Recently Zac Harmon posted a note on his Facebook page concerning how the Blues views, and treats it’s artists. It was quite interesting and it compelled me to get in touch with him to discuss it further. I hope this opens your eyes and ears, maybe causing you to consider what you hear as Blues and where it might be headed.
Blues411: Your posting about the situation in the Blues is near to my heart. I am always asking artists what their opinion is on where we are going, how we are getting there and do we need GPS to get back on track and out of the wilderness – or are we on course and where we should be.
Zac Harmon: Now we all know the origins of the Blues – where it came from and what was going on with the folks that created it….but it’s a little deeper than that. Even that knowledge itself is part of the problem and seems to contribute to the navigational problems that we deal with today in the Blues. I might get little deep here so bear with me, OK LOL.
B411: It’s all good, not a problem at all, go ahead on.
ZH: Blues is, as I keep hammering home, medicine. Blues was a musical art form that came out of a group of folk’s desire to express how they felt inside but because of oppression, could not express those feelings through normal channels. That’s the birth of the Blues right there. As with any musical art form, Blues as we know it has gone through a few changes, we had the early stuff the Mississippi Sheiks, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson did, then the electric era – when Muddy and Wolf played the electric blues and Little Walter played harmonica thru an amp – and that changed everything.
So now we come to today, and the problem we have – and it doesn’t just apply to the Blues – here in America we have become overly and overtly bottom lined oriented and we have forgotten that this incredible art form that we call the Blues defines American music abroad.
B411: How so, the Blue isn’t a money maker for sure, or am I wrong?
ZH: Art is a money maker when packaged properly. The Mona Lisa painted over and over again by lesser artists packaged by lesser brokers would eventually lose its value in both presentation and worth. You see Blues as an art form evolved and remained fresh when we had radio personalities that were real personalities. They played music that was good stuff, new stuff that the people were digging. Then all of a sudden we come to the age of music consultants (now) where you have one guy programming radio for half of America. Basically telling everybody what to like and what not to like when they don’t even understand the music they program. Those early programmers and music promoters understood the music because they were in many cases a creative part of it. So the music was free to grow. Today too many of our programmers are really simply Blues enthusiasts who really love the music of the fifties and sixties and really think that they can now replace the creative spirit that has driven the evolution of the Blues with their love for a window of time. They pretty much control all the outlets where Blues can be found today and my fear is that what does not evolve will die. Because of this the people (fans) now get a very small rationing of anything that’s progressive in the Blues. Basically what they get is the same thing re-hashed over and over and over and over. What this has done – just by attrition – is limit the Blues fan base by refusing to let it grow. So what happens is that you got Stormy Monday recorded a million times and finally it ain’t so great anymore.
B411: So it’s regurgitated Blues that may not be adding new fans to the family.
ZH: So now you got new fans coming to see the Blues and this is what they hear and they say “oh my God I don’t like that.” That is why I ask the question “does the Blues eat it’s young?” This is a real problem. So we really have to ask ourselves the question do we really love this music? Do we really want the Blues to survive? – that is the question.
B411: Is it a racial thing – like do we have the right people playing the Blues?
ZH: I don’t get into that whole thing about whose right it is to play the Blues because music is medicine, music is universal – everybody’s got a right. I don’t get into that, that’s just as destructive as anything else.
One of the guys that responded to my post, spoke about what he likes is music that makes him feel good, and all he is getting is this crazy guitar driven music that is coming out. He said enough already and why do they keep doing this. I explained to him that the artists may not want to be doing this but you have to understand the record labels that dominate the market can dictate what they must do. So in order for these guys to get promoted and to get a booking agent – this is what they have to do. They are the ones pulling the strings – if you don’t conform you are left out.
It has nothing to do with talent, absolutely nothing to do with talent.
B411: So are there labels and agencies within our little family of Blues – are they that popular to be able to do that?
ZH: This is a boutique market. Even though they might not have huge numbers the numbers we have are dominated by them.
B411: Would that not lead to artists becoming more independent, or create other labels and a more communal based label group or self released music?
ZH: You are absolutely right, that is what this is going to lead to but I just hope it’s not too late. We are stuck in a time warp right now because of the economy. The growth of everything is so slow because of the economy. Yes there are more and more guys, because of the technology, that are capable of doing their own thing, but it’s a true fight for exposure.
