Born in 1929, bluesman Tomcat Courtney shows no signs of slowing down. “I’m from Waco. I was born in Marlon, Texas, and we moved to Downsville. Wasn’t nothin’ there but a store and a cotton gin, was what it was. There were railroad tracks through there, and right down from the tracks was a trestle. Right across the creek. Well, I used to go down there on that trestle and mark the train with my feet.”
While growing up in Texas, picking cotton was the family business. “Well, I had my own sack at the age of eight or nine years old. I could carry up to 70, 80 pounds.”
It was in fact his background in gardens that resulted in his obtaining his first guitar. “Man said, ‘Will you come on over and help me pull weeds in my garden? I’m gonna give you this guitar.’ We pulled weeds all day. He tried to show me how to play country-western, but I just hated what he was doin’.”
Later, his pianist father owned a nightclub frequented by blues legends like Sonny Boy Williamson. “Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Tampa Red would come out to the farm and perform. Saturday. Sometimes on a Friday night. The people made their own whiskey and stuff out there. They made wine and whiskey [during Prohibition]. But I tell you something: As long as it stayed on that farm, the law didn’t come out there. I didn’t think about it till years later, all that shit people were makin’.”
At the age of 16, Courtney was hired on as a tap dancer and a singer in the Ringling Brothers Circus minstrel show. He’d taught himself to tap dance after seeing Mr. Bojangles (Bill Robinson) perform on the farm where he and his family picked cotton.
The circus, he says, paid much better. “I got a dollar and a half a day.” His laugh comes out like a cough.
After Ringling Brothers, Courtney continued to perform in traveling variety shows. After learning guitar, he fell easily into the laconic, traditional Delta blues groove of his most admired musicians, like B.B. King and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
It was more years ago than he can remember when Tom became known as Tomcat. “It was some woman in New Mexico that gave me that name,” he says. “And people been callin’ me that ever since.”
Moving to San Diego in 1971, Courtney formed the Bluesdusters, who became house regulars at O.B.’s Texas Teahouse, where he played every week from 1972 to 1992. Nowadays, he turns up frequently at P.B.’s Chateau Orleans and La Jolla’s Turquoise Café. His album Downsville Blues was released in May 2008. It includes many of his own compositions, as well as classic covers like Mance Lipscomb’s “Meet Me in the Bottom” and Tampa Red’s “Cryin’ Won’t Help You.”
Downsville Blues was number one on several of the European blues charts in 2009, and his European charting and record sales earned him an invitation to the prestigious 2010 Montreux Jazz Festival. After playing Montreux and touring Europe, Courtney was inducted into the California Blues Hall of Fame.
“The kind of blues I’m playin’ now — they call it Texas style. But we called it the country blues, you know...It’s the style of picking, with your fingers and all that. It wasn’t any bottle-necking, like Mississippi blues.”
In 2010, he won Best Blues at the San Diego Music Awards. In early 2013, he landed a residency playing old-school one-man blues concerts at La Gran Tapa every Tuesday. The following year, the San Diego Music Awards gave him a Lifetime Achievement statue.