No, he hasn’t spent time in jail. He builds big houses—really big houses.
And when he’s not running his award-winning construction business, the 39-year-old Cummings can often be found playing a mean blues guitar. His intense, rip-the-neck-off style has often been compared to Stevie Ray Vaughn. In fact, there are times when it seems Stevie Ray is being channeled through Cummings, a notion supported by the fact he often records with Vaughn’s famed rhythm section, Double Trouble.
Cummings, who has opened for B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, and other icons, is not from East Texas or Mississippi. He grew up, and still lives, in the white-clapboard tidiness of Williamstown, Massachusetts.
In his khakis, plaid shirt and close-cropped hair, Cummings looks as buttoned-down as his home town. But his bland demeanor and unassuming way is in sharp contrast to his screaming guitar and heartfelt vocals. It’s as if he saves all his personality for his music. His playing is a continual homage and tribute to Vaughn, the late Texas guitar wizard who died in 1990.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Cummings says. Though folks often compare him to his idol, he doesn’t really feel he’s worthy of all the accolades. “I couldn’t carry his guitar case,” he shrugs.
Cummings was, by his own admission, “a bluegrass, country-bumpkin kid” when his brother-in-law steered him toward the blues. “He gave me a tape of Stevie Ray’s Texas Flood,” he recalls, referring to Vaughn’s 1983 debut album. “In 1987, I’m going to school at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, and one day I’m walking down the street and in front of the Orpheum Theater are two big buses, and one has got a Les Paul guitar on the side. I look at the sign: ‘Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble Tonight.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God!’”
At that point, Cummings didn’t even play guitar. He had grown up playing five-string banjo, though guitar playing ran in the family. His father was a big band guitarist, the polished type whose solos always sounded the same.
Cummings couldn’t find any friends to go with him to that first Stevie Ray show, so he went alone. He relates the story of his first time as if recounting a religious experience. “It was musical epiphany, for sure,” he remembers with awe. “I watched him dance on the guitar, throw it up in the air, play it behind his back. I was floored. That night I walked out and I was done with the banjo.”
He picked up an old Gibson knockoff, and, between jobs as a builder and a contractor, spent time learning and honing his chops. He played his first public performance at a wedding at the ripe old age of 27. He soldiered on, playing small Albany-area clubs with his band, Swamp Yankee, and acquiring a fan base. He released his first record, The Long Way, independently in 1999 and then inked a deal with the national blues label Blind Pig. Soon, he was recording with the same musicians he saw play with Vaughn in Boston that fateful night—bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton, often with legendary producer Jim Gaines at the helm.
The blues aren’t much in evidence in the office of Albert J. Cummings IV, General Contractor, but there is one picture that gives away his alter ego. In it, Cummings has traded his buttoned-down, short-sleeve shirt for a sparkling silver gig shirt made by the same tailor who dressed Elvis. He’s smiling, maybe a little starstruck, because smiling back is none other than B.B. King. Cummings has opened 24 shows for the legendary King, and B.B. has invited him to jam more than once, always insisting, “I want you to play, leave your amp out.”
That’s pretty heady company for a guy whose day job is with a family-owned building business in the Berkshires, a guy who admits, “I never knew anything about the blues. I was into Merle Haggard.” In a nod to his musical roots and his livelihood, Cummings covered Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” on his latest record, the aptly titled Working Man.
“It’s tough running a construction business,” Cummings says. “It’s a pretty big deal as far as time, so when I play my guitar, it’s usually at a gig. When I get busy I don’t even have gigs.”
At the Electric City Blues Festival on July 7 at Central Park in Schenectady, New York, Cummings will share the bill with psyche-Delta slide player Hugh Pool and blues belter Nora Jean Bruso. The festival begins at 2pm with the perennial “Colossal Contenders” battle-of-the-bands finals.
Cummings talks with pride of the big houses he’s built, but you don’t really get the sense of their scale and enormity until you see them in person. He leads the way up a bumpy dirt hill outside Williamstown, to a recently finished house that’s simply stunning. At 10,200 square feet, with breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding hills, the place is as big as a hotel. But just one family lives there, and not even all the time. It’s one of those second homes that are inexorably filling up the Berkshire countryside.
Building opulent houses surely distracts Cummings from his music career, yet the proceeds allow it to continue. When so many blues greats have lived financially precarious lives and have even died destitute, the question arises: Can you live in and build big houses and still play the blues?
“Blues is an expression of your feelings,” he says. “To have the blues is to be feeling down, [but] to play the blues is an expression of what you’re feeling, happy or sad. If you can let that out to the people, and expose yourself, then you’ve done a good job.”
His tone grows serious, and he looks me straight in the eye. “You can’t lie about your feelings,” he declares.
Not with a guitar you can’t.
Albert Cummings will appear at the Electric City Blues Festival in Schenectady July 7. For more information, go to www.albertcummings.com.