B411: May I ask how this effects you directly – Zac Harmon and his music?
ZH: Jimi, I think I know me better than I know anyone so…I just try to do good music and hope that somebody gets it. I don’t try to play thirty-two bars of guitar solo or try to write about drinking and gambling just because I think that’s what a Blues audience wants to hear. I do what feels good, I believe that (again) music is medicine. You have got to give people something to chew on. Something that expresses how they feel. That’s how it all started anyway.
B411: Indeed, that’s the real hook to the music – relating to it in a personal way.
ZH: When a person buys my CD, or after a show says to me that one particular song spoke to them and that’s what they needed to hear, that’s what does it for me – that’s what we are put here for. I don’t get the benefit of promotion or the benefit that a booking agency would bring so everything with me is grass roots. The only reason I play anywhere is because somebody demanded that I be there, someone that was spending money said I want to hear/see Zac Harmon. It’s not cause of an agency on the phone saying ‘I’ll give you Zac Harmon if you take so and so also”. Do you see what I mean?
B411: Yes I do, that’s the stuff I am not familiar with – well I must say I am starting to see that more and more as I get more familiar with that side of the business.
I go back to when we could hear all types of good music on the airwaves, but I do agree that now we are seemingly stuck on this guitar masturbation (as I call it) syndrome that is dictating or defining what is the Blues. What happened to the piano players, the fiddlers etc.?
ZH: Let me tell you an incident that happened recently, I played a festival with this kid in North Carolina couple of years back. This kid opened for me – in my opinion he was incredible – I dug what he was doing, he was progressive. After the show he was talking about the IBC’s and how he competed and of course he didn’t do well and on one of his score sheets he was told that he needs to learn to play ‘real blues’.
He asked if I thought that he needs to change what he is doing, and I said absolutely not. He was incredible and I hope he stays on it. The real blues wow?
B411: Good advice with the IBC’s coming up soon in January. I have heard various things floating around about issues with judging, but there always are when it is somewhat objective judging. Who is there to tell anyone what the Blues is – outside of some chord pattern but even that . . .
ZH: Jimi, I don’t mean to pull rank on anybody where Blues is concerned but man, I was born and raised in Mississippi – I did not even now it was called Blues, we just played that music. We didn’t say we going to play the Blues other people called it the Blues. Even if I wanted to get away from it, if I wanted to change the Blues in me, I couldn’t cause it’s part of my DNA. If you put me in a pot and boiled me down, all that would be left is the Blues but my experiences are not the same experiences that Muddy had, I never picked cotton, my daddy picked cotton. I went to school and never had a hungry day in my life and even though I grew up in Jim Crow Mississippi, by the time I was an adult, things were very different Therefore my whole perspective is a bit different. Though I loved Muddy, and Wolf and John Lee Hooker, I was also diggin’ Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, and Frank Zappa. I can’t deny any of that – it’s all part of making me who I am. Now if you had asked Muddy that same question back in 1956 he would have given you the same answer if you asked him why he didn’t sound like The Mississippi Sheiks and why was he plugging in his guitar.
B411: No kidding, some of the so-called purists would have rejected Muddy because that brother plugged in – you can’t do that, it ain’t the way. I don’t get it.
Just to flash back to what we were talking about earlier, it was again, all music, not stereotyped or categorized – it was just music. It wasn’t Blues or Jazz or Electronic music – it crossed over to all folks – it was just music. Now we are all put into egg-crates so we don’t mix together, cos they don’t want US there.
ZH: Right, and it’s all being driven by people who don’t have a clue of what they are even dealing with. They are writing reviews and programming radio by the numbers.
B411: What is main stream radio these days – it doesn’t exist. It may but I don’t have time to dig around the internet to hear some new folks, but even that can be riding the same rails as we described. I have access to new music but it has to be difficult for them.
B411: About Zac Harmon – are you working with a promotion agency?
ZH: I hire Blind Raccoon to promote my CD’s however my manager wears all of the hats. He does everything from book gigs to drive to gigs, he is a very special guy. The agencies won’t give me the time of day. They tell me “We don’t think you got it”. Thank God some fans feel differently.
B411: What…these are supposed Blues agencies. That’s depressing and short sighted too.
B411:Do you see a solution for these things that we are discussing?
