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Steve James
Nov 2007. Interview by David Atkinson.

Steve James' string of acclaimed albums since the early 90s have set him apart from the other acts that emerged alongside him on the apparently nascent acoustic blues scene. Of course, people like Steve had been pretty much doing what they'd always been doing, it was just then that people started to notice... From his excellent debut, Two Track Mind, through American Primitive, Art & Grit, Boom Chang and Fast Texas, he has picked and slid his way through some of the finest contemporary American folk.

He has done much to further the cause of the acoustic roots guitarist too through his instructional writing for Acoustic Guitar magazine. His Roots and Blues Fingerstyle Guitar book (String Letter 1-890490-14-8) is, in my opinion, one of the best and most interesting resources to aspiring thumb-movers. He is also directly responsible for my attempts at learning the mandolin.

All Steve's output has been characterised by the same knowledgeable tone as much as the wry observation and delivery. If you can make the gig at Brooks, I suggest you go, if not, I suggest you seek out his albums.

 

Thanks for agreeing to talk with BluesinLondon, how do you find playing gigs in the UK? When did you first come to Britain? Has it changed much since then?

UK is a strong market for me and for roots/folk/blues in general.  A lot of good
musicians reside here, and the audiences are both enthusiastic and discerning.  I've been coming over regularly for the last 15 years or so.  A major and laudable change has to do with the vastly improved quality of the coffee.

You knew Sam McGee and Furry Lewis, didn’t you? Can you tell us a bit about your relationship?

Sam McGee and Furry Lewis were (and are) favourites of mine from early on.  They were born in the 1890's and their very original singing, guitar styles and repertoire reflect their early exposure to music that pre-dated sound recording and radio. I met Sam McGee in 1975 when folklorist and author Charles Wolfe took me to his home outside Franklin, Tennessee where we spent a few hours together playing and talking.  He died just a few months later. A real master of his art. 

Furry Lewis was a fixture on the Memphis music scene when I lived there in the '70s before moving to Texas.  I knew him well and actually served as his accompanist on several shows.  Although he was in his 80s at the time, he still had considerable skills as a singer, instrumentalist and raconteur (a very funny man!).  If you wanted to describe "minimalism" in art, a Furry Lewis record would be an excellent point of departure.

 
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What got you into music professionally? You were a radio DJ at one point weren't you? What would you say has shaped your career the most so far?

Nothing really ‘got me into it’.  There were gigs.  I did 'em.  No changes there either.  I've worn a lot of hats over the years; performer, recording artist, writer, teacher and yes, radio programmer.  I had a show on the legendary guerrilla radio station WEVL back when I lived in Memphis. 

Here at BluesinLondon we generally try to promote the interesting and inventive alongside the finest traditional blues acts around and are constantly surprised but a) how much good stuff there is out there and b) how overlooked a lot of it is. Do you detect any upsurge in interest in blues in general and acoustic blues in particular, both in the States and in Europe? 
 
I'm interested by your delineation between ‘interesting’ and ‘traditional’. Ha ha!  Anyway, yeah, I've seen a whole bunch of young players and singers using blues/hillbilly/roots musical stylings come of age recently. Also more women involved in aspects of the music which were kind of "boys club" when I started. The audiences reflect this.

I was discussing with a friend recently how just about nobody made a record between the mid-70s and the mid-90s, and then all sorts of people seemed to spring up, yourself included. Without being personal, there weren't really any young guys among you - was a generation lost to the Stratocaster? What do you reckon?

I made some records in the '70s and '80s - including "Two Track Mind" which was a "breakout" release for me in terms of recognition.  That period was a very important time, with artists like Brozman, Rory Block, Cephas and Wiggins, Del Rey, etc. gaining more audience and independent record labels and radio proliferating...all underground, of course.  This isn't "pop" music.  By the way, I own a Stratocaster.

You've tended to share the knowledge somewhat with your tuition material. Personally I think the book/dvd market is a great thing because it stops being about who you once knew or where you learned such and such a song and opens it up for everyone. With fewer originals around the links, however tenuous, seem to be touted about as much as possible, but plenty of the greats learned from phonograph records didn't they?

Yeah, I like to pass on aspects of the music.  That's the way it's always been done.  I don't know what you mean by ‘originals’ and ‘greats’.  A lot of people think that Robert Johnson was an "originator" when he was actually, conservatively speaking, a third generation blues interpreter, and a highly derivative one at that.  Records have been around since the early part of the last century, and everybody who could get 'em used 'em... sort of like electric guitars.

That’s kind of what I meant; that the myths about such and such don’t add as much as their music. Yours own seems to eschew the influence of a lot of well known characters in favour of unsung heroes, and your last album was all about Texas - its notable inhabitants and songs. What's your approach to each recording and the tunes you perform live?

Again, what does "well known" mean?  Some people consider Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie to be "obscure".  Stop watching television!  Do it now!

My own recording techniques involve using sophisticated equipment (such as microphones) in a creative way, but avoiding "post production" techniques like over-dubbing and "punching in" and adding effects.  As far as my creative process goes, I can't really express it as a formula.  It wouldn't be creative then, would it?

Didn’t you produce Down That Dirt Road; The Songs Of Charley Patton? How did that project come about and did you have any particular affinity for the tracks you recorded yourself?

I didn't produce "Down The Dirt Road" or the Grammy nominated Fred McDowell tribute that followed on Telarc.  I did record music and write liner notes for both albums. They were produced by a guy named Randy Labbe, and I think they came out real good.

Are you working on a new album at the moment? What's in the pipeline?

Yes, I've recently recorded some solo stuff here in Austin plus more duet material with Del Rey out in Seattle.  I'm also starting to sift through my archive of live recordings to see if I can glean an album from those.  I'm in the process of doing more instructional material for Homespun Tapes and String Letter Publishing… and fishing!  Don't forget to go fishing!

Two tunes of yours I particularly like are your reinterpretation of the notorious story on Stack Lee's Blues from Boom Chang, where you refined that banjo roll technique that catches the ear, and The Change from American Primitive, which is a sublime journey song both geographically and existentially speaking!

"Stack Lee's Blues" was inspired in part, by the way, by the writing of your brilliant countryman Paul Oliver.  "The Change"?  Don't get me started!

Let's talk guitars; are you still using the National EN and the Collings C10? You must have a few interesting guitars - any in particular you are proud of or that make your socks roll up and down? You tend to advocate the 'whatever works best' idea though, don't you?

"A few interesting guitars" is a civilized way of describing it.  Yes, I endorse
the products of National Resophonic Inc. and Collings

You’ve a 12 string by British luthier Ralph Brown that features on a couple of tracks on Fast Texas…

Ralph Bown is a mighty king among men.  More guitars for a brighter, more beautiful future!  That's what I say. 

 

More info: www.stevejames.com

Steve plays Brookes Blues Bar on Friday 16th November 2007