Jason Ricci and New Blood
by Stacy A. Jeffress
I became a fan of harmonica sensation Jason Ricci, who will appear at Uncle Boís in Topeka on February 28th, before having heard any of his music. My introduction to the 34-year-old, a nominee for the 2009 Blues Music Award for harmonica player of the year, was through a superb article in the February/March 2008 issue of Blues Revue written by Autumn Long (ďJason Ricci Gets His Rock OffĒ). Jasonís tale of an identity crisis generated by his struggle to fit into the African-American blues tradition and his subsequent immersion into, and recovery from, substance addiction was compelling.
Jason transcended the dark times and found his own musical voice with his band, New Blood, which expresses itself through jazz and punk-inspired riffs but always comes home to the blues. Blues traditionalists may not know how to take some of Ricciís music, but considering the journey heís taken to get here, we can trust Ricci to be our tour guide through new musical territory and to return us home safely, enriched by the experience.
Jasonís 2007 release, Rocket Number 9 on Eclecto Groove Records (a division of Delta Groove), explored sounds from the sweet and sublime ďSonjaĒ to the irresistible swing of ďThe Blow Zone LayerĒ and then propelled us past the pull of Earthís gravity on the title track. This is not your grandmaís blues, but you might catch her tapping her foot to the beat.
Generous by nature, as evidenced by the numerous instructional videos he has posted on YouTube, Jason recently spent two hours on the phone with me so I could tell Topeka Blues Society and Kansas Blues Connections readers what to expect at his upcoming show at Uncle Boís.
SAJ: Tell me about your YouTube videos. I am fascinated by the amount of time you spend sharing your knowledge and love of your instrument with other folks.
JR: Itís really interesting that was the first question you picked. I think that the emergence of YouTube as a form of instruction is fascinating, and the amount of people in all genres like athletics and art and music and cooking that have gotten fame by doing nothing besides YouTube. I intended to reach a broader audience by making those videos. We already had videos of the band up playing, and they were getting okay ratings and hits, but nothing like the instructional videos.
A friend of mine had started posting instructional videos. His name is Adam Gussow; he was also one of my harmonica teachers. He started making these videos, and they started going good for him, and then he started making money off of them, asking for donations and getting PayPal. I didnít want to do that because I already have a career as a performer, and what I wanted to do was attract people to other our YouTube videos of us playing and get people out to the shows.
I started having a lot of people at my shows who had never ever been to a bar to see live music before. Their favorite harmonica players were not guys like Little Walter of Kim Wilson or Charlie Musselwhite; their favorite guys were not the most popular harmonica players. Their favorite guys were me and Adam Gussow and Ronnie Shellist and Christelle Berthon. Of those 4 players, Iím the only one who really plays gigs. The rest just sit at home and maybe play locally here and there, but they make videos, yet these people are famous to these people at home.
I do genuinely love the instrument, and I was trying to fill a niche on YouTube that I felt wasnít there. Adamís and Ronnieís videos were all very basic, and I wanted to make a video that was more for the intermediate or advanced guy that maybe already know some or all the stuff that those guys were saying but was really looking for a different way of learning, not only some of the more advanced techniques but some more personal approaches in terms of musicality and training, scale exercises and how to practice, those kind of more disciplined, a classical approach to learning which I felt really lacking from our instrument. I still feel to this day, this is the only instrument, harmonica, in the world where I hear people consistently saying over and over, ďDonít practice, donít learn scales, youíre going to ruin your playing.Ē Because theyíre afraid itís going to take the soul out of it.
SAJ: I hear a lot about young people not being attracted to the blues and more of us middle-aged types go to the shows, but you could bring in this whole young generation through this medium.
JR: Thatís absolutely correct. Itís been my experience that the demographic that I speak of that comes to these shows - they donít go to see blues shows, they donít go to see other blues harmonica players unless those guys are doing something and they also feel itís cool like Jasonís giving us something for free, letís give him something back, this is all he wants. And it is all I want. Then once they come to the show, they see and feel the energy of the music. For me it was the same thing - my mom brought me to see James Cotton when I was 15, and I went just to hear the harmonica. We got there and heard the whole thing. I fell in love with the music. It wasnít long after that, maybe a year, when I was playing records that had nothing to do with harmonica and everything to do with blues, like Albert King and B.B. King, Muddy Waters, he had harp on some of his stuff but it wasnít why I was buying it. I was buying it Ďcause I loved the music.
And getting out to that club and being part of that and that whole thing with the audience and the energy of the audience and the energy of the performer, that circle that goes back and forth. Once those kids experience that, theyíre hooked for life. Not just on blues, hopefully on blues, but also on live music and what thatís like to go out there and see that.
