“I love that library,” Keith said. “I love the anthologies of folk music. What’s cool is that you can check out albums there. Whomever runs the musical end of that library has very hip taste. I’ve found albums by Blind Boy Fuller, Charley Patton and Son House. It doesn’t get much better than that. The library is where it’s at. When I’m in Iowa City, I think it’s the place to be.”
Now is the time to experience Catfish Keith, who migrates to warmer waters during the winter. The Washington, Iowa, resident tends to perform in California during January, Mexico in February and doesn’t play hometown shows until spring and summer.
“It’s a pattern that’s been good to me,” he said while calling from his home. “Now is the time to be in Iowa. Not that I don’t love Iowa, but it just gets so cold here during the winter. This is the advantage of being a musician. You can set your schedule.”
Keith, 57, has earned the right to go tropical during the chilliest days of the year, since he’s been a working musician for 40 years. “I took a chance and it paid off,” he said.
The laid-back singer/songwriter isn’t a household name under his Catfish Keith moniker or his given name of Keith Daniel Kozacik, but he’s a well-respected blues player around the world and in the Hawkeye State.
Keith, who was born in East Chicago and grew up in Davenport, is in the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame and has earned acclaim playing the resonator guitar. The instrument produces sound by conducting string vibrations through the bridge to one or more spun metal cones, which are the resonators.
“It’s a unique type of guitar from the late 1920s,” he said. “They make an incredible sound. The old-time blues performers and Hawaiian guitar players played the resonator guitars.”
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The Santa Cruz Guitar Co. has tipped its cap to Catfish Keith by manufacturing “The Catfish Special,” a custom 1929 O Model. It’s a gorgeous mahogany instrument, which sells for $6,675.
“It’s just beautiful,” Keith said. “‘The Catfish Special’ sounds fabulous. It’s a wonderful parlor guitar that I love to play. It takes me back to my favorite musicians, like Frank Stokes and the Carter Family.”
Stokes was a Delta blues artist who recorded a century ago. “That old-style music always just hit me,” Keith said. “The songs from the 1920s and 1930s moved me when I was young and they still do.”
He loves to cover Stokes. He also writes his own material.
“As long as it’s a good song, it doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I’ll play the song as long as it’s a well-constructed song. I love performing. The toughest part is deciding what to do. I put together a list of 80 to 100 songs we could do, and just go from there.”
Expect a new Catfish Keith album to drop at some point in 2019. He said he’d be performing a bunch of the new songs in Iowa City.
Most of his shows are filled with older fans, he said.
“I would love to see younger people giving blues a chance,” he said. “I think if more kids heard the blues, that they would love it. It’s all about exposure. I remember what it was like the first time I heard Lead Belly. I just loved it. The old bluesman were great players and they were just different.”
What set many of the bluesmen apart were their colorful names, such as Muddy Waters, Peg Leg Sam and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. So of course, Keith’s moniker is distinctive and fun.
“People seem to like my name,” he said. “I was about 19 when I was in the Caribbean on a boat. After I jumped into the water, a guy from the islands said, ‘You look just like a catfish swimming around.’ The name stuck and that’s fine. But it’s not the name that makes you, it’s about the music — but a cool name helps.”
WHAT: Catfish Keith
WHERE: The Mill, 120 E. Burlington St., Iowa City
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
TICKETS: $15 at the door; icmill.com
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: catfishkeith.com