Wednesday nights, Fat Matt’s Rib Shack bursts with musical energy and is packed to the brim with enthusiastic blues fans. The magic is courtesy of Mudcat (the professional moniker of Danny Dudeck), and his band, the Piedmont Playboys. Fat Matt’s has an especially fond place in Dudeck’s heart, as the barbecue-restaurant-slash-blues-haven gave him the chance he needed many years ago, back when he was playing street corners to try to scrape by.
He hasn’t lost the youthful energy he had then, nor the ability to slide a wide range of emotions out of his guitar, and he still knows how to make just about everybody hold their breaths wondering what he will do next.
Dudeck’s own contributions to Atlanta’s modern blues scene are legendary and includes ties to such icons as Frank Edwards, Blind Willie McTell, Cootie Stark, Eddie Tigner, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, Jontavious Willis and countless others.
“No one has done more for Georgia blues than Mudcat,” says internationally recognized blues artist Tinsley Ellis.
Singer-songwriter Mandi Strachota, who performs regularly with Dudeck, says, “Mudcat is respectful of the history and educates us on it. I feel like he embodies the Georgia blues tradition and really holds onto the roots. He pushes audience members to genuinely seek the soul of music.”
The recently released documentary Northside Tavern: The Mostly True Account of the Golden Age of Atlanta’s Most Exquisite Blues Dive highlights how Dudeck and late owner Ellyn Webb sought out and set up opportunities for dozens of talented blues musicians, many of whom hadn’t played on a stage in years.
Noting that many of these men and women were barely making ends meet, Dudeck and Webb additionally organized yearly “Giving it Back” events at Northside, eventually known as “Chicken Raids.” Younger musicians would play for the exposure and mentoring opportunities, and the proceeds from the door would go to support for the older ones.
Northside Tavern became known for its generosity and openness to musicians. “Northside was a place for musicians to be able to express themselves and to be around other creative people,” Dudeck says. What he and Webb looked for was “real music and real stories.” Not only did they book “blues from blues musicians,” but they also hosted country and even gospel acts.
Blues remained the main attraction, though, and one of his favorite memories of those days was introducing the genre to young people. “You always had a fresh crop of the college kids from Georgia Tech,” Dudeck says. “They always came up saying, ‘I didn’t think I liked blues, but it’s like, oh, now I understand. It’s like there’s a lot more to it, and you brought it alive.’”
Dudeck appreciates the film and how it portrayed Webb and the musicians whom he cared so much for. “I agree with what a lot of people say about it, and everyone felt it was very reverent,” he says. “It was an emotional and beautiful thing to revisit, because so many people have died, and they’re represented so well. There’s emotion when you see them on screen.”
Although Northside is a coveted gig for area musicians, and used to be Dudeck’s home base, memories of the old days make it difficult for him to play there now.
“Danny is always welcome back,” says Tommy Webb, Ellyn Webb’s brother who is the current owner of the Northside Tavern. “We are welcoming him with open arms, and we hope it initiates or reactivates that old, long-lasting relationship.”
While Northside Tavern still draws the large crowds that it used to, it’s an exception. Many of Atlanta’s clubs that were once known for blues music have long since closed their doors or are struggling to hang on.
Dudeck is troubled that what seems to draw audiences these days are acts that capitalize on other people’s hits or are more flash than substance. “The roots of blues music run deep,” he says, and he’s concerned that that essence is being lost in the scramble to turn a profit. He worries for himself and his counterparts, many of whom have more difficulty finding gigs now than they used to. “Why is it so hard for there to be honest music?” he asks.
Nevertheless, some believe that blues music in Atlanta will regenerate, including Stoney Brooks, one of the few living blues musicians whose picture adorns the wall at Northside Tavern. “The Atlanta blues community is starving for it, new talent is emerging, old talent is re-emerging, and new fans are getting the bug for it,” Brooks says. “We are about to experience another blues resurgence in Atlanta and beyond. Again, Atlanta will be a leading force in the worldwide blues scene.”
Dudeck would like to believe that, but right now life’s not so different from that of the musicians he used to give his share of the tips to.
He doesn’t mind admitting that he’s struggling financially. Many musicians he knows are. Streaming has made song writing not as lucrative as it once was, and gigging opportunities are far fewer than they used to be in a city that was once known for its thriving blues scene.
He does, however, have a few things in progress. He plans to record a new album soon, his fourteenth. “The big story [of the album] really is, ‘Why do you put us through this? You know how much we could take, God, so why? We’re trying so hard.’”
But the song he loves best is more celebratory and the lyrics intertwine farming and music. “It’s about the rhythm of the earth . . . just a real simple song . . . two chords, I think, but the chorus is joy. Joy! Who doesn’t want to hear that? The lyrics are: Scratch the ground / Plant the seed / You stumble once / Your mind needs and the last verse is Raise your voice and sing a song / Cry out loud / You can’t sing it wrong….”
He plans to call the new album While You Were Away.
Farming and working with the earth is another of Dudeck’s passions. His three-acre organic garden is based around regenerative farming. The idea is that when enough people rebuild and restore the soil’s organic matter, negative water cycle and climate change trends can be reversed.
Farming’s been extra challenging the past few years, but he says, “Even though there are so many failures, farmers are very optimistic. It’s all about a struggle. We’ve never had that long and deep of a freeze here, but I’m glad it bounces back.”
As he walks through the garden in late winter, things are a tangled mess of stakes and brambles under gray skies and harsh winds. But come summer, he hopes to have an abundant harvest, including the heirloom tomatoes and peppers he uses in the famous salsa he sells for a little extra cash.
As springtime rolls around, he’s thankful for upcoming gigs at Waller’s Coffee House, the Star Bar and Fat Matt’s. He remains hopeful that more opportunities will arise and that more people will come out to support the blues.
As sunset approaches, Dudeck brushes off his overalls and looks to the sky to see what kind of planting weather he can expect tomorrow. “As long as you keep moving,” he says, “the answer will come.”
Shannon Marie is a freelance music journalist and educator.