In 2000, the Memphis transplant took another left turn with Start With the Soul, a hard rocking, electric album produced by Jim Dickinson. He returned to his acoustic roots for the Grammy-nominated Down in the Alley, again produced by Dickinson and released in 2002 on the Memphis International label, then switched back to rock for last month's Motivational Speaker.
His fans practically have whiplash from keeping up with the changes, and their furor over his capriciousness is well-known in blues circles. But Hart himself shakes off the negativity with one motion of a giant, paw-like hand.
"I've been around the world at least 10 times, and I've won whatever bullshit awards. I went to the Grammys once, and I saw it for what it really is - a big popularity contest," he says.
"That whole 'blues nazi' thing. Well, let's just say there's a gap between us. The more they do that to me, the more I resist," he says with a chuckle, raising his hands to his head to pantomime blinders.
Hart's easygoing demeanor belies his derisive words. At the moment, he's reclining on a beat-up leather sofa, downing endless glasses of ice water. He's dressed in a faded pair of blue jeans and an old workshirt, his shoulder-length braids peeking out beneath a scruffy, straw cowboy hat covering his head. His cell phone, jammed into a shirt pocket, occasionally blares a Led Zeppelin riff as he details his record collection, which is rife with Thin Lizzy and Neil Young albums.
"Playing the guitar was something I wanted to do for as long as I can remember," Hart says, pausing to describe his first musical memory, a garage band that practiced in his Oakland, California, neighborhood in the late '60s. "It was a family up the street who called themselves the D-Dynamics. They were black mop-tops, playing Beatles songs. Before I was even school-aged, me and my buddies would go over and listen to them practicing. I heard that guitar coming through the amp, and I thought hey, that's cool. That's for me."
When Hart was 7, he attempted to master the instrument, then tried again when he was 9. He'd analyze the Band of Gypsies and Sly Stone albums his older brother brought home, then try to imitate Roy Clark's honky-tonk moves on Hee Haw. "And when I really got the bug, which was in the mid-'70s, I was just a teenage boy playing [Thin Lizzy's] 'Jail Break,'" he explains.
On family sojourns to Carrollton, Mississippi, Hart became acquainted with the blues. Through the music, he says, he found solidarity with older generations - namely, his grandparents and great-grandparents, who lived in the tiny town located a few hours south of Memphis. "Getting into that music as [my relatives] started to disappear was something that helped keep them around," he says. "At first, it was something I was doing for myself, but it ended up being my way into the music business.
"I'm not rewriting the Charley Patton songbook," Hart insists. "All these people laying that vibe on me, they just want me to do some old tap-dance and folkie blues. I'm not inspired to write that stuff, and I'm not gonna be playing it."
On Motivational Speaker, Hart does neither. The album is an exercise in volatility, ranging from full-tilt hill-country boogie on his own "Big Mama's Door (Might Return)" to extended traditional riffs ("In My Time of Dying," reinterpreted as a meditative rock ballad with a full band, and "How Long Before I Change My Clothes," rendered as a devastating, stripped-down lament). Hart takes on expansive rockers such as Free's "The Worm" and Doug Sahm's gloriously countrified "Lawd I'm Just a Country Boy in This Great Big Freaky City" and delivers impassioned renditions of each. Next, he offers a perfectly laidback, funky take on Otis Redding's "Nobody's Fault But Mine" before reading Johnny Paycheck's "The Meanest Jukebox in Town" with an impeccable country drawl.
His originals, too, are wildly diverse: The title track is pure Southern rawk, replete with cowbell and chugging guitar chords, and "Stomp Dance" builds a slow fire with tom-tom beats and supernatural lyrics. "My World Is Round" and "Shoot Me a Grin" mark a return to the rock-and-roll format, while "Necessary Roughness (A Power Move)" has all the menacing moves and grooves of a Blue Oyster Cult song. The album's last cut, "Shootout on I-55," finds Hart trading licks with Luther Dickinson. Clocking in at over six minutes long, the ride never gets boring.
"This is something I needed to do," Hart says of the album, which was recorded at Young Avenue Sound and mixed at Ardent Studio, with engineer Jeff Powell at the helm. "Sure, it's a struggle getting people to latch onto the music, but the way I see it, it's normal. These songs are my life history." n