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Behind The Curtain: Sherman “Tank” Doucette

By Erin McCallum.

Regular readers of “Behind The Curtain” are aware of the article’s objective: to discover something more than the press release can offer, and to look within the featured artist’s bio to gain exclusive insight and information about notable artists in the Canadian Blues Collective. This is accomplished by having a direct conversation with artists who have enough of a biographical foundation to be recognizable without in-depth introductions – in other words, it allows for the conversation to shine the spotlight on the unique offerings, topics, and curiosities that interested readers want to know about, but can’t find elsewhere. In rare cases, this is a first introduction to an artist, however, all artists featured in “Behind The Curtain” have extensive bios, so there is always an opportunity for readers to learn more via other sources. It is always encouraged for readers to take that opportunity – there’s lots to learn, and it is impossible to include a full career chronicle within the confines of this column.

For this month’s edition, lifelong Bluesman Sherman “Tank” Doucette goes ‘on the record’, giving readers a better understanding of how his personal story is synonymous with the music he’s played since his first professional gig in 1969. To give readers context, Doucette is a singer, songwriter and harmonica player, and although he’s been actively executing all of those roles for the duration of his career, he is best known for his capacity as a harmonica player. He’s played with artists like James Cotton, John Lee Hooker, Pinetop Perkins and Albert Collins (to name a few), and he has 5 full-length albums to his credit (in addition to his official releases, there are plenty of bootlegged recordings out there too). He’s also been an actively sought-after studio musician, recording for companies such as McDonald’s and Labatt Beer. It is also said that Doucette owns the largest antique and rare harmonica collection in the World. His bio is certainly stacked with evidence that his time in the Blues Collective has been successful, however, there are curiosities that can put the biography in better perspective; looking beyond his musical accomplishments will yield more insight about what led Sherman “Tank” Doucette to follow the path of the Blues for a lifetime.

The obvious first curiosity readers might have is with respect to how Sherman Doucette got his nickname, “Tank”. Those who know the relatively unspoken guidelines of being a Blues player know that one’s “Blues name” must be earned, and must be awarded to you by your peers because it’s an apt name. In other words, you don’t choose your own Blues name, but rather, the Blues chooses it for you, traditionally. That unspoken rule is as old as the Blues itself, and although that decree has softened over the past few decades, there are still plenty of Blues players who believe that one can never choose their own Blues name – it has to come to you through honest means/traits. For those who know Doucette’s story, it has become lore, in a sense. I heard the story from “Tank” himself years ago, and its worth putting on the record here for readers; knowing this part of Doucette’s story will provide not only a sense of how he beat the odds medically, but also a clear sense of how deep his commitment to playing the Blues runs.

“The name came from two places; John Lee Hooker, and when I was 23 years old, I was blown up in a work accident - literally. Although I was already playing the Blues by that age, I had taken a regular job to make a bit of money in between gigs at a lumber mill. One day, I walked into a paint shed, and I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a gas leak in the shed, and the fumes had been building up. When I walked in and tuned the light on, it ignited the fumes, and the building blew up. I was the only one in the shed at the time, and it changed my life. I spent two months in a coma, 4 months in the burn ward, and suffered third degree burns on 53% of my body. I had to learn how to walk again and everything, but as soon as I could, I took right back to the stage.”

As Doucette continued to recount the story, his hindsight gives readers a pretty good sense of how much he believes that living the life of a Bluesman is the thing he has always felt called to do:

“I never should have taken a day job. It’s obvious where I belong; I’m here to help people forget their problems and have a good time – that’s what the Blues is all about. People come out to a show, and by the time they are there, they’re enjoying themselves – they are the good time.”

For reference, The Sherman tank is one of the most famous and widely used tanks in history, and is best known for its use by the Western Allies in WW2. It’s not difficult for people to see the connection between Doucette’s story and the tank; in the wake of heavy destruction, both are built to continue moving forward.

Knowing that Doucette has unwaveringly continued to pursue his life committed to the Blues (he has remained exclusive to the genre for half a century), it makes sense to find out his thoughts on the notion that the Blues needs to evolve as a genre to sustain. For context, there are two general schools of thought about this topic – one being that the Blues should maintain traditional structures, the other being that the music must evolve to remain relevant in today’s listening and social climate. Doucette offers his thoughts on this highly debated topic:

“The Blues doesevolve, and has evolved already. We can’t stop that. The Blues had a baby, and it was Rock and Roll. That’s the best example, but the examples of that are everywhere. It even happens within the Blues – people find their own style, and eventually, that’s what happens – it evolves. We have the Greats, and lots of Blues players try to play like them, but, its never going to be exactly the same…the early players created a great foundation, but the players who come after them end up finding their own sound, and that’s how it evolves. As long as people are playing, the Blues will continue to evolve, and that’s something that’s been happening for a long time.”

The next topic of interest that seems relevant in acknowledging Doucette’s passion for the instrument he is most known for as a Blues musician, is his extensive collection of harmonicas. More specifically, Doucette’s collection of harmonicas is concentrated to antiques and oddities - it is even rumoured that he has the largest collection of this kind in the world. In asking him to speak of his harmonica collection, he offers:

“My harmonica collection – I just got over 200 more of them. I have about 2,000, I think. My harmonicas are oddities, rarities, antiques… Some have bells on them, I have a big bass harmonica from 1910, I have lots of really big ones that were used as props for promotional pieces. I would like to get my collection to the Music Centre in Calgary – I’d love to have my stuff publicly displayed there for everyone to enjoy – almost like a museum. The hunt for them kept me out of trouble over the years, you know? If I wasn’t searching for them, I would have probably been getting into other things. At the end of the day, the harmonica is a gift, and its something I’ve used it as a tool, and I’ve played it my whole life. I’d love to see others have the opportunity to enjoy my collection at the Music Centre – it’s a chance to share that gift with other people, and they might be inspired by the harmonica too.”

The last curiosity that can’t be answered in Sherman Doucette’s biography or press release can be answered by going straight to the source. It’s a common occurrence when looking ‘behind the curtain’ to ask the featured artist about what advice they would offer to aspiring musicians who are looking to follow a similar path. Now that this article has provided enough objective truth to offer insight about Sherman “Tank” Doucette’s lifelong career as a Blues musician, it makes sense to ask the question:

“I’ll tell a quick story. When I was 15 years old, I practised ‘Hoochie Cootchie Man’ until my lips bled. No one was telling me to do it, or how to do it; I did it because that’s what was within me. As far as advice goes – do it because that’s who you are and that’s what you need to do. When you know it, there’s really nothing else you can do, because that’s who you are.”

In offering his advice to others, Sherman “Tank” Doucette has, perhaps, summarized his own career – and shone the spotlight on this edition’s objective of discovering what has led him to commit to a lifetime playing the Blues. The answer: a passion ingrained so deeply that bleeding lips, a changing Blues landscape, decades – and even literally being blown up – can’t stop him. If you have to earn your Blues name, Tank has certainly done it.

As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires further investigation. Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates these conversations. In Sherman “Tank” Doucette’s case, the best way to discover more is to check him out at a live performance on Canada’s west coast. This article is a regular monthly contribution, published exclusively in the Sound Café magazine with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who

work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.

Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound.

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