McGhee is one of the great characters of modern-day North Carolina Piedmont blues…”
-Dave Menconi Our State Magazine
‘True to his handle, th’ Bullfrog Willard McGhee sings in a friendly, gurgling growl, a little like a latter-day Dave Van Ronk. While his voice is warm with a world-weary gentleness, his acoustic guitar smacks and snaps as he picks out the Piedmont blues Blind Boy Fuller made famous.”
—Andrew Ritchey Independent Weekly
“Great, great music…” -U.Utah Phillips
“I think he’s a real good musician and a real nice man to go with it. You couldn’t ask for any better. He is a wonderful person.” -John Jackson
“[th' Bullfrog's] songs evoke the loud drunken laughter of smoky speakeasies and coalcamp house parties…Bullfrog belongs in the upper echelon of sweet funny blues singers, somewhere between John Hurt and Leon Redbone.” -WMTD Radio (the River), Beckley, WV.
“I’m gonna learn all his songs.” -Nat Reese
“In the time I’ve known Bullfrog and had the privilege and opportunity to play traditional music with him, I’ve found him to be in the top echelon of traditional artists…I hope someday to see him on the major stages of the traditional world.” -John Cephas
“I like the way he plays.” -John D. Holman
“…incredible finger-picking…tough, husky singing…” – Susanna Robinson, Graffiti, Charleston, West Virginia
“th’ Bullfrog possesses a gift…he’s just so damn funny.” -Daily Athenaeum, Morgantown, West Virginia
["Stealin' Gasoline's] already receiving great international revues, as it should. The songs are amazing. My favorite is one by Willard, who spent years traveling and landed in New Orleans. The song, “Sweet Honore, the Tatooed Lady of North Dauphine Street”, is kind of a love ballad, only different. -Mel Melton – formerly of the Clifton Chenier and Sonny Landreth bands
Musician “Th’ Bullfrog” Willard McGhee has nothing but respect for the blues greats of the Piedmont. In fact, McGhee would love to see more being done to honor blues pioneers like Blind Boy Fuller and Floyd Council. Their legacies live on in McGhee’s music. His new CD project, recorded with fellow blues guitarist Tad Walters, is called “Stealin’ Gasoline.” In the tradition of blues, the songs are personal and poignant and sometimes racy. WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
Tad & Bullfrog are masters of the acoustic Blues tradition and bring their own fire, talent, and stories to their music. The human challenges that inform both old and new Blues are expressed in their timeless music which speaks right to the soul. –Bob Margolin
“When I was eight or nine, my old man asked me what I wanted to be after I’d grown up. ‘Peter Pan, William Kunstler or a folksinger,’ I replied. He clutched me to his bosom and sobbed. He smelled like Old Spice and nicotine and peppermints and old books…he was a librarian, you know. Years later, it occurred to me that he might have been laughing…” – (concert recording made 01.19.2001, Hobnobbery, Lewisburg, WV.)
Bullfrog’s sensibility is informed by his deep West Virginia roots: the politics and humor of his father’s family; the tradition and spirituality of his mother’s family; the high undulating horizons of Mercer County. A graduate of West Virginia University, he has a degree in History which he earned studying the 19th century migrations of musical instruments, repertoire and culture in the Eastern U.S. and their influence on 20th century music, particularly mountain music, early country music and blues. This research led to personal and musical associations with Don Stover and the Lilly Brothers, Nat Reese, John Cephas, Phil Wiggins, John Jackson, Aunt Jenny Wilson, Ed Cabell and many others.
West Virginia has a colonial economy fueled by the world’s boom/bust appetites for coal, timber and salt. In boom-times everybody stays home where there’s jobs and family. In bust times, kids from West Virginia are more likely to grow up in the hillbilly ghettoes of Columbus, Detroit or Chicago where their folks make tires, assemble cars or pack meat during the week. On the weekends, of course, they all drive the 77 or 64 or 79 interstate highways back to their home counties to see the folks and eat real tomatoes. Sometimes they migrate to California or some square-red-river-state out west. Bullfrog’s family crossed the Ohio River and lit briefly in all of these places.
In Chicago, Bullfrog found great bluesmen in the phone book. Johnny Shines, Dave Edwards and Howard Armstrong all agreed to meet him and with great tolerance and good humor showed him those few licks he treasured but could not remember. Mostly, they told stories and bickered and described in bewildered tones a country that had become unrecognizable in their own formidable lifetimes.
Bullfrog met U. Utah Phillips in California and forged a friendship that lasted many years. He boomed out west with a hobo named Willie Grey who loved Tampa Red and John Hurt. Bullfrog traded Willie beer for songs – often a tricky proposition as their friendship began when Bullfrog was fourteen and all the liquor store clerks in southern California are good, virtuous and law-abiding men. But, as long as there was beer and a little bit of a fire, Willie would sit on the beach, slide his National finger picks over his coarse fingertips and play the gentle blues of the rolling Mississippi hill country or the bawdy blues of the Arkansas turpentine camps. He’d tell stories and outrageous lies and offer obscene and unsolicited advice about the pursuit and seduction of loose women (Bullfrog didn’t know many of those when he was fourteen – but he reckoned if he was ambitious and worked hard…). Willie was killed by a train in the summer of 1988.
Back in Chicago, Bullfrog renewed his association with Honeyboy Edwards and Johnny Shines. He started busking in earnest, working regular spots around the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Jackson el stop. He met Junior Wells, Son Seals and James Cotton – occasionally sitting in until someone noticed him and asked him to sit out again. During this time, Bullfrog worked for the U.F.W., the Wobblies, and a small armada of environmental and political organizations. He traveled with Cesar Chavez, whipping the crowd into a righteous frenzy with songs of labor and social justice before Cesar came out and lambasted the assembly about the grape boycott and the rights of migrant workers. Life ensued and Bullfrog found himself in Boston.
Bullfrog was profoundly influenced by the musicians he met in Boston: Richard Goodman, Elliot Gibbons and Ned Landin chief among them. Cliff Wagner and Bullfrog forged a musical alliance, calling themselves “The Crazy Ol’ Man’s Chorus.” They recorded one self-produced album, Public Domain. He argued with Tracy Chapman and Mary Lou Lord about which of them would play the peak hours on the Park Street T Platform. He argued politics and poetry with Dave Rovics. He collaborated with Richard Calloggerro on another self-produced album, American Tales, which featured eight of Bullfrog’s own songs.
Bullfrog’s father died of leukemia in 1994. For the next nine years, Bullfrog lived close to his grandmother in West Virginia, playing shows in a great geographic triangle from Pittsburgh to Memphis to Atlanta. He earned a college degree. Twice he was West Virginia Artist-in-Residence at the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis and Elkins College. In 2002, he represented the John Henry Blues Society at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee. Though selected, he chose not to go in 2003. In 2010 and 2012, he represented North Carolina’s Triangle Blues Society at the IBC.
Trae Buckner, founding member of the bluegrass/old time band, the Hillbilly Gypsies and owner of the Pickin’ Shack Recording Studio in Fairmont, West Virginia recorded material for four seperate albums with Bullfrog over the course of the early oughts, culminating in a six week long session during the summer of 2005. Those albums included Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me – A Tribute to John Hurt and Rana Catesbeiana.
In 2003, Bullfrog moved to New Orleans. He drove United Cab 170 and 154 when he wasn’t performing at Lucky’s, the Maple Leaf or Checkpoint Charlie’s. His musical associations there included Walter Payton, Walter Washington, Clarence Brown and Jim Smith. Twice he nearly and, he swears, inadvertently, ran down Dr. John in his cab. Chased out of New Orleans by ferocious storms, Bullfrog bought half a restaurant on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, North Carolina. The restaurant could not survive rabid urban renewal projects or the current economy.
These days Bullfrog’s looking for gigs, doing a little painting and drawing and generally making a nuisance of himself around Raleigh. He sits on the board of the Triangle Blues Society. He’s raising money to put a marker somewhere near Floyd Council’s unmarked grave. He has a new record with local blues maharaja, Tad Walters called “Stealin’ Gasoline.” If you have a festival or a club or have influence over someone with a festival or a club, send Bullfrog an e-mail – he loves to drive long distances for money.
Current releases: Stealin’ Gasoline, TadFrog Records, rlsd. Jan. 2011. Pink & Mr. Floyd; Songs of Pink Anderson and Floyd Council; w/Lightnin’ Wells, TadFrog Records, rlsd. Dec. 2011. Blues Under the Bottle Tree; w/John D. Holeman and Boo Hanks, Tad Frog Records, rlsd. Feb. 2012.Available through CDBaby, iTunes etc.
Upcoming release: Fannie and the Red Dove, TadFrog Records, due July 2012. A collection of gospel songs from the Baptist preacher Franklin Niday of Sandlick, West Virginia.
Current projects: Bullfrog and Tad with T.B.S., the Questell Foundation and WSHA Radio are raising money to put a marker on the grave of Piedmont blues guitarist Floyd Council. Bullfrog is writing a driving tour of notable blues sites in the Piedmont which is being released in serial form on the Triangle Blues Society website. Both are booking dates together and separately for the rest of the year.