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Blues legend visits Mill

BY RILEY UBBEN | MAY 12, 2011 7:20 AM

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Blues legend Catfish Keith was restless at age 18. Leaving behind his quiet life in Davenport, the musician took to the road in hopes of improving his craft and expanding his world view.

“I started traveling the world just to see what was out there and to play gigs,” Keith said. “I did that pretty much from the time I got out of high school to this day.”

The 49-year-old is taking a short break from his globe-trotting to spend some time in Iowa City, which he and his wife, Penny Cahill, now call home. While here, the 2008 Blues Hall of Fame inductee will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Mill, 120 E. Burlington St. Admission is $10.

When he first left Iowa, Keith traveled all over the United States. Whether he was living in the mountains on the West Coast, playing with his music heroes in the South, or crewing on a sailboat in the Caribbean, he soaked up the sights and sounds.

During his time in the Virgin Islands, he received the name that kicked off his music career.

“There was this guy that we’d go lobster diving with, and for some reason, he’d say, ‘Man, you ain’t nothing but a catfish swimming around,’ and [he’d call me] ‘catfish steel-guitar man,’ ” Keith said. “I don’t even know why he was calling me that, but the name kind of stuck.”

When he signed to Kicking Mule Records in 1984, the musician decided to go by his new nickname for his first album, Catfish Blues.

The record was a breakthrough success, and through radio airplay, Keith was introduced to host of new fans, Cahill included.

“I had been a fan of Catfish’s since I first heard him playing on a radio show. We met several years later after I had happened to catch one of his gigs at the Mill,” she said. “I had gone out for dinner, not realizing that he and another guitarist were playing a benefit concert. Catfish introduced himself to me at the show and invited me to another concert the next evening.”

When the two tied the knot in 1988, Cahill was working as a psychiatric social worker and researcher at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and Keith continued to tour the world. Shortly after they formed their own record label, Fish Tail Records, Cahill decided to give up her job to travel with her husband and to play a larger role in his music as his manager and label president.

“The idea of managing [Keith] seemed rather natural to me,” Cahill said. “I grew up around music and was involved in it from an early age.”

In addition to recording and touring, Keith occasionally hosts guitar workshops at music schools in the United States and Europe.

“It’s always been a great add-on to what I do,” he said. “I enjoy sharing the music and passing the tradition.”

Though they have taken up residence in Iowa City, the couple’s musical endeavors haven’t exactly allowed them to settle down. Cahill, however, is content with the path the two have chosen.

“I’m happy wherever we are,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s hard to pack up and go to the next place. I used to see that as a bit of a problem because I didn’t feel like leaving, but I realize now that it’s great.”

Keith agreed.

“It does seem like we’re on the go a lot,” he said. “But it’s great to travel the world.”


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