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Nathan James & Ben Hernandez
Interview by Billy Hutchinson
Once in awhile a jaded Blues writer comes across a talent that makes his ears prick back. It has happened to me a few times, but in acoustic guitar Blues-based music only David Jacobs-Strain and Nathan James, has my initial high admiration become continuous. San Diego is picturesque Blues oasis in Southern California, where this very talented duo holds court. Like Paul Rishell and Annie Raines this pairing are equally adept in electric or acoustic settings. If you are doing classic material you better be putting a real interesting twist on it or have it banged to rights, that is why few outside of the array of swing players are worthy of lofty praise outside of the originators. Nathan James was already acknowledged as a highly talented musician before along with his partner Ben Hernandez they won top prize in 2007 in the Blues Foundations International Blues Challenge solo/duo category; but it did showcase their talents to a broader audience.
Billy Hutchinson: Along with Ben Hernandez you won the Solo/duo category at the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge in 2007.Can you relate your personal memories of the event to us?
What were your respective musical backgrounds?
Nathan: I have been playing blues guitar for 10 years professionally. I started out when I was 13 ½ years old, and was serious from the start. I knew what I wanted play music for a living right then. I started out playing the music that most kids my age liked, but quickly found blues within a few months. I started touring with the James Harman band at age 19.
Ben: I grew up with a lot of music in the house and especially on long car rides. My mother plays guitar, piano, and dulcimer and my dad's got a great singing voice. We'd always be listening to Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers, and Loretta Lynn etc. I started playing the piano when I was 10, but it only lasted three years, then I switched to saxophone for a couple of years, then I discovered the harmonica and that seemed to stick. I took a trip to Memphis with my church when I was in high school and that's when I really got a taste of what I should be doing with the harp. While I was in Memphis I bought a Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee record and once I heard Sonny play that was it.
How did you guys meet up?
Nathan: We met through a mutual musician friend. I was playing predominately solo at the time, and had a ton of gigs. I realized that if I had somebody else to help cover the night singing and playing an instrument, it would help me out, and If they were good enough, I would be willing to split my $$!!
Ben: We have a mutual friend who took me out to The Blue Cafe in Long Beach to see Nathan playing solo. I sat in with him and when he heard I could play harmonica in the country blues style and sing he encouraged me to move down to San Diego county, where he was living. We started getting some gigs together on the weekends then eventually we realized we had a pretty good thing going as a duo. So weekends here and there eventually turned into full time.
You recorded a CD with the Carl Sonny Leyland Trio (check out Carl's occasional articles on this very site - Ed), in which you seem to have time travelled back in time, within the Blues’ halcyon days.
Nathan: Yes, it was a great honour to get to do an album with Carl Sonny Leyland, and his band!! We have been talking about doing for several years and it finally happened. It was the easiest most natural session for all of us, because everybody involved plays that kind of music like second nature already. No one had to learn a new style or sound. Sonny is the king of Boogie Woogie and old time jazz, and his band makes a living touring in the Trad Jazz world.
Ben: I really enjoyed making that record. Sonny, Hal Smith and Marty Eggers made it soooo easy. We just sat around in the room and just started playing and everything just fell into place. We had been talking about making that album for a couple of years. When you mix our style with all the styles those guys are used to playing you basically get blues like on all those old Bluebird recordings.
Nathan I picked up on your remarkable mimicry of Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red, are there anymore greats that you feel you have truly nailed, and what is the hardest parts of each musicians work you particularly found to master?
Nathan: Well, that is a great compliment!! Thank You! Well, I try to take a little bit from all the masters that I regularly listen to, and mix it up into my own sound. I’d say the biggest influences in my country blues playing are: Big Bill, Tampa Red, Blind Boy Fuller, Brownie McGee, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Mance Lipscomb, Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, Blind Blake, and so many others!
Ben you really have the Sonny Terry country blues sound banged to rights, which other harmonicists are you particularly interested in, and why?
