Bluesman Bill "Howl-N-Madd" Perry isn't really howling mad.
Even when he opens the door of the Two Stick restaurant here for our interview, he has a grin on his face as wide as the swath of sunshine that follows him in. Sporting a black beret, a stud in each ear and a dark pullover proclaiming Clarksdale the Crossroads to the Blues, he shakes my hand like we're old friends.
It's not long before he's telling the story of how he got one of his nicknames: Meat Hog. He was a country boy accepting a challenge from his uncle to butt heads with a billy goat.
"BAAAM! It seemed like boiling hot needles were burning! I knocked the goat down, and my head didn't hurt," he says. "It must have knocked my brains down to my ankles. My feet were on fire!"
All of us at the table--Perry, his daughter "Shy," Wendy Garrison, an Oxford musician and Ole Miss biology instructor, and me--are laughing. We laugh a lot during my two-hour interview with Perry, 65, a Lafayette County native bluesman who has been performing and recording since the 1960s.
One story leads to the next, such as the time he and his family performed at "Big Mama's Juke Joint" in Hong Kong. "Very elegant," Shy recalls.
"They spent $10 million on the place," Dad says. "One night we had a tour group that flew down from Shanghai. They spoke no English except for the interpreter. Seeing those people clap their hands, getting up, hollering, dancing to the music, knowing they didn't understand what we were saying ..."
He shakes his head and grins. "Of course, we were a good-lookin' band!"
We're sitting just a short walk from the Blues Trail marker on Oxford's Square. The marker includes Perry among the region's blues greats. Over his long career he has performed and worked with the likes of T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Clarence Carter and Little Milton. Today he teaches blues as well as performs it.
Bill Perry's blues trail has been long and winding. His sharecropping father, a gambler and moonshiner, won him his first guitar in a crap game. Young Bill sat in front of local bluesman Ned Bowles "like a bird dog that spotted a bird" to learn licks on a guitar.
The Perrys were poor, but music and moonshine made their house a popular destination. "Our house was the boogie house," he says.
People bought moonshine and stayed to drink it and play music on the front porch. "I made up my mind I wanted to be an entertainer," he said. "Guys who played the guitar were always the center of attention. I never got attention."
Still, the Perrys were different from other folks. Bill had a black father and a white mother. "I was a tar baby with red hair," he says.
When the family moved from Mississippi to Chicago, life stayed hard. "You find out how cruel people can be. I guess that plays into what I call the blues."
His father kicked him out of the house when he resisted a beating. "My dad was a strict, super-duper country dude," Perry said. "He believed in busting your butt if you got out of hand. I never was told I was loved. I was never hugged."
Perry's mother cared for him and helped him, but his father laid down the law.
He started out playing gospel, worked at Chess Studios, got to meet the great Willie Dixon. "I tried to learn every doggone thing I could about that studio," he said. With the help of Little Milton, he switched to the blues and made his debut solo recording in 1970 with "I Was A Fool." The song got on the Billboard charts. A long career of performing and touring followed.
Perry "is able to tell of some awful things from touring in the segregated South in the '60s while seeing humor in how ridiculous the people perpetrating the situation were," says his friend Garrison, herself a fine slide guitarist.
Perry moved back to Mississippi in the 1980s, a decision he has never regretted. "Here you got room. I'm not saying we're perfect in Mississippi, but compared to Chicago we come about as close to perfection as you can get," he says.
"I had enough squeezed-up living, 27 years of my life."
Perry lives near the tiny town of Abbeville (population 421). "Oxford's too big for me," he says. "Abbeville would be too big!"
Despite a stroke in recent years and near blindness, Perry travels constantly, performing solo or with other artists such as his wife, Pauline, daughter, Shy, and son, Bill Perry Jr., are all accomplished musicians. He also stays busy teaching young musicians at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale and other venues. He says one of his pupils, Christone "The Kingfish" Ingram, is a future great.
"I try to pass on what I know to be the truth," he says. "... This is my passion in life. My music and my family."
A veteran journalist who teaches at the University of Mississippi, Joe Atkins is author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press" and winner of the Mississippi Association for Justice's 2011 Consumer Advocate Award. His blog is laborsouth.blogspot.com. Reach him at [email protected]