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Red Wine and Blues | by Andrew Gilbert
When headliner Boz Scaggs and wine merchant Kermit Lynch teamed up, they created music and grapes with strong notes.

The way Boz Scaggs tells it, Kermit Lynch devised a perfect seduction.
The lights were low, the hour was late, and the music on the sound system was pungent and soulful. And if the setting—a hillside terrace on Lynch’s home in Provence—wasn’t persuasive enough, there was no resisting a plate of delectable cheeses and an old bottle of the locally vinted Domaine Tempier Bandol Rouge (a repast worthy of Lynch’s storied career as the founder of his eponymous Berkeley wine store).
When Scaggs and Lynch awoke the next morning, there was some question about what had transpired in the wee hours, but Scaggs is a man of honor and he lived up to his bleary late-night pledge. Thus was born the musical love child Quicksand Blues, an album of Lynch’s own vintage-style songs performed by heavyweights such as Alvin Youngblood Hart, Laurie Lewis, Jon Cleary, Jackie Payne, and the Bozman himself.

As Scaggs recounts in the album’s liner notes, he doesn’t exactly recall saying that he would record Lynch’s music, but it’s entirely possible that he did. “Life is good and life is long, it seemed, as talk turned back to the early days and heady haze that was San Francisco and Berkeley in the Sixties,” Scaggs writes. “Turns out Kermit had been fronting a band and writing songs back in those days, and he just happened to have a cassette around somewhere . . . . The next day Kermit seemed certain I had offered to gather some top musical talent.”

Recorded during a series of sessions over two years at Scaggs’s Gray Cat Studios, tucked behind his San Francisco nightclub Slim’s, Quicksand Blues is a labor of love that comes off surprisingly well. The fact that Scaggs enlisted an A-team built upon Bonnie Raitt’s rhythm section tandem—bassist Hutch Hutchinson and drummer Ricky Fataar—means that every piece flows with an irresistible groove. From the opening track, “December Rain,” a stripped-down Delta lament which features passionate vocals by Youngblood Hart and puckish harp work by Applejack Walroth, the music feels vital, lived-in, and immediate.

For Lynch, who wrote the vast majority of the songs when he was a rock singer knocking around the East Bay scene four decades ago, the album wasn’t so much the fulfillment of a dream as a godsend that put him back in touch with his long-suppressed muse. Though he resisted at first, he even contributed two vocals, growling his way through the evocative title track and crooning the Nashville-inflected “Country Living,” with backing vocals by Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum.

The market for blues being what it is, there was never a chance that Lynch would have a hit album on his hands. But the CD has gained some attention from blues aficionados. Music journalist Tony Fletcher, best-known for his harrowing biography of the Who’s gonzo drummer Keith Moon, has some quibbles with Lynch’s retro sound, but generally praises Quicksand Blues.

“ Performances and production alike are top-notch, ensuring that Quicksand Blues will earn favor with purists everywhere,” Fletcher writes on his Web site “And most of Lynch’s songs, while simplistic, are also of quality.”

During an interview, Lynch recalls the murky beginnings of Quicksand Blues. “There was some tongue-in-cheek in the way Boz described that evening but it was pretty much like that,” he says from his spacious Berkeley hills home on The Alameda, where he lives with his wife and two sons (when not in Provence or Oahu, Hawaii). “In France that night it finally came up that I had written some songs. We’d had something to drink when I finally put the tape in, which probably worked in my favor. I complained about my tapes, ‘God, they sound so awful,’ and he just dropped this offhand statement, ‘Well, if you ever want to get some better recordings of this, I’ve got a little studio in San Francisco, and I can get some musicians together.’ ”
Whether or not Scaggs was serious at the time, Lynch latched onto the offer. “It was beyond my wildest hopes that somebody like Boz and the guys he got together would be doing my songs. I hadn’t dreamt that dream. But I’ve been into music all my life, and it’s alive in me.”
The crisscrossing currents that brought Lynch and Scaggs together highlight the possibilities for self-invention in the Bay Area. Scaggs, of course, is the guitarist and songwriter whose career blossomed in 1967 when he arrived in San Francisco and quickly hooked up with his Dallas grade-school buddy Steve Miller. Their reunion came just in time for Scaggs to contribute to the first two Steve Miller Band albums: Children of the Future and Sailor. While his solo career sputtered for several years, in the mid-’70s he delivered the highly polished pop session Silk Degrees, which reached number two on the charts and featured three hit singles, including his trademark tune “Lido Shuffle.”

Scaggs recorded several more top-20 hits over the next five years, and then gradually pulled away from the music business, recording only sporadically while maintaining a fiercely loyal fan base. In 2003, he released But Beautiful, an album of standards. Rather than drawing derision as a baby boomer cliché, Scaggs acquitted himself with grace, backed by a first-rate jazz combo led by pianist Paul Nagel.
But his musical sensibility wasn’t the only facet of his life that was ripening.

In 1997, Scaggs and his wife Dominique bought property in the Mayacamas mountain range, which runs the border between Napa and Sonoma counties. A passion for wine led him to experiment with various varietal blends inspired by celebrated Rhone Valley wines. Around 2002, through an introduction by Lynch, Scaggs began working with John Olney, the vice president and winemaker for Ridge Lytton Springs, just north of Healdsburg, to produce a blend with Scaggs’s grapes that has won diehard fans in the wine community.
Though he hasn’t released any of his wine commercially, Scaggs bottled 125 cases of his 2002 vintage, and almost doubled the yield the following year. Carol Emert, the San Francisco Chronicle’s former “Uncorked” columnist, gave Scaggs’s efforts a hearty thumbs up.