Ben: I can't even touch Sonny Terry. I just play a few signature Sonny Terry lines, but you can't touch it. I also listen to Peg Leg Sam and I'm big fan of Noah Lewis and Hammie Nixon. It's hard to say why I like 'em. I think, when it comes down to it, I just like the songs and the other musicians that that particular harmonica player is involved with. For me, simpler the better, you don't need a lot of notes. You don't need a tricked out amp and mic. Just sing a good song and sing it the best you can then, if you want to, add a little harmonica. I listen to a lot of gospel music, so I think about that when I sing
Nathan you appear to do most of your own work acoustically rather than the electric guitar work you play in other musicians outfits. Does one type please you most, most comfortable with; and are the two just parts of what Nathan James does?
Nathan: Well I think my heart is always going to be close to acoustic, but electric is how I make a living and play for people. I do listen to and am influenced by the entire genre of older blues - from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Lonnie Johnson, to T-bone Walker, to Steve Cropper!!
San Diego’s Blues scene isn’t well known over here can you fill us in a bit?
Nathan: I feel that there is a good pool of talent here in San Diego, and although there is a definite shortage of blues venues, there is quite a bit of work if you are good, and seek it out. The San Diego Blues Society is greatly involved in supporting the local scene!! They have done many great things for us, including sending us out to Memphis for the IBC!!
Ben: There are plenty of talented musicians, but venues are lacking. I still don't know a lot about some of the players in the scene. There are a hand full of acts I really enjoy: The Fremonts (who specialize in that swampy Excello sound), Billy Watson (who mixes traditional city blues with his own humour and amazing harmonica playing), and Ben Powell (who plays a mix of acoustic, country blues & roots, and some gypsy jazz). San Diego's scene isn't much different than other places. You have your blues rock cover bands on down to solo acoustic country blues players.
In the ‘60s blues revivalists/interpreters were wood-shedding in order to approximate the individual styles of past acoustic blues masters. Those that attained a high degree of success were lauded in the music press, these days there seems to be far more detractors with statements such as, “Archaic museum blues”, and “The blues must evolve to survive”. What are your thoughts on your own musical output, and the way traditional blues music is often given negative press?
Nathan: Yes that is true. A lot of outstanding traditional music is completely overlooked by the press sometimes. I think that blues does need to evolve in a way to stay vital, and interesting, but there is a fine line to being able to keep it real. It seems like most of the time when a publicised artist is supposedly doing something new with a traditional style like blues, it just ends up sounding like everything else that is coming out. Usually it’s just louder and more simplified, or watered down; and that is what the press wants.
Ben: Well, we could go on all day about this subject. I don't think there's anything wrong with music "evolving". That's what art does especially music. A prior generation is always gonna have a hard time with new music that's coming out. That's why they would only broadcast Elvis on television from the waist up. I've heard things and read things about how terrible country western music is today and how it's drifted away from the way Willie and Merle and Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn did it, but then again, people probably said that about them when they first came out. People who really dug groups like Muddy's and Howlin' Wolf's didn't really like Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. People say it about every kind of music.
I think it's just fine for music to evolve, but, BUT...we all need to keep our anchors grounded in the roots. You should never drift away from the roots. The people, who say things like, "Archaic museum blues" and that sort of thing, obviously have no idea about the roots and foundation of early American music. I was pretty disappointed in our Congress when they proclaimed 2003 the "Year of the Blues". And what came out of it? Nothing! A Martin Scorcese film. I figured there would be spots on T.V. that would showcase a different blues pioneer every week, or something. These people helped to form almost all American music we know today and yet the "Year of the Blues" wasn't much different than any other year that I could tell.
People are going to have their own opinions about what they like and don't like. I know people who ONLY listen to the old traditional styles and find the more contemporary styles outside the boundaries of blues. The first time we competed in the IBC, we were hanging out with some acquaintances from Italy who competed in the band category. Their style was a more traditional 50's style of blues. When I asked them how they had fared their guitarist (in heavy Italian accent) frustratingly replied, "If you do not play a Stratocaster and solid state amplifier, you have no chance in this competition!"
I listen to many different styles of music and, I think, all that influence goes into my playing the kind of songs we record. We do our best to preserve the early styles, but you're never going to imitate it perfectly. Why would you want to? Like I suggested earlier, I'm not gonna be able to play like Sonny Terry. I just pick up a few things, pay homage to people who created this music and then I just add my signature to the list.
Your tools of the trade gentlemen….which do you prefer, and feel an affinity with in order to get the sound you strive for?
