Legendary bluesman, Joe Louis Walker is a Grammy nominee who has won numerous Blues Music Awards and W.C. Handy Music Awards, and is in constant demand to perform across the United States and the world. NPR Music called him “a legendary boundary-pushing icon of modern blues.”
Photo: Marilyn Stringer
Born in California in 1949, Joe has had a lifetime in the blues, collaborating along the way with a diverse group of first-rate artists including James Cotton, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
With 26 albums to his name, his 2018 release, Journeys to the Heart of the Blues (Alligator Records) is something of a departure from his other records, which typically feature his blistering electric guitar, in a stirring mix of soul, rock, jazz, and gospel. Journeys to the Heart of the Blues is a stripped back collection of old blues songs, some by better known artists like Big Maceo Merriweather, Sunnyland Slim and Blind Willie McTell, others which revive songs from lesser known artists like Washboard Sam and Son Bonds. It’s been nominated for a Blues Music Award 2019 for Best Acoustic Album.
The songs were recorded by Joe along with US keyboard maestro, Bruce Katz and top-notch blues-harp player from the UK, Giles Robson. Along with Katz’s delightful boogie-woogie piano and Robson’s heart-rending harmonica, Walker’s vocal performance throughout is masterful, doing full justice to the gritty blues stories of the album’s songs.
Down at the Crossroads talked to Joe about the album:
DATC: Congratulations on the new album, Joe. It’s really excellent and had a lot of good reviews. It’s a very stripped-down approach to the blues – tell us about why you wanted to make an album like this.
Joe: Thank you. Well, the whole idea was – the harmonica player, Giles Robson, sat in with me one night – we were doing the same show in Amsterdam. And we had a good time, playing together. So he had an idea to do an acoustic thing with acoustic guitar and harmonica. And then we said, why don’t we add a piano to it, give a bit more percussive feel, and so I thought of Bruce Katz. So it turned our really good, because Giles came over from England and we rehearsed for a couple of days, and we recorded the whole thing in, I think, 3 or 4 days – record and mix and all that stuff – the whole record took maybe 6, 7 days to complete it. We did most everything live right there in the studio.
DATC: That seems pretty fast!
Joe: Yeah! In today’s world!
DATC: But then, you had three superb musicians working on it!
Joe: Yeah. Everybody communicated really good, when it came to the recording, when someone wanted to try something one way or a different way. Everybody communicated really well, which was really important.
DATC: Yes, and that comes across very much when you’re listening to the album. You’ve got that real good sense of understanding from the three of you playing together.
Now, these are pretty much all classic blues songs – you obviously still sense an appetite for this sort of material? What is the enduring power of the blues, and this more raw, stripped down blues that we get on this album?
Joe: Well I think that the tunes that this record presents are sort of…it goes back to a lot of topical blues where one particular song would be about one topic. And so here you have in detail about one topic like in Murderer’s Home, Murderer’s Home is basically murderer’s row when you go to prison, so this is describing murderer’s row. You have Hell Ain’t but a Mile and Quarter, obviously a mile and a quarter none of us want to go. So the song has gotta sound like that, gotta feel like that, you’ve gotta make that visual come across in your mind. When Giles brought some of these songs and we picked these songs, they seemed a little bit more obscure than a lot of other songs that have been done, and the artists who did them. People like Son Bonds, and others – a lot of people don’t know about them.
DATC: Yeah, it’s good to bring these artists to people’s attention. The sort of blues you’re talking about there – rooted in real life, in the nitty gritty of the difficulties of real people’s real lives – is that something in the blues that has an appeal, as opposed to the more ephemeral approach of a lot of modern music?
Joe: I think that is the one thing that differentiates blues for a lot of other genres of music. The blues is consistent, it’s constant, you know? It constantly speaks to the harder side of life, the things that we all go through, that might be uncomfortable to talk about, that we all think about, and then you find out that somebody else thinks about it the same way. Somebody else can put it in the form of a song, a poem, a book or whatever, then its cathartic. It’s a great purpose when it does that.
DATC: And is that why you gravitated towards the blues in your early days and why it’s continued to have such a strong pull for you over the years, Joe?
Photo: Joe Del Tufo
Joe: Well, I was like anybody else. I was a kid when I started playing music and you know, I just gravitated towards the music, period! Whether it was T-Bone Walker playing the guitar, or later on, whether it was the Animals – you know, I didn’t care, I just liked the music. And so, later on, when bands would put ads in papers for musicians, or in music stores or in different shops, I would answer some of those ads for a lead guitar player, when I was a teenager, and that helped me become a more well rounded guitar player. I played all kinds of stuff, you know, and the blues I played, it was blues, but it was also bluesy type of material. I just played all kind of stuff.
DATC: At one stage in your career, I understand you changed direction and spent a long time in a gospel group. Can you tell us about why you did that and then about moving back towards the blues again?
Joe: I started back to playing gospel music because that was basically where I started when I was a kid anyway. I’m a sort of a restless soul. There was a great group I was a part of, the Spiritual Corinthians, and so that was a great thing. But when I left the gospel group, I didn’t look at it as going back to playing blues. I looked at it as going forward, to playing something different. I get tired of playing the same thing! It just that musically I’m a restless person. So I wanted to do something different. I went back to trying to make my own stamp on a blues style music.
DATC: And you’ve done that to great effect over the year, Joe, fusing in various influences into your playing and your albums, but gospel has continued to be a theme in your music. I’m thinking of albums like Hellfire – the title track and Soldier for Jesus and the real gospel sound of Keep the Faith on Hornet’s Nest, for example.
Joe: Sure, yeah, and it gives me an excuse to sing with a lot of people who were heroes of mine, who do gospel stuff. I hired the Gospel Hummingbirds, The Spiritual Corinthians, I had The Jordanaires – God bless ‘em – I had the McCrary Sisters on a couple of things. A lot of different gospel people have sung on these records I’ve done. The new record I’m doing – it’s not the acoustic stuff, it’s my own record. I’m having a lot of people on that, I’m having several female singers, and one is Carla Cooke, that’s Sam Cooke’s daughter. And that’ll be out this coming year, with a lot of different ladies singing with me.
DATC: We’ll look forward to that. Just on this subject, On your website, you say talk about “my belief that the spiritual will carry you through when the physical can’t.” What do you mean by that?
Joe: Well, to put it into context, I think somebody asked me the question what was the difference between playing in church, playing gospel and playing in other styles. And I just said that the spiritual usually carry you through when other things won’t, you know. And there’s a lot of people that feel that way, there’s other people that don’t. So It think that when people have faith in whatever it is, it gives them another sort of strength in other areas of life.
DATC: Sure, sure. Now, you’ve kept a very fresh approach to the blues over the years, melding in other influences. As you look around today, are you encouraged by what you see in the blues? What younger players do you see that encourage you?
Joe: Yes, there are a lot of great young musicians that are doing a lot of great things. A lot of young people, like Selwyn Birchwood and Shemekia Copeland, a whole lot of people doing great things. Matt Schofield…everybody’s doing different kinds of things in their own way – more power to ‘em! Some are doing it a bit more jazzy, some are doing it a bit more country bluesier. But I see a lot of young people when I’m out touring at festivals and what have you. So I think music is in a good space.
DATC: Fantastic. Thank you, Joe. Much appreciated.