SAJ: Blues Revue in its current issue started a new column about blues on the internet or blues in the digital ageÖ I thought I might do a piece about Jason and his YouTube videos. I think you have 80 of them posted. How many subscribers?
JR: I think theyíre almost up to 3000. I recently got a computer that I can take on the road and I can film videos so recently Iíve been putting up a lot more videos from the road. My new series of videos is called Ricci road videos Ė I go out and interview harmonica players and other interesting people.
I think itís an exciting medium. Itís free. Itís also relevant to mention how much work it does overseas because the record companies only reach so far. I think Delta Groove does a decent job getting our record to England and Belgium and a few other countries, but the thing is Iím reaching people in Vietnam; Iím reaching people in Laos; people on Pakistan that otherwise would never hear my music.
Everybody all the time is like, ďOh man, the world is in such rough shape, itís falling apart.Ē Far be it from me to have the answer, but what I would suggest to people is, Iím not sure thatís really true. What I know is true is that we have more access to whatís going on in the world everywhere all at once with the click of a button. Thatís bad and good. Itís easy to see that there are wars everywhere and crime everywhere. Thatís always been going on, we just didnít know about it because we didnít have this amazing tool. And this amazing tool can also let us know what good things are going on all over the world. When Iím looking for information about something, Iím almost always going to YouTube first even before Google, because Googleís just going to direct me to YouTube. If we want to figure out how to make brownies from scratch, you can see it. Anything you can think of Ė almost Ė somebody has a video up there of how to do it and tutorials are the most active videos viewed, because people want to feel
like they are getting something out of their time in front of the computer.
Unfortunately, thereís that whole internet mentality where people think they can replace their real life experience. What they donít understand is that most of the people making these videos didnít learn from them, from the internet. They learned from real life experience, from getting out. The reason we have stuff to talk about on the videos itís because we had to get this information the hard way and itís so much more than the information. Itís the how do you do an overblow, how do you play a Sonny Boy solo, itís the process of going out and performing and seeing performers and talking to them face to face and being 6 inches away from your face and blowing the lick right into your ear, and you going, ďOh, yeah, ok.Ē That stuff gets in you. The internet is great stuff, but itís not the answer to everything.
SAJ: You have mastery of playing the instrument, and then your technical knowledge is astounding. Where did you learn all of the technical part of playing?
JR: I would say I only have a rudimentary understanding of music theory. Compared to most harmonica players, Iím a Julliard graduate. Compared to a first-year college student on any instrument who is studying that stuff, I am well behind them. I couldnít even tell you how many sharps and flats are in each key. Iíve learned everything with whatís called the Nashville Number System which is a musical shorthand still based in theory and based in scales, predominately based off of the C major scale and then all forms of shorthand are really referring to variations of that. I have a slight working knowledge of most chords that I come in contact with in blues and some jazz and all rock and folk. ďWorking knowledgeĒ meaning I can tell you what notes those chords are composed of in numbers. I canít tell you what notes they are literally.
I have an understanding of most of the seven modes that exist and what their point is, and this may be gibberish to some of the readers, but itís really all rudimentary. I learned all of this knowledge by being in contact with musicians that needed to communicate with me and had to find a way for me to understand what they were talking about beyond playing me the lick and then waiting for me to figure it out by ear.
The other thing is that I enjoy a lot of other music besides blues, and from those other music genres there is less of a, well blues is a largely improvised type of music and itís also a music that is composed of quite a bit of machismo, meaning that there is very little communication about what is going to be played prior to it being played, for a variety of reasons. A lot of white people playing that music have this idea that the older black performers didnít communicate; they just sat down and did and thatís how it goes. That may be true in some cases, but I find that hypothesis disturbingly racist. There have been many black performers that are old and certainly fit into the old black bluesman stereotype that Iíve hung around with whose working knowledge of chords and scales and chord structure is pretty extensive and they were pretty smart, smarter than me, and knew more than I did. I find that whole idea a little racist and simplified and again itís the idea that on some level, knowledge is going to
hurt you. Thereís this notion in blues music that knowledge will hurt you, that it will somehow make you less soulful, that the more you know about what youíre playing the less there is a chance that youíre going to play from your heart. That is absolutely preposterous, itís not true and itís not backed up by history.
