It’s impossible to sum up the life of Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.) in a few sentences. It’s a life filled with many things that seem too outlandish, too absurd, to be true, and yet they are. He’s Zelig, turned up to 11.
Here’s a small sampling. He learned about blues music from a woman who was born a slave. He bought his first guitar from a neighborhood kid named John Huey, who grew up to be the editor in chief of Time Inc. As a teenager visiting New York City, he was befriended in a coffee shop by a guy clad in a bathrobe, who turned out to be Frank Zappa. He was so close to Duane Allman that he can recount in precise detail the late guitarist’s amplifier modifications. In the 1970s, the Colonel became friends with a drummer from Arkansas who later decided to turn to movies; that would be Billy Bob Thornton. Hampton once played weekly poker games with a college professor named Newt Gingrich and touch football with Stan Kasten, who later became president of the Atlanta Braves and Hawks and just bought the Los Angeles Dodgers with Magic Johnson.
RuPaul was once his roadie.
“You’ve got to live a life,” Hampton likes to say. “I don’t think I’ve ever lived my life; I’m living someone else’s life.”
“Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Colonel Bruce Hampton,” a documentary film that takes on the almost impossible task of bringing his life story to celluloid, makes its world premiere Friday night at the Plaza Theatre as part of the Atlanta Film Festival.
Hampton is probably best known to most people as Morris, the uncomfortably odd singer-poet in the movie “Sling Blade.” His signature scene was reading aloud a poem that included the line “Baking the cookies of discontent / By the heat of the Laundromat vent.” Thornton, who received an Oscar for the script in 1997, wrote the character specifically for Hampton. But within musical circles, Hampton is known as the father of Atlanta’s rock scene, as well as the father of the whole “jam band” phenomenon. He’s also a Yoda-like figure for some of the greatest living guitarists: Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Oteil Burbridge, Jimmy Herring, Tinsley Ellis.
When the Allman Brothers Band received the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in February, Burbridge, the bass player for the Allmans since 1997, thanked his parents and thanked his brother for teaching him how to play music. “I also want to thank Col. Bruce for teaching me how to hear music,” he said. “Without him, I wouldn’t have been prepared to be in this band.” Burbridge then walked away from the microphone only to sprint back … he’d forgotten to thank his wife.
I met Hampton in 2007 when I wrote a Creative Loafing cover story about him, and I saw a rough cut of “Basically Frightened” last year. It’s a remarkable film. The Colonel is a larger-than-life figure. Just when you’re certain his life can’t get any more crazy, it does. The film captures that, but it doesn’t get lost in it. It also captures his humanity, how it seems that almost everyone who knows him considers him their best friend.
I recently interviewed Hampton about “Basically Frightened,” his career, his new band and the latest guitar prodigy he’s taken under his wing.
ArtsATL: How strange is it to see your life up on a screen?
Col. Bruce Hampton: Very. As long as I’m with friends, it’s cool. I’ll watch it two more times and then never look at it again. But it’s every emotion there is to see it — it’s my life from a two-year-old till now. If I was in Midway, Texas, and I was a mother of four and that thing came on, I’d go do something else. [Laughs.]
It’s very strange. I’ve never felt I’ve existed or lived a life, really. I feel I’ve had a soul rotation, that I’m living somebody else’s life. I’m supposed to be a shy accountant with two-and-a-half cars and two-and-a-half kids and a white picket fence. Something happened at birth; I’m an experiment. [Laughs.] A definite soul rotation happened, because the guy on stage and the guy sitting here — it makes no sense. None.
ArtsATL: How fitting is it for the film to premiere in your hometown?
It’s an honor. The Plaza Theatre is the theater I’ve been going to for close to 700 years. I love that place. I’ve seen thousands of movies there. The Variety Playhouse used to be the Euclid Theatre; I would go there as a kid, and to the Plaza. It cost a dime to get in.
ArtsATL: Most people probably know you as Morris from “Sling Blade.” Billy Bob Thornton wrote that part with you specifically in mind.
Hampton: Yeah, that’s what he said. Billy Bob started writing the script in the ’70s. He’d gone to work for the Arkansas state department. He had a sling blade and he was out there in the middle of the highway. It was a hundred million degrees and he went home exhausted one day and looked in the mirror, and that guy was in there. He’d pretty much completed it by 1990; it took him 20 years to get it made.