ZH: I think it will fix itself through attrition, I just hope I am alive to see it happen. So that the next generation doesn’t discover my music and say damn, this dude was great how come we didn’t know about him.
B411: That’s scary to think, the same old story of the Blues man, he’s dead and now his records sell. Now if I can cite your latest release “Music Is Medicine” that’s great stuff there. A variety of styles, original music that speaks to the soul, you know I dug it. Not just the standard twelve bar homage, it was music.
ZH: Yes, Yes, thank you for ‘getting it’, it was incredible (and the check is in the mail – we laugh at this thought).
B411: About the check – if I get it I will frame it and you can sign it again – it will go on the wall (we continue to laugh) in a special spot. Reviews are hard to do reviews because I listen deeply to them, and feel that if you or any artist takes the time to put this product out there for us then I should at least listen to it several times and try to grok what you are saying. It takes me a lot of effort and time to do justice to it, which is why I don’t do as many as I would like to. So consider yourself lucky or chosen (laughing) .
ZH: That’s what I’m saying, allow us to make our own individual statements. Don’t make me say what the guy before me said, or the guy that you will be listening to tomorrow. Don’t make me say that same ole thing. Let me say what I want to say, and if what I say is not worth listening to, then don’t listen to it.
B411: So if we are fortunate to have it work itself out through this attrition – we will be at a giant loss because there will be lots of dead bodies on the road side. It conjures up images of the civil war for me, metaphorically speaking – gain, loss, attrition and re-birth but many good people lost and deep, deep scars.
ZH: I did a tour last year and was watching the audience and man, the average age was sixty to seventy five years old. Now just a few years ago the average age was like forty to sixty. Our audience is getting old and dying off. My promoter in Europe, who retired this year, said he would love for me to do the Mississippi styled country blues that he loves and the audience loves because I can do that, but it is not the only thing I do. He also understands why I need to step out and do the other things I do and why it has to be now, not in twenty years from now. The audience may not be there, so I need to make my music for now.
B411: I often say that the blues Nazis should go in the corner and die off with their view of the music and let the rest of us live on and make the music grow. Cause if it doesn’t grow it will die, it’s that simple.
ZH: It’s not even a matter of wanting to hear the style of Blues that they like but its more of a matter of forcing the style of music on others. For God sake let the music breath and grow so that a new younger audience can discover their on brand of Blues that they will become passionate about.
B411: Right so they say the folks don’t wan to come out for blues festivals or shows. This summer I have several festivals that had a wide variety of artists. It as great they got to see ‘traditional artists’, artists like Zac Harmon and some European artists, and they young crowd came to see JJ Grey or Tedeschi Trucks – it works. It gets younger people inside the walls and into the music.
But I do have to ask where were the brothers (the African American Audience)?
ZH: Here’s the deal with the brothers. I play a festival in Jackson, Mississippi, and I play to around ten thousand brothers every year. I just played at the Hollywood Park Casino to eight hundred brothers. So please believe my when I say that brothers do love the Blues however they are very sensitive when it comes to the Blues simply because we come from a legacy of creators not copiers. So every time we see someone we feel is a copier we automatically don’t like them unless they are so good that it is undeniable. So when I play these festivals where also artists like Mel Waiters, Marvin Sease, Eddie Cotton, Sir Charles Jones and others play, the Blues is alive and well. It has just taken on a new label call Southern Soul but it’s nothing but Blues. It’s just evolving Blues, it’s how the Blues has evolved in the Black community, so that’s the reason you don’t see many African Americans at the festivals that don’t include any of these artist.
B411: Very cool, I hear ya, I get that, it really is the same for any specific group as we said earlier. Cool.
ZH: As for the other bands that you say draw younger crowds, I call them the fruit, I am part of the fruit – ya know the Blues is the root and everything else is the fruit saying – well that is what it is. Now if I am playing at same festival as these bands that have been promoted to these young audiences by the labels (which I have not) I guarantee you that if I am playing to their audience, by the end of the night their audience will become my audience.
B411: Having seen you and your band perform, I agree.
ZH: Yeh that’s why I say it is political, because I don’t see that happening.
Please visit Zac: http://www.zacharmon.com/
To read Blues411′s review of Mr. Harmon’s release ‘Music Is Medicine’ visit here:
Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease
Where Blues Thrives
Photos courtesy of Artist