Who was Houston Stackhouse?
Lately, there has been a renewed interest in our area's art history. Markers, recognizing our blues and country artists. Writers and actors are now dotting the state, speaking to their accomplishments. With that in mind, from time to time, I am going to write about these trailblazers, starting this month Wesson's Houston Stackhouse.
Honestly, I had never heard of Stackhouse until his Blues Trail Marker was erected at the Old Wesson School Community Center. Some research was required, but I just skimmed the surface. For this article, I went down several rabbit holes to get everything I needed to know.
Stackhouse was born Houston Goff in Wesson in 1910, but was reared by James Wade Stackhouse. As a teenager, his family moved to Crystal Springs, where he started listening to the music of local musician Tommy Johnson and other blues artists. His first instrument was the harmonica, but he soon moved to the guitar.
By the 1930s , he had played all through the Mississippi delta with the likes of The Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson. But it wasn’t until 1946 that he got his first big break when he moved to Helena, Arkansas to be near Cary “Ditty” Mason, his cousin, known professionally as Robert Nighthawk.
While Stackhouse was not the type guitarist who could front a band, he was well respected by other musicians. His fundamentals, by all accounts, were spot on, and he tutored Nighthawk and others, including Jimmy Rogers, on guitar. Stackhouse joined Nighthawk’s band and started playing gigs and appearing on Nighthawk's weekly radio show sponsored by Mothers Best Flour. A year later, he split from Nighthawk and formed his own band with other renowned Mississippi artists, including pianist Pinetop Perkins from Belzoni, and started his own radio show sponsored by King Biscuit.
During the 1940s, the blues was of great interest in Europe (in fact, it still is today). Most “big named” artists toured Europe to great success, more so than at home, but Stackhouse preferred to stay in Helena and play small clubs in Memphis and the delta area.
In 1970, Stackhouse moved to Memphis and joined The King Biscuits Boys, which included Sonny Boy Williams. He also toured with the Memphis Blues Caravan and made his only trip to Europe, where he performed at the Vienna Blues Festival.
All through this period he made records with Perkins, Williams and others as their side man, but he made a few of his own records in 1972 that have since been included in many compilations. You can find them at Fat Possum Records in Oxford.
In the summer of 1967, blues archivist George Mitchell moved from the University of Minnesota to the Mississippi delta to record blues musicians, and was able to record Stackhouse, Nighthawk and Williams as the Blues Rhythm Boys. He also recorded Fred McDowell and then unknowns R.L. Burnside and Otha Turner. Mitchell turned the recordings, photos and interviews into a thesis and eventually a book. The recordings became historic and are still studied today.
After returning from Vienna, Stackhouse basically retired, playing only selected shows, including the first two Greenville (MS) Blues Festivals. He moved from Memphis to Crystal Springs briefly and eventually back Helena, where he died in 1980.
While he may may never have achieved the same fame and recognition as others of his era, his story remains in the recordings he made both as a sideman and principal artist and the many blues guitarist he influenced.
That’s it for this month. I’ve thrown a number of names at you in this column. If you are interested, look them up. You may find a rabbit hole of your own.
Support the arts, my friend.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Shaw Furlow is a local composer, musician and arts promoter. He produces an internet-based video show -- From the Shadyside -- that spotlights area musical talent and is a consultant to school bands in the region.