Seasick Steve: I'll keep playing till the wheels fall off

Seasick Steve was an overnight success at 65. He tells James McNair how he's adapted to life in the musical stratosphere

“Part of me gave up thinking I'd make a career in music 35 years ago,” says Steve Wold, aka Seasick Steve, “but then somebody gave me the stamp that says, 'You get to do this now, dog!' After I had the heart attack and I was so beat down that I didn't have too many opinions any more, things started to happen.”

Those “things”, we now know, included Wold's 2006 appearance on Jools Holland's annual Hootenanny. When the Oakland, California-born veteran performed “Dog House Boogie” on a self-made instrument called The Three-String Trance Wonder, hits on the website one of his sons had built for him shot from a tawdry 75 to a nifty 1.7 million.

“Yeah, Jools made me,” says Wold. “They had to shut down the server and all the computers went bad.” Now six albums to the good, this 72-year-old conduit of gnarly country blues is still taking nothing for granted. “It's a snap of the fingers for me, this dreamland, gravy-land period. I've got 50-60 years of playing before that. Every day I want to pinch myself, and the day I don't is the day I've turned into an idiot.”

Wold and I have met at Gatwick Airport. He's on his way back to Norway, where he and his Norwegian wife Elisabeth and their two sons are based (Wold also has three sons from a previous marriage). We've hooked up to discuss his new album, Hubcap Music, a work that begins and ends with the sound of Wold's 1960 John Deere tractor. The record's title alludes to another of his Frankensteinian guitars, this one fashioned from two car hubcaps and a garden hoe. Guests include Jack White, who plays lead guitar on “The Way I Do”, and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, who plays various instruments across various other songs.

“I'm a cheap date,” says Wold, “but when John played mandolin on ”Over You“ I sat there with my mouth open. The fire was going and we were just sitting on the couch drinking – you can hear my old clock in the background. One time John told me all the songs he played on in the Sixties when he was doing sessions. I was like: ”You played on “Goldfinger”? You're too good, man!“

All plaid, denim and whiskery warmth, in some ways Wold seems more senior actor on The Waltons than rock star. He curses with gusto, though, and the saccharine cosiness of the aforementioned TV show has not been his lot in life.

One could argue that a key component of Wold's magnetism is that much-coveted commodity, authenticity. The candid, sometimes picaresque lyrics of his autobiographical songs seem hard-won, and even today, a question about “Purple Shadows” – a Wold-penned country duet with Nashville-based singer Elizabeth Cook – sees him lift the lid on some old aches.

“I usually write about when I was a bum,” he says, “but this one was more thoughtful. It's about regrets and maybe missed things. I was alone and a little bit drunk and my wife wasn't there. I got the title from this one time I was riding a big ol' Harley Davison through the desert in Texas. I think it was in April 1977 and everything was going into flower and it turned purple. It was a gentle thing, but kinda lonesome too, you know?”

He seems happiest talking about his tractors, and his old 78s of Blind Willie Johnson and Charlie Patton. He talks about one tractor particularly. How long does he think he can keep going?

“Till the wheels fall off. But I would like to take some time off to do some farming. It's an amazing feeling to plough, to plant something and see it come up.”

'Hubcap Music' is out in Fiction on 29 April

*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar Magazine