Living a lifetime of music has practically made James Cotton a cultural ambassador of the blues. And at 66, he’s showing no signs of slowing down. He recently recorded the theme music for a new PBS series, American Roots, which presents an overview of American music ranging from blues to gospel to country, and will also appear in the episodes that deal with Chicago blues. The series is scheduled to air later this year. Just last week he taped a segment of Austin City Limits with Jimmie Vaughan (you can hear him on Vaughan’s new single, “The Deep End,” due in stores later this month).

Born July 1, 1935, in Tunica, Miss., Cotton left home at age 9 to track down harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), whom he had heard on an Arkansas radio station. Cotton apprenticed with Williamson, joined the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters bands, and fronted groups of his own. And along the way he managed to play and record with a plethora of blues and rock artists including Otis Spann, Big Mama Thornton, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter and Paul Butterfield.

The James Cotton Blues Band has finished the basic tracks for the new record due out in March 2002 on Telarc Records. The album, a James Cotton tribute, will feature songs written and performed over the band’s 35-year history. And if that’s not enough, Cotton headlines Friday’s Bull Durham Blues Festival lineup at the Durham Athletic Park. His group–the 35th Anniversary edition of the James Cotton Blues Band–features Tone Cool recording artist David Maxwell (piano), Severn Records recording artist Darrell Nulisch (vocals), Berklee School of Music professor Mike Williams (guitar), Per Hanson (drums) and Noel Neal (bass). Should be a hot time at the DAP, indeed. We were able to catch up with Cotton last week for a phone interview, in which the legendary bluesman assessed his influences, his career, and the state of the blues in general.

The Independent: When did you first pick up the harp? Who inspired you, and how long did it take before you realized that you really had something?

Cotton: I first picked up a harp when I was 3 or 4 years old. My mother used to play ’round the house in Tunica, Miss., quite a bit. She could blow, too … she would copy the train sounds that we would hear and she was also able to make it squawk like a chicken! Anyways, my uncle took me over to Sonny Boy’s [Williamson] house and asked him to teach me a few tricks and help show me the ropes. I’ve been playing music ever since.

I knew this music thing was good for me the first time I ever made any money playing.

At the time I was making $36 a week driving the tractor around the farm we lived on, and I made $46 in about an hour playing the harmonica one Saturday afternoon. The funny thing is, that very spot was photographed for my Grammy-winning record Deep in the Blues. That old building I was sitting in front of on the cover was where all that stuff actually took place. It finally all blew over in the last two years or so. Plus, the casinos have been gobbling up all the land down there, too. I’m sure glad we got that shot, though.

The Independent: You’ve performed with Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, three of the all-time blues greats. What’s the one thing that stands out in your mind about each of them?

Cotton: Sonny Boy Williamson–“I had the pleasure of being taught and living around Sonny Boy for about six years from when I was 9 until I was about 15. He gave me his band when he went from West Memphis to Milwaukee and Chicago.”

Howlin’ Wolf–“Great bandleader. Strict about the way he wanted his music played. He helped get me my first recordings with Sun Records back around 1952-53.”

Muddy Waters–“I had the pleasure of playing with him from 1954-1966. He was a great singer-songwriter and bandleader and he was very particular about having his stuff sound just like his records. He helped show me the way in so many respects. You know, he was very established as a recording artist by the time I joined up with him. Plus, he took me around the world and showed me so much about how to conduct yourself both on and off the bandstand.”

The Independent: Are you excited about being the headliner on Friday?

Cotton: I’m very excited about coming back to Durham. The last time we almost got rained out. The people of North Carolina are always very appreciative of our music, and seem to be pretty knowledgeable about the blues, too. Plus, me and my band have a thing for barbecue, and there’s nothing like that North Carolina barbecue!

The Independent: What’s the state of the blues today? It seems that since the untimely death of Stevie Ray Vaughan, there hasn’t been one main figure to galvanize the blues community. Artists like yourself are certainly instrumental to keeping the blues alive, but are there any up-and-comers out there we should look out for?

Cotton: There are so many great young acts coming up. We have done shows with many of these young folks that have really impressed me. Shemekia Copeland is so good–she really is putting out some great music and she’s such a sweet spirit, too. Kenny Wayne Sheperd is really rockin’ ’em these days. He has always played the blues with just that right touch. Plus, while they certainly aren’t kids any more, don’t forget about Kenny Neal, Lucky Peterson or my old guitar player Rico McFarland. They all playing some great blues these days, and you will be sure to hear a lot about all of these players for some time to come.