By Robin Alberti
Clay Canfield plays both kinds of music: country and western. He sings the blues and he knows how to rock and he knows how to roll; and he’s been rocking and rolling around this country for 60-plus years. You can catch Canfield and his longtime friend Pat Navarre every Sunday night at 8:30 p.m. at Outback Pizza in Killington and every Monday night at 7 p.m. at the Clear River Tavern in Pittsfield. Those are his regular gigs but he also performs with his band, The Big Heart, whenever he can.
I had the utmost pleasure of speaking with Canfield this past Sunday night before he performed with his band at the Jack Daniel’s party at the Outback. We spoke for 45 minutes, but I could have listened to him for hours. He had some great stories of his life on the road; these are just a few.
Before I get to those great stories, I want to tell you a little bit about the band, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and are all super talented. Navarre rips on the electric guitar. Canfield strums the acoustic beautifully and adds in harmonica. Ron, the drummer, was rocking out and kept the beat going all night long. The crowd was shouting out requests and Canfield played them all. It was a great mix of tunes that included Johnny Cash, Elvis (or as Canfield said, “Skinny Elvis,”) Marshall Tucker and so many more! The stories did not stop with the interview; Canfield was telling entertaining stories from the stage, too.
Canfield has been playing music since he was 14 years old. He says, “I was fortunate enough to grow up during a time that was the golden age of music in America. I play American music and I play a lot of stuff that goes all the way from the Delmore Brothers to Jimi Hendrix. That’s a big stretch. When I play with my boys, Pat, Ron and my brother John, I pull stuff out that they’ve never heard before. It keeps them on their toes. They wouldn’t be playing with me if they couldn’t do it. I just call the key and we do it. That’s from living in Nashville for like 22 years, playing on Broadway and doing 325 four-hour shows a year and doing road work on top of all that. What people can expect is the world of music. The biggest problem we have is I don’t get to do all the songs that we know. I play three or four weeks without repeating a song, that’s a hard deal. It breaks my heart.”
Canfield grew up in Hancock, Vt. He talks about it and says, “I grew up at a time that we didn’t have a car, we had a horse and wagon. It took us four hours to get to Rochester and that’s four miles away. That’s an eight hour drive to get groceries.” He lived there until he was 12 and then moved to Wichita, Kan., where his mother was from. “It was like culture shock. I was going to a two-room schoolhouse and all of a sudden there was 900 children. I didn’t say a word for about six months. I’ve always been real shy, I still am.” You would not expect to hear that if you spoke to him. He is very personable.
Kansas is where he started to play music. His grandfather was a concert cellist and he grew up with music all his life. His mom and dad liked Josh White and they had a double album of his and as Canfield says, “I wore that sucker out.” He told his father that he would like to get a guitar and eventually he was given a Stella guitar and he had that for years and years. After a while he got himself a Gibson J50 guitar. “That was the moon and the stars,” he remembers.
After graduating high school, he moved to Greenwich Village in New York City in 1966. “I got on a bus and this was a big adventure, a really big adventure. I got off the bus at Port Authority and looked up at those buildings until my cowboy hat fell off. I asked the first friendly guy I saw where Greenwich Village was and he just pointed. So I was on my way. I had no idea how far it was and it was 80 blocks. I asked people along the way and they just kept pointing. About six blocks out I recognized the Washington Square arch. I asked a guy playing guitar if he knew where Gerdes Folk City is and he just pointed. I thought, damn, I thought people talked around here?”
He got to Gerdes and signed up for an open mic and then found out his slot didn’t start until 2:30 a.m. He was eighteen, tenacious and thought that was perfect. “I got back there just as they were kicking it off and I saw every guitar player in town. Some of them were really pitiful and some were really good. So after everyone cleared out they called my name. I played my three songs and when I was halfway through the second one I thought to myself that this was the sorriest thing I had ever done. Little did I know there would be sorrier. After I finished I was walking out and a little old man followed me out and offered me a job. I asked doing what and he said what you just did, playing music. I thought he was joking, he said he never jokes. He says, ‘Bobby Dylan used to make sandwiches for me in the kitchen and we’d let him out for like 15 minutes.’ He said he’d pay me $90 a week and in 1966 you can make a living off that. I said you got yourself a guitar playing happy man.” Canfield had to play for 35 minutes a night and then the emcee, Dominic Chianese would come on. Chianese is best known for his role as Junior on “The Sopranos.” They are still friends to this day even though they have not seen each other since 1967.
Canfield stayed in New York for two years and then came back to Hancock and built a house on his dad’s advice. It was during the Vietnam War. His dad told him if the war screwed up the country, they could take off. “My dad said, ‘I’ll carry you on my shoulders to Canada. Build a house here and if it gets screwed up we’ll just head out.’ My dad was the toughest human I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve never met anyone tougher than my dad. I’ve met a lot of tough guys but usually they end up on their knees crying when things get too hard.”
