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Dressed completely in black and sporting tinted shades that never come off, Hans Olson looks like the understudy for Death in a Bergman flick.
His ominous appearance and growling baritone are tempered by a nostalgic smile as he ticks off the legends with whom he's shared a stage: Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Willie Dixon top off the pagelong list. Olson laughs and sucks on his umpteenth Merit of the day. "Most of these people," he says fondly, "are all psychotics."
The Valley's consummate bluesman admits he occasionally "spun out of control" himself while carving out an identity as an artist whose lean but fascinating slide guitar and harmonica-in-a-rack technique is recognized by industry insiders to be among the best anywhere--Chicago, L.A. and the Mississippi Delta included.
Just tuning up, Olson tosses off music beautiful enough to be mistaken for a song. He's been known to quietly devastate an audience with his interpretation of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," then blow the room down with a rootsy, boot-stompin' number that has him strumming and wailing like his old friend Tom Waits.
"Hans plays better with no hands than most people do with both," says Blue Note club owner Rick Parrish. "People have gone around this man for too long. He needs to be recognized."
Revered in the Valley blues scene, Olson remains a relatively obscure figure beyond its borders. Except, that is, in Europe.
Since 1984, Olson has toured that continent seven times, and is currently on the road in France, where, he notes, he outsells Johnny Cash. In 1993, Olson kicked off a blues festival in Belgium that featured Albert Collins, John Hammond, Jeff Healey and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. "Eighteen thousand people showed up, and I cooked," he says. "It was the most perfect gig from top to bottom."
Even so, when Olson returned to the States, he was still what he was when he left--a regional sensation with national potential and a bad-luck streak. Despite his talent and ten albums to his credit, big-time success in America has somehow eluded Olson.
Or perhaps he's eluded it.
Alternately foiled by ill fortune and his own stubbornness, the artist who calls himself "Mr. Unlucky" has a love/hate relationship with mainstream success that would do any Amerindie zealot proud. While Olson envies the fame and financial rewards of major-label success, he's reluctant to uproot himself for a year of constant touring or to surrender his artistic vision to a producer "two months out of college and one month in the industry" who would likely want to spiff up his classic blues sound to make it more commercially viable.
"If you just play the blues," Olson says, "it's like you're a priest and you live in poverty. You're respected for keeping this tradition alive, but you never get ahead."
Still, Olson can't say he never got a shot. Bill McEuen, the producer who broke the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, took a serious interest in him in 1982. "This guy was turning out golden stuff," Olson says.
McEuen flew Olson to Los Angeles to record a five-song demo called The Aspen Tapes, a bloated project that included a 13-piece back-up band. The demo captured the attention of the president of Warner Bros., who was ready to fork over a $150,000 advance. Figuring he had finally struck gold, Olson moved to L.A. and started to max out his credit cards.
Then things got weird--the president of Warner Bros. was suddenly fired. "That was unheard of," says Olson. McEuen was undaunted. The new Warner president, it turned out, was a pal of his, and still eager to cut a record deal. There was only one catch: The new guy hated The Aspen Tapes. McEuen told Olson they would have to make a few small changes to his style.
"Bill comes in and says, 'We're gonna go to Nashville! You're gonna be a No. 1 country artist, I've just decided.'" Olson, though, hated "that twangy bullshit," and refused to don a bola tie, riches be damned. "[McEuen] got mad," the singer recalls. "I don't blame him, 'cause I'm a stupid kid and he's the guy that everything he touches turns to gold.
"He was right and I was wrong, and I say that to him all the time now, and he says, 'You blew your chance.' All of a sudden, Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang, Dwight Yoakam come along. I woulda been right in there."
Recollecting his discovery of his love of performance evokes happier thoughts.
"I was 6 and watching Gene Kelly do a soft-shoe on television," he says. "It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen--to just be standing there and look so good keeping his feet going. So I go out to my garage, close the door and put salt on the floor to help with the soft-shoe. I danced for an hour. It was like, 'Show business! I'm gonna be in show business!' It started then, and I've always kept up with it." Since then, Olson has performed solo and as part of a group, playing everything from folk to punk--"twangy bullshit" aside, of course.