Published on March 10th, 2014 | by TLV News0
Delta Dynamite: Local Musician Keith Sanders (Full Interview)
by Suanne Strider and Nature Humphries – photos by Newt Rayburn
Twenty six year old Keith Sanders has been making waves recently for his appearance on American Idol last month, he was voted “Oxford’s Favorite Vocalist” this year, and is keeping busy with gigs around Oxford and the Delta with his band The Gutter Daisies. Keith is also involved in a new project called Mississippi Po’ Folk, a folk-rap collaboration with Demetrios Brown and Zechariah Lloyd.
TLV decided to grab a beer with Keith and pick his brain about instant fame, growing up in the Delta, and his big plans for the future.
How old are you, Keith?
Fourteen years old in a 26-year-old’s body.
Where are you from?
Originally I was born in Albany, Georgia. I moved from Georgia when I was about 10 years old. I moved here for two years; my dad came here to get his doctorate in music.
Who is your dad?
Dr. Alphonso Sanders, he teaches at Mississippi Valley State University. He’s the chairman of the Fine Arts Dept. there. He also runs the B.B. King Recording Studio. We ventured from there to Cleveland, Mississippi, where my world was kind of changed. Culture shock set in. The Delta definitely had so much culture and history behind it that was hidden, like most people didn’t respect it. My father, being the person that he is, showed me every piece of it. I’ve got a lot of respect for the Delta and the musicians that live there. That influenced me a lot when it came to what kind of music I wanted to play.
How long have you been in Oxford?
I’ve been in Oxford for almost four years. I ended up moving here when I was 23, and me and my buddy Shane [King] decided we needed to get out of the Delta. We were stuck and we needed to make some moves. We met a couple of people down here because Shane’s brother Scott King lived here, and we’d come up and visit him every so often. We met some really cool influential people in music. They heard us play and they were like, “Man ya’ll should come play down here!” And the rest is history. The next thing I know, we were packing up our houses and moving. It took us a day and a half to decide. My mom was a little upset, but other than that it turned out all right.
What are your early music experiences? When did you start getting interested in music?
Music was a weird thing for me, growing up. When it finally became my dream, when it finally turned for me, I ended up not being able to play basketball in college, which sucked, but I still had to find a way to pay for college. So I ended up joining the show choir at Mississippi Delta Community College. I did it because I had to, and then it started turning into something that I wanted to do. I did the dancing and things just because, but learning how to sing was a big step for me. I had some really good teachers in Show Choir, one of them being Ms. Beverly Terrell, and the other was Ms. Mona Strawberry. She was director of the group. They helped mold my voice a little bit. After I left there I kept singing, and it was just about fun at first. Then it started to become life, once I started playing at bars and at parties, and once it became a business for me it turned. That’s when it stopped me being a kid running around on a stage and it turned into a business for me. This is going to be your life. So, I guess when I moved up here, that’s when it became real. That’s when I decided that’s what I was gonna do.
In your very young life were you playing music? When did you start playing guitar?
I started playing guitar about five and a half years ago. But, I started playing the trumpet at the age of six. My dad had one lying around his office at the time and I picked it up and starting trying to figure out what was going on. He taught me a little bit, and the next thing I know I was making sounds, and just kept playing.
So were you playing in the band in high school?
I did. I played trumpet, and in high school, that’s a different instrument. High school’s a different thing. I wanted to play sports really bad, so my dad made a pact with me and said, “Just stay in band through high school.” And I loved band, I really did. But like I said, high school is kind of a different thing and I wasn’t really confident, and I like basketball, too, so I played basketball, ran track, tried football. I did as many sports as I possibly could in high school—at Cleveland High. So [the music] kind of fell to the side—it disappeared for a while when sports came along.
What bands have you played with in Oxford?
We formed the Gutter Daisies about a year ago, with myself, Shane King, Josh Blackburn, and Richard Zepeda. Before that, it was just me and Shane doing the acoustic thing. I got loaned out to a couple of bands singing, like Silas Reed N’ da Books. I played with Adrian Dickey for a long time. I actually recorded on his album, Bless The Soul, which is one of my favorite memories of this place. I played guitar and did backup vocals. That wasn’t of my first time recording, but it was one of the first times I was involved with the whole process from beginning to end. That was recorded at [Andrew Ratcliffe’s] Tweed Studios. Ratcliffe did a really good job. He helped me out too, because you really never know what your voice is doing until it’s recorded and you hear it back, and you have somebody else listening to it telling you, “You gotta change these things.” He kind-of guided my path.
I just recently started a new project with Demetrios Brown and Zechariah Lloyd called Mississippi Po’ Folk. It’s like a rap-folk group. I don’t think many people have done that. It’s something new we wanted to try…just kind-of telling the struggles of people growing up in Mississippi, you know, the things we have to deal with here in Mississippi. So it’s going to be a fun thing, but a serious thing at the same time. And I will be guest starring with FadeToBlack some, which should be fun.
