The blues is dead is a phrase you occasionally hear. It’s also the title of a song on Spectacular Class, an album of timeless acoustic blues, released a few months ago by 22-year-old Jontavious Willis, who hails from Greenville, Georgia. Importantly, though, Jontavious’s song title has a question mark and this hugely gifted artist uses the song to disabuse us of any notion that the blues have passed their sell by date. Such talk just makes him “scratch my head.” Jontavious knows that “the blues ain’t goin’ anywhere, the blues been around for a great long time,” As long as people have “situations and problems on their mind,” the blues ain’t going anyway. So, “stop with that foolish talk.”
Once you listen to this talented young man, who has delivered an album that sounds at once traditional but at the same time entirely fresh, with an outstanding set of songs driven by his top-notch guitar picking and his hugely entertaining vocals, you realize that the blues are nowhere near dead. In the hands of Jontavious Willis, the future of the blues is secure.
And that’s the opinion of the legendary Taj Mahal, who said, “That’s my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind. Jontavious is a great new voice of the 21st century in the acoustic blues.” Keb’ Mo’ too has recognized his talent, working with him in the recording of Spectacular Class and taking him on tour with him.
Like many other musicians, Willis grew up singing in church from an early age, encouraged by his grandfather. He started playing guitar when he was fourteen and five years later was playing on stage with Taj Mahal. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, an excellent song writer, a talented guitarist and a hugely entertaining performer.
And, he’s a nice guy. As I found out when I got the chance to chat to him one day recently during his busy US tour.
Gary Congratulations on the new album, Spectacular Class. It’s terrific, it was one of our best albums of 2019 so far, in the list that we did a couple of months ago. It’s had a great reception, been very well received. I guess you’ve been pleased about that?
Jontavious Oh most definitely. It’s been great and I’m proud of it. We did a good job and worked hard and now I’m very proud of it.
Gary Yeah. So tell us a little bit about the making of it. Both Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal have been involved I gather.
Jontavious Yes. Keb’ was strongly involved. But you know, I think it took us two, maybe three days to make it. And it was real easy. Keb’ made it real nice. He was very easy to work with. My first album, I did it all by myself and it was a lot harder. Keb’ taught me a lot of things in the studio. We did it in three days and it was good. I wrote all the songs, Yeah, it was fantastic.
Gary What sort of things do you think you learned from Keb Mo’?
Jontavious I learned a lot of technical things, a lot about the board, more about how to get different sounds, and mixing and mastering. I learned more about the other side of things, not just the performance aspect, mixing sound and making the record.
Gary And Taj Mahal has made some very nice comments about you?
Jontavious Yeah that’s my buddy! Yeah, Taj, he e-mailed me almost every other week.
Gary That’s fantastic. Because he’s a legend really, isn’t he?
Jontavious Oh yeah, and he’s also a great person and a great mentor. Aside from being legendary, he’s just a great man in general.
Gary So how did you come in contact with him?
Jontavious I met Taj in August 2015. We had a mutual friend and he’d seen a video of mine that was posted on YouTube. He enjoyed it and he had a show in Atlanta and invited me to come there and play two songs for him. And the rest is history!
Gary So he liked it.
Jontavious Yeah, he liked it. He called me up on stage – that was the first time I played for a pretty large crowd. It looked like it was two thousand people out there. I’m not sure how many. There was a lot of people there.
Gary Did that make you feel a bit nervous?
Jontavious Well I was more nervous that Taj was sitting beside me than I was with all the people! He didn’t leave the stage. When I played, he stayed right there, his hand patting on his leg while I was playing, so that made me nervous.
Gary So no pressure!
Jontavious No, and I never encountered pressure ever again after that day!
Gary Fantastic. I gather you’ve played a few shows with Keb’ Mo’ in the last couple of months. How has that been?
Jontavious It’s been great. Yeah, I played a few. He gave me 45 minutes, you hone in on how many songs it takes to, you know, complete it. It sharpened me up pretty good and I get to always check out what Mr. Keb’ is doing. That’s always a pleasure. And just hanging out with him. I always enjoy just talking to people more so than anything, just talking to people and getting to spend quality time not just strictly music, but getting to know each other.
Gary That’s very cool. You have a great song on Spectacular Class called The Blues is Dead? It’s a proposition that you clearly don’t agree with! What sort of blues particularly appeals to you?
