Like a lot of other white suburban kids in the 1970s, I first heard Lightnin’ Hopkins through someone else’s music (ZZ Top was my way in). But I’ll never forget the exact moment when I heard the real thing. It was on a Saturday afternoon in my bedroom during my senior year in high school, and I had just brought home one of those Arhoolie records that Lightnin’ recorded in the 1960s for Chris Strachwitz. The tone was so eerie (Is that standard tuning? Yeah, but waaayyy down…), and the subject matter so wildly spontaneous–from the highest peaks of pleasure to the deepest, darkest loaded chambers of the heart–that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days.
It was like discovering that your kitchen pantry somehow opened up into an illegal gambling operation run by bald-headed women and one-armed bootleggers. Some of them were having a damned good time, but once you cut through the smoke and haze you couldn’t help but keep your eye on that table in the corner where sad-eyed black men were playing Russian roulette in the dark.
This was the shit man. And the strangest thing about it was just how comfortable that charming and dapper man on the album cover seemed to be in this world. I had to know what he knew. There was no going back to Pleasantville.