“ Like many good, young wines, it tastes and smells rough-hewn, but shows a rich character, great depth of fruit and should soften and integrate with some time in the bottle,” Emert wrote in December 2004. While production and plans to release the wine commercially are on hold, the rocker has said he plans to dub his new wine brand “Scaggs.”
Lynch and Scaggs first met four years ago at a Chez Panisse fête for Domaine Tempier proprietor Lulu Peyraud, and they quickly struck up a fast friendship fueled by their mutual love of the grape. The relationship has deepened through their shared commitment to American roots music.
“ I remember Boz from when he was with Steve Miller and they used to play free concerts in Berkeley’s Provo Park,” Lynch says. “But I didn’t know him [personally] until more recently. We met through our common interest in wine, and we’d kind of gotten to going around to restaurants together once in a while. But it turned out we had a lot of interests in common. We’re the same age, drive the same car, and have the same political views. And of course we share a love of music. It’s funny the way we’ve sort of taken reverse paths. Boz is a musician who dabbles in wine and I’m a wine man who dabbles in music.”
In fact, Lynch did far more than dabble in the blues. Raised mostly in San Luis Obispo, he arrived in Berkeley in the early 1960s just in time to catch the first ripples of the counterculture. In the wake of the folk-music mockumentary A Mighty Wind, it’s easy to forget that the spirit animating the folk and blues revival of the early 1960s was akin to punk’s DIY ethic: an anti-corporate ethos that meant anyone could start a band. That’s what Lynch did with a group of friends, inspired by blues legends like Lightning Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Howling Wolf.

“ I had never played,” Lynch says. “Those were the days when marijuana was just being discovered, and acid came along quickly. There was the feeling, at the beginning of the hippie movement, that a bunch of friends could just get together and start a band. Our drummer had never played drums. I had never sung, or played any instruments, but you could do it. I loved the music, and I just kept pursuing it with ever-changing band members.”

His main vehicle was a band called the Roaches, a tip of the hat to the Beatles and a not-so-subtle drug reference. He started writing songs some of which he has revived for Quicksand Blues. One, a confessional tale of infidelity called “Dirt Road,” features a scorching guitar solo by Alvin Youngblood Hart. The country rocker “Live it Up” was inspired by the country music of Jerry Lee Lewis. Lynch sent a recording of the song to Lewis, back when he first wrote it, but never heard back.

While Lynch loved music, he never enjoyed performing, and wasn’t drawn to the itinerant lifestyle of a touring musician. He can’t recall any favorite gigs, but the worst one stands out in stark relief. The band’s first significant job was at the long-gone Long Branch Saloon on San Pablo Avenue near Dwight. Not only was the room nearly empty, but between sets an oblivious bartender cranked up the sound system with the Who’s Live at Leeds, which had just been released. “We’re sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my God, where can I go hide?’ ” Lynch recalls with a sardonic smile.

As the ’60s came to an end, Lynch had grown tired of trying to keep a band together only to lose musicians to drugs. Looking to get away from the scene, Lynch decided to bum around Europe for several months. With the central role of good food and wine, the continental lifestyle was a revelation. When he returned to Berkeley he decided to look for a part-time job in the wine business to make ends meet. “But people were all firing instead of hiring,” Lynch says. “So my girlfriend loaned me $5,000 and I opened a store in 1972. It was just going to be a hobby. I was going to get a band together again, I thought. But then the wine thing took off and took me with it.”

His self-named shop gradually gained a reputation as the place to buy excellent, hard-to-find French wines, and he began importing and distributing his carefully selected vintages nationally. Recognition soon followed, as the James Beard Foundation named Lynch the “Wine Professional of the Year” in 2000. In 1998 he was awarded the French Ordre du Merité Agricole and last year the French government awarded him the prestigious Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Legion D’Honneur. His book Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France (North Point Press, 1988), was named the Veuve Clicquot Wine Book of the Year.

In 1998, Lynch took the logical next step from selling wine, purchasing the historic vineyard and estate, Domaine Les Pallières, in Gigondas, Provence. With his business partner and friend Daniel Bruniers, of the Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe wine estates, Lynch is now producing wine himself, having reinvigorated the reputation of already well-known Domaine Les Pallières wines.
As much pleasure as Lynch gets from his success in the wine world, his eyes take on an unmistakable gleam when he talks about making Quicksand Blues. The opportunity to work closely with such capable musicians set his creative juices flowing anew. While at first he just sat back and let the players interpret his tunes, before long he took an active role in shaping each song’s sound, so that they reflected the way they played in his mind. By the end of the project, Scaggs had even convinced Lynch to contribute some vocals himself.

“ I dragged out the recording as long as I could, because I loved every minute of it, spending hours surrounded by these guys,” Lynch says. “I started really timidly, and Boz always tried to get me to sing, saying they’re your songs, you’ll sing them better than anybody else. I wasn’t at all convinced of that. But as it went on, I got a little bit more courageous.”

Since the album’s release, Lynch has continued to work with drummer Ricky Fataar, developing demos for a possible second project. He’s even started writing new songs, as he’s found that Quicksand Blues has stimulated his musical imagination. Motivated purely by the pleasure he gets from honing a new tune and collaborating with other artists, Lynch has no dreams of grandeur. He already lives better than many rock stars, so he certainly doesn’t covet those trappings.

“ I think it’s cool that I don’t have to worry about succeeding at the music business,” Lynch says. “I’ve never liked performing. It went against the grain. I’m kind of a hermit, so to get up in front of people and sing was always pretty traumatic. But in the studio it’s not like that. With Ricky I feel this rapport and I can really let go and, for better or worse, express myself.”
Andrew Gilbert is a freelance writer based in Albany. He is The Monthly’s music critic.