Joe Price was born in Waterloo, Iowa. His love for music was cast early, as he listened to the blues and jazz records his mother played day after day. After an encounter with the late, great bluesman Earl Hooker, Joe became enthralled with slide guitar and country blues. Joe Price plays music that is rhythmic, infectious and sounds like nobody else. If you close your eyes you can hear two or even three guitars. You become entranced as you listen to the bouncing, jangling, rattling sounds as hands slap and pound the strings of the guitar. Meanwhile you can clearly hear Joe’s feet slamming, sliding and grinding in time. When you open your eyes you see a stage filled with the presence of one man, Joe Price. You can’t seem to sit still. Your head is bobbing, your hands are slappin’ and your toes are tappin’ as you listen to the relentless pulsating guitar. This continues on until it surely must be time for a break. Instead of saying “I’ll be back in a few minutes”, Joe says I would like to call my wife, Vicki Price to the stage. Vicki magically appears in the chair next to Joe. The first thing you notice is the smile on her face. As she straps on her guitar, Joe continues playing. Then Vicki joins in and with a smile on her face, she throws her head back and laughs. Then she starts singing. When she opens her mouth, out comes this voice. It’s a voice that is strong and familiar. You know that voice from somewhere in the past. The voice of Vicki Price is haunting, seductive and intimidating all at the same time. The two of them continue on for another hour or more, before finally giving us all a break.
Vicki and Joe met in 1982, when Joe played at The Gin Mill in Waukon Iowa, where Vicki was a bartender. The story goes like this. Joe took a break and the crowd started asking for Vicki Ewing to play some of her songs. It turned out that Vicki had a powerful voice and can play a pretty mean guitar herself. Vicki’s controlled style and Joe’s barbaric playing meld perfectly with each other to form the framework on which they build their songs. After playing together for five years, Joe and Vicki made it official in 1987 when they got married.
Since then they have traveled North, South, East and West playing over two hundred shows a year. They have opened for Buddy Guy, Honeyboy Edwards, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Greg Brown, Iris DeMent and many others.
Five of their CD’s were released by Iowa City’s Trailer Records. In 2008 they started their own label, Blues Acres Productions. On that label they released A Brand New Place which was comprised of ten new songs written by Vicki and Rain or Shine with all songs written by Joe. Both of those CD’s made the Top 100 of 2009 in Real Blues Magazine. Both releases were nominated for Best Independent Release at the International Blues Challenge. In 2010 Rain or Shine won an Independent Music Award for Best Blues CD, and the IMA Vox Pop People’s Choice Award for a blues CD. In 2002 Joe Price was inducted into the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame; he is also a member of the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The duo is in the process of releasing their newest CD Night Owls. They had recorded several tracks for Night Owls at Wow and Flutter Studio in Nashville. On June 8, 2013 the studio was destroyed by a fire. The Night Owls tape was lost in that fire. Loyalty is very important to the Price pair. They loved working with Joe McMahan and they decided to wait until McMahan rebuilt his studio instead of going somewhere else to record. In August of 2014 they went back into the rebuilt studio to record with Joe McMahan doing the engineer work. It took a couple years longer than anticipated, but the recording process was finished in January of this year. Night Owls by Joe and Vicki Price is now available at all of their live shows.
Billy Rose: First of all, could you talk a little bit about your induction into the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame in 2002. What was that night like?
Joe Price: That was one of the highlights of my life. It was a fun evening. I’ll never forget it. It was at The Grand in Des Moines. The music was unbelievable.
BR: Did you perform that night?
JP: I played two songs and then they gave me a little plaque, and the rest of the night, I enjoyed the music. The music was really good.
BR: Tell me about recording the new CD, Night Owls, it took longer to finish than expected.
Vicki Price: Yeah, well we were recording at Wow and Flutter in Nashville. So we had been in and recorded a couple sessions. He had a fire, the Hammond B3 he had caught on fire, we had bought two inch tape to record on and that all went up in the fire. So it was time to start all over again. It took him about a year to rebuild the house and studio. So we went in last September and again in December and finished the record.
