Curtis Salgado has enjoyed a long relationship with Nebraska. His first shows in Lincoln and Omaha served as the foundation for his fanbase. It was his first adventure on his own, he said, on the road with his band in the 1990s, when he first arrived at the Zoo Bar in Lincoln.
“That place has got a vibe,” he said of the Zoo. “Entire thing is a plaque to blues. That place is happening.”
Back then, no one knew his name. B.J. Huchtemann, writing a story to cover the show, promised he would have more people the next night. Sure enough, the place was packed.
Since his first show in Nebraska, he has played many stages and festivals in the state.
Nebraska has also been a place of healing for Salgado. In 2006, he came to Nebraska for a liver transplant and spent three months recovering at the Lied Transplant Center at UNMC. The doctors at UNMC agreed to treat Salgado when other transplant centers rejected him.
“It’s that midwestern neighborly thing,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for Omaha and the Midwest. People there are down to earth… they saved my life.”
Curtis Salgado is a stalwart of the blues scene, both nationally and in his home region of the Pacific Northwest. He toured with the Robert Cray Band from 1976 to 1982 and sang for Roomful of Blues from 1984 to 1986. He has won 9 Blues Music awards. After a chance encounter with John Belushi in 1977, the two became friends. Salgado inspired Belushi’s character in the Blues Brothers sketches and eventual movies.
In the press, he is mainly identified as a blues musician—but over the years, he has delved into soul, funk, gospel, and rock. When asked how he navigates the boundaries between these genres, Salgado said it’s all the same: a communication tool to sell the music.
Salgado describes himself as a singer-songwriter who does rhythm and blues. “Everything under that umbrella,” he added. “That includes gospel as the mothership of course, and then from that comes out blues, soul, jazz.”
But how to define blues?
“The blues is a feeling,” he said. “You hear the blues. You feel it.”
With his extensive knowledge of music history, Salgado shares stories of his heroes, including Thomas Dorsey, often known as the father of gospel. Dorsey was a blues piano player in the 20s and 30s who played with historic figures like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox. After losing his wife, Dorsey left the blues for spiritual music—carrying with him the forms and structures of blues. Inversely, Salgado notes, Ray Charles would take gospel forms and bring them back to the blues, making him the father of soul.
Dorsey and Charles were just two of many musical influences on Salgado. Beyond the blues greats—Otis Redding, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, and more—Salgado draws inspiration from fellow singer-songwriters. Hearkening back to his childhood, he recalls playing along to his parents’ records on his cardboard guitar. Some artists, like Bob Dylan, weren’t his cup of tea until he grew up. Others left an indelible fingerprint on his writing: Paul McCartney, Neil Diamond, John Prine, George Clinton, even musicals like Stephen Sondheim.
Salgado sees the music industry as comprised of songwriters and song interpreters. Many who established themselves in the blues, like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, are playing songs handed down over time. But in the present day, Salgado says, “if you want to make a mark being a musician, and you’re gonna go out there and sell your product, you’ve got to build repertoire and a reputation.”
Salgado wrote his first song while in the Robert Cray Band, and his first record was released in the 1990s. Part of his repertoire is built from collaboration with other writers, like Gary Nicholson (who has written thousands of songs with artists including the Judds, Willie Nelson, and Garth Brooks) and David Duncan out of Nashville.
The greatest songs, to Salgado, are like movies. He recalls John Prine’s Angel from Montgomery. A woman is sitting alone in her kitchen in the later part of her life, and somebody comes home after so many years of living—without a thing to say.
There is power in the shape of the words, too.
“Songwriting is cadence,” he said. “You want to be able to sing it. It’s gotta fall out of your mouth comfortably and easily, so that there’s a rhythm.”
Salgado’s newest album, “Damage Control” (2021), was recorded in three different cities: Nashville, San Jose, and Los Angeles. In each city, he brought in a different rhythm section, relying on their strength and creative spark to shape the songs beyond his original vision. This three-act structure tells a story.
“That’s what life is, on all levels. From forgetting your wallet to losing your keys to COVID to marriage problems. Every day it’s something.”
On July 9, Salgado will be playing Zoofest in Lincoln, backed by the Phantom Blues Band. The following month, he will be headlining In the Market for Blues in downtown Omaha with a VIP-exclusive performance on August 5th at The Jewell and another August 6th at the Holland Center Outdoor Mammel Courtyard.