Bruce Hampton, known widely as Col. Bruce, or Bruce to everyone he knows, who it seems is actually everyone, showed up to our interview wearing a “Pluto is a planet” shirt, signaling instantly that he was the kind of guy I wanted to talk to.
We met to discuss the upcoming Hampton 70 show at The Fabulous Fox Theatre, a tribute to Hampton’s 70th birthday (on April 30) and a lifetime of musical achievement. Proceeds from Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton will benefit the Fox Theatre Institute and other music-minded charities. Similar to the Gregg Allman: All My Friends event also held at the Fox, the event stars jam band royalty Widespread Panic and Warren Haynes, along with legends like Peter Buck (R.E.M), Kevin Kinney (Drivin’ N’ Cryin’), John Popper (Blues Traveler) and features a special appearance by Billy Bob Thornton, who knows the Colonel from their Sling Blade days.
I asked him what it felt like to have something of such magnitude done in his honor. I mean, this guy has played with every legend out there, has made and shaped rock’s landscape, influential to music in a very tangible way, particularly in Atlanta. He humbly answered that he never craved such fanfare, passing it off that we all waited impatiently by the phone for the on-sale to Hampton 70 as a side effect of the other acts.
“There’s no ego in this for me. There never has been,” he says, obviously semi-uncomfortable with the idea of the notoriety. “It’s still the Super Bowl for me every time.” This sort of excited, affable attitude is what makes him a favorite among his colleagues and fans alike. You can hardly say enough about what a pleasant demeanor the guy has, though still possessing a hint of friendly mischief in his remarkably blue eyes, remnant of zanier times.
He goes on to say that he hopes he has a good many years left to make music (so do we) which prompts me to ask him if he has a musical bucket list. If, among a resume that reads like the musical Oscars, there’s anyone left he wants to play with. He laughs as he says, “Yes, but they’re all dead.”
He stops me at this point to ask me my birthday and the time of day at which I was born. He smiles knowingly and says, “Aries.” Col. Bruce then starts telling me about myself in the way that only someone with a seemingly other-side intuition can do. It’s quite a remarkable gift, something that makes me stop and marvel at how a self-professed introvert could be so undeniably connected to the human experience. It doesn’t take me long to remember, as he starts talking shop about music, it’s because he’s an incredible artist. Rather, the two are interchangeable.
He also has a memory that I think could make an elephant take his trunk and go home. For every story, a specific date attached, exact knowledge of how long ago it was, and a bittersweet nostalgia that I think only musicians can understand. We talk about how he’s seen Atlanta (the city and the music) change, for better and for worse, like most things.
We can’t help but turn to politics as the tv behind us blares news of the US’ recent attack on Afghanistan. With intensity he talks about his views on the world. “You experience a lot in 70 years but sometimes you still can’t believe what you’re seeing and hearing.” He continues that it is the job of younger generations (he called me a baby at 36 and I had to not kiss him) to make the difference. He challenges, “The difference in my generation is that it was life or death. You tell a 19-year-old kid they’re going to die in Vietnam and they’re going to fight back. This generation isn’t fighting back. What’s the end game? What are we doing this for? How are YOU going to help?” If I didn’t know before this meeting, I’m certainly going to start thinking more about it.
Col. Bruce is the kind of person whose soul easily and unapologetically rests on his sleeve. You hear it in his music, in the passion with with he addresses the state of the world, in the loyalty you sense when he talks about old friends. It’s no wonder his musical family would come together for such a celebration. It is truly a life worth celebrating!
We start to wrap up. He explains he has to run to Ace Hardware to get silicon for amp tubes for his gig tonight, joking that he pays a road manager to do these things. I give him a hug goodbye, feeling like I’ve just had coffee with a dear old friend, and head off, my day made happier by exposure to such a unique and incredibly kind soul.
Happy Birthday, Colonel Bruce, from your friends at Atlanta Music Guide. To many more and all the music in between.
You can also see Colonel Bruce weekly at The Vista Room at Napoleon’s in Decatur, Georgia. Tickets available at Freshtix.