What kind of covers are you doing with Mississippi Po’ Folk?
It’s a mixture of today’s pop, but we change things up. We mash up a couple of songs from the old school and the new school. So it’s a nice little mixture.
I was at the recent Gutter Daisies show at Proud Larry’s when Jo Jo Herman [piano player for Widespread Panic] pulled his chair up to the front of the stage to watch you guys. I heard he was quite enthralled with the show. How does that make you feel?
Seeing Jo Jo down there made me feel warm at heart. At first, I didn’t know who he was, so I was thinking, “Ok, there’s someone sitting here looking at us really intensely.” So I was just putting on a show and it wasn’t until afterwards, I got down [off the stage] and Chico [Harris] said, “Hey man, I want you to meet a friend of mine. This is Jo Jo.” I had hear that Jo Jo was playing at the Ford Center earlier [that night], and I was like, “Wow! Did he really come to our show?
He could have gone home, he could have done anything but he decided, I’m gonna go to Proud Larry’s and check out the band. I was so happy that it was our band that he got to see. Him telling me that he dug our sound was a life changer. You know, having someone tell you something like that—someone that you grew up listening to.
Do you think growing up in the Delta helped you to become the musician that you are?
I would say that growing up in the Delta definitely influenced my sound. I definitely have some blues roots in my sound, and I have some jazz roots in my sound. There’s a little bit of soul there, a little bit of Americana. My father being who he is, growing up I got a chance to meet some of the greatest blues musicians out there. I got to work at the B.B. King Museum for a while, where I ended up meeting so many people that changed my world. I met Robert Cray, I met Keb Mo, Kenny Wayne Shepard, Bobby “Blue” Bland, I met B.B. King. I got a chance to meet some of the greatest blues musicians out there, and I got a chance to sit down and talk to a bunch of them. All of them couldn’t stick around and talk to me, but the ones that could—I would talk to them, and of course it shaped my music. My voice is little bit different from blues singers, but I’ve learned to shape it into the music that I’m writing now.
Being around the culture in the Delta, that’s a chance of a lifetime. Most people don’t get that chance, and if they do, they don’t respect that chance. I didn’t at first. It took me a long time. But once I decided that music was what I wanted to do I started snatching it up, and I was kind of upset with myself that I had not done that earlier. I had been around it, I had seen it, I had talked to those people, but I wasn’t using it
So did those musicians help with how you deal with the fame American Idol has brought?
Yes, in a way it does. It shapes you…prepares you…because you see how they deal with it. And most of them are really levelheaded. They haven’t changed much since they started the whole “fame” thing. They were decent people—they were just like us. If fame ever happened to me, I would hope that I could keep a level head—enough to know—you’re still Keith Sanders. Just because people enjoy your music doesn’t mean you are better than anyone else.
What surprised you the most about your American Idol experience?
The biggest surprise was going to Utah. You can’t breathe up there. The elevation was ridiculous!
Did it affect your singing?
It affects your breathing! But you get used to it. We were there a week, so by the end of it I kind of got used to it.
When I first got there I remember climbing up some stairs to get to the ballroom and I got of breath, and I was like, “What is wrong with me? Why is this happening?” (laughs) One of the guys from Maryville, Tennessee—where’s there’s mountains—said, “Aw man, it’s just the elevation. You’ll get used to it.” And he pats me on the back and runs off. Coming from the Delta didn’t help out at all, because it’s straight, flat land there below sea level, and I was like a thousand feet above sea level almost. So yeah, that was the weirdest experience throughout this whole thing from beginning to end was not being able to breathe. The rest of it was like clockwork. You get nervous—any human would. For me, when I got onstage to sing for the judges, it was like any other gig for me. At first I’m nervous, I’m kinda shaking a little bit, but once that first note comes out, once you start playing, the nerves stop shaking, that’s starts to go away and you get comfortable in your singing.
So your performing in Oxford helped prepare you for Idol?
It helps you become a performer. Everything disappears when you hit the stage. No matter if it’s personal, private, or public issues, I feel like, for me—once I hit the stage—I don’t think. That’s the hardest part—if you start thinking too much, and get inside your own head, you can destroy yourself. And I try not to. Yeah, the training for getting up in front of the judges was just playing onstage.
Would you try out again?
Oh, yeah. I definitely would. Unfortunately, this round, I had to drop out. I had some things I had to deal with, but they want me to come back. I will be going back. The competitive side of me wants to see how far I can go.
Are there any restrictions on trying out more than once?
No. They actually had two or three people that had tried out this season. There are age restrictions—the limit is 28. I’m 26, so this will be my last time trying out. I actually wasn’t going to try out for it at first. They brought the bus tour through here and my friend Holley Peel was like, “I’m gonna try out tomorrow. Are you?” I was like, “Mmmm…I don’t really want to.” Believe it or not, I have some confidence issues sometimes when it comes to music. I didn’t want to go be judged. I didn’t want someone to tell me I wasn’t good enough to do this. But I’m really glad that I did because I needed this experience.
