JACKI LYDEN, Host:
To another complex cultural experience now, the blues. Tomorrow night brings the Grammy Awards, and one nominee stands out, a delta blues veteran named Pinetop Perkins. Pinetop Perkins is the oldest Grammy nominee this year, and he likes to start the morning with coffee, cigarettes, and maybe a little blues.
Mr. PINETOP PERKINS (American Blues Musician, Grammy Award Nominee): I love my coffee and I love my coffee, and I love my tea. And I love a pretty women but she don't love me.
LYDEN: Joe Willie Perkins was the ideal sideman for blues heroes Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk and Muddy Waters. He played Arkansas juke joints, Chicago blues dens and the White House.
Mr. PERKINS: I played there before with Muddy Waters. And I can't think of the name of the president. Since I got older, I am so forgetful. Mm-hmm, 95.
LYDEN: At age 95, Perkins may not remember the name of President Jimmy Carter, but at the piano, he can still beat out a rollicking boogie. His album, "Pinetop Perkins and Friends," is one of five Grammy nominees for Best Traditional Blues Album. It's not just a sentimental choice. Listen to him kick off this tune.
(Soundbite of "Way Down in Mississippi" by Pinetop Perkins)
LYDEN: That's Pinetop Perkins playing piano and singing with fellow traveler B.B. King, on guitar.
Mr. PERKINS: I'm a little older than him, though. He's still in the 80s and I'm in the 90s. I'm 95.
LYDEN: Perkins's story runs like pure blues legend. He used to play guitar in juke joints. Then, in what he insists was a case of mistaken identity, a dancer attacked him and stabbed his left arm. Before that, he ran away from home as a third-grader. He never learned to read or read music. He's still a chain smoker. And he doesn't flinch from describing how, as a kid, he was beaten with a piece of stove wood.
Mr. PERKINS: Just getting out of second grade into third, my grandmother run me away from home. Knocked me out. When I come to, she was still beating me with a stick of stove wood. I left there, didn't go back. I come up in the world the hard way, man.
LYDEN: Perkins picked up the blues purely by ear. As a young man, he got a job backing up harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson. They played together for a long-running radio show called "King Biscuit Time." Pinetop realized back then that he had a gift. He could hear in his mind where the music was headed before it actually happened. Before the other musicians heard them, he could hear the chords, hear the harmonies.
Mr. PERKINS: I can hear that stuff coming to me before it get to me, and do it to it. It come in my mind, I can hear changes coming before they get to me. How you do that? You don't read it? No, I don't read that stuff. No! I didn't get no schoolin'. Um-um.
LYDEN: Blues piano man Pinetop Perkins talking with producer David Schulman. Pinetop is still touring at age 95, and he's got a shot at a Grammy Award tomorrow night. We'll be listening.
(Soundbite of Pinetop Perkins, "Got My Mojo Workin'")