When you move into other genres of music, that communication increases because of the lack of that stereotype and that pretense. You donít see that pretense as much in rock music; you donít see it as much in country music; you certainly do not see it in jazz music. Jazz music is an incredibly soulful form of music, yet has performers that play all technical with no soul, and very little technique with tons of soul, and in the middle just like every other form of music. But one thing thatís in common with all of that is that jazz players are very hip and very cool to practicing and to knowing whatís going on behind them. There are all these people out there that would say that scales are bad for you and knowledge is going to hurt you and any type of formal training is negative.
Just tell me that Miles Davisís ďAutumn LeavesĒ didnít have any soul. Then listen to it and write me an email and say that solo was overthought. This guyís a genius, and he still plays with tons of soul and knew everything that he was doing and it didnít hurt him. I love technique and I love theory, and learning it isnít going to make you a great player, but not learning it will hurt your chances of being a great player.
SAJ: Did you have formal instruction in any instrument?
JR: I had formal instruction in harmonica and guitar, but it didnít really include much theory. I learned the layout of the instrument - where the notes were. I was taught right from the very beginning about people like Howard Levy whoís a really exciting classical, jazz, and blues, and world harmonica player. To my ears, heís the best harmonica player alive hands down. I never went to school for it. I did do a semester of jazz improvisation that I signed up for down in Florida, and I got quite a bit out of that course.
SAJ: I want to go back to your origins in Maine.
JR: I would say like most people that grew up anywhere that of course you take it for granted. However Iím not a big fan of the winters, and I wouldnít ever live there again because of that. Additionally, being a performer, itís a peninsula, so thereís only a limited direction in which you can tour out of it. Living in Nashville, the thing is every time I leave the house I can go in a different direction. As a touring professional, thatís very important Ė it limits the amount of time you have to drive before you can stop and play a gig. Growing up in Maine was great. Conan OíBrian called it ďthe deep south of the north,Ē and I would totally agree with that. Maine is a very stubborn place with a bunch of people who absolutely refuse to change, and I love them and theyíre cool.
Fishermen are largely unchanged. When I was growing up, everybody knew somebody that was a fisherman so everybody could get discounted or free lobsters every week, and we ate them every week, like macaroni and cheese. Of course I took that for granted. I had no idea that that was a delicacy or that was something that people everywhere couldnít have if they wanted it.
Also in Maine, too, the musicians are really good. There are a lot of great players up there and I think it has something to do with the fact that there's nothing to do. Thereís really nowhere to go; thereís nothing to do; thereís nothing to see; thereís not a lot of performing arts; thereís not a lot of bars. Itís very cold; people stay indoors and donít go out very much. Thereís a real strong sense of family just like in the South. Of course thatís a gross generalization, but that was my experience growing up. I miss it but not enough to endure a winter again.
SAJ: You donít sound like a Mainer. How long were you there?
JR: 18 years
SAJ: Really! Howíd you avoid the accent?
JR: I didnít, I got rid of it when I got older. I moved to Idaho when I was 18 and I went home one summer and recorded a radio show with a friend of mine. He made me a tape of it, it was just us playing music for people on WMPG, itís a college radio station, and I heard my voice. After living in Idaho, I was able to really hear the accent, and I didnít like it. [The accent] can come out any time I want it to and only sometimes when I donít want it to when Iím talking to other people from Maine or talking to my brother or my mom.
Did you know that Nick Curran is from Maine? Nick Curran a few years ago won best new artist of the year [The Blues Foundation awards formerly known as the Handy Awards and now the Blues Music Awards]. He got on Blind Pig [Records]; he was doing very very well. He had Preston Hubbard in the band. The albums are absolutely incredible; one featured Jimmie Vaughn. The other featured Kim Wilson and Jimmie Vaughn. Then he later went on to play with the Fabulous Thunderbirds for a couple years and now he loves in TX. But Nicky is from Maine and he is a proud Mainer like myself even though neither one of us really wants to move back there. Neither of us is ashamed of having come from there.
Maine had a great blues scene. There were a couple of clubs -, there was one called Raoulís that was there forever. It closed and reopened and closed and reopened and closed and now remains closed. Everybody came through there: Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Charlie Musselwhite, James Cotton, William Clarke, Rod Piazza, all those guys. I saw them all. My mother took me to every one of the shows.
We had a club open called The Big Easy which held a jam session by a guy name Mike Hayworth. It was a Tuesday night open mic; it was sort of like an invite only kind of professional jam. That thing spawned both me and Nicky. If it wasnít for that jam session, itíd be fair to say that thereís a decent chance neither one of us would have ever done anything with our lives in terms of blues. Per Hanson was one of the hosts of that Ė he was the drummer for that. Thatís Ronnie Earlís drummer. Ronnie Earl came down for the thing. Jerry Portnoy from Claptonís band, and he played with Muddy Waters. I was 18 years old, I wasnít even old enough to be in the club and Iím there watching Jerry Portnoy playing harmonica with Little Charlie and the Nightcats. I talked to those guys, 18 years old, you know like right there in this little tiny club.
