Since the release of John Nemeth’s major blues label release on Blind Pig Records just five years ago, the Idaho native has taken the blues world by storm. He has risen to the top echelon of performers with a combination of first rate recordings and relentless touring. As Charlie Lange, the owner of Blue Beat Music, mentioned to me recently, “Nemeth doesn’t seem capable of making a bad record.” One could add he doesn’t seem capable of putting on a bad show either for that matter. It would reason that a live album by the 37 year old California transplant would be cause for celebration. It is. Not only that, John has released two live albums. These albums, entitled, Soul Live and Blues Live capture the excitement and stellar musicianship of a Nemeth performance. On top of that, the combined running time on these CDs clocks in at very generous 120 minutes. I think it is high time our readers hear from the one and only John Nemeth. Enjoy a conversation I had with John this past November.
David Mac (DM): I have talked to a lot of blues singers through the years and if I ask them where they got their start they often would say singing church music. They are usually talking about gospel choirs in the sanctified Baptist church in the south. I read somewhere you started singing in church as well but in a Catholic Church in your native Idaho.
John Nemeth (JN): That’s right but I probably learned more about singing blues, the delivery and energy of the blues, from the Hungarian folk music my dad listened to when I was growing up. It is minor key music.
My dad always swore that the guy that wrote all the new Catholic music was the same guy that wrote all the Coca Cola jingles. But you know what’s funny, one of those songs that we used to sing sounded like Paul Butterfield’s version of the Walking Blues. It had that same (singing) “bom, bom, bom, be doe doe, bom, bom bom…and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” It’s kind of like twelve bar blues.
DM: I remember that one. I grew up surrounded by Catholic Church music as my mom was an organist in our parish. I am old enough to remember the changes after Vatican Two in the music. They started having these folk Masses.
JN: We used to call it the hippie Mass. They had seven or eight acoustic guitars playing the same thing at once, it’s almost like a drum circle in the park.
DM: (laughing) It was the hippie Mass. I look back on it and one week they are doing Gregorian chants and the next it’s hippies singing like a Coke a Cola commercial. We are off to good start John this is the first time Hungarian folk music and Vatican Two has come up in a conversation here at BLUES JUNCTION.
Your music to me is a throwback to that sub genre of blues that has a lot of soul up in the mix. Is that a fair assessment of your style?
JN: Yes it is, but I stick more to the southern style of soul.
DM: There are a few guys that did that back in the day but you don’t hear that much of it any more.
JN: I know. I absolutely love the old Bobby Bland stuff, and really dig Little Johnny Taylor. Those guys would do a lot of blues influenced soul. Howard Tate was another guy who made music that just really hit you hard.
DM: Does singing come natural?
JN: I don’t even think about it. I just do it. I never sing a song the same way twice. I’m always surprised at what comes into my mind when I record a tune. I listen to music all the time. There are things you hear, different inflections that make a song interesting that I think I can use to get my message across. I’ve always had a really easy time singing. It’s never really been something I had to work on that hard or think about. I have to practice during those times when I am off the road for a while, I have to practice in order to keep my instrument going so when I go back out on the road my voice will stay strong the whole time.
DM: Let’s talk about your harmonica playing. At what point did you start picking up the harmonica?
JN: I started playing when I was 16 years old. We had a little band going, we were playing gigs and the guitar player didn’t want to take all the solos all night. It could become a little boring after a while because we were playing real long sets at the Grubb Steak Saloon in Horseshoe Bend.
DM: Grubb Steak Saloon in Horseshoe Bend?
JN: That’s right. I mean you want to talk about a rough town. That was a rough town. It was a logging town. It was pretty rough and tumble (laughs).
DM: How did they respond to your music?
JN: They loved it man. They didn’t think of us as kids doing it. They didn’t care, they just wanted music to dance to and if they didn’t find it danceable, they’d let you know “Too fast…too slow”. They really wouldn’t make too many recommendations, requests or whatever. You’d come in, the owner said, “Listen, you play a bunch of outlaw country, you play some classic rock, you know Chuck Berry to Credence and throw your blues in there when you want and you’ll be fine in this place.” We came in there and we did that and we’d throw our blues in there and they loved blues. Because the blues fit in with all that other stuff we were playing for them.