Jontavious I have an appetite for music in general but I love all different styles of blues. I don’t go out with a band, but I tell people I enjoy blues from the ‘20s to the late ‘50s. That’s about my span with blues. I enjoy Chicago blues from Tampa Red to Muddy Waters. But yeah, it’s all around. The only thing about playing solo is you don’t have to worry about missing anybody else if you want to change the tempo. If you want to do what you want to do, you can do it. You don’t have to worry about messing up your bandmates.
Gary And are you finding that out there there’s a real appetite for the sort of traditional acoustic blues that you’re playing?
Jontavious Yes most definitely. People are enjoying it. And I try my best to deliver it in a way that’s enjoyable not just, you know, something nostalgic. I try to bring something new to the table, at the same time while being true to what I love and the music.
Gary Yeah, I think you get that sense when you listen to the album, Jontavious. Obviously, it’s very traditional in one sense, but there’s something very fresh and modern about it and there’s a good sense of fun coming through as well.
Jontavious Oh yeah, most definitely. I think it’s a big misconception that the blues, traditional blues, has to be not really engaging or interesting, but you know there are so many different elements. There’s a lot to do with just knowing the history of the music and being from the area of the culture, just knowing that there are so many different aspects of blues. I try to get those points across. Blues is not just sad. It’s happy, it’s angry, every emotion.
Gary So what is it do you think about this music which has been around for such a long time that still resonates with people today?
Jontavious Well for me, being from the south, from where it originated and being around the people that it originated from, it’s always been the truth. And I always have enjoyed the truth. And so that’s my main thing about the blues. People telling a story just like it is – not sugar coating it. I started out in the church and that was a different truth, so I always enjoy any music that represents truth.
Gary Well now that you mentioned that you grew up singing in the church, how important is that background for you both musically and maybe personally?
Jontavious Oh, very important. I learned almost everything I know about music in church. I didn’t know it at the time but I found out about being able to read a crowd. Being able to learn timing, being able to know different phrasing. You know how to present a song and actually be a great performer of a song. Making people feel like they are part of the song and a part of your performance. All of that became instrumental in my music career and my life. So, I learned a lot. It was also communal, going to church was communal. Singing was communal. I always felt better when I was singing in church with my grandpa…I started singing behind my granddaddy.
Gary Fantastic. Now tell us a bit about your guitar playing. You’ve got that highly rhythmical country blues picking down to a fine art. How did you get started playing the guitar and how did you how did you get good?
Jontavious Well I started playing guitar when my dad bought me a guitar on December twenty four 2010. I just started playing – that’s pretty much it! And I kept on doing it, that was basically it. I’d listen to records sometime.
Gary Did you use Youtube videos or did you just listen to records?
Jontavious No I didn’t use YouTube videos because I didn’t play in standard tuning until about 4 years ago. I was playing in alternate tunings. Ever since I learned, playing guitar was what I wanted to do with myself
Gary Very good. So, you just experimented yourself and taught yourself.
Jontavious Yeah that’s it.
Gary I understand you play other instruments as well.
Jontavious Yeah, I play a little bit of harmonica and a little banjo. Not much.
Gary Very good. And Jontavious, you’re a graduate of Colombus State University I understand. What did you graduate in by the way?
Jontavious I had a B.A. in Social Science.
Gary OK. And you’ve obviously decided to make a career out of performing and recording. So, what’s the what’s the attraction of the uncertainties of life as a musician over getting a steady job as a as a graduate?
Jontavious Well I mean I’m a go with the flow kind of guy! And I have been living off music comfortably very well and I’m making more now than I would be otherwise!
Gary So you going to stick with it!
Jontavious If there ever comes a time when I have to make tough decisions I’m always ready! But it seems like It has been doing well. So, I will let the universe take care of itself.
Gary So how are you enjoying life on the road so far?
Jontavious Oh I love it. Every minute of it. I see something different every time and I’m meeting new people. Every almost every town I go in I’ve got a friend. So it’s amazing.
Gary That’s fantastic. And you have a busy schedule of touring over the next few months?
Jontavious Yes I do. Currently I have l think four more shows in the States. And then and end of the month I do Norway, Switzerland and Denmark. And then up next month sometime I get back on the road with Keb’. And yes, I’m happy.
Gary Very cool. Jontavious, thank you so much for talking to us. It’s been great talking to you all the best.