Although he's a third-generation Colorado Springs native, John-Alex Mason sounds like he could have stepped out of the Mississippi Delta, especially when he sits down with a cigar-box guitar and moves into a musical realm that transcends time and distance. And even though he grew up listening to way too much Led Zeppelin to become a true blues "purist," Mason is easily drawn into a conversation about the differences between the contemporary blues style that emerged from Chicago and its gutbucket Mississippi antecedents.
"There's a fine line there, no question, between what's really true music or folk music that's coming from experience, and what's contrived or created in order to make money," says the musician. "There's nothing wrong with making money, but when the music gets driven by that instead of growing on its own, it's different, you know?
"I mean, you can grow a great musician anywhere in the country," adds Mason, who has proven that theory over the course of six albums, including the newly released Jook Joint Thunderclap. But still, he says, you need to connect with the music's roots.
"It's like organic music versus hydroponic music. You can feed it all the same stuff, but it's not gonna taste the same."
Even so, Mason knows enough about history to dispel the myth of the earliest bluesmen as saintly sinners who were somehow exempt from the forces of real-world economics.
"Robert Johnson played the songs he played — and the way he played them — because they had sold previously under other artists' names," he says. "You know, Skip James was popular, so instead of playing the '22-20 Blues' by Skip James, who was on a different label, Robert Johnson wrote the '32-20 Blues' and played that on the Columbia label."
Even Smithsonian field recordings, notes Mason, aren't necessarily the epitome of authenticity they're made out to be.
"Bukka White was in Parchman Farm when Alan Lomax came along. You know, Bukka had been recorded and made money as a musician, and this guy comes up asking for his songs for free. [Laughs.] And Bukka White was just like, 'I got some new songs for you,' and he just made them up on the spot. He wasn't gonna give away songs for free, you know? It just doesn't compute."
Riding with the King
The past year has been an auspicious one for the prodigal bluesman, who returned home last summer after he and his wife spent enough time in Portland, Ore. to experience 10 months of rainfall. Back among friends and family, he set about recording his first album with a proper band.
While Jook Joint Thunderclap will have its official unveiling at a CD release party Saturday, Mason's six-piece band previewed a number of those songs at the Pikes Peak Center last month while opening for elder blues statesman B.B. King.
"It was so wonderful to share that experience with the guys I'm playing with now," says Mason, whose previous five albums had been almost exclusively one-man-band affairs.
And while the King gig found Mason front and center, playing guitars and kicking drums, it also featured most of the musicians who grace the album. Among them are two-time Memphis International Blues Challenge winner Lionel Young on fiddle; drummers Fara Tolno and Alya Sylla, who grew up in West Africa and have played with the likes of Neil Young, Otis Taylor and Youssou N'Dour; and bassist/sousaphone player Todd "Buckweed" Edmunds, who logged thousands of miles on the road with Jason Ricci.
The new album also features Cedric and Cody Burnside, grandsons of the much-storied bluesman R.L. Burnside. While Cedric laid down drum tracks, Cody added blues-infused raps to "Riding On" as well as "Gone So Long," a song co-written by Mason and his wife. (Cody is also expected to sit in with the band at this weekend's album-release event.)
As on past albums, Mason captures the spirit of Delta blues so perfectly that it's sometimes hard to know which are originals and which are covers. This time out, he includes a trio of cover tunes: "Signifyin' Monkey' is a smoldering blues rendition of jazzman Oscar Brown, Jr.'s song, which was itself based on the trickster character from African-American folk poems. Mason also takes on Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Write Me a Few of Your Lines" and the public-domain "Rolled and Tumbled." The album winds down with "Whisper," a plaintive original that finds Mason alone with an acoustic guitar and bittersweet memories.
Beale St. Blues
Last week, Mason paid a return visit to Memphis, Tenn., a city that holds a special place in his own musical history. Mason first considered the possibility of being a full-time musician while busking on the streets of Germany (where he was working for a military contractor), but it was only when he hooked up with Memphis one-man-band Richard Johnston at a Telluride festival that the wheels were fully set in motion.
"Richard invited me to Memphis and gave me a Thursday night on Beale Street," recalls Mason. "Then he gave me a Friday night, because I did such a good job and he was ready to take a night off with his girlfriend. And on Saturday, we played together.
"So, you know, I'd played three nights on Beale Street on Richard's spot, and that's how I got to meet Dennis Brooks, who was basically the go-to guy in the Memphis music business. You know, new acts would come along and he'd help them out, or big acts would be coming through and need a gig, and he was the guy to call."
Mason went back last week to play a few gigs during the Memphis International Blues Challenge, but mainly to attend a memorial for Brooks, who died of a heart attack in October 2009 at the age of 59. Beale Street has its own version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, with musical notes in place of brass stars, and Mason had helped raise funds for the one bearing Brooks' name.
The ceremony also underscored the fact that, like the blues itself, Memphis has gone through some changes.
"It's like a mall, basically," says Mason of the legendary Beale Street, which was turned into an outdoor tourist attraction controlled by Performa Entertainment Real Estate. While Performa filed bankruptcy last year after protracted legal battles with the city, the company called the shots for three decades when it came to deciding who could and couldn't perform there.
Mason says it got so bad that the musician who first invited him to Memphis has relocated to Arkansas, where he's now operating a juke joint.
"Richard got kicked off of Beale Street because he didn't like the way they were running stuff. He wanted to do what he wanted to do as an artist, and that didn't go over too well."
So maybe being a thousand-mile drive from Blues City USA isn't such a bad thing after all. At this point, Mason says he's just glad to be back in the town where he grew up.
"Portland's amazing, but it's not home. And Colorado is, so here we are," he says. "It's just exploring, man. I mean, that's kinda how things are working right now. We don't really have a plan. We're just exploring and enjoying the ride."
I miss you, Lenny! My family and I thank you for all the special times…
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