An Interview with multitalent Jason Vivone -- a rare Kansas City bluesman who taps deep into the roots

"Blues has always been here. It’s in our genes as humans. The beat. The power of the human voice."

Jason Vivone: E.T.C. Blues Philosophy

Jason Vivone and the Billy Bats won the title "king of the roots" in a competition sponsored by the Roots N Blues N BBQ Fest and the Missouri Lottery. Jason competed as a solo act in the 2010 IBC. The band has performed at Mid America Music Festival, Kansas City Cigar Box Guitar Festival, Kansas City Blues Society Festival, Gladstone Blues Festival, Woody Guthrie 100 Year Birthday Tribute and has opened for Chris Duarte & Fishbone. As a teenager, Jason busked at the Chicago Blues Festival with ex Howling Wolf sideman, Otis Smokey Smothers. He has jammed with and/or received informal lessons from Hubert Sumlin, Son Seals, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Yank Rachell.

The album with the comedic title, Lather Rinse Repeat (2012), sets the stage for the nine original tracks backed by the Billy Bats: Matt Bustamante (drums), Jeremy Clark (bass), Paula Crawford (vocals, guitar), Imani Glasgow (vocals, percussion) and Ben Hoppes (vocals, banjo). Jason Vivone & The Billy Bats decided to bring it all back home for their new release. Back to Kansas City. Back to “The Avenue” (2016). Singer, Songwriter and showman extraordinaire, Jason Vivone, who hosts Kansas City’s favorite blues radio show “The Boogie Bridge” on 90.1 FM KKFI, leads the six piece Billy Bats on an eight-song set paying homage to the city’s most notorious neighborhood “Independence Avenue.” The group delivers old school, shoot from the hip style ruffling traditional “blues” feathers perhaps.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Jason, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?

When I was 7 or 8, I had a babysitter who had the Briefcase Full of Blues tape and she would listen to it while she watched me. If you remember, Belushi cites the original artists all through out. “Here’s an old Willie Mabon tune.” “This one’s by Delbert McClinton.” This babysitter of mine sought out Otis Redding and Junior Wells and the artists who were covered on that album and played it all for me. If you’re out there, Sondra, thank you.

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned? 

My first blues gig was B.B. King at a high school gym in Dyersburg, Tennessee. My aunt took me. It was incredible. It was the old school African American experience you don’t get too much anymore. Everyone dressed to the nines. The house shouted to B.B. the whole time. It was a dialogue. The first songs I learned were from my grandmother. She played piano and guitar. She knew about a thousand verses to “Frankie and Johnny”. She would watch B.B. King on TV and remember the verses and then go over and play it on the piano.                                         (Photo by Andy Collier)

"Blues will always be a music that draws cultures in conflict. Times are bad; let’s party. I think underneath there’s an underlying context that things are going to change. I can heal." 

What do you learn about yourself from the blues culture?

It’s the old saw - blues lets you know what you don’t know. You play this music night after night and the audience teaches you something every time you take the stage. And then, you hear the voices of the players that went on before you. It’s all been done. If you look hard enough, there’s somebody in the vast history of the music that’s tackled your obstacle. Blues has taught me how much I love to learn.

How do you describe Jason Vivone’s songbook?

Good question. The songs I wrote in my teens and twenties were pretty serious, angry. Songs about being abandoned by my father. Failed romances. I would write and perform the songs to try to exorcise the pain. I could be up there so vulnerable and the audience could get very uncomfortable. I thought they were going to give me the answers. I quit music. My heart was broken. I was leaving too much onstage. People didn’t know how to talk to me after I had just ripped my guts out in front of them. My ten years away from performing afforded me a Sullivan’s Travels moment. You know that scene where Joel McCrea is on the chain gang and they’re watching the Mickey Mouse cartoon? That happened to me. Somewhere along the line, it was okay to have fun onstage, too. To write songs about that thing your friend said that made you laugh, or food or the happy side of love. There were plenty of great blues in the canon to draw from there. The humor was another part of me. Why should it not be part of what I write? Now, if you listen to our new cd THE AVENUE, you’ll hear how mournful the title track is and then we follow it up with something fun and up like HELLO MRS RADZINSKY.

