“I need your love. I need it right away. I love you every night and day.” – Hambone, “Need Your Love”
October 28, 2007
“Do you want to eat here?” I asked.
“No,” Hambone said, his long hands holding his head up, his voice barely audible.
We were at a Waffle House in Shelby, Tennessee, about 15 miles outside of Memphis on 55 North. After driving an hour and a half down Highway 61 out of Clarksdale, Mississippi, we were starving.
This wasn’t the place.
The cacophony in the restaurant was so loud we couldn’t even think, and it was evident that Hambone had something on his mind. His eyes were darker than coal. Everything was close together. There was no personal space. We could hear every conversation going on and could understand nothing.
We sat on stools in front of the kitchen, but the space was so tight we felt like we were an extension of the kitchen.
None of this helped Hambone feel any better. There were circles around his eyes, pain in his coffee and sorrow on his breath. He was beaten down by love; tired, lost and lonesome.
This is not what Hambone had in mind when he first was struck by Mississippi John Hurt.
Hurt fueled Hambone, a Hoosier named Nick Hamstra who started going to open mic night at the Runcible Spoon on Wednesday nights in Bloomington, Indiana during his college days.
It was there he met Curtis Crawford, an estimable bluesman from Tennessee who inspired and encouraged Nick to pick up the steel guitar and start dissecting the blues, especially the Delta blues.
Crawford would wear a three-piece suit and sit down with a glass of wine, observing the open mic performers at the Spoon quietly. When it was his turn he’d put on his shades and gracefully play slide on Junior Kimbrough numbers. Sometimes he’d switch gears and play Jimmie Rodgers or surprise everyone and play a laid-back steel guitar version of The Doobie Brothers’ “Drift Away.”
He was a natural. As he smoked his cigar on the patio, he’d tell some stories of his days playing with Buddy Guy or James Cotton, but he’d never reveal too much.
The old bluesman had a cool essence about him. He was relaxed, not worn; he was experienced, not old.
He came to Bloomington by way of the road, staying just long enough to make an impression on Nick and give him his blues name.
“It was a joke, actually,” our friend Daniel Castro recalled. “Curtis would laugh after he said it, and it just caught on.”
But it was Hurt who changed Hambone, it was Hurt who opened up another channel of the blues, taking him to Mississippi Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, Lighnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and R.L. Burnside.
If not for Hurt, there would be no Hambone.
“I can keep one woman,” Hambone sings in Big Dog, “But I can’t keep one woman on my mind.”
This is a line he has carried with him for quite some time. Since his days playing blues at the Player’s Pub in Bloomington, where he had his first regular gigs and formed his first blues band.
But no matter where he was playing and who he was playing this, he’d find a way to slip this line in, even well before he wrote “Big Dog.”
The line was always about Liz.
An artist herself, Liz grew up in Fishers, Indiana, just like me.
I’d known her since she was a freshman in high school. Back then she dated one of my older sister’s friends and joined my sister’s prom group. We had geometry together and would get in trouble for talking regularly. They had to separate us.
We became friends right away.
About a year and a half later, she started seeing one of my best friends – a guy I’d known since fifth grade.
After graduating, he and Liz moved out and lived in an apartment in Broad Ripple together. Eventually he would transfer to Indiana University, where I introduced her to Hambone.
Liz is a firecracker with a magnetic personality and gypsy soul. She’s a wild child and a true original like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Clementine in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
She is also unpredictable, redefining herself as much as Madonna.
I never knew what color her hair would be or what kind of fashion she’d be wearing when I would go visit.
Always surprising, always timeless, always a lady.
Despite having other lovers, there was something from the start that never went away.
“I love her,” Hambone told me after knowing her a year.
Liz had eyes for Hambone the very first time they met, and there were several moments early on, she said, where she knew they’d be together.
“I can see myself marrying Nick,” Liz told me more than once.
But Hambone talked about her damn near every time we would step outside and have a smoke together, almost every time we’d sit down and sip Wild Turkey.
Hambone would build up other women, but none could compare.
He never meant to be unfair to the women he’d date, but Hambone couldn’t shake Liz. She was his muse.
Castro once wrote, ” If you let them, women will grind out your heart with a biscuit roller.”
Seeing Hambone sit on the bench outside Sun Studio that humid October day was enough to make me believe it. It would make anybody believe it.
This had been going on for a while – an “I love you, I love you not” tumultuous back-and-forth that was taking a toll on Hambone.
“Every time you call, this place starts looking like a bar,” he sings on “Red Door”, a song from his album “Gasoline.”
Most songs on “Gasoline” were written around this time, and many dealt with his relationship with Liz, be it “Need Your Love”, “Big Dog”, “You, You,” or the heart-wrenching “Red Door.”
It was Liz he couldn’t keep off his mind that day in Tennessee. She’d called the day before while Hambone played on East Second Street during the first annual Hambone Festival, saying she wanted to see him.
