel music he’d hear on Sundays when his parents took him to Fort Smith’s predominantly black Northside Church of God in Christ. “It’s just a gift of God Chris has on his music,” Floyd said. “None of us can even sing.” In the church, Chris listened as the pastor riffed on guitar, the vocalists harmonized together to move songs forward. He felt at home.
“Everybody there treated us like we’re family,” he said.
Now, in his music, he mixes the dark with the light. In June, in back-to-back concerts he played old blues songs by Etta James, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry on Friday and on Saturday he chased those blues away with the gospel’s light.
Times may be hard leaving hearts in shards and the pain pounding to unloose its wail from that soul wounding blast. That is the essence of the blues. In a tweet to his followers, Chris wrote, “Singing the blues feels like confession. I can tell the world about a heart that’s breaking, without anyone suspecting it’s mine.” Gospel bathes a balm on the soul reminding it that if Jesus’ eye is on the sparrow, then he’s got his eye on each person. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson spoke of this when she said, “Blues are the songs of despair, but gospel songs are the songs of hope.”
At the crossroads
Chris now plays what he wants to play, with whom he wants to play it.
A job as a corporate salesman for Goodyear took him around the United States and brought him back to Fort Smith, Ark. He reformed his band. As the band played, a new idea emerged, one that capitalized on his investment in music and family.
With the eye of a businessman, he formed informal focus groups to ask them about how and where they wanted to listen to music. He found people wanted small venues, music at non-deafening levels with bands that played earlier in the evening instead of until the wee hours of the morning. He discovered people would pay.
The Founders’ Room opened on Sept. 27, 2014.
Named for his parents, the founders of the family and supporters of his music, Chris built the music joint north of Alma. He worked with his brother, Glenn, a journeyman electrician, and his father, to remodel a house into a club. His mom, Sharon, cooks the homey meals served to the music-loving customers. Chris sees The Founders’ Room as a hybrid offering good food and service, but focuses on local, regional and national performances.
“For God’s sake, if we don’t get anything else right, we should get the music right,” he said.
Chris plans to continue performing with his band in the River Valley and in the region, but this merger of business and music that has taken root means new possibilities blossoming.
“I think this is the future for me,” he said.
Chris awakens in the bedroom of his Fort Smith home that he shares with his wife, Emily, and two elementary-school age children, Audrey and Jackson. He sees the red Strat that his parents bought leaning against the fireplace. Rising, he settles on the hearth, reaches for the guitar and begins to strum the strings. Without thinking he plays the lessons learned from bluesman Sherman Robertson who saw music as having living, breathing parts.
“What are you thinking about when you’re playing?” Robertson asked him.
“I’m thinking about the notes,” Chris replied.
“Don’t be in the moment. Be in the song.”
Years later in his bedroom, Chris dwells in the song. He bends the notes, infusing them with the morning light.