"I don't feel like I've made it for them to give me some award," says Mose Allison, just before complaining about having to return to his home state of Mississippi next month.
Audre Allison, his wife of 62 years, promptly takes the phone from him and informs me that he's being given the Governor's Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as a marker along the Mississippi Blues Trail and the designation of an official Mose Allison Day in Jackson.
"My wife knows about these things," Allison sighs when she returns the phone. "I don't particularly know 'em until I have to."
At 84, Allison has influenced scores of musicians. His greatest legacy may be opening up the blues' racial divide, proving that a white man from rural Mississippi could hold his own in a traditionally black genre. "Well the blues police from down in Dixieland/Tried to catch me with the goods on hand/Ever since the white boy stole the blues," he sings on "Ever Since I Stole the Blues," one of his most famous songs and the title of a documentary about him.
Without Allison, there may have been no Van Morrison or Elvis Costello, two musicians who also straddle the blues/jazz divide and have recorded the Mississippi great's material. Even rock bands like the Pixies, the Clash, and the Who cite Allison as a regular inspiration (the latter opened up their Live at Leeds album with a cover of Allison's "Young Man Blues").
"Peter Townshend, I've known him for years," Allison says. "He came to see me in London, and a couple of years ago, I went out to his house. He wanted me to do something that I didn't want to do, so that's the way we left it. But he's still a fan."
Allison doesn't elaborate, but the Townshend remark is probably a reference to the constant offers and requests to record and perform he receives these days. It's a catch-22; as you age, people increasingly recognize your value and want you to produce while you still can. 2010's The Way of the World, Allison's first studio album in a dozen years, could very well be his last without some more gentle nudging from producers, friends, and family.
"People ask me if I'm still writing songs," he says. "I'm not. Or it's very seldom."
What is it about Allison that draws musicians and listeners to him? Singer-songwriter Greg Brown even wrote a song about the saving grace of performing in a horrible, dingy club, summing it up with the title, "Mose Allison Played Here" (Allison recalls the California venue that inspired Brown as "a dump with a bad piano").
When Allison plays, his words strike you first. There's a subtlety to his lyrics, taking sly jabs at difficult women and Western culture with impeccable wit. His delivery and resonance come off with a coy matter-of-factness, while his no-frills, laid-back singing sets the mood for his jazz trio to lean back and enjoy the ride.
Then comes the piano solo. When Allison first set his fingers across the greater-88, America sat up and took note. This white boy from Tippo, Miss., could hold his own with the best in any jazz club around.
An English major with a philosophy minor from Louisiana State University, Allison's lyrics added a depth of world-view beyond many of his musical contemporaries.
The title track from 1971's Western Man looks at the arrogant attitude of colonizers and conquistadors coming to the New World, yet plays today like a treatise on modern American interventionism. "That was originally made in 1729, with 'A Modest Proposal,'" laughs Allison. "Jonathan Swift wrote that about the famine in Ireland, and he proposed eating babies."
Allison's "Western Man" touches on the absurdity that Europeans might abandon the New World. "That's the thing I took from 'A Modest Proposal,' that you propose something that nobody's going to do," he says.
That song and Allison's entire six-decade discography are fair game when he heads to the Music Hall, performing with upright bassist Ron Brendle and other guests. It's a short drive for Allison, who now spends winters on Hilton Head, splitting time between South Carolina and Long Island, N.Y. Both locales are a long way from the house where he grew up on an island in a creek in Tippo, but those roots are on full display in the songs he still plays, skillfully as ever.