He went up to John Huston in 1975 — he was a waiter in Hollywood — and said, “I’d love for you to read my stuff.” Huston said, “Boy, are you an actor or a writer?” He told Huston, “I’m both.” And Huston went, “You better stick to writing, because you’re one ugly guy.” [Laughs.]
ArtsATL: You hit the national scene in the early 1990s with the Aquarium Rescue Unit and did the H.O.R.D.E tours with Widespread Panic, the Dave Matthews Band and Phish. The film documents how ARU grew out of your regular Monday night gig at the Little Five Points Pub. Do you remember the first time the band members all played together?
Hampton: We knew it was magic, all of us. We’d been working two years, me and [Jeff] Sipe and Oteil [Burbridge]. We weren’t pushing anything; we were letting it be. When Matt [Mundy] and Jimmy [Herring] got in the band, and the Count [M’Butu], we knew it was “the deal.” The chemistry was good and we never had a bad set. We didn’t have a bad two minutes. If the chemistry is right, every night is great.
Then we hit the road after that, driving to New York in two Ford Escorts. [Laughs.] Lucky we didn’t get killed. We’d take out and go to Montreal for a gig that paid 400 bucks. Thank God I’ve slowed down some. I was insane in my 20s and 30s. We would do anything with no regard for our personal safety.
ArtsATL: What do you think your legacy is going to be?
Number one, as I say in the movie, I take what I do serious; I don’t take myself serious. That’s a tough one to answer. You’ve got to take yourself damned serious to answer that. [Laughs.]
I’ve always been the minor league coach, I think. I don’t want to get out “there.” It’s all fallen — no, collapsed — into place. [Laughs.] You’re actually born into this business. The music business is the harshest thing you could ever be in, it’s a nightmare, and I was thrown into it when I was 16 years old. Some 50 years later, I wake up each day and go, “Gosh, what am I going to do when I grow up?” [Laughs.]
If you try to put your destiny on another path, try to get an altered destiny, you’re going to be in serious trouble. And I’ve tried. I’ve done a hundred other things — you know, I’ve seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll, and I’m not it. [Laughs.]
But you’ve got to follow your destiny. I had no idea what I was going to do. I was just walking around, eating and going to school. And someone asked me to come be in a band, and that started it. I knew I was going to do it, and that was it.
It took me a little while to understand: to do is to be. It continues. I’m very lucky to have done it.
ArtsATL: You’ve had some pretty interesting band names through the years: the Arkansas Tourists, the New Ice Age, the IV of IX, the Late Bronze Age, the Stained Souls. Your current band is the Pharaoh Gummit. What in the world is that?
Hampton: It was 1961 and we were taking a streetcar; Atlanta had electrical streetcars back then. We were in Buckhead and this old farmer guy jumped on. I was 14 and we were going downtown. The guy was saying, “I got to do some bidness, some pharaoh gummit bidness.” We didn’t know what he was talking about. About two blocks from our stop, he said, “Tell me when we get to the pharaoh gummit.” And we finally realized he was talking about the federal government building. [Laughs.]
ArtsATL: Your current band is creating a lot of buzz. And you’ve unearthed another guitar prodigy.
Hampton: The band is a bunch of young whippersnappers: Kevin Scott, age 26; Duane Trucks [younger brother of Derek], age 23; Lawson Feltman, age 29; and A.J. Ghent on slide guitar. He just played with the Allman Brothers the other night and destroyed them. He’s going to be a major star soon, maybe six months. He’s got the chops, got the charisma. I’ve never heard anybody play more perfect musical notes.
He’s got it. I wish it could be 1973 for him, and he could be a millionaire overnight. Though that could be the worst thing to ever happen to him. I used to debate people about whether you’re spoiled if you don’t have to work for what you get. Because it’s all perspiration; inspiration is just 2 or 3 percent of it. The rest of it is just perspiration. And water finds its own level.
It’s bizarre to watch people in the field of music and sometimes where they go, and you say, “That many people like this?” It’s just amazing to me. It’s the same thing as voting: people I’m driving on the street with voted for that guy? You just shake your head sometimes and go, “What planet is this?”
I mean, we’re the only planet with linoleum. [Laughs.] That’s it. No others with linoleum.