A bluesman has got to ramble, and Don Haupt Jr. is no different. Back in the 1930s, men like Robert Johnson would walk and hitchhike across the dusty roads of Mississippi, never really calling anywhere home as they bounced between local dives, playing their raunchy slide guitars for audiences filled with people who shared the pain of love lost, too much whiskey and never enough money.
Cape Girardeau native Haupt isn't Robert Johnson, but his life's love is the music Johnson revolutionized: the Delta blues.
Haupt has a car, makes enough money for a living and has a place to call home. But like Johnson, he also likes to ramble.
Back in 2002, Haupt picked up his National resonator, his old Martin and his slide, got in his car, and rambled out to Eureka, Calif., to pursue his dream of being a professional blues musician. There just weren't enough opportunities in Cape Girardeau.
Now he's coming back to the place where he learned to play the blues by the banks of the Mississippi River and tested his young talent in downtown cafes. He'll be playing a live show at KRCU Monday at 7 p.m. and opening for Ron Fetner in the Underberg House Concert series Thursday at 7 p.m.
"I haven't been around there in a while, so I thought it was time for an old-fashioned bluesman road trip," Haupt said from his new home in California.
Since moving away from the Cape Girardeau area, Haupt's one-man show has met with some success in his new home. He is host for a radio program called "Don Haupt's Blues Express."
He's even had the chance to perform with some of the great names in blues and folk music, like Guitar Shorty, Tony Furtado, Roy Rogers, Earl Thomas, Catfish Keith and almost Ray Charles (Haupt was set to open for Charles, but Charles had to cancel the tour due to failing health).
"The music scene's really good for a small area," Haupt says of Eureka, Calif. "People are really diverse. You've got the reggae scene with all the hippies, you got the folk scene, and people in Humboldt County
really support the folk music scene, which fits into what I'm doing pretty well."
In California he's far removed from the blues roots that inspired his predecessors in the Deep South and from the hill-country bluegrass festivals that got him into playing music.
"I've always taken a lot of pride in the fact that I grew up where I did, right on the banks of the Mississippi, watching the old towboats go by," he said.
The river gave him the inspiration for the blues. He even spent a year on a towboat. "That's one of those jobs that's not a great job to have, but it is, especially if you're a bluesman," Haupt said.
Haupt's earliest musical involvement was going to bluegrass festivals in Grassy, Mo. He actually got into the music when he saw a band relaxing after playing its Sunday set, which is notoriously religious at such festivals.
"I had taken to hanging out backstage to meet the musicians, and these guys got off stage and immediately started lighting up cigarettes and pulling out pints of whiskey. And I said 'Damn! I want to do that.'"
He picked up the banjo when he was 13, which would lead to guitar later (Haupt credits playing the banjo with helping him on his finger-picking blues style). And with the guitar came a love of that uniquely American art form -- the blues.
"I went through the classic rock phase, doing a lot of Zeppelin and Credence and stuff like that," Haupt said. "And those guys were working off a lot of old blues stuff. I just kind of followed it to its source.
"You look on the back of a Led Zeppelin album and see Robert Johnson wrote this song, and you say 'What's that guy all about?' Then you go find an old 1920s recording of Robert Johnson. Bit by bit it just got to me."
Listening to Haupt, one might almost think he was an apprentice of those old and troubled masters. His voice is gruff and filled with agony and the sounds of the slide blues he plays on his resonator bring up the image of those old dusty roads, cotton fields and moonlit rivers.
In his own words, the music style is "Old-time screamin' and hollerin' for mercy at the crossroads Delta Blues."
And even though he's just a 29-year-old white boy from Southeast Missouri, he does his best to look the part. Those schooled in pop culture might think he's trying to be John Popper from Blues Traveler, but Haupt's garb, like Popper's, is an homage to the old bluesmen.
He sports big chops, plain button-down shirts and gray trousers, wingtip shoes and a hat with a brim running all the way around (better to keep the sun off on those walks down long, lonely, dusty roads).
Many of those who have heard him locally say in their minds Haupt's the real deal despite being far removed from Delta blues by time, and a little less removed by geography.
"When I first saw him, he gave me one of his business cards that said he was a Delta blues musician and I thought "Yeah, right, whatever you big blowhard,'" said Cape Girardeau blues fan Doug Baltz. "As soon as I saw him and heard him play I figured he had a right to call himself that."
Listening to Haupt play at the Grace Cafe was "kind of like you were somewhere on the Mississippi farther south in a shanty listening to some old guy play," said Baltz.
"He's an excellent stylist when it comes to old-time Delta blues," said Barney Hartline, one of the hosts of "Your Folk Connection" on KRCU. Haupt's performance there will be recorded for later airing on Hartline's show.
Haupt said he's eager to play with some local audiences in such an intimate setting and stomp his way into their hearts again. But what he's most eager for is to see the lifeline that is the father of his craft.
"There are a lot of beautiful, clear, mountain spring rivers out here, but I still miss the Mississippi," he said of California.
To make reservations for the KRCU show, call 651-5070. To make reservations for the Underberg concert, call 334-7692.
335-6611, extension 182