We had a radio show that was 2 hours every single night of the week between 5 and 7. It was called the Eveniní Sun 90.9 WMPG [Greater Portland Community Radio - University of Southern Maine] with all different DJs for every night of the week. Every single night of the week there was 2 hours of blues. I remember tuning into the show when I was 14 years old. I canít tell you how many years it was going before that. As long as I can remember a blues presence, there was a blues society in Maine when I was 14 years old, and they did things. They had jams, they had events. They made sure Cotton came to Raoulís. They made sure Buddy Guy came to Raoulís. Paul Benjamin does the Rockland Blues [North Atlantic] festival up in Maine, has been going on for years and years. Giant performers come up there and play. Little Milton Campbell played his last gig and recorded his last DVD in ME [Live at the North Atlantic Blues Festival: His Last Concert].
SAJ: How old were you when you started on guitar or harmonica or just playing on your own?
SAJ: What was it about 14?
JR: I guess I just wanted to be in a band. My friend had a band and I thought it was cool and I wanted to be in it. I wasnít a very good singer, so I was starting to get benched a lot because they would write a song and they would sing the songs. I had nothing to do. So I wanted to be able to do something so when I wasnít singing I could still be on stage. I got into playing harmonica and guitar. Then I kind of gave up on guitar. I still use it to write songs but I gave up on it Ďcause harmonica came so naturally to me and I got good so fast. There werenít a lot of people doing it, so it was not very competitive and I did have access to some wonderful teachers over the years: [Maine harmonica player] D.W. Gill and Adam Gussow and then most recently of course the late Pat Ramsey who was my biggest influence.
SAJ: You were born in Portland, you go to Idaho when youíre 18. At what point do you go to Mississippi Ė in the 90s?
JR: I moved to Memphis in 1995 to study with Pat. I did that for a year, waited tables and then got a job playing with Junior Kimbrough and his kids mostly and then Iíd occasionally play with Junior. Iíd play with Junior every Sunday at the juke joint [Juniorís Place in Chulahoma, MS]. Iíd play with his kids in between then and at the juke joint. I also got to play a lot with R.L. Burnside which was really cool.
SAJ: How did you know about Pat to move to Memphis to study with him?
JR: I was just driving home one year from college to Maine. I decided to stop in Memphis, and I went to Beale Street. I was walking down the street and I heard this amazing harmonica coming out of this club and it was this kid named Billy Gibson and I was like, ďHoly crap.Ē [Billy is one of the other artists nominated for this yearís BMA for harmonica player of the year.] He was my age, the first time Iíd ever seen a harmonica player my age - everybody was 50 and 40, I was 20. I was like, ďYouíre incredible,Ē and he was, ďYou think Iím good, wait til you hear the next guy.Ē Iím like, ďWhoís that?Ē Pat got up and played - I never heard harmonica like that ever in my life. Sounded like guitar player. After he got down, I went up to him. He was really nice, approachable, very humble and cool. I said, ďIím in college, Iím from Maine. I was going to go back to college, but Iím just going to go home and work and get enough money and move back here and get a job and go to every one of your gigs.Ē
So I just moved back to Memphis. I went to every one of his shows for a whole year and hung out with him, ďHow do you do this, how do you do that?Ē Probably annoyed him quite a bit. And then he bestowed some other knowledge on me that I really didnít want to hear at the time and later ended up more or less saving my life.
SAJ: Pat Ramsey passed while you were in Amsterdam [in November, 2008]?
JR: The day before I left. Iím actually a little upset about the whole thing because, not about Patís death really but, you know itís frustrating for people that are fans of somebody to see them die and then suddenly get a lot of attention because theyíre dead. But this is the 1st time Iíve ever seen somebody die and get less attention then when they were alive.
SAJ: You quit college to move to Memphis and watch this guy for a year and learn from him for a year. Was your family supportive of this choice?
JR: Not really. My mom pretty much told me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, but they werenít going to pay for it which was cool. My dad on the other hand, itís hard to say how involved he was or if he even really knew what I was doing. Every time I would make a CD I would send it to him then Iíd come home a year or 2 later and Iíd find the CD unopened. He really never paid much attention to what I was doing. Of course he had a lot of advice about how to do it.