DM: Your phrasing on harmonica, reminds me of your singing, is that accurate.
JN: Yes it is. Listen there’s something very passionate in the delivery of blues vocals. The way I play harmonica can be very aggressive, because blues vocals are very aggressive.
DM: Was your first album 2002’s Jack of Harps?
JN: I had a couple of records I did before, a long time ago with my high school band, Fat John and the Three Slims. That was a real good band. I’ve always been lucky and spoiled by playing music with great players. Jack of Harps was when I started doing my own songs. Ten out of the ten songs are originals.
DM: Let’s talk about your development as a songwriter.
JN: I was doing a harmonica blowout, back in 1999 up in Portland, Oregon. Paul Delay was on the bill, he was the headliner and I went on before him. I was coming off stage and he said, “Hey brother, listen, you want to go anywhere in this business, you’ve got to start writing your own songs, you can’t be playing these same chestnuts every night.” I took everything that guy said to heart and I think it was for the best, so I went home, back to Boise and I just started writing music. Writing music wasn’t easy for me because I grew up listening to such great songs and so I knew what made a great song. I was such a harsh critic of myself that I would have the melodies and the songs and wanting to give up. I really didn’t overthink the song. I’d write the tune and think, “God, this is terrible I’m not going to spend any more time on it.” And actually the guys in the band said, “No the song’s just fine, that’s as far as you need to take it.”
DM: When did you move to San Francisco?
JN: In 2004.
DM: What brought you out to California?
JN: This girl that had the best record collection of any chick I’d ever met in Idaho. When I was dating her, she decided she was going to move out here. I thought “Whoa man, she’s too hot to lose, I better get with it.”
Another thing happened right around 2001 when the shit really hit the fan here in the United States. A lot of things kind of came to a head all at once and it CRUSHED the live music scene all around the United States. In Idaho, I had all these house gigs for years and all of a sudden, all of this came to a head and the government scared everybody half to death. People decided they weren’t going to go out, they were going to stay in. You had this whole terrorist scare, the war and then they wrecked the economy. My Monday night gig went away, my Wednesday night gig went away and then I just had Tuesdays and Thursdays and the weekends. The next thing you know they start cutting the money back because people weren’t coming out in droves like they once had.
Right around that time is when Junior Watson came to town and I opened up for him. He took me out on tour with his band back in 2001. That was great, I got to see the U.S. and go over to Scandinavia and stuff like that.
So at that point I knew I would have to get out and start traveling as well. I didn’t have anything to lose you know by moving.
DM: Where in the city did you live?
JN: Right in the heart of it...Pine and Mason. I was four blocks up from Biscuits and Blues and a block away from the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins hotels.
DM: That had to be culture shock.
JN: Oh yeah, it kicked my ass, I mean physically and mentally. I’m living on one of the steepest hills in the city. I had a dog and had to hike that dog up to the park at Grace Cathedral every single morning, man. I tell you that was work. Man oh man, I was sore. Then there is all that goes with trying to find a parking space. I couldn’t make noise. If I would play music in the apartment the little old lady below me would whack the broomstick on her ceiling and my floor. So I had to go out to my pick-up truck that was parked at the top of the hill to play harp. I mean this hill is so steep it has steps.
DM: Oh yea, I’m familiar with the territory. You are over the bridge in Oakland now.
JN: It’s nothing like San Francisco. I moved over to Oakland in 2009. It’s cool, I’ve got a parking spot, I’ve got a garage, I’ve got a house ya know, an in-law unit behind the garage. The band guys can stay and we can rehearse and that kind of thing. The bay area has really got a phenomenal vibe, a phenomenal scene, a lot of good attitudes around here. People don’t necessarily view other musicians as competition, but just other people to make music with. I think that’s kind of a rare thing in a lot of places.
DM: You picked an area with a great blues music tradition.
JN: I know. People don’t realize certain things about the bay area. You know B.B. King didn’t have the first hit with The Thrill is Gone. It was a hit 19 years before by Roy Hawkins who is from Oakland. Jimmy McCracklin is from the east bay. He had all those great songs. A lot of people don’t really realize that Buddy Guy’s, My Time After Awhile, was a Bob Geddins tune. He was like the Willie Dixon of the west coast.
