Ryman Auditorium | November 16 & 18
Words by Walter Carter
Photography by Charles A. Daughtry
Nashville is not usually thought of as a center for blues music, but Joe Bonamassa is changing that. Although the blues guitar star still lives in Los Angeles, his upcoming two-night stand at the Ryman Auditorium and his upcoming album should be claimed by Nashville as homegrown music. His regular co-writers are Nashville tunesmiths; he records in Nashville, and his touring and studio band features longtime Nashville pickers Michael Rhodes on bass and Reese Wynans on keyboards.
Born and raised in central New York state, Bonamassa was a blues prodigy, opening shows for B.B. King at the age of twelve. Today, at thirty-eight, he’s the shining light of a new generation of bluesmen, with a broad base of influences that encompasses the old masters (acoustic and electric), the Clapton-Page-Beck school of blues-based rock, and any other musical style that can be injected into the blues. Moreover, Bonamassa has emerged as a new business model for musical performers—acting (with his manager) as his own booking agent, concert promoter, and record label.
While on tour in Germany in October, Bonamassa took a few minutes to talk on the phone about Nashville, the blues, and the blues business.
WC: What first attracted you to Nashville?
JB: We’ve been playing Nashville ever since I started touring, but in the last three or four years I’ve been writing there and recording there. You have to go where all the best guys are for writing and recording. When I asked my friends, the answer was always Nashville. Even my friend Keb’ Mo’—I got his storage locker in L.A. because he vacated it to move to Nashville.
WC: How did you find co-writers?
JB: The first person I called was James House [best known for his own hit “This Is Me Missing You”]. His wife, Barbara, runs the studio for Ben Folds. James and I have worked really well together over the years. Then I got hooked up with Jeffrey Steele, Jerry Flowers, Jonathan Cain, and Gary Nicholson. We wrote the last album in a matter of a couple of weeks. These guys are songwriting dudes.
WC: Co-writing is a way of life in Nashville. Did you fit in right away?
JB: Co-writing is like going to a dinner party. It’s polite to bring a small appetizer or a bottle of wine. In co-writing it’s polite to bring something, and that’s what I did. I’m not looking for a hit. There aren’t really hit singles in blues, where I come from. I just said, whether it’s three minutes or six minutes let’s just write something that works for me that I can sell.
WC: Many people think of blues as a limiting musical form, with three chords and a set song structure. How do you deal with that?
JB: You have to introduce different styles into it. I’ve never been a traditional blues player by any definition of the word. To me, everything’s fair game. Rock, country, jazz, punk . . . You can season it with anything.
WC: Your business organization is seen as a model for success in a time when the music business is struggling, record labels in particular. Was that by design or by happenstance?
JB: It was ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, a situation where the music industry, the traditional label system . . . they wanted me to just crawl into a hole and just die. Nobody would buy me. This was a lost cause. My manager, Roy Weisman, and I decided to shut all the doors. We’re not using an agent, not using a promoter. They would never approach a promoter about doing a show at the Ryman. If they had their way we would be playing a club—not that that is bad, but I wanted to play the Ryman. I wanted to play Carnegie Hall. When you take the promoter out of it you figure out very quickly it’s not very hard to promote a show. When you take the artist guarantee out of it, it gets really easy. Just set up the Joe Bonamassa pretzel wagon. Owning the record company has been a real asset because it allows me to put out product the way I want to.
WC: A few months ago you were house-hunting in Nashville.
JB: I ended up buying a house in Laurel Canyon [in Los Angeles]. The thought of moving all those amps, putting them on a truck, I thought, this is gonna be dangerous. I’ll probably get an apartment in Nashville, some place small, and stop paying the hotel bills.