Rochester bluesman Mike "Cotton Toe" Scrivens laughs at the rumors and scuttlebutt surrounding his nickname. As the story goes, Scrivens was minding his own affair, playing a solo gig on a riverboat near Gretna, Louisiana, when a 12-foot gator suddenly appeared on deck, snarling and snapping and thrashing about.
Patrons were running every which way. Everyone was in a panic; everyone was screaming. Everyone except for Scrivens, who brandished his guitar and slowly forced the beast back toward the edge of the old gambling vessel. As the reptilian intruder slid back into the water, it took one last swipe at Scrivens, and claimed the man's shoe and his big toe. Scrivens has had to stuff his brogans in the spot where the toe once was ever since.
Although he's fairly new to the blues game, the nine-toed Scrivens is seasoned and steeped in a style of music he can't resist.
"I started playing the blues out about four or five years ago at the Son House open mic nights at Beale Street," he says. "As a bass player, I'd been hanging with a lot of bands; I wanted to extend myself." Son House open mic night host Gordon Munding invited him.
"So I worked up like five covers for about a month," Scrivens says, "and showed up at the open mic with an old classical guitar. I didn't even plug it in; I just put a mic in front of it."
The reaction was immediate. Scrivens was hooked.
"Once I started playing, a couple guys joined right in and played my set with me," he says. "There was no turning back. The name 'Cotton Toe' became official a little over a year ago."
But why the blues for Scrivens?
"I've just been drawn to it," he says. "I've played bass all my life, in rock bands, metal bands. I've played all different types of music. The blues is ... when I sit down with a guitar I just go right to that, I feel more connected to it. I don't know — I just started doing what the muse was giving me."
Chatting with the 49-year-old musician, he seems happy and gregarious. There's always a smile on his dial. His music comes naturally out of him. And lyrically, he's not stilted or forced. He's beyond the blues, although he clearly gravitates to it.
"I describe what's going on," Scrivens says. "End of story. 'My baby left me today, she left the lights on and the front door open. Oh and by the way I have a drinking problem, and I'm in debt.' I just get right to it. No messing around."
There was no messing around in a friend's home studio when it came time to record his first CD, "Downtrodden Blues." He laid down the guitar, then he laid down the voice, and that was it.
"Less is better," he says. "One mic, and my cheap Chinese resonator, and me." The end product was eight songs that were bluesy, yes, but with other elements of singer-songwriter and warm Americana denim, wood, and wire.
"I wanted this to be an accurate representation of what I do," Scrivens says of the CD's overall acoustic rendering and feel, even though he has plans for more electric stuff in the future. And you really oughta hear the cat play "Amazing Grace" on the diddley bow. Plus, he plans on building his own cigar box guitar and an instrument called a canjo, which uses a beer can as its resonator.
So the name "Cotton Toe" gets hoisted into a pantheon dominated by artist with names like Hound Dog, Lightnin', Muddy, Howlin', Magic, T-Model, T-Bone, and so on. Scrivens is flattered by the association before coming clean on the nickname's origin.
He claims to simply be a mailman with a painful corn on one of his toes which is relieved by some well-placed cotton balls. The funny thing is, I almost believed him before I glanced down and saw those alligator shoes.