"My first blues gig was B.B. King at a high school gym in Dyersburg, Tennessee. My aunt took me. It was incredible. It was the old school African American experience you don’t get too much anymore. Everyone dressed to the nines." (Photo by Andy Collier)

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?

I think sometimes we are afraid to express the things in our heart. We are afraid to show our love or even our humor. Or our anger. You hold the mirror up to the blues and you see the way you feel.

Describe the sound and progress of Billy Bats? How do you characterize your philosophy for the blues?

The Billy Bats began as a two piece band. I played slide guitar and Zach McCall played drums. There were a lot of Chicago and North Mississippi influence. Now with the current line up, we can draw upon a broader field of blues – soul blues, New Orleans, jugband music, hokum, gospel. Our philosophy of the blues is E.T.C. Entertain. Train. Cultivate.

Tell me about the beginning of Billy Bats. How did you choose the name and where did it start?

I had been out of music for about ten years. I dropped out after a stint in Branson, Missouri backing up an Elvis impersonator. He ripped off the whole show. It broke my heart. I had been conned for the last time and just put all my guitars away and got married and worked behind a desk. The marriage and the new career weren’t working out. I was trying to become someone I wasn’t. I got into the theatre, directing and producing plays. We needed a guitar player for a show The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe so I just hired myself. I hit a couple of jams. Someone offered me studio time. I wanted a loose sound like those old Lightning Hopkins records. Like every band, we had a list of names on a napkin and The Billy Bats was just the most fun to say. Our first gig was in 2006 during a snowstorm in Lawrence, Kansas.

"The Blues will continue to develop young artists. My wish is that our technology will keep the voices of the past available for all time." (Jason Vivone & The Billy Bats, by Heather McKenzie)

Are there any memories from ‘The Avenue’ studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

We were blessed enough to work with Sam Platt again. He has a farmhouse studio way out in the middle of Kansas. You drive forty five minutes from the city down these country roads. And the property is so quiet. You can’t get a phone signal out there. You can walk in the woods. There’s a big pond out there. You can skim rocks while you’re waiting for the next take. And somehow, he has one of Waylon Jennings’s old tour busses out there. You can sit on the bus and scribble down lyrics on Waylon’s old couch. Hope that some of that songwriter mojo rubs off.

Which meetings/acquaintances have been the most important experiences for you?

My grandmother is the most important person in putting me on this path to being a musician. She played this great raggedy old piano style. She was a good guitar player and a pretty good harmonica player. She had the greatest ear. I was blessed to grow up in a house where music wasn’t this remote thing people just did on TV. She’d come home from work and sit down and play. I see all these guys talk in the guitar magazines who say their biggest influence was Elvis or Clapton or someone they never met. I feel sorry for them. My biggest influence was there the day I was born.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

I would say it is a tie between my grandma and Hubert Sumlin. My grandma really translated the shapes of songs. Hubert was so in the moment. He knew if he had fun, the music would come easier. That’s a great philosophy.

"I think sometimes we are afraid to express the things in our heart. We are afraid to show our love or even our humor. Or our anger. You hold the mirror up to the blues and you see the way you feel."

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The best and worst moment happened at the same time. I was in a serious car wreck in September of 2011. I am still suffering from post concussion and whiplash but I am still going. I am working through it physically and emotionally still. But it’s taking me in new places as a performer and band leader that I would never have explored otherwise.

Are there any memories from recording time and from the road with the band, which you’d like to share with us?

In recording our CD “LATHER. RINSE. REPEAT.” I sometimes found my headache and neck pain so intense I just laid down on a block of ice to ease the swelling and played flat on the floor. One of my favorite road memories was going down to play some gigs in Austin at SXSW with this line-up. We had been driving for a long time. I was dozing off in the passenger’s seat and they would be giggling like little kids as we travelled.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Danny’s Big Easy in Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine district is my favorite place in the world to jam. I wish we could host it every week.  We have had some great gigs competing for the International Blues Challenge. We will be representing Kansas City at the IBC in January of 2013.

