This week, buzz had a chance to sit down with Joe Nosek of the Cash Box Kings, a blues group from Chicago, ahead of the group’s appearance at the Rose Bowl Tavern in Urbana this weekend. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
buzz: How would you describe Cash Box King’s sound?
JN: We’re really centered around the classic postwar Chicago blues sound from the 1940s and ‘50s, people like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf. We’re really dedicated to carrying on the traditional Chicago blues sound, but at the same time keeping the music relevant by writing a lot of original music, which tackles relevant topics happening today in the world and society. We do delve a little into delta blues, rockabilly and jump blues, too.
buzz: I think it’s interesting that you say you’re trying to keep your music relevant to things that are going on today. Is that something you believe artists should be doing and is a responsibility, or is that more of a personal choice for you?
JN: It’s something we feel pretty strongly about. We’ve gotten a little pushback from some people who say, “Hey, stick to the music and leave the social message and politics out of it,” but we feel that music, since its beginnings, thousands of years ago, has been a way for artist to express all kinds of ideas and especially to reflect the world they see around them.
buzz: What role did blues music play into your life growing up, and how did you first become interested in it?
JN: Everyone in the band kind of came at it a few different ways. Our lead singer, Oscar Wilson, who was born on the South Side of Chicago, his father was a blues musician, and growing up, he was surrounded by a lot of really famous legendary Chicago blues musicians. For him, it was just his upbringing, and the same goes for our drummer Kenny Smith. His father was Muddy Waters’ drummer, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and Kenny grew up around these monumental figures in the blues and American music, and he just knew them as his dad’s friends.
I did not come from that kind of background, and some of the other guys in the band, we kind of came in as hearing the music when we were in our early teens and just thinking, “Whoa, this music is really powerful.” I came into it through my dad’s Rolling Stones records and I would see “Jagger, Richards, Jagger Richards,” and all of a sudden, I’d see a different writing credit for someone named McKinley Morganfield or Chester Burnett and think, “Who are these guys?” It was pre-Google, pre-Internet, so I went down to the library and found out that McKinley Morganfield was Muddy Waters, and I thought, “Well geez, I should maybe try to find the original.”
But I think the one thing we all have in common is we have a real passion for music and try to play it the right way and preserve its classic ensemble approach and really raw driving spirit.
buzz: What’s the earliest memory you have of hearing blues music and thinking, “This is something I want to do”?
JN: I remember hearing a Howlin’ Wolf song when I was probably 12 years old and it put chills up my spine, like, “Whoa, who is this guy?” I think the first time I might’ve seen it in any type of film or video image was, probably for a lot of people, “The Blues Brothers.” There’s actually a scene on Maxwell Street, and it featured John Lee Hooker, who was in Muddy Waters’ band, and actually our drummer’s father is in that scene. So that was one of the first times I saw it, whereas for Oscar and Kenny, Kenny grew up in Muddy Waters’ basement and watched the band practice.
buzz: When did the Cash Box Kings start performing live?
JN: We’ve been around for 18 years. Kenny and I have been together for 18 years, and Billy Flynn, our guitar player, has probably been for about 15 years, and Wilson, our lead singer, probably 14 years, so we’ve been together for quite a while making music together.
buzz: What has kept you guys together and kept the band going for so long?
JN: I think we all love blues music and making music together, and we all also have pretty varied and diverse musical likes and interests. I think if it was blues all the time, we might get a little sick of it, so we do try to sprinkle in a lot of things, but I think the most important thing is we like each other as human beings. We’re good friends, we respect each other musically, but also as human beings, and we genuinely like spending time with each other.
There have been a few personnel changes over the years, but this core group of four of us has been there pretty much since the beginning, and, one of the big reasons is we like making music with each other, and we like just hanging out with each other, too. We don’t mind getting on a plane and flying to Europe or driving to New Jersey in a van with each other and having a good time.
buzz: I imagine that dynamic between you all carries onto a stage. I know when I see a band, I can tell how close everybody is and how everyone enjoys doing what they do. Do you feel this resonates with audiences at your performances as well?
JN: Yeah, I think so. I think if you’re up there and you don’t want to be onstage with the people you’re playing with, which happens, you have to put a fake smile on just get through it. But I think you can tell when there are people who genuinely like to be around each other, and it comes through onstage and through the music, so when we’re smiling, it’s because we’re smiling on the outside and on the inside as well. We’re happy to be playing with each other.
buzz: Do you have a favorite song to perform live?
JN: For Wilson, his favorite is this old Chicago blues song called “Come on In This House.” It’s a song that his mom would play a lot. So, it’s one that he relates to personally, hearing that song as a really young child, so he really likes to do that one live a lot. That’s probably the one that jumps into my head first.
buzz: You are also touring around the U.S. and Europe. What’s it like traveling and being able to bring your music to all these different places?
JN: We love it, you know, it’s like if you would have told me 30 years ago that I’d be able to travel around the world and play music for people and make them happy and get a positive reaction out of sometimes thousands of people in a big festival setting, I wouldn’t have believed you.
I think we’re blessed to go around the world and bring music to people, especially people who are really passionate about traditional blues music like we are. Audiences members will come up and have the exact same love and passion for the music as we do playing it, so it’s really great to connect with people. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.
buzz: How did the release of your new album in May go? How did fans receive it?
JN: It was received really well. I think it debuted at number eight, and it may have gone up as high as number five on the Billboard blues chart. We felt a real sense of accomplishment, and it was the most, I think, for a month or two, one of the most played blues recording throughout the world. That was really gratifying, and we got really positive critical reviews of the album as well, so the critics seemed to enjoy it.
buzz: You guys are going to be at the Rose Bowl Tavern on Saturday here in Urbana. Have you guys ever performed in Urbana before?
JN: That’s a really good question. I think we performed in the Champaign-Urbana area, but I know it’s been a while. I know there’s a lot of old school blues fans in central Illinois, and people in the area really love the blues that we play, so we’re looking forward to coming back and seeing a lot of friendly faces. We’re going to come in and just lay it down and have a good night.