Is there anything you would do different the next time?
Yes. I would probably sing songs that are more comfortable for me. When I went in front of the judges, I sang songs that were comfortable for me, and it turned out well, so that’s what I want to do. I want to be able to do an original, because I am a songwriter, and I didn’t think to do an original the first time I was on there because I didn’t know how it was going to go over. Now, I’m pretty sure that my originals will go over really well. So, that’s the one thing I want to do. That would be the thing I would want to change most. I want to play an original song now. I’m fixing to start recording my own solo project, which is a scary thing for me. I mean, I’ve recorded with other people, I’ve done certain things, but I’ve never anything for myself. This goes back to that little “lack of confidence thing” for a minute. But now, my Dad has told me, “It’s time. You’re capable of doing it, so do it.” And he’s right. So, I am going to do it independently with my father.
Your father is going to record it at the B. B. King Recording Studio at MVSU?
Yes ma’am. It’s going to be fun. I am actually looking forward to it; really, it’s just like you know when you get that butterfly feeling in your stomach—the butterfly effect—so I am just anxious to see what I will sound like locked down on a CD. I am extremely excited to be playing my own music.
Will you have a full band behind you, and whom do you think you might take into the studio with you?
There are a couple of different songs that are going to be more low-key, but yeah, there’s going to be a full band behind it. My dad’s got some musicians in mind that he wants to use and I am going to do one song with my full band the Gutter Daisies. I wrote the song for us, but I wanted to put it on my solo album. So I talked to them and they are okay with it. I’ve thought about the musicians that I want to bring in and I definitely want to bring in some of the Oxford people that I’ve met because they are a bunch of talented people. I’ve had the pleasure of playing with some of Oxford’s finest musicians, and in a short time. You know, most people can’t move here and then in a couple of years be playing with folks that have been playing their whole life. I’ve been privileged to play with a lot of great musicians around and I want to utilize that.
Anyone in particular that you would like to name?
It will probably be Tommy Turan, who is a really great bass player. I will definitely bring in Eric Carlton, because he is one of my favorite keyboardists in this town. I know I’m going to bring Shane. Shane and I have been together since day one, so I’m not going to leave him out of this thing, man.
You call yourselves brothers, don’t you? How long have you been brothers?
Yeah, we’ve been brothers since he was eighteen, I know that, so I was nineteen, twenty, when we first got to be really close enough to be called brothers. It only got stronger once I started playing the guitar and then he picked up the guitar again once I started playing it, and that’s when it kind of jettisoned for us and we decided that this is what we want to do.
So you both came into your own with this music thing at a later age, as adults.
Well, we played music at a young age. He played drums and got a bass, and then he switched over to guitar in the tenth grade.
Was he always singing?
No, I actually talked him into singing. He would not sing to save his life. He was always like, “I don’t want to sing.” It was a combination of me and his father [that] talked him into singing. I told him that singing is, I mean, some people are blessed with a natural talent, but most people have to work for it—it’s an instrument. Even the ones that are blessed with a natural talent, if they don’t work at it, they are not going to be good singers. There’s a lot that goes into singing that I didn’t know, and this experience with American Idol definitely opened my eyes to what I was doing wrong as far as singing because I had to work with coaches, which was pretty cool. I told [Shane], it’s an instrument like any other. You’ve started playing the guitar, now, what are you gonna do if that doesn’t work out? You are going to practice. You are going to form it into something that works. The voice is the same way. Am I going to promise you that you will be the most beautiful singer in the world? No. But do I promise you that you that you will be able to sing, that you’ll be able to carry a tune, able to put your words out there? Yes. That’s when he started singing. He is also starting his own project now, which I am really proud of. I can’t wait for him to finish up and get a band behind him so I can hear what it is. The Gutter Daisies are playing this Friday at Rooster’s, and he’s opening up for us. We’re trying to give him some more stage time. We are going to get up there and play a couple of songs behind him so he gets to know what it feels like to have that band behind you, to have that presence. It changes a lot of things. It puts a lot of energy behind you when you’ve got a band back there helping to carry the weight.
What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
Don’t waste time, man. If you think you’re capable of doing something, do it. Go straight in there and do it. The more time you waste, the older you get, the more you will regret it. Go after your dream.
What’s the first concert you ever saw?
I was always kind-of claustrophobic, so I didn’t go to very many concerts. I don’t like the whole crowded thing. I’ve never been a fan of it. So, I’ve gone to different concerts, usually there with my dad, but it was jazz musicians. I think it was Branford Marsalis that was the first concert I went to see, and that was really cool. I think I was thirteen or fourteen.
What’s your favorite album of all time?
Oh, I can’t think of the name of it right now. It’s Bill Withers—anything by Bill Withers.
A shorter version of this interview was originally printed in The Local Voice #198 (published February 20, 2014). To download a PDF of this issue, click HERE.
Keith Sanders was also featured on the cover of TLV #198 – here it is: