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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 61.0° F  Fair
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Man on the street
Catfish Stephenson highlights Terrace Blues Festival

Credit:Pete Olsen

Among the musicians from Chicago and New Orleans performing at this weekend's Terrace Blues Festival will be a Madison original - Catfish Stephenson.

Stephenson, 57, is one of Madison's signature buskers. If you frequent the Farmers' Market or walk regularly along State Street, you've seen Stephenson in his cowboy hat or his red pirate scarf, picking at his ornate steel guitar.

To hear him tell his story, he's been searching for the meaning of life since he was a kid.

"I figured out at an early age I was being lied to about the important things," says Stephenson. "What seemed so important to most people didn't seem important to me."

His favorite childhood memory: lying in bed on Saturday nights, pointing his crystal radio up to the sky, earplug in, listening to the country-blues show Louisiana Hayride.

With his hat and cowboy boots, Stephenson looks like a Texan, but he is a Madison native. He attended La Follette High School. His dad worked at Manchester's Department Store on the Capitol Square.

His mother was in a jug band that gigged at the Loraine Hotel. Stephenson played harmonica and sang along. They played ragtime, show tunes, all kinds of old stuff.

"When I started hearing old country and old blues, it struck something in my heartstrings," says Stephenson. "I realized I wasn't the only one who felt alone in the cosmos."

Stephenson enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968. "My draft number was coming up anyway," he says. He joined an active-duty anti-war group called the Movement for a Democratic Military (MDM) during his year in the Marines. The price he paid for doing that was significant.

"They would beat the shit out of me all the time because I refused to fight."

His life as a traveling musician began in earnest when he left the Marines and moved to Austin in 1970. There, he met the famed Austin club owner, Ken Threadgill, noted for giving Janis Joplin her first singing job. Stephenson jammed regularly with Jesse Ashlock, a former member of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys.

"I hitchhiked a lot at the time," says Stephenson. "I'd go from Austin to Madison, then out to the West Coast. I'd just find these dive bars and go in to ask if I could play. If I made any money, I'd use it to buy drinks for everyone in the house."

In Texas, Stephenson traveled the back roads in search of musicians he idolized, like the blues singer Mance Lipscomb.

"The romantic notions I had about them dissipated when I met them," says Stephenson. "They were just regular guys who got drunk, made shit money and wanted to get laid."

Was he disappointed?

"No," Catfish told me after a long pause. "It just gave me the sense that we're all alone together."

After a decade in Texas, Stephenson returned to Wisconsin. He followed a friend to Elroy, where he spent the next 10 years. He played at Ed Thompson's supper club - Thompson (brother to Tommy) is a like-minded Libertarian whom Catfish calls "a remarkable man."

Not until the mid-1990s did Stephenson return to Madison. By that time, his father had stopped asking Catfish if he was ever going to get a regular job.

He never has.

He lives in an apartment on the north side of Madison. "I'm still under the poverty level," says Stephenson. "I mow and shovel around the building to pay my rent."

What's his typical day?

"I get up in the morning. My feet hit the floor. And I think to myself, 'Today could be the day I die - what do I do?'"

He makes coffee. He tools around with his leather and silver jewelry making. He drives down to State Street and visits friends. He spends an hour at Steep & Brew. Later, he takes his canoe out to University Bay and goes fly-fishing.

And he plays music. He still busks at the Farmers' Market and along State Street on Friday and Saturday nights. More venues have invited him inside.

Mondays he's at Brocach. Every other Wednesday he plays the Weary Traveler. Thursday he performs at the Up North bar.

Music is Catfish Stephenson's "regular job." He brings an ethic to his profession that earned him a 2004 appearance on Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor.

"All of my songs have something in them that has actually taken place in my life. That 'something' is what makes me want to play that song. I identify with it, and it identifies with me."

Like his cowboy and pirate hats, the songs of Catfish Stephenson are all about the quest for freedom.

Take a listen to his Borderline Blues this Saturday on the Terrace:

Does it ever cross your mind

As you ride the borderline

You're not asking for no money

But you're begging for release.

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