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Shrimp City Slim tracks down his kin, drops his last name, and heads to Poland—again

Family Ties

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Though the Lowcountry Blues Bash is no more, its founder Gary Erwin is still busy playing the blues. Better known around Charleston as Shrimp City Slim, Erwin's gearing up for not only a mini version of the bash at the Mills House Wyndam Grand Hotel this weekend, but he's also planning a spring tour through Poland with the blues band Green Grass. This will be Erwin's eighth trip overseas performing with the Polish group.

"I've been playing in Europe since 1990," says Erwin, who's originally from Chicago. "My father's family is from Poland, and so I've had a lifelong ambition of trying to get to Poland to play."

It took a while for Erwin to make meaningful connections inside the Polish music industry, but six years ago the 61-year-old musician finally met a promoter in Bydgoszcz, Poland who also happens to be the guitarist and band leader for Green Grass. Simultaneously, Erwin connected with distant cousins in Bydgoszcz, where his grandfather emigrated from way back when. "My uncle's wife, before she passed away, had given me some contacts for the family over there, and this was back in the 1980s, so I'd started this correspondence with these people," Erwin says. "And by time I got my booking connections all hooked up, I was in touch with my cousins, and I was actually able to go and visit my family over there. So I have this whole personal, familial reason to play in Poland."

Using Bydgoszcz as a base, Erwin and Green Grass travel to venues around the country. He also drops his Anglicized last name for his old family surname, Czerwinski. "The people there, they love all over me because I'm an American Pole, you know?" Erwin says. "The cultural immersion is amazing, and Poland has always had a very profound love affair with American blues and jazz. They're crazy about traditional American music over there."

From his Chicago roots, it's no surprise that Erwin wound up loving the blues. His latest release, and 12th to date, Transatlantic Blues Project is a fitting mix of both his heritage as well as his hometown. Recorded with Green Grass at their last Poland show in October 2012, the album is full of live Shrimp City Slim originals, plus six covers from Chi-Town greats like Muddy Waters and Little Walter.

Though Erwin's music reflects his roots, he's been in Charleston, via Boston, now for 32 years. Like many yanks, he headed South to escape the cold. "I lost my job in Boston, and I hit the road and traveled for a month all the way through the South," the avid adventurer explains. "I came all the way through here, Atlanta, New Orleans, through Texas, and then to New Mexico. I was just keeping an open mind as to a good place to live, and Savannah was my first choice, but I ended up getting a job in Charleston."

In those days, Erwin says the Holy City blues scene was scarce, so getting a good following was fairly easy. Once he realized a big blues audience awaited him here, he started a band and began doing his own blues program on public radio (WSCI), which lasted for 17 years. By 1991, Erwin had enough connections to start up the Lowcountry Blues Bash, a multi-venue fest that ran for 22 years. But in 2012, Erwin decided to call it quits. "I just decided to let it go, because it was huge," he says. "I mean the last one was 12 days long, 26 venues, 60 acts, and 103 shows."

But the LBB spawned other festivals and events that are still going strong. Erwin's still in charge of the 19-year-old Carolina Down Home Blues Festival in Camden, the 15-year-old Greenwood Blues Cruise, and both the Blues by the Sea and American Music Celebration on Kiawah Island (11 and 10 years, respectively). He also organizes the blues stage every year for the Pecan Festival in Florence, as well as Charleston's Blues and BBQ Cruise, a two-hour sunset cruise that runs every Thursday from April 9 to the end of the year.

This weekend, Erwin will bring back an old tradition. "We used to play in the Mills House courtyard during the Blues Bash, so we're doing something new by bringing back an old thing," he says.

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