Living, Breathing Americana

Steve James: Sustaining Traditions, Not Reviving Them

It's very interesting because every interview I do starts out like this," says Steve James, "with an extensive discussion of Mississippi John Hurt. If I was a sax player in an R&B band, would the discussion of my playing start with Frankie Trumbauer or Coleman Hawkins? No, those guys never get asked about that stuff, even though their playing is as basic to the creative style that they're involved in as Mississippi John Hurt is to mine, but for some reason, people are absolutely fascinated by Mississippi John Hurt."

To aficionados of fingerstyle acoustic steel string guitar in particular, and the vibrant guts of what has come to be called American "roots" music in general, New York native and Austin resident James is a rather fascinating character himself. Over the course of three albums, the recently released Art and Grit and its two wonderful predecessors, 1993's Two Track Mind and 1994's American Primitive, James has staked an impressively large claim to the legacy of Hurt and other pioneers, sustaining glories of the past which have so often been neglected outside the cultures of their initial creation.

Fortunately, records preserve a substantial, if hardly comprehensive, part of this musical legacy and a discernible process of "rediscovery" and a concomitant dissemination has been going on since at least the Forties, when pockets of white hipsters started trawling around for Southern hillbilly and blues sides of the Twenties and Thirties, which could then be compiled and reissued to the revelation of many who wouldn't have otherwise come across such sounds.

Not that records are everything, of course, but it is equally important to remember that even if the folk process could have sustained the songs of a Blind Lemon Jefferson, Willie Johnson, or Henry Thomas (to name the three men upon whom the legacy and history of Texas blues largely rests), who could sing or play just like they did? No one did, and no one can, of course, but it's some small blessing of speculative capitalism that such fervent and indivisible examples of native musical genius were preserved for the potential elucidation of the ages. Imagine trying to explain Jimi Hendrix by words or even example and be gladdened that we can at least listen to what Charlie Patton, Luis Russell, and Charlie Poole actually once played.

The breadth and depth of James' repertoire both live and on record is a remarkable testament to this fortunate fact, as are many of the musical sympathies of his audience. Bluesmen don't play on street corners anymore and even if they did, you probably couldn't hear 'em over the blare of car stereos at stoplights. The specific excitement of James' performances ought to be enough to convince anyone that here is something real, something unfeigned, something so vital that in the hands and throat of a master like James, it's still fresh, still original, and still an incredibly exciting rush of timeless re-creation.

James is at great pains, however, to distinguish between "rediscovery," by people who may never have been exposed to certain forms, and "revival," which implies that something is dead only because someone may not know about it. "A lot of people say, the blues is dead, and so-and-so revived these traditions," explains James, "but the way I see it, they never really died. They were always real powerful to me, and they always moved me in my life as something that was happening here and now, not as something that I had to exhume, but as a living and breathing part of American life."

A similar analogy can be drawn in any number of musical forms. Jazz did not perish with swing, bebop, hard bop, third stream, or what have you, and press clips to the contrary, neither did it die between Coltrane's flameout, the dire rise of fusion, and the neoconservative mewling of a dead-ass stiff like Wynton Marsalis. Likewise, bluegrass was not in any danger of perishing before the bland chops of good girl Alison Krauss captured the hearts and money of so many who'd rather not suffer the plangent harmonies of a Bill Monroe. The story of acoustic fingerstyle blues is a little different, perhaps, because its commercial decline can be traced simultaneously to the Depression and the electric guitar, but nonetheless the style evolved, sustained itself, and continues with undimmed brilliance through innumberable permutations and innovations, whether by J.B. Lenoir and John Fahey or John Jackson and Wizz Jones.

"By the time I was 14, I was really set about learning all those styles," says James, referring to the great formal diaspora that is fingerstyle blues, "and you have to understand that those styles are very inclusive. If you say how does somebody learn to play fingerstyle blues, well, if you're talking about playing like Merle Travis, Doc Watson, Blind Blake, John Hurt, or King Solomon Hill, well, that's a lot of territory, dude. That's a whole bunch of stuff."

James was fortunate to come of age at a time and place -- the New York City of the mid to late Sixties -- where a fair lot of that stuff and much more could be seen in person. "It was New York, it was 1965, I don't have to draw you a picture. It was incredible, absolutely incredible," says James. "I can't believe it. I mean, by the time I got out of high school, I'd seen every contemporary rock & roll, blues, country, bluegrass thing that was happening -- from Jimi Hendrix to the Stanley Brothers. I just sat right in their laps, that's the way it was."