DM: This was all before Willie Dixon had his run of success in Chicago.
DM: The first time I saw you perform live was at your first appearance at the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena in 2007.
JN: That’s where we first met, Dave.
DM: That’s right. I showed up that night on the recommendation of Watson. That performance was about the same time your first nationally distributed album on a major blues label, Magic Touch on Blind Pig Records came out. Let’s talk about that album and how you hooked up with the record’s producer, Anson Funderburgh.
JN: Anson contacted me as Sam (Myers) had taken ill with throat cancer. They had a lot of gigs on the books and I think they had called around looking for a singer and harp player to help them out. He called a guy named Scott Cable who’s a guitar player and Ronny Owen who is a singer and harp player from back east who had records that Anson produced. They recommended me for the spot. They sent one of my CDs to him. He listened to it and he called me up and said, “I’ve got these gigs and you’re the guy to do it.” So I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do it.” It was terrific.
One big thing about that gig was Sam Myers had such a terrific song book, maybe 130 songs something like that. The most memorable shows we did were the Delta Blues Festival in Mississippi, and the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Arkansas. Sam sat in and played harp with us on those gigs. It turned out that the show at the Biscuit would be his last gig.
DM: Magic Touch was a big career breakthrough for you John.
JN: It was a great opportunity. Blind Pig is a pretty big outfit with quite a reach in the blues business and of course Anson Funderburgh producing it helped a lot. We had his band the Rockets on the record, the Texas Horns and Junior Watson.
DM: Songs from that album are still a big part of your live repertoire:
JN: Oh yeah, absolutely man, songs like, You’re an Angel, She Did Not Show, Magic Touch, Blue Broadway, you know those songs are still popular and still requested when we do a show.
DM: You did two more albums for Blind Pig, 2009’s Love Me Tonight and 2010’s Name That Day. Do you have personal or sentimental favorite amongst any of these three very strong albums?
JN: Love Me Tonight. I think the songwriting on that record is some of the best stuff I’ve ever done, maybe it’s the best stuff I’ll ever do.
DM: John, you just released not one but two live albums. Why a live record and why two?
JN: People have been asking for a live record for a few years now, so I just did it. I had enough material to put out four CDs but thought that might be a little much. They were recorded earlier in the year over three different nights at three clubs here in the bay area.
DM: Both CDs Blues Live and Soul Live really do capture the energy of a John Nemeth performance. Let me shift gears for a moment. What are some of your interests outside of music?
JN: There were a lot of things I used to do, before I became a touring blues guy. I used to fly fish in Idaho. I used to ski about 50-60 days a year at least. I used to love to go hiking, I still do that. I’m pretty outdoorsy, like to be outdoors. Now I just love hanging out with my wife and daughter.
DM: You ended up marrying the gal with the great record collection.
JN: You bet. Jaki and I got married after we moved out here. Our daughter Gracie will be two next week. I love it. I always wanted kids. When I’m home I sit around and I listen to a lot of music. Records are playing or CDs are playing. I just spend a lot of time soaking it up man. Gracie plays the harp too.
DM: That’s got to be hard on everybody when you hit the road.
JN: It is. We tour a lot. We probably do 200–250 gigs a year. I would go out on a limb and say we are probably one of the hardest touring blues bands left on the circuit.
DM: Do you travel with the family?
JN: No, the only fun going out on tour is actually playing the music. The rest of the time it’s drive, drive, drive, schlep, schlep, schlep, sound checks, bad food, too much booze, you know. It’s really a lot of work. You don’t think about how much work it is because you love what you do and you love playing music. When I get home after all that touring, it’s like (whistles) it’s hard to get the wheels to stop turning.
DM: That is a tough balancing act you’re pulling off.
JN: Well for myself, I don’t have anything else. The one thing I do well is music. It’s how I’ve always made my living and I guess I better keep at it if I want to eat.
DM: Thanks for visiting with us this afternoon. Since you are home now I’ll let you get back to your family. Give Gracie my birthday wishes next week.
JN: Shall do. Thanks Dave. Stay in touch.