Stan Street, Clarksdale blues artist and harmonica player who also had the nickname “Hambone,” put on the festival, which featured Nick as a prominent act. He had two shows: one on the street in the afternoon and another that evening at Ground Zero, a nationally known blues joint co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman.
The experience at the Hambone Blues Festival was one that confirmed the young blues artist’s goals and dreams. It proved to him that he was part of the scene, that he could hang with the Mississippi blues men even as a lanky white boy from Carmel, Indiana. He proved this to himself and others by playing kick drum and high hat while wailing on his telecaster. He played “Miss Maebelle” and blew their minds.
“It’s so seductive,” a freelance photographer in town for the festival said. “He lures you in.”
Songs such as “You Wouldn’t Like Me,” “Dog From Hell” and “Mama Says I’m Crazy” have invited women grinding on him during shows.
They are the songs that contributed to invitations to orgies.
“I have no gag reflex,” a woman told him at Seidenfaden’s once. She then deep-throated a bottle and stared at him.
Still, there was only one woman he wanted, and that morning in Tennessee he lost her.
Fans of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, we decided to stop in Memphis and check out Sun Studio.
We stood outside and smoked cigarettes, talking about how many hours Johnny Cash must have spent waiting for his chance, thinking about the times he would have a cigarette in the very spot we stood.
In an attempt to cheer up Hambone, I talked with him about all the times we’d played “Folsom Prison” together, and we talked about our favorite songs from the Sun sessions. Hambone said Elvis’s “Mystery Train” was stuck in his head.
It was anticlimactic. Needing to get on the road, we didn’t take the tour. Instead, we just stood there smoking.
That’s when Hambone got the call from Liz, one he feared might come, one where she told him she didn’t want to see him again.
Not having Liz in his life was a burden Hambone couldn’t shake, so he just stayed busy. At this time he was single and working as a kindergarten teacher living in a one-bedroom apartment off Bardstown Road in the Highlands.
Louisville hadn’t seen anything like Hambone. Some people had heard Richard Johnston doing such a thing around Memphis, but they hadn’t seen it themselves.
To establish himself, the Hoosier played shirtless on the streets, debuting his one-man trans-stomp for tips.
Hambone’s tenacity, star quality and his high-energy stompin’, groovin’, whalin’, can’t-stop-’til-you-get-enough mojo risin’ intensity captivated crowds. Looking around a Hambone show you’d see several standing by the stage slowly moving their head back and forth. They looked hypnotized, entranced. Hambone called this “melting skulls.”
Around this time, Hambone melted skulls at the University Church in West Lafayette, Ind. with some of his favorite guys to play with: Alex on harmonica, Brian on bass and Marty on drums.Together they were Sweet Tooth, the best trans-stomp blues band no one heard of. They only played three gigs.
The first time they played together the cops broke it up. It was Little 500 weekend in Bloomington, Indiana, the biggest party weekend of the year in one of the biggest party towns in the country. They’d played for three hours and had no intentions of slowing down.
“It was a buzzkill,” Hambone said. “A cockblock.”
Sweet Tooth was hired to play for a big swing-dancing party through the Purdue University campus crusade. A number of colleges were represented, including some from Wisconsin and Michigan. The basement was crowded, sweaty, steamy.
When Sweet Tooth started, the Christian swing dancers were stunned. It was like the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance in “Back to the Future” when Marty McFly busted out “Johnny B. Goode.”
“We completely shell-shocked them,” Hambone said. “We went 88 miles per hour.”
Although it was not what they expected, the crowd found their partners and got down to business to the boozed, sex-ridden, raw trans-stomp. It was an invitation to misbehave.
I was there that night, spinning Ashley, Rebecca, Alicia and other girls while Sweet Tooth played Junior Kimbrough’s “Stay All Night” and The Red Devils’ “Goin’ the the Church.”
“What are you doing?” Alicia asked, confused by my disregard of swing dance steps while twirling her around.
“I’m doin’ the mess-around,” I said.
As Alex sang, “My babe is so low down” and Hambone erupted on his telecaster, there was no one in that basement who wasn’t a part of it. Those dancing and those not dancing were all mesmerized by an introduction to the dirtiest blues they’d ever heard. And they weren’t just listening to it – they were experiencing it.
Hambone still can’t believe that show actually happened.
“Has anyone seen anything like that?” he asks. “No one has ever seen a trans-stomp blues show like that. Nowhere in the world.”
Before long, Hambone was getting all kinds of gigs: Wick’s Pizza, Bearno’s, Flanningan’s, Stevie Ray’s, Seidenfaden’s. He was playing Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana. Suddenly there were talks of him playing Bonnaroo Music Festival. He was on his way, often playing solo gigs as a one- man band.
“Y’all got to give it up for my bass player, right thumb,” he’d say while hitting the low E string steadily while keeping his blues groove alive with his left hand. “Right thumb always shows up to practice on time, and he doesn’t try to steal my girlfriend. And give it up for left foot and right foot holding down the rhythm.”
