Q&A with Iowa blues legend Dennis McMurrin

BY BRETT KARLAN | JUNE 27, 2013 5:00 AM

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Dennis “Daddy-O” McMurrin is one of the most renowned guitar players in Iowa. He has been playing guitar and singing for almost 50 years with a wide range of bands, including most recently Dennis McMurrin & the Demolition Band and McMurrin & Johnson. He was inducted into the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame in 2008, and he will play a show at the Mill at 8 p.m. Friday.

DI: To start things off, how did you get into playing music?

McMurrin: I got into playing music when I was very little. I was maybe 4 or 5 years old at the time. My grandpa was a guitar player, and he would play his guitar when I was around him as a child. And it fascinated me. And that was it. I was fascinated by music.

DI: How does one go from being fascinated by music, then, to making a career out of it?

McMurrin: Well, you know, it was really accidental for me. When I first started playing, I didn’t even know that you got paid. I was just into playing. And so it was a real shock for me the first time I ever played a paying gig when I got paid at the end of the night. But I’ve been playing music for, what, 50 years now. So I don’t even think about it anymore.

DI: The genre of music that you play, it’s blues, right?

McMurrin: [Laughs] That’s actually a really good question. I love to play all kinds of music. If you play one genre of music for too long, it can bore you. I like to go from a full-out funk tune to a 1930s country song. But I am, I guess, a Hall of Fame bluesman. It’s funny; I wouldn’t talk to anyone for two weeks [after the induction ceremony], actually. I just didn’t really want to say anything to anyone. I mean, it was special, but I’m just one of the little people like everyone else, so I didn’t really know what to say.

DI: Why Iowa? You could play music anywhere in the world. Why this state? Why here?

McMurrin: Mainly, it’s because my family and my children are here. The gigs outside of Iowa never really offered the type of money that would inspire me to leave them for long periods of time. It’s also a unique place because, although you might not think it, living and playing in Iowa has allowed me to meet all kinds of famous and talented musicians. And, now that I think about it, even Elijah Wood’s father comes and sees me play. We call him “Woody.” And I’ve played in bands with his uncle. So that’s unique. And not something you’d think of when you think of playing music in Iowa.

DI: How has making music changed since you first started playing 50 years ago?

McMurrin: When I first started playing, you had to get it right. There were no computers, so you had to play it right the first time. This is especially true for playing guitar. But it’s not really that different now, I guess. If you’re playing guitar, you should at least still be playing a half hour a day. Or do whatever you have to do to keep sharp. Because guitar playing goes in so many directions, from loud to soft to loud, from fast to slow, from showing off to not giving a s***. So you got to stay sharp. And I don’t think that has changed.

DI: What are your plans?

McMurrin: To keep playing. I’ll always play. My plans are to never quit playing, ever. I look at people like St├ęphane Grappelli, who was a virtuoso fiddle player. When he was 90, he was playing like he was 20. He was playing like a lightning bolt. It’s a tough thing to do. You always have to work at it. But if he could do that on a little violin, then there are no excuses. You just got to keep playing.

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