SAJ: He didnít open your CDs? That is so sad.
JR: Yeah, it is. He was a business man himself and pretty self-absorbed dude. Unbelievably intelligent and articulate and a very popular figure in Maine culture. He just basically told me, ďI donít care what you want to do, just donít ever change your name to Blind Lemon Leaddick.Ē And I still agree those are good words to live by. He told me to be myself and not try to be something Iím not, like an old black Mississippi blues guy. And Iíve done that. Iíve adamantly done that. And itís probably cost me some fans. I think that the fans that Iíve garnered by being myself are worth more and have more integrity themselves. I think the reason there are a lot of young kids who donít dig this music is because of the fact that blues is often associated with show.
JR: Yeah, show. Thereís an act there by a lot of the white performers. They may be excellent musicians, but thereís a talk and a kind of inflection in their voice that does not actually come from their background. Iím not going to do that. Iím not going to stand up there and wear a suit. You read the article in [Blues Revue]ÖIím not from Mississippi, Iíve never picked cotton.
SAJ: You said, ďIíve never reckoned a day in my life,Ē my favorite line anywhere.
JR: There you go. Thatís the first thing I learned living with R.L. [Burnside] and Junior was that I was never ever going to be one of those guys. They grew up with that music. Itís part of them from the time they were little kids. Itís their heritage, itís their grandfathersí, their cousins, their 2nd cousins, their great-grandfathersí. There are bloodlines that go to [Mississippi] Fred McDowell, that go to John Lee Hooker, that go to Muddy Waters. My bloodlines do not go to those people. I have no history of that. I stumbled upon it accidentally. No matter how much I dream or wish, itís not where I come from. I can dig it, I can talk about it but Iím never going to be it.
SAJ: I have whatís a really dumb question, but I want to know, what exactly is overblowing?
JR: Thatís not a dumb question. The diatonic harmonica is the small harmonica that most blues players play. There are 2 different kinds of harmonicas, there are more than 2 but there are 2 main kinds of reed harmonicas: thereís the diatonic harmonica and the chromatic harmonica. Chromatic is a word that refers to all 12 tones of the scale. In western music we have 12 tones that we identify as being notes. In eastern music there are more. A piano has 88 keys, repeated over and over again. A diatonic is limited, thatís what the word means. That means there are less than 12 tones. Thatís what the majority of harmonica players play.
Most of the people that play blues on chromatic harmonica play the chromatic diatonically meaning they donít use the 12 tones. They play the music in 1, 2, or maybe 3 different keys. And they use the little button on the side that gives them all 12 tones use but a few of them. So overblowing is in essence the opposite of playing the chromatic diatonically, itís playing the diatonic chromatically.
Thereís a player who came along named Howard Levy. He had been in a band called Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Heís on their first 2 albums. He rose to popularity through that band, however he had been around for quite awhile and has been doing some recording with some other bands, but he remained in obscurity in the harmonica world as well as in the musical world. He had developed this technique from my understanding sometime in the 70s. The technique came to the forefront of the musical world at the release of these albums with Bela Fleck. From the worldís perspective all of a sudden we heard one of those little harmonicas, the blues harp, playing all 12 tones of the chromatic scale whereas we had been told that it was impossible Ė the notes werenít there and they didnít exist. So Howard called the technique ďoverblowing,Ē and the name was coined.
It is the position of the mouth, the embouchure, that forces a hole to pop into that other note. You hear harmonica players talk about bending notes, itís completely different. Itís popping that note which previously was thought to do nothing other than play that note into another note, the note that it lands on happens by the grace of God to be that missing note in every circumstance. Itís really proof of the existence of God in a nutshell. Adam Gussow was to my knowledge and to my ears the very first blues player to implement it, and it came out on a record called Satan and Adam Harlem Blues. I got the record and I couldnít believe what I was hearing, because it wasnít a chromatic harmonica, it was a diatonic harmonica. They have 2 very distinct sounds. Here are these notes that donít exist coming out. Iím like, ďWhat is this?Ē I find out itís this technique that Howard implemented.
I started learning it and then this other player came into my understanding, Carlos del Junco from Canada. This guy was playing them all over the place. This guyís amazing. So I start studying these guys, Adam Gussow, Howard, and Carlos del Junco, and I start mixing it in with the stuff Pat taught me. And then next thing you know, I stopped sounding like a generic copy of Pat. Between the study of scales, harmony, chord structure and this new technique, I was able to get out from underneath the cape of Pat Ramsey. I was a carbon copy up until 1998.