Sometimes he’d like to give that band a night off and play with drummer John Hayes, a session player from Richmond, Ky. who immediately had a bond with Hambone. Together the two played shows around Louisville, Lexington and Tennessee. They also recorded several sessions together.
At this time Hambone was becoming a sensation, opening for national acts such as Tab Benoit, Joe Bonamassa and local heroes such as Tim Krekel. He was featured on the radio, in the newspapers and on TV. Suddenly an investor was interested.
He didn’t return for a second year as a kindergarten teacher.
Hambone’s connections in Louisville were varied: one night he’d be playing pool with members of My Morning Jacket, the next he’d be doing math equations in Germantown with local baritone Johnny Berry. He was idolized by many of the musicians in town, especially those who were involved with or at one time played with Bodeco – a Louisville cock rock/blues popular with the decadent and depraved of the city.
Musicians and filmmaker Stephen Clark – a ringleader in a dark part of Louisville – took Hambone under his wing, directing and producing the music video for “Mama Said I’m Crazy.” Shooting the video was a challenge. One of the lead actresses was too strung out on cocaine to do her part right. Conversations were garbled, the lights were dim. It was like an after-party in the middle of the afternoon.
Clark joined Hambone on stage for a number of gigs, backing him on bass and bringing along a drummer. They became Hambone and the Ass Haulers. Wild parties ensued, and the drinking didn’t stop. There was moonshine on the coffee table at Hambone’s apartment.
It was like this while I lived with him.
But one weekend while I was in Lexington, all this changed.
Hambone was playing a show at Wick’s Pizza in Bardstown Road when he met a blonde.
He couldn’t remember driving to the party that night, which was nearly 20 miles away from Wick’s.
He took a different girl home from the party and she stayed for the rest of the weekend. When she left, Hambone was more alone than he could remember.
It was like he was back in Memphis sitting on that bench in front of Sun Studio’s all over again. He felt like that every day, knowing something had to change.
“Living like this is going to kill me,” he said.
Mother’s Day 2009
Playing became more of a job than a passion for Hambone, and often he started to feel he was just going through the motions.
“It’s all snake oil and picture frames,” he said to a PR woman over the phone while laying in bed one morning. “I can’t tell the difference from when I’m working and when I ain’t.”
Dying for change, Hambone decided he had nothing to lose. Back home in Indiana for Mother’s Day he kept wondering about Liz. Knowing he was only 20 miles away from her made it harder.
He’d felt this too many times, and he’d tried too hard for too long to move on.
For years, Liz had struggled with the same emotions, failing to find happiness in a world without Hambone.
She was longing, too, and tired of fighting.
This time, Hambone was determined not to let her slip away.
They met at Perkins off 86th Street, a place Liz frequented when she was in high school and early college. They drank coffee, smoked cigarettes and talked for hours.
“That’s enough,” he said. “Why don’t you come down to Kentucky?”
Liz packed her bags and moved to Louisville to live with Hambone.
A few months later they moved into a house in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, near the Kentucky border.
He did this with no reluctance, which surprised many of his friends.
In conversations and in compositions, Hambone would often talking about not wanting to return, especially once he and Liz were not speaking.
Life there wasn’t what it once was, and Hambone was changing.
“It’s easy to leave,” he’d said. “It’s hard to stay.”
He even sang about it. On his first album, “Lightning in My Hands,” he sings that he’s leaving Indiana before he calls it home.
On April 5, 2010, he and Liz eloped, running down to the courthouse to make it official. They couldn’t wait any longer, as suddenly they had everything they’d wanted.
The summer following their announcement they moved back to Indianapolis and Hambone started looking for teaching jobs again, ready to move past the blues, trading it for love.
“I’m done with the bars,” he said. “I’m done with that life.”
Shortly after Liz moved in, Hambone quit drinking and quit smoking. He hasn’t looked back.
None of this was hard, Hambone said, as he knew the sacrifice was one he needed to make.
“Sacrifice, sacrifice, and, you know, I’d do it again,” he sings in “Than the second before.”
Hambone then went back to teaching, and he went back to “Nick.” Liz, whose interest and passion in pottery and painting continues to grow, found a position at Wonky Fire Pottery.
He has taken to life in Indiana, rooting for the Pacers and the Colts, reconnecting with his family and taking care of the love of his life.
“Big dog is settling’ down,” Hambone sings in “Just Time.” “‘Cause he ain’t that mean.”
Hambone still plays, recording new songs from home. Recently he scored a film, and he has expressed interest in scoring more films.
He works often with his favorite drummer John Hayes, who is one of his best friends.
Although not proud of the lifestyle that came with his music, Hambone remains proud of the material, remastering “Gasoline” in the fall of 2012 and adding a new track.
As for his other material, he is uncertain when he will release an EP or an LP, but he will never stop making music.
His priorities have changed, however. On January 4, 2013, he and Liz welcomed a son, Otis Gabriel Hamstra, into the world.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I never thought I could love anything or anyone as much as I love Liz.”
Hambone is, at this time, happier than he’s ever been.