BR: So that shows some loyalty to that studio. You could have gone elsewhere.
JP: No we couldn’t. Nowhere else.
VP: But Joe gets it. Joe McMahan, the studio was at his house. We’ve been recording a lot of years. And from the first time we went to Joe’s studio, he understood what we want and how to capture that sound. So, there has been no place else to record since. We recorded our last three albums there.
BR: Tell me about Wow and Flutter and Joe McMahan.
VP: That’s the studio we record at in Nashville. It’s also the home of our friend Joe McMahan. He’s done all of Kevin Gordon’s latest releases and several other people we really like. Bo Ramsey introduced us to him at a festival in Davenport (Iowa) about ten years ago.
JP: It’s a tape recorded studio. He uses two inch tape. He does it the old fashioned way. Very old microphones, he’s old school.
VP: We like recording that way. We love the warmth you get in the sound and the feeling from the tape. After the fire he designed how he wanted the house and studio. The studio was built for sound. He also put jacks in the bathroom, the kitchen and the hallway. That way you can capture different sounds in the house, just like the old guys used to do. We put that to work on this record. Bones was recorded in the kitchen, Love Kills Slowly, was recorded with Joe in the bathroom. It was fun and it made for a lot of different sounds.
BR: Joe you were recording in the bathroom, I’m glad you didn’t die on the throne like the king. (laughter)
JP: Wow, BB King.
BR: Oh, yeah! BB King just passed away. Did you ever play with BB?
JP: No I never warmed up for BB King. One time I helped BB carry his amp on stage, and after I carried it off for him. But that was it.
VP: Another cool thing about the studio, is that Joe McMahan was able to buy Ike Turner’s old vocal microphone. So when you go in there you’re singing through the same mic that Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and Tina Turner sang into. That’s cool! That just makes you feel good.
BR: That is cool! Let’s go back in time a little bit. What was it that happened in your life that made you become a musician?
JP: Oh, I think probably, my grandfather was a professional musician for a time in his life. My mother was a music fanatic. She played blues and jazz records all the time. I heard that music a lot growing up, almost every day.
BR: So is that what influenced you to play the blues?
JP: Well, I think seeing Earl Hooker play when I was a kid. That was a big thing that tripped me right off. That was a biggie there, watching him play his slide guitar. I liked that; I’ll never forget that.
BR: Was that in Waterloo?
JP: Waterloo Iowa, yes it was.
BR: Where did you see him, a county fair or what?
JP: No, he lived there. I saw him play at a couple music stores, testing out guitars. One store hired him to play. You paid a cover charge and went in to watch him. Earl Hooker played along with one of his records. Then he just sat there and played his guitar. It was really cool.
BR: That sounds very cool. Seeing Earl Hooker playing slide, is that where you learned about slide guitar?
JP: Yes sir. Earl told me to cut off the end the handle bars on my bicycle. He said that’s the best slide you can get. Well, I didn’t want to cut off my own handle bars, so I cut a piece off my neighbor’s bike. (laughs) That’s where I got my first slide. (laughs)
BR: You have a very distinctive sound. I can tell from the first few notes that it’s Joe Price. Can you talk a little about your playing styles and how you developed it?
JP: I’ve listened to country blues, I like country blues. I’ve just always stuck with that and have never got away from country blues. When I listened to those records I would think, I can come pretty close to that. I’m gonna steal it laughs).
BR: All right, you heard it here; Joe Price steals his music (laughter). So when did you meet your wife, Vicki?
JP: We met July 31 of 1982.
BR: Is that correct Vicki?
Vicki Price: Yeah, he remembers. I don’t (laughs).
BR: Okay, so where did you meet her?
JP: It was at The Gin Mill in Waukon Iowa. She was a bartender and I was a hired musician. On my break the whole crowd says, let Vicki play, let Vicki play. So I did and that was the beginning of the end (laughs).
