Roger Kuhn is a fixture around these parts, a ghost if you will, steeped in the blues. A busker at heart, Kuhn can be seen throughout Rochester with his shiny Dobro, squeezing Washingtons – and the occasional Lincoln – out of passers by. Some stop and listen before shelling out their pittance as an appreciative Kuhn, the skinny white antithesis of the blues, sings those blues as if he'd had them for 100 years.
Why the blues? "To quote the godfather of the blues, Son House," Kuhn says, "'The blues come from a person, having a dissatisfied mind and some kind of sorrowness in his heart about being misused by somebody.' And let me tell you, I have been misused."
"It's a long list from early age until present day," he says, purposefully skirting the details. "Sometimes when I think about it, and I feel about as bad or upset as a man can feel, I find solace in the thought that the good Lord might just want it that way. So I keep on singing and playing."
Kuhn isn't looking for sympathy. There's not much empathy making the rounds, either, from listeners who, with Kuhn's help, may stumble upon the fact that, "Hey I don't have it so bad, by comparison."
Kuhn's not sure about that. "It's hard for me to say," he says. And he adds: "I don't have much of a following." So he meddles in this blue catharsis for himself as much as for anybody.
"It is a relief to be able to get it out," he says. "Music is my outlet for letting out all those feelings and emotions. Those moments of happiness are short lived and fleeting, and to hold onto them for too long is nearly impossible. Once the show is over and the comfort is found, before I can tip my hat or blink an eye, the next heartache is right around the corner."
And just when you think the cat is mired down deep in his own misery, you stop, listen, and discover that Roger Kuhn's blues – though suffered by the musician himself – are beautiful. They just come from an ugly place. He needs this background ugliness to face his blues.
He wasn't always hip to this fact. "I recently had a bit of an epiphany from a serious heartbreak," Kuhn says, "in that a lot of the songs that I've written on the first two records confronted that loss, that pain. And now that I've faced it and sung about it hundreds of times and gotten though it – I didn't know what to sing about. Fortunately, the next disappointment or series of disappointments followed soon thereafter. There's always going to be a source of material. There will never be – at least how I've seen it in my life thus far – a shortage of material for me to draw from."
But Kuhn isn't the proverbial laughin' to keep from cryin' character.
"I like to think of myself as an optimist," he says. "It's almost like welcoming a difficult situation, because there's something better at the other end."
You don't need the blues, necessarily, to enjoy or understand Kuhn's music. He is a rudimentary player of sly sophistication, bubbling beneath all the lyrical deprecation and wit. This sophistication has arisen with his introduction to the slide guitar.
It didn't come easy.
"I've never been much of a guitar player to begin with," he says, "but it's worked. I've never had any lessons. Everything I learned, I picked up along the way."
Starting out, Kuhn had roughly 12 songs: The Dead, Dylan, Lightning Hopkins, etc.
"I was surprised people kept calling me for gigs," he says, "because I really didn't have that much material. I poured everything I had into those songs. I bluesified them, and people would often ask me if they were my own tunes, because they were almost unrecognizable."
It was around this time that people kept approaching him suggesting slide guitar and the associated open tunings.
"I was almost getting angry," says Kuhn. "I had tried slide guitar a number of times, and I just could not do it. I didn't have the feel for it. I didn't know how it worked."
While hanging out one day at slide guitar-master Genesee Johnny's crib, there were some slides on the table. Kuhn picked up the biggest, heaviest one and put it on. And like Cinderella's slipper, it worked.
"It was magic," Kuhn says. "The clouds were opened. Everything changed in that moment. I couldn't get enough. I spent hours in my kitchen or bathroom – excellent acoustics – late at night, just playing. The songs were pouring out of my head and from the depths of my soul."
You can catch Kuhn on wax via one of his three releases, including his latest gem, "Dead Man's Shoes," and at assorted clubs and curbs throughout the city. He's working on putting together and fronting an all-electric blues band and has begun writing a country album.
With his rapid mastery of this style, Kuhn now switches off between storied songs and instrumental tunes where the narrative is put in the keeping of the listener; Kuhn's blues are yours.
"It's like when I first heard the Blind Willie Johnson tune 'Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.' It was more profound than anything I'd heard with words. That song, with just him moaning and just the sadness of the guitar itself...."