Now I could suddenly play all of these cool jazz songs that Iíd heard. In the past I would say, ďIím sorry I canít play that. The noteís not here, it doesnít exist.Ē Then all of a sudden, I was able to say, ďOh yeah, sure what note is that, no problem.Ē I could play anything the piano played, anything the guitar played, anything the violin played. I just had to figure out how to do it. Itís all owed from my end to Howard.
There are really only 3 of us that are doing this on a wide scale level. There are hundreds of kids all over the world, if not thousands, who can do the technique, mostly kids that are attracted to it Ďcause itís new and itís exciting and thatís what kids want to do. Things that are new and exciting and advanced and difficult and limitless, thatís what attracts youth. But thereís not very many people doing it musically and on top of that there are very few people with record contracts on the road doing it. So itís me, Howard, and Carlos del Junco.
Thereís a whole mess of harmonica players that donít believe still that the technique has any relevance. ďLittle Walter, he didnít play that way, so, why would I?Ē I say if little Walter had known about it, he would have done it. Heíd have been all over it, especially if it was changing the way the instrument is played which it is. Who wants to be in a band with somebody and have them say, ďI canít play that.Ē I donít want to be in a band with that guy. I want to be in a band with a guy who says, ďYeah sureĒ. Itís a really exciting time for the instrument. Being alive now is what it must have been like to be an alto player when Charlie Parker was alive or be a tenor player when Coltrane was alive. To be living at a time when this guy, Howard Levy, revolutionized the instrument.
SAJ: Thatís what is so appealing about your playing, your live performances and the only CD I have, Rocket Number 9, you can play the down-home blues and then you play amazing cutting edge jazz fusion edgy-thing going on which kinda blows your mind.
JR: I think itís too much for some people.
SAJ: It might be. Iím insisting that my son come see you next month, heís not a blues guy. He probably wouldnít be able to relate to Lilí Ed and the Imperials, but you I think heís going to love.
JR: Itís great that youíre bringing him and I hope that he does and he tells his friends not just for our sake for the musicís sake.
SAJ: Youíre like the ambassador to the next generation.
JR: There are a couple of us. Itís good that there are so many young people. Thatís another great thing about the internet because it is bringing in that group. Kids are starting to get fed up with music. Mainstream music as a term is really starting to dissolve, because the internet is so powerful that marketing is becoming so washed out, so diversified. Twenty years ago you were told, ďThis is the hit record and hereís what you buy.Ē Nowadays thereís a lot of music, and itís all free. Itís everywhere. How do you find it? People stumble upon it. Word of mouth is as powerful as ever.
SAJ: You are nominated for harmonica player of the year for the Blues Music Award.
JR: Thatís the biggest award Iíve ever been up for. I probably wonít win it, not to be negative. A lot of the guys Iím going up against are people Iíve mentioned in this conversation as people I went and saw when I was 18 years old. And this is also their first time to be nominated in some cases. The title of the award is ďbest harmonica player of the year.Ē If it is purely judged on that, then maybe I stand a chance of winning, but if itís judged on any other criteria I donít stand a chance in hell of winning nor do I think I really deserve it. I played some bad ass harmonica last year and I played a lot of it. I was out there and I worked really hard, and Iíve done a lot for our community, and Iíve done a lot for the instrument. Iím always teaching and giving it away for free and helping kids. I give free lessons on the road and everything else, right, so maybe in that respect I deserve to win. But if itís about how many years youíve put into this, Iíve put in a good 21 years, but thatís not the same as
what Rick Estrinís put into it or what Mark Hummelís put into it. Theyíve put a lot more years, a lot more miles, a lot more gigs than I have, and all due respect, if they get it, man they deserve it.
SAJ: I suspect that a lot of your 3000 YouTube subscribers are not voting members of the Blues Foundation.
JR: The BMA award costs money to vote for me. Youíve got to be a member - itís $25 - and I donít want to ask my YouTube people to do that Ďcause thatís kind of a lot of money. It seems like a lot to ask, but I am going to ask for them to vote for me for Band of the Year for [the online publication] Blues Wax. I love that magazine, and itís weekly so it can address the urgent issues of the community such as sickness and death that canít be addressed by a monthly or bimonthly publication.
I also won [Blues Wax] Article of the Year for a piece I wrote on how to succeed in the music business, a guide to mid-level success for most bands [ďStay in College,Ē www.jrnb.blogspot.com]. That was a very long piece that I wrote about taking responsibility for your own actions and not wishing for people to hand you the brass ring, but to go out and get it, go out and play and get people to notice you. How to do that, how to promote your band, how to hire a group, how to buy a band. I beat some pretty terrific and respected writers, namely Art Tipaldi and Bob Margolin.
