Tom Mason was a fixture on the Twin Cities rock scene throughout the ’80s, playing with Paul Westerberg in their short-lived pop outfit Rock Island, touring with songwriter/guitarist Jeff Waryan in Figures, and gigging with his own bands Dream Diesel, The Kingpins, and Mile One. In 1991 he moved to Chicago, and a couple years later he landed in Nashville, where songwriters migrate to and breed like tribbles.
“When I first was in Nashville, I lived in an office on Music Row with a publisher,” said Mason, nursing a coffee at Anodyne Coffeeshop in South Minneapolis last week. “I’d sit up in the front window looking out at the Warner Bros. building across the street and I’d watch all these songwriters walking in with their guitars, and a few minutes later they’d come out with their dreams dead. After a while I decided I wanted something to fall back on. So I took up acting.”
At this, with a permanent twinkle in his eyes, Mason lets go an easy and jolly laugh – one befitting Santa Claus or a man who admits to “having the time of my life” as a working pirate.
Aye matey, ye heard right: A pirate. And a damn charming one, to boot.
It was 2007 when actor-musician Mason was on tour with the Johnny Cash-inspired musical “Ring Of Fire” that he found himself at post-gig jams messing around with a pirate accent and making up tunes. Some of the cast members encouraged him to write a pirate musical, but Mason’s vision was of a band that played and recorded original pirate songs, and Tom Mason & The Blue Buccaneers was born.
“There’s all kinds of pirate festivals, maritime festivals, tall ships festivals everywhere,” said Mason, who will perform Wednesday (today) and Thursday (10:45, noon, and 1:15) at the State Fair’s International Bazaar Stage. “Every gig is fun. In my career, I’ve never wanted to give myself to one style of music. This ‘genre’ is wide open, because [pirates] travel around the world, and I can use little aspects of all kinds of world music. At first it was kind of a Pogues approach; Celtic and Irish and Scottish music played by rock musicians. But now it’s like, throw in a little gypsy, a little Afro-Caribbean …”
The hornswagglin’ bastard is talking about pillaging and looting from other cultures, but Mason does so with much more creativity and authenticity than, say, the myriad Captain Jack Black impersonators he finds trolling the pirate circuit.
To be sure, the traveling musician is the most obvious pirate corollary to be found – shiver me timbers and hoist yer flags and flasks to Keith Richards, ye scurvy dawgs! — and in that respect, Mason does more than just put on a costume: He knows his pirate lore and history well.
“They came out of economic despair,” he said. “A lot of times, a lot of these pirates would be sailors for the Royal Navy [of England] and as soon as the wars were ended, they’d be stuck without any work, and a lot of them didn’t want to be in the navy, either. They were pressed into service.
“There’s a song on the record called ‘In The Service of the King’ about the press gangs, that would come to the ports of London and Bristol and Liverpool, and collect up sailors and get ‘em drunk and bring ‘em on board the ship and suddenly they were in the Royal Navy, where they were treated like shit and paid nothing and the hours were long. They didn’t have much choice.
“Then there were the privateers, which were kind of the legal pirates. The queen would issue a letter of mark, something that would allow them to legally attack and plunder ships of countries they were at war with. And after that, they could no longer legally do it, so they became pirates.”
Aargh! Mason’s favorite pirate is Blackbeard (“a showman”), and cites Robert Newton, the actor who played Long John Silver in the 1950 Disney film “Treasure Island,” as the man responsible for the aaargchtypical pirate accent. The very same one used by the Portland, Ore., landlubbers who launched International Talk Like a Pirate Day (Sept. 19), which Mason penned and recorded the theme song for.
“It’s been great, because I’ve been touring as a singer/songwriter for years, and I’ve toured playing guitar with other songwriters, and that’s a hard road to take: a house concert here and a house concert there,” said Mason, who describes himself as – lock up yer wenches and womenfolk, buckos! — “happily divorced.”
“I was always a shy kid, I had a hard time talking to girls, but you put a tricorn hat on and it gives you license to flirt, to come out of your shell. That’s part of the appeal of the pirate festivals: Every day is Halloween. And there aren’t that many doing it. There are traditional sea shanty bands and singers, which I like, but not so many songwriters and full bands committed to pirate tunes.”