Nathan: To me the biggest part of my sound for playing live in our duo is our instruments we play. One of the most important instruments for giving our duo such a big sound is often over looked or not even noticed by the audience, and that is my customized foot percussion board that I play with my feet. It has really developed over the years. It consists of a suitcase amplified with a pickup, and a coffee can snare and tambourine that is miked through the sound system. With this we can compete with a band. People are always coming up and asking where is the drum machine? Then there are all the down home instruments that Ben plays.
Ben: My preferred instrument is my voice and singing. That is the thing I work most at. And then, secondly, the harmonica. I enjoy playing the washtub bass because it lets me live this fantasy that I'm a real bass player! Sometimes Nathan and I back up James Harman (I play washtub bass) and I tell people that I'm heavily influenced by Jeff Turmes and Buddy Clark.
With a wide range of traditional roots styles you play, are you accepted within Americana and the SXSW circles, as well as Blues haunts?
Nathan: Well, we haven’t had any offers as of yet for any of those roots or Americana festivals. I would rather be on that circuit than the blues circuit.
Ben: I don't think we're there just yet, but I think we're getting closer. I think the term "Americana" is funny anyway. Its all "Americana" anyway, isn't it?
Nathan: I don’t think that a lot of us necessarily play at wineries; I never have up until about three years ago. I only play at one, and it is a great gig!! I’d have to say that the majority of the gigs these days are at restaurants. Who can complain about free food and wine?!?!?!
Ben: Nathan and I play the Miramonte Winery out in Temecula. It's a ball! It's one of my favourite gigs. The place will be crowded with people all chatting away, but somehow they still really get into the music and give there attention. People clap and cheer and genuinely appreciate the music out there. The owner of the place doesn't like smooth jazz, which seems to have become the official music of wineries, so he wanted to have blues for a change and people show up regardless of which act is gonna be there that week. Oh, and the wine excellent!
Nathan did your occasional boss James Harman obtain any leads on the valuable instruments, records and guns he had stolen from his home?
Nathan: No, he never did find anything that was stolen!! Very sad!
Have you any goals for what you want to accomplish in the future?
Nathan: Yes, we would like to continue on the path that we are on, make good records, and get a good quality touring schedule. I feel there is a lot of original music of our own that we have to discover!! Also, as we have been doing fairly well at is to turn on a younger audience to our style of music. That is what will keep it alive.
Ben: I would like to just do my best to preserve this music and to make a decent living. I love playing music, so really even the "decent living" part isn't that big a deal. I could work in a hardware store and play music in my living room at night and that would be enough. I'm a pretty wealthy person, I have a car, a place to live, and even a cell phone...I'm not doing too bad. Many of my goals have already been met. There was a time when I was younger that even making a record seemed fantastical and beyond reach let alone having someone interview me about what I thought about music!
Bring us up to date with your latest fine recording, “Hollerin!”
Ben: With "Hollerin'!, Nathan and I really took our time. We had been coming up with so many ideas during our gigs that it seemed that the album was halfway done before we got into the studio. We don't play acoustic as much anymore because of the different venues we play in. We try to make as much sound as a band when we're playing and I think the new album reflects that. It encompasses so many of the styles that we enjoy - country blues, gospel, ragtime, folk, etc. that it really can't even be called a blues album
We asked James Harman for a quote on ‘His boys’, and here's what he said...
OK, Nathan in general is, in my not quite humble opinion, the very future of the blues, that is the real living blues now! I'm certainly not talkin' 'bout them Stratocaster wieldin', big loud amp screachin', three name, shades and hat wearin' happy, "Is everybody feelin' the blues tonight, y'all? Well put 'cha hands together y'all!" corny, horseshit, wanna-be kind o' blues that you get almost everywhere today.
As soon as he started working some solo acoustic gigs around here, he started calling me to come be his guest and we built up a bit of a following of nice folks who dug the hip, quieter stuff. I produced his first release, "This Road is Mine" and we had a ball doin' that. Then, as times got worse, too many promoters would no longer pay enough to fly in my whole band, so I quit ground touring in 2000 and started only taking fly-in festival dates. That meant I didn't always have a gig for Nathan, so he got even more serious with his new acoustic solo career.... then he hooked up with Ben, who's a great singer and harp player. Ben expanded to jug, spoons, washboard, kazoo and 'gutbucket', you know what that is right? that's what they used to call a washtub bass!