I love writing. I like writing the way I talk. When you write you edit yourself and try to appear more intelligent than you are, at least I do. I was inspired by Ginsberg and Kerouac and that kind of train-of-thought writing. I submit things all the time that donít get published.
What inspired the article was this, when I first got signed to Delta Groove, I started getting attention nationally as an artist. All of a sudden out of the woodwork everybody and their brother wanted me to help them. They wanted to open for us, wanted to give me a CD, wanted me to get them on my label, wanted me to get them on my booking agency and help them, you know give back to your friends the little people that supported you. First of all, you havenít called me in 4 years. Number 2, even if I did, there is nothing I can do to help you succeed because there is so much else that you need to do besides having me hand your CD to this person. Itís not going to mean anything to this person until youíve achieved a, b, c, and d .And I canít do that for you, no matter what. I spent so many hours pacing around the house like I do talking on the phone talking to these ďfriendsĒ of mine about how to get their bands on track because they wanted me to help them do something: ďI will give your CD to Delta Groove and
I will give your CD to [booking agency] Intrepid [Artists International], but nothingís going to happen.Ē I spent so much time doing that that Iíd had enough. The article is as much an article about how not to succeed in the music business as it is how to. It is written with a bitter angry lazy musician in mind which is most of us, me included most of the time.
SAJ: I saw that in 2006 you did 319 shows. For somebody whoís lazy, how do you sustain, how do you do 319 shows in a year?
JR: You have to want it; you have to have a band that wants it with you. One of the reasons we did so many shows was because in 2006 we werenít getting paid very much, so it was necessary to do. Thatís one of the reasons our touring schedule has slowed down. Itís not because we donít want to work more or we want to work less, itís because we are now getting paid more and when you get paid more what happens is the amount of venues you can play at that price diminishes.
SAJ: Your past drug use is covered in the Blues Revue article, but I think itís important to mention, youíre going on 10 years sobriety?
SAJ: Thatís quite the achievement. I wondered about the title of the new CD, Done with the Devil, if that was a way of celebrating the 10 years of sobriety or didnít have anything to do with it.
JR: Itís more complex than that. The title is Done with the Devil but the Devil ainít Done with You. To a degree it is one personís resignation from that lifestyle, but it also an acknowledgement that there are forces both internal, being natural self-destructive urges, even supposing external on a spiritual level. I am supposing through much of the lyrics on this CD that there are at work forces that are both good and bad and that have nothing to do with psychology that are every bit metaphysical. That is my personal experience. Iím a firm believer in the spirit world and I wasnít always. It is through experiences that Iíve had that are described in this song and other songs on the CD that have made me a believer in the demonic which is nothing Iíve subscribed to in my past life. I had a ghost story, thatís a really light way of putting it. I had a really strange paranormal experience that changed my mind, changed my life and Iíve never been the same. I wrote a lot of the songs or decided to pick a lot of
the songs on the CD based on that experience.
SAJ: Do you want to talk about that?
JR: Not really. Iím pretty much an open book with everything in the entire world, sexuality, my past, everything other than that. I believe thereís a God, and I also believe thereís a devil. And itís not because of something I read in a book.
SAJ: Will there be all originals on the new CD that you or band wrote?
JR: Either I wrote them or [Guitarist]Shawn [Starski] wrote them, Todd Edmunds, my drummer wrote them, or all 4 of us wrote them; in most cases the latter.
SAJ: Will we hear some of these new songs at Boís?
JR: Yeah, youíll hear all of them. Weíll be pushing the new material and learning it better ourselves. A lot of it weíre still real shaky on. We were able to record it great, but whether or not we can reproduce it live is a whole other question. We have like 70 original songs, so to add another 10 to that, all of a sudden, itís daunting.
SAJ: I hope you still do ďIím a New ManĒ because thatís my favorite.
JR: Weíll always do that one.
SAJ: Itís so uplifting, and then when you describe in the liner notes how that song came to be: ďI wrote this on my way to jail and finished it six months or so in.Ē
JR: Thereís another one on the new CD - itís musically nothing like that - but it is uplifting. We have a couple of tunes on this record that I think are going to be potentially more accessible to the listening public whereas Rocket Number 9 has a lot of jazz fusion on it. We still have retained that element however I believe we have toned it down quite a bit. I would say we refined it, and weíre not quite as reckless in the likes of which we do it and how we do it. I would say weíve grown a little, weíve sophisticated a hair.