Canfield has played all over the world. “I’ve played everywhere from here to Norway to Mexico City to Hawaii. He went to Texas where his first ex-wife was from. He played there for years. Right after getting there, across the street from where he lived was the biggest steakhouse around. He called the owner and told him he wanted to audition for him. He was told they were full with entertainment. Canfield said, “‘I wanna come over anyways because I’m just across the street just in case someone messes up and you need someone.’ I meet a guy named Chandler, that’s it, no last name. I play him three songs and he says, ‘I’m just about to fire this guy but I gotta give him a month’s notice.’ He said he’d pay me $1,000 a week. First night I’m playing, a waitress brings up a big brandy snifter for tips and I told her I don’t need that. They’re paying me pretty good. She said, ‘Yes, you do.’ First night I made $500 in tips and it just kept on going like that. I was there for about two and a half years.”
Unfortunately, after playing there one night, three men jumped him, stabbed him and beat the hell out if him. Canfield said it put a real speed bump in his career and he almost died. He came back to work nine days later and tried to play but when the stitches were busting open, he realized he came back too soon. He couldn’t play so he started putting bands together. He called his brother who was living on the West Coast and asked him to come to Houston and they would put a band together. He switched over to electric guitar because it was easier to play. They made so much money, he said, it was ridiculous. ZZ Top used to come in and sit in with them. “It’s been like that my whole life,” says Canfield. His brother John has been his bass player ever since.
Canfield moved on to Nashville next, and was there for over 20 years. He played at The Stage which is the biggest place in town. It’s got quite the history and all the bigs have played there or filmed country music videos there. He was playing Sunday mornings from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then his band would join him from 2 to 6 p.m. That’s where he started with Navarre. A friend recommended him and thought they would hit it off because they both dressed funny. He played with him one day and Canfield said, “He got up on that stage and played all kinds of steel licks so I don’t have to hire a steel player. The band looked at me excited and I asked Polly if we could keep this guy and she gave me a thumbs up.” They played together for about a year and then he got an offer to do a bunch of recordings for Rod Stewart. Canfield lost track of him and Navarre had got sick with thyroid problems. Canfield says, “Most of my friends are dead, the road has killed them.” The good news is Navarre got healthier and about a year ago, called up Canfield and said he had moved to Rutland.
Canfield eventually moved out of Nashville. He says,”I got so sick and tired of Nashville because it was too youth orientated. Most of them can’t play, can’t sing and can’t write. I got tired of getting people up that couldn’t do their job. I was playing on Broadway and that was a part of your job, to get people up that sang. I have never seen so many selfish, ridiculously egotistical 20-year-olds in my entire life. That’s what I dealt with. It was like Disneyland for drug addicts. I just got tired of it.”
Canfield told his wife Polly that they needed to get out of there. His brother John was running Bentley’s in Woodstock so he went for a family visit. He hadn’t seen his mom in 10 years. Then his brother asked if he would like to play for him. Canfield said, laughing, “Don’t threaten me with a good time. I’ll be here in a New York minute.” Two and a half years ago he moved back here for good. He was planning on just playing here until the snow hit, but Polly got him some other gigs and they stayed. Unfortunately about a year ago, she suffered a stroke and Canfield takes care of her 24/7. “That put the brakes on in my career. The only time I get out is when there’s money on the other end. It’s just been a hard deal.”
Canfield has written songs for Waylon Jennings, among others. He has three albums out and one in the can, all originals. He mostly plays covers around here, because that’s what most people want to hear. In 1988, he played at the Caravan Club in Albuquerque, N.M. “I worked for little kings who owned a bunch of different places and if they liked you, they would put you in the other places. There was this red light that the audience couldn’t see but if it blinked, the boss wanted to see you. I was doing my originals, and I’ve written for Waylon and big people, and the light blinks. I haul myself back to the office and I’ve never met this guy before. He’s sitting behind this big desk and he has a Colt. 45 gun on the desk. He told me they don’t allow original material and they fine you $10 for every one you play. I told him as I was looking at that big gun. ‘Bill here’s the deal. Every one of those songs I played, I didn’t see any bare wood on the dance floor. We’ll make a little deal, as soon as you see bare wood, I’ll stop.’ I played there for three weeks and never got fined one dime. He told me after, ‘I’m sorry I had to come down on you hard.’ I told him ‘it’s ok but this is what we do. My guys will quit if we don’t play our originals. If you can’t dance to this, you can’t dance.’”
Canfield said that every time he steps on the stage it’s like the first time; it’s like magic. “I just like seeing happy people. The physicality of what I do is really important to me. I love music and I love the music that I play. It’s American music. I live to play live, that’s my whole deal. It’s a discipline that I can’t express in words how important it is for people to be exposed face-to-face. I have people that come up talking to me while I’m playing because they’re so ignorant. If I take my hands off the guitar, the music stops. There you have it. That is the truth. People are so used to hearing compressed B.S. on records that they have no idea of what real live music can do to you. It doesn’t have to be loud, it just has to be right. Most people don’t understand that. For example, Tim McGraw can’t sing a lick. They spent $70,000 to fix his vocals on his first album. They run a machine through his vocal that corrects his vocals. I’ve never heard of that in my entire life. The first thing you have to know about in this business if you want to be a singer is you have to know how to sing.”