Lonnie Brooks wrote a song last night. But that doesn’t mean he’s willing to share it just yet. “They got songwriters out there, once you get a good hook, man, a good writer hear it, he beat you to it,” Brooks explains. “So I couldn’t say anything about this until I done cut it, and it’s ready to go on the air. Then I tell everybody.”

It’s been a while since Brooks has put out any new material–since 1996’s Roadhouse Rules, in fact. But Brooks says there’s no problem: He’s just been too busy to get to it until now. He says he wasn’t really doing much besides playing when he did his first record, 1969’s Broke and Hungry, put out under his former alias of Guitar Jr.

Even though there have been 14 albums since then, he still calls the first his strongest. After he started working so much, he found he couldn’t dedicate himself as much to making a good record. “Now the work have got a little thin, so I’m trying to pick the strongest song I can get,” he says.

Brooks is a tough self-critic. His songs and his guitar playing are some of the strongest, most distinctive sounds in blues. The first time the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, heard Brooks playing on his back porch in Texas in the 1950s, Brooks was so shy that he was playing with his back to the street. He didn’t hear Chenier when he stopped his big black Cadillac, walked up the porch steps, and stood behind Brooks, listening. Chenier introduced himself and asked who Brooks was playing with. “I said, ‘I’m not playing with anybody now, I’m just trying to learn.’ He said, ‘Well, you sound good to me,’” Brooks remembers.

That earned Brooks an invitation to Chenier’s house to jam. Two days later, Brooks was on the bandstand. Chenier and Brooks’ partnership lasted nearly a year. “But I had a day job and I used to suffer,” Brooks remembers. “We would go out of town, and I would get back just in time enough for me to put my clothes on and go to work.”

When Chenier got an offer to record in California, he asked Brooks to go along. The guitarist had his job and a young wife, though, and she wouldn’t let him leave. Instead, he used Chenier’s recommendations to get gigs, eventually hooking up with Sam Cooke and Jimmy Reed. Reed and Cooke taught him stage presence, and Reed taught him to get over his shyness and talk to his audience.

But the most important lesson Brooks had to learn was both from and for himself. At one point, he was trying to play like a variety of big-name bluesmen. But he heard Guitar Slim say that–after a show, when the people go home–the last thing on their mind is going to be you. He decided to change his style.

“So this is my motto,” Brooks reasons. “Man, when they leave my show, they got their mind on what I’m doing, they ain’t gonna say, ‘He sound like this guy’ or he sound like that. So what I did, I put a little bit of Texas, a little bit of Louisiana, Chicago, a little bit of everything in my songs. Two or three licks of my guitar or hear me sing, they know it’s me.”

Brooks says it’s a message he’s tying to teach his sons, Ronnie Barker and Wayne, too. Ronnie Barker spent 12 years in his dad’s band before going solo, and youngest son Wayne is still playing with him. “Reach way down in your soul and your heart,” Brooks advises. “Be yourself.”

The Bull Durham Blues Festival rips up at 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 8 and Saturday, Sept. 9 at the Historic Durham Athletic Park. The Lonnie Brooks Band plays on Saturday, as does Nora Jean Brusco with Carl Weathersby, Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King, and Mighty Lester & The Blues Kings. Friday’s lineup includes Hubert Sumlin & Pinetop Perkins with the Willie “Big Eyes” Smith Band, The Kenny Neal Band, Walter “Wolfman” Washington & The Roadmasters, and The Clayton Miller Band. For more details, visit www.hayti.org/blues.

Online Extra: Interview with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith

Brooks, like a lot of blues men, went through hard times before making it in his chosen profession. But as drummer harpist Willie “Big Eyes” Smith discovered, even being with the top man in the field doesn’t always guarantee success.

Smith got his big break when Muddy Waters asked him to record with him in the late ’50s. By 1961, Smith was a member of Waters’ band. But by 1964, Smith had to quit the band, driving a cab to feed his family. “Yeah, it was hard times, them early ’60s, because rock ‘n’ roll had done took over,” Smith says of that era in Chicago. “The prices done fell down cause the clubs couldn’t pay or wouldn’t pay, because everybody was doing rock ‘n’ roll.”

But three years later, he was back. Smith is an easygoing man who says he never had any problems with Waters, known for his truculent manner on the bandstand. Smith stuck with Waters until 1980, when the whole band–bassist Calvin Jones, harpist Jerry Portnoy, pianist Pinetop Perkins, guitarist Luther Johnson and Smith on drums–left, forming the Legendary Blues Band. Smith won’t say why the band all left at once, but Pinetop Perkins told Offbeat magazine’s Robert Fontenot last year that Waters’ booking agent took all the money, leaving little for the band.

“Well, older people always told you how to behave yourself. They always give you that line about how to behave yourself, but you know, they wasn’t behaving themselves,” says Smith, later adding: “Came about in 1980, after the shit started to hit the fan. You always try to prepare yourself for what’s coming.”

Legendary was one of the best supergroups ever to hit the blues scene, putting out four albums before it fell apart. “Everybody was in love with Pinetop,” Smith says. “So everybody started pulling Pinetop away from us.” Smith named the group Legendary Blues Band because everyone associated with the band at the time was a legend in their own right. That was one reason it couldn’t last: Portnoy and Jones were also in demand, and they wore themselves out on the road. It got to the point that all the other players wanted to take a break.

“I couldn’t afford to take no break,” Smith says. “So I just had to keep on truckin’. I done got it this far so you know I ain’t gonna quit now.”

Since, Smith has been busy making a name for himself as a solo artist. He played harp before he became a drummer, blowing on Bo Diddley’s 1955 hit “Diddy Wah Diddy.” On his latest, Hightone’s Way Back, Smith plays Chicago blues harp with an easy rockin’ style coupled to a laid-back, down-home singing redolent of his native Arkansas country upbringing.

Smith’s work is about more than just making records: He thinks the blues needs more help from older guys like himself. “It’s a new generation, but you can’t put it in that hip hop category. We got these youngsters, we just got to keep feedin’ ’em, and try to make ’em eat,” he says.

It’s hard getting blues into prime time these days, but Smith travels the country willing to do his part getting the message out live to a younger generation who he believes doesn’t hear enough blues. “But when they hear it, they really like it,” he says. “And out of that, some of ’em will remember that and keep it goin’.”