How Albert Cummings found success in building and blues
WILLIAMSTOWN — When Albert Cummings was touring in Europe last month, he spent a lot of time admiring the work of others who had once plied his trade. No, he wasn't scavenging for old tapes of blues-rock guitarists in Germany, Poland and the Netherlands; he was taking in the centuries-old structures common to the continent, ones his late father, Albert, would have appreciated.
"My father used to say, 'You build things that are going to be here long after you, if you do them right,'" Cummings said Wednesday at the office of Cummings General Contractor Inc. along Route 7 in Williamstown.
Cummings is both an acclaimed musician and a fourth-generation builder; a purist who laments that contemporary structures are only built to last 100 years. His firm has won a bevy of national awards for its work on custom houses and other types of properties. Among other jobs, the contractor completed the Class of 1966 Environmental Center at Williams College. More recently, Cummings and company finished a Williams dorm and a Williamstown home. On Wednesday, he was excited about his next big project, a "huge addition" to a Conway property.
"It's an old historic house. It was owned by Archibald MacLeish," Cummings said, referring to the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
Before he can dig into that construction, though, Cummings has some stage work to handle. On Saturday, Nov. 9, Cummings will play The Colonial Theatre as part of a Northeast run of shows. The Williamstown musician has performed at the Pittsfield venue multiple times before; one of his live albums, "Feel So Good," was recorded there more than a decade ago. His latest record, "Live at the '62 Center," was also a Berkshire product, stemming from a concert at Williams' '62 Center for Theatre and Dance in 2016. For Cummings, who has performed with B.B. King and Buddy Guy, concerts in his home county offer a unique opportunity to display a different part of his personality.
"The farther I get away from Berkshire County, the more famous I become. There's no doubt about it. People know me as Albert around here, and I'm a different guy when I get on the stage," he said.
That persona can be traced back to Cummings' Williamstown youth. His father played guitar and fiddle in lots of big Berkshire County bands, including a 26-piece orchestra and the Hinsdale Home Club house band, as well as at family parties and weddings. That's where Cummings first saw his father play, recalling "how cool that was."
Unable to wrap his hand around his father's guitar during childhood, Cummings first took up the banjo, entering a Williamstown Lions Club talent show. He didn't win, but he was asked to be on "Community Auditions." He would end up appearing several times on the long-running, Boston-based TV talent show that has featured musicians, magicians, dancers and comedians, as well as the "Star of the Day" theme song.
"Even though I didn't know it at the time, it was me cutting my teeth with this music industry," he said.
By 15, he could grip the guitar. so his father taught him a few chords. Cummings also tried to mirror the artists he listened to on a cassette player. He couldn't fathom Stevie Ray Vaughan's virtuosity.
"There's no way anybody can play guitar like that because it was so radical," he remembered thinking.
Soon, he would get to see it for himself. After graduating from Mount Greylock Regional High School, Cummings attended Wentworth Institute of Technology, studying to become a builder.
"My father always told me that I was going to be a builder, and that's what I was going to be. I never had any idea of doing anything else, except music," Cummings said.
While in Boston, Cummings ventured over to the Orpheum Theatre one day in the mid-1980s. A sign said that Vaughn and his band "Double Trouble" would be playing there.
"I'm like, 'Oh, my God! This is the guy!'" Cummings recalled.
He went back to the dorm, hoping some friends would tag along. Nobody wanted to join, so Cummings went to the show solo. The concert focused his musical intentions.
"I remember walking out of that Orpheum Theatre thinking, 'Goodbye, banjo.' That was really the end of the banjo for me," he said.
A few years later, Cummings moved back to the Berkshires; married his wife, Christina; and threw himself into the family business. It wasn't until a friend's wedding six years later that he found himself onstage with a guitar. The band had invited him up. Hesitant at first, he reveled in the experience.
"Something powerful was grabbing a hold of me," he said.
He subsequently helped form a trio called Swamp Yankee. One of the band's early gigs was opening for Kansas at the Night Shift Cafe at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. But there weren't many other local venues to hit at that time, so the group started playing more in the Albany area. Eventually, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute picked Cummings to be its local headliner for a blues show. They asked him to recommend a national act to join him, so Cummings mentioned Double Trouble. He didn't expect Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon to actually show up, but Vaughan's rhythm section did just that. They hit it off so well that Shannon and Layton urged him to make an album. They would produce it, and they would record in Austin, Texas, they told him. That led to the release of Cummings' debut album, "From the Heart," in 2001.
"I asked Double Trouble, 'What would Stevie tell me to do?' And they said, 'He'd tell you to play from the heart.' That's where that came from," Cummings said.
Layton and Shannon gave him an "amazing" education.
"They taught me how to react onstage, how to hear things, what to listen for," Cummings said. "They taught me so many things, and I play with guys to this day, that are seasoned musicians, that they're not even out of kindergarten with the thought process [compared to them]."
B.B. King's management team had taken notice of Cummings' performance with Double Trouble and invited him to open for King at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton. Cummings then accompanied the blues legend for a string of dates in Florida and the Northeast.
"I'm getting standing ovations," Cummings recalled.
One time, a King security staffer told Cummings that "Mr. King" wanted to see him after a show. Cummings opened the door, expecting something grim. Instead, King told him how much he enjoyed Cummings' music.
"All I remember is, 'I'm being blessed by the master. He is approving of what I'm doing,'" Cummings said. "How do you get any better endorsement than that?"
It wasn't just lip service. Years later, when Cummings' son, Carter, was a child, they attended a King show, waiting backstage for the bluesman. King shook Carter's hand and gave Cummings a hug. Cummings said he was surprised by the reception, given that it had been so long since they had played together.
"He says, 'Albert, we're friends. Why would you ever say that?'" Cummings recalled. "I still get emotional thinking about that."
Cummings has performed with some of the biggest names in the guitar world, but he has never been one to tour much or spend a ton of time in the studio.
"You can't run a construction company and do that," he said.
Moreover, Cummings didn't want to be away from his family for too long. After one tour, he returned home and could see that his younger son, Taylor, had physically grown.
"I was angry that I'd missed that. It put the brakes on," he said.
In terms of managing his two professional pursuits, Cummings points to Christina.
"We've just found the balance," she said.
Cummings is "crazy enough" to think that his interests in building homes and songs are directly related. He compares the planning and foundation-laying of a home to establishing a rhythm and a melody. Securing "your floor joist and your deck and everything else" is the chorus. Adding exterior clapboards is like bringing in different instrumentation, and the finishes inside are akin to the vocals, background singers, horn sections and other final touches.
"Pretty soon, if everything's put in place in the right spot, it's a successful building or a successful song," he said. "It's a stretch, but that's how I think of it."
Building has also taught him a patience that has served him well in the music business and songwriting.
"If anybody's ever built a house — and we've built a lot of them — your first day doing that, you can look to the end and be totally overwhelmed by it, or you can just make today a success," he said.
That approach worked on "Live at the '62 Center," which was nominated for best blues rock album at the The Blues Foundation's Blues Music Awards in 2019. Cummings just wrapped up work in the "hit capital" of Muscle Shoals, Ala., on his next record, which is due out in early 2020. Provogue Records also recently signed him, adding him to a long list of acclaimed guitarists that includes Joe Bonamassa. Cummings is happy that he didn't become a major blues player at 20; his music is a more accurate expression of him now than it would have been back then.
"I didn't know my thoughts on things. I didn't have views on things. I didn't have my opinion about things. All that comes later," he said. "I think people get better with blues as they get older because they have more to tell about."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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