"I can still see it," Rainer says, his eyes staring off as his mind travels back. "The smell of the grass, the crickets goin', the sounds of kids riding their bicycles. It was in Amery, Mississippi. I went there with a friend who had a cousin who operated a gravel pit there. If you look, it's not even on the map.
"My friend's cousin knew a man and we went out to his house to see him. His house was a plywood shack up on cinder blocks, and it was really dark inside. The curtains looked like oiled linen. All around was this dense forest with kudzu everywhere. It made you feel more isolated than you really were.
"The man we went to see was John Arthur Williams and, at that time, he was old. He's probably dead now. At that time, he was a sanctified blues player--he didn't play the devil's music no more. He had an old Catalina guitar with a movable bridge. It was completely out of tune when I played it, but when he played, smoke came out of it. We sat out in his front yard for hours playing and listenin' to each other. The whole time I couldn't believe that there I was, listening and playing blues in the Delta. It made me feel it was worth the gamble to try it."
That was Rainer's blues epiphany, the moment he caught the fever, the night he understood where the blues began and why Robert Johnson would make a deal with the devil to play them.
He's been devoted to the blues since that night. Rainer's forays into the music business have come in a rush after his years of laboring in near-obscurity.
For the past several years, it has been common knowledge around Tucson that longtime friends Rainer and ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons have been working on a project together. Informally known as the "Texas Tapes," this project has been cloaked in secrecy from the beginning. Rainer, who signed a contract requiring him to remain silent, is still unable to talk. Asked if the record is close to being done, Rainer smiles and says, "No comment." His new attitude toward promoting himself and his career got a shot in the arm in November when Cajun fiddler extraordinaire Michael Doucet and his band Beausoleil came to Tucson for a show. Also in town for the concert was producer John Chelew, who is currently assembling a Richard Thompson tribute record. Best known as the producer of John Hiatt's masterwork Bring the Family, Chelew is also a Rainer fan, having seen him live in Tucson many times.
When Chelew and Beausoleil decided to use a Tucson recording studio to cut their Richard Thompson track, "Valerie," they tapped Rainer to sit in and play steel guitar. The best part is that after "Valerie" was finished, Chelew brought Das Combo in and, as Rainer says, "We went hog wild and burned through an hour and a half of tape." Although not totally pleased with the results, Rainer and the rest of Das Combo--bassist Nick Augustine and drummer Ralph Gilmore--agree that three cuts from the session are keepers. Chelew remains enthusiastic about getting the band back into the studio and shopping the finished demo to record labels. If a label bites and agrees to release the record, it will be the first time a Rainer recording will be widely available in America. Rainer's recording history reads a lot like his performing history: great, but hard to find. In 1985, the first Das Combo recording, a homemade cassette called The Mush Mind Blues, moved writer-turned-MTV star Kurt Loder to review it in major label- dominated Rolling Stone. Das Combo's second tape, 1986's Barefoot Rock was released on the English independent label Making Waves Records and reviewer for the Times of London David Sinclair called it "the album I will cherish most of '86." Another factor in Rainer's newfound desire to finally break out of Tucson is the musical company he's been keeping. Last month superfolkie Greg Brown asked him to open a string of California dates. And when major-label solo blues guitarist Chris Whitley came to Tucson, he ended up having dinner with Rainer.