BR: So Vicki, you were a bartender. Did you play music on the side?
VP: Yeah, and I had sung my whole life. My mom started me and my sisters singing in church, when we were three of four years old. I got my first guitar when I was twelve. I started playing with rock bands in high school. We did Credence and stuff like that. There was a bar in Prairie Du Chien that I used to sneak into. The guy that ran it was a real beatnik and hosted an open mike night. That’s when I first started performing in clubs. I think I was nineteen then.
BR: You started out as more of a folk music player. But I’ve noticed here lately, you’re getting much more bluesy.
VP: Yeah (laughs) well after twenty some years, it’s finally wearing off on me. When we perform together it’s easier if I do something blusier, because we usually get booked into blues clubs. But when we go to California and play for the hippies out there, I’ll play my folk stuff and they like that.
BR: So do you do any solo gigs?
VP: I’ve done a couple, but I don’t like to do them by myself. It’s lonely out there by yourself. Joe’s more comfortable with that. But I do stuff for friends. I’ve played the Women’s Music Festival in Iowa City.
BR: What’s your favorite place to play in California? Where do you find those hippies you were talking about?
VP: Bolinas, just north of San Francisco on Point Reyes Bay. It’s a little hippy town, about four hundred people.
JP: Smiley’s Saloon, it’s the oldest bar in California.
VP: The citizens of Bolinas go out and take down the signs on the highway, that tell you how to get there, so it’s kind of hard to find unless you know exactly where you’re going.
BR: Joe, I noticed you didn’t have a stomp board with you last night.
JP: I didn’t think I’d need it. With the Unidynes being there. I figured I’d be playing with the band.
BR: You must go through a lot of boots, with all that stomping you do.
VP: Billy, I’ve got to tell you a story about Joe and his boots. We were on a trip to Minneapolis; Joe was doing a show with Greg Brown. We stopped in Red Wing, Minnesota so Joe could get a pair of boots. Joe was trying on some boots and the showroom floor was carpeted. Joe asked the salesman if there was a tiled floor or a wood floor so he could check and see how loud the boots were. The salesman looked at Joe like he was crazy. He said I don’t understand. Do you want a different color? Joe said I’m talking about volume, ya know noise. So the guy says there’s a concrete floor in the back. Joe grabs a chair and about four pair of boots and follows this guy. He gets back there starts stomping around, checking out the sound. He tried several pair before he found one he liked. That salesman said he had never had anybody request a certain sound quality from their boots before (laughter).
JP: We were in Denver last week at Shepler’s boot store and Vicki brought in my stomp board. I started trying out boots and all of the clerks and customers started gathering around clapping along. They wanted me to tap dance for ‘em. (laughs)
BR: You know Vicki, after watching you guys, I think you could use a stomp board. (laughter)
JP: You know, I don’t know what it is about men’s shoes, but they’re all to quiet. Vicki has a pair of heels that has the best volume I’ve ever heard from a shoe. If a company could make a man’s shoe with sound like that every acoustic guitar player around would buy them. They’d make a fortune. (laughter)
BR: I’d like both of you to answer this one. Is there anybody out there that you’d like to say thanks to for helping direct you in your musical career?
VP: Yep, thanks to Sister Rosetta Thorpe and Odetta. I love them both, and Joan Baez. Those three really made me want to do it. I saw Odetta on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was a kid and I said to my mom, I want to do that. Then Joan Baez came out and played. They both played so well, they were way beyond three chords. I knew right then what I wanted to do.
JP: My favorite slide guitar player was Elmore James, he was the best. I also like Django Reinhardt. I like the voice of Memphis Minnie; I like her swing singing style. In fact I feel myself being influenced by her phrasing. I also want to mention Pat Hazell and Bo Ramsey. We learned to play together. Another person was Phil Ajioka. Those three people right there, big influence! Bo is a great guitar player, great guy. We’ve gone our separate ways, but I still think of them a lot We’re all still friends.
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