This record is much more blues based. Much more of a blues record than anything weíve ever done before, even more than our independent release Blood on the Road which was by far the blusiest record weíd ever done. We even have an acoustic number on this CD with an upright bass, an acoustic guitar, and a harmonica and a snare drum played with brushes in one room recorded at one time, no overdubs, singing it playing it like weíre on the porch. I canít wait for everybody to hear it.
Iíve finally come up with an accurate description of Rocket Number 9 now that itís over with, and that description would be ďart blues.Ē They called the Velvet Underground ďart rock,Ē and I think thatís what that album was. This album is not that. Itís much more straightforward. And the cool thing is that nobody set out to do that. We werenít going, ďOk weíve got to please them, weíd better do some blues or theyíre going to get mad.Ē Itís just not us. The blues community in general is so supportive of Rocket Number 9. We as a band really expected a lot more backlash than we got, so we were pleasantly surprised at how well we were accepted by the blues community. The fact that they didnít really care about the funny hair, really didnít care about being gay, didnít really care about the jazzier rocky songs. They gave us festival slots, blues societies gave us shows, gave us club dates, they gave us money in terms of buying the CD and tipping us. I think the band got really excited about that, and it really
put a good taste in our mouth about blues in general. I think thatís maybe why there were more blues songs on this record. Itís, ok, thatís not going to bother you, so now weíll just do it your way. If someone came out and said, we hate this, this is terrible, this isnít blues and you donít know what youíre talking about, I think the band would have been more tempted to go further, to even make it weirder that it was before. ĎCause weíre like that, weíre rebels.
SAJ: How did you meet Shawn?
JR: I met him in Florida. I was in a local band called The Knucklebusters at a time. This was circa 1999-2000. He was in the rival local band. I was looking for a new guitar player and hired a friend of his from Florida to come up and do the gig. The kid who Iíd initially hired couldnít do the gig because he had another job he had to do that paid more. He sent Shawn in his place as a temporary substitute. So Shawn came and the very first day aced the gig. The band no longer wanted to hire JP, as great as he is. We thought, ďShawnís perfect.Ē Then JP called again and said he couldnít do it altogether, so it was sort of a blessing and I offered the gig to Shawn and it didnít even take Shawn a second or two, ďYeah Iíll do it,Ē instantly.
We moved him up here to Nashville like a week later, and itís been great. Working with him has been the most meaningful musical relationship of my entire life by far. And should he ever decide to go do his own thing or to take some time off, you can rest assured that I will be taking some time off as well because it will take me quite a long time to recover for the loss of a partner like that. Iím musically enmeshed with how he writes and how he does things, Iíve grown very dependent, and I hope vice versa on how he is as a songwriter, artist, and performer.
I feel privileged to be part of the nurturing process of an artist like that, that I have taken somebody like that from a local band and exposed him to a lifestyle that has allowed him to progress. Iím not responsible for his guitar playing, Iím only saying that I did get him on the road and I did get him to where he didnít have to worry about anything else besides playing guitar. And in doing that, he has blossomed into I think the best guitar player Iíve ever heard.
SAJ: How old is he?
JR: 29. When I hired him he was 24.
SAJ: Was it Guitar magazine that named him one of the 10 best guitar players?
JR: Thatís exactly right, Guitar Player Magazine (ďTop Ten Hottest New Guitarists,Ē June 2008). On this record he sings as well. Heís a natural, much better vocalist than I am right off the bat with no practice.
SAJ: And then Buck Weed, also known as Todd, how long has Todd been with you?
JR: Coming up on 4, 4.5 years. Multi-instrumentalist: tuba, sousaphone, trombone, anything in the bass class, bass harmonica, piano. He is the brains behind the project in terms of if thereís a question of what to do musically or what is the appropriate rule to break, he knows the answer. If somebody needs to figure out what key somethingís in, what time signatureís in it, thatís the guy we go to. Heís very formally trained, heís done big band work his whole life, jazz band in high school, marching band, Sight reads. Biggest jazz freak in the band. When heís not playing with us and thereís time off, heís doing jazz gigs for a living.
SAJ: I think you have a relatively new drummer.
JR: His name is Ed Michaels. Ed wonít really tell us where heís from. We donít know very much about him. We know heís played with Alvin Youngblood Hart, Commander Cody and Roy Rogers. When we found him, he was crashing at somebodyís house in Phoenix. He has no place to live. Heís a complete gypsy with no physical address.
And thus wraps up our interview. Heed Jasonís warning about experiencing life by internet osmosis; donít be an armchair traveler Ė come along on the journey with Jason at Uncle Boís on February 28th.
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