Although largely self-taught, James credits Joseph Williams, a black gospel player from White Plains, New York, who augmented his income by giving guitar lessons, as being "the first guy who said don't play with a pick, play with your fingers." Beyond that, James says, "I started playing guitar when I was 12 years old, and have been playing it ever since." Yet for all the reverence for his forebears, James is eager to stress that "my experience is a contemporary experience. Gimmert Nicholson was just as big an influence on my guitar playing, probably even more so, than John Hurt, or Danny Barnes is just as big an influence on my music as Furry Lewis."

As anyone who has heard James' hilariously sad and touching "My Last Good Car" (from American Primitive) can surmise, traveling has also been a part of James' life education. "In 1970, I first went to Tennessee, which would put me at the end of my teens, near 20. I went to join a friend of mine who lived in the eastern part of the state, the tri-cities area (Bristol, Johnson City, and Kingsport). I spent a little while down there and then went back to New York, which started this whole process of going down south and going back northeast and every time I would go, I would spend less time up north and more time down south. Finally, after a short time, I just never went back north any more."

James spent the better part of the next seven years in Tennessee, first in Bristol and then in Memphis, playing a variety of musical styles, always learning, always assimilating more of what he'd seen and heard into his own personal form of expression. It was during this period as well, that James become interested in luthiery. "I'm self-taught, and I have a tendency, laudable or not, to take a holistic approach to my music, and so at one point I decided if I knew how guitars were made, then I would be a better guitar player. So I set about to learn how to build guitars, what guitar construction was, and I built a lot of guitars and other instruments. I guess it probably worked -- I did learn something," says James, laughing, "but that's pretty much that. Right now, what I do with luthiery is I maintain my own instruments, of which I have a number."

In 1977, James relocated to San Antonio. "What made me move down here was I heard about a job that was available for a musician who could do concerts and musical interpretive programs, and I moved down here to see about that job and I got it. And then after I got through with that job I stayed here. I like it here. It's fun." James played with a wide variety of people in the Alamo city, and even had a dance band for a few years with R&B sax legend Clifford Scott.

Four years later, James moved to Austin. "I like it here, Austin's a great town. It has great residential qualities for a city its size, a tremendous pool of highly creative musicians who aren't iron-bound stylistically, and a lot of my friends live here."

It was 1993 when the Antone's label finally released Two Track Mind, James' almost-all-solo debut, most of which had been recorded as a do-it-yourself project in the late Eighties. It remains a fairly stunning demonstration of James' range, from Charlie Poole to Mance Lipscomb and the wholly traditional "Spanish Fandango" to the twisted new traditionalism of "Don't Seem Right," by legendary New York fingerpicker Luke Faust.

"I was making a living from music-related activities since I was in my Twenties, which included luthiery, musical writing, playing gigs, and all kind of stuff. But I would say, certainly, that the complexion of things changed when I got my first record out on the Antone's label, and it was `Steve James, Antone's recording artist from Austin, Texas.' That definitely got me out there."

"Out there" turns out to have been many many places. James estimates that he plays around 150 shows a year, not including guitar clinics and demonstrations for Collings and National guitars. "I've had really good fortune, I'm very lucky. I've had a positive response to what I'm doing pretty much everywhere I've been, which is now all over Europe, down to South America, coast to coast, and up into Canada. If I singled out some places I liked to play it would be more because they're places I like, places like Tuscon, Arizona, or Amsterdam."

Each of James' two succeeding albums displays that same vivacity, range, and wit as the debut, flashing from brilliance to brilliance without the slightest hint of caprice. On a number of tracks, the guitarist plays with a wailing band consisting of the rhythm section of Danny Barnes (numerous stringed instruments), Mark Rubin (bass, tuba), and Gary Primich (harmonica), with additional contributions on Art and Grit coming from such slide guitar luminaries as Bob Brozman and Cindy Cashdollar. "It's an interesting sound," James explains. "It's a string band, but at the same time we're playing Dixieland grooves, and we're applying ourselves to country blues-style material but there's a palpable gospel influence there. A lot of the songs are original songs, I wrote 'em, so it's not like we're just imitating someone else's arrangements.

"Here's what it is," James adds. "It's really funny, because being an acoustic fingerstyle guitar player whose mode of operation is playing slide guitar and fingerstyle steel string guitar, the harmonizations I use are blues, and the rhythms I use are largely syncopated, 2/4, and stomps, although my highly touted blues records also have waltzes on them. But I didn't set out to imitate anybody and I didn't set out to go anywhere riding on somebody's back. From the very get-go, I was just completely jazzed by a certain intangible style that is now called `roots music,' and I really dug it. And when I heard it, I gravitated towards it, and I'm still doing that. I'm exactly the same as I was when I was 14." n Steve James celebrates the release of Art and Grit at the Cactus Cafe, Saturday, October 5.

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