"My hope is that with the availability of classic blues recordings and the easy accessibility of getting an instrument that more and more people will find the blues and play it. For themselves. For their heart." (Photo by Andy Collier)

Make an account of the case of the blues in Kansas City.

You could throw a rock anywhere in Kansas City and it would hit some incredible musician. And all of the musicians in Kansas City love the blues. The rock and roll guys. The folk artists. Gospel folks. The jazz guys, of course. The Latin musicians all love the blues in Kansas City. I even met a fellow who played oboe in the symphony that was trying to learn Little Walter solos. Many of these musicians will all find their way into a blues band at one time or another and keep it growing.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

The Kansas City Blues Society is establishing a Kansas City Blues Hall of Fame. I was honored to be part of the nominating committee. We have a unique history here and it’s a privilege to share what I know. What makes me laugh is my radio show. The Boogie Bridge on www.kkfi.org. I was in radio on and off as a kid. It helped pay for school. I never thought I’d be on the air once a week playing blues from my record collection.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Play every day. Play in front of people. Play the things you feel.

"I think just being a listener. You listen to the people at the table next to you. You listen to the stories people tell. You listen to that bass drum." (Photo: Jason Vivone & Honeyboy Edwards)

What are your hopes and fears for the future of Blues?

My fear is that one day blues will be like opera or the ballet or Shakespeare – a people’s popular art that will be controlled by a small number of people and kept alive mostly by grants and academia. You see it in jazz. It is my greatest fear. My hope is that with the availability of classic blues recordings and the easy accessibility of getting an instrument that more and more people will find the blues and play it. For themselves. For their heart.

What experiences in your life make you a good bluesman and songwriter?

I think just being a listener. You listen to the people at the table next to you. You listen to the stories people tell. You listen to that bass drum.

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

Hubert Sumlin said if your girl asks you which do you love more – her or your guitar --- tell her, it’s you, honey – then apologize to your guitar later.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

Blues has always been here. It’s in our genes as humans. The beat. The power of the human voice. That was the first blues act. It is ingrained in us. The Blues will continue to develop young artists. My wish is that our technology will keep the voices of the past available for all time.

Do you know why the harp and cigar box guitar is connected to the Blues and what are their secrets?

Both instruments have easy access. Harps were always the cheapest instrument. They were toys for many of us growing up. Cigarboxes were built at one time by folks who couldn’t afford a Sears and Roebuck catalog guitar. Now I think it’s a response to corporate culture. I love Fenders and Gibsons but before you take one off the wall you know what they’re gonna sound like. A cigarbox guitar wasn’t made in a factory. They are all unique. Like fingerprints.

"If Elmore James was playing today, someone would say: You know he should be playing a Strat through a Tube Screamer not an acoustic and a DeArmond pick-up."

What's been their experience from “studies” with Otis Smokey Smothers at the Chicago Blues Festival?

I think I was 15 the 1st year I went to the Chicago Blues Festival. Otis Smokey Smothers was onstage with Hubert Sumlin, Lefty Dizz and Barrelhouse Chuck ---just this amazing band. The next year Smokey wasn't booked to do a show but he came anyway with a battery powered Pignose amp and his guitar and just set up and played on a picnic table. I loved his stuff so much. Really a unique slide player. At the time, I felt sorry for him because he wasn't there with a full band on the big stage but people kept stopping and dropping money in his hat. It was like "Fine. I'm showing up and playing anyway."

So he's playing for hours and I'm just sitting at the picnic table with him watching every move. He pops a string and digs through his bag looking for a replacement. What he pulls out is this huge ball of guitar strings. It looked like a ball of yarn. And he sorted through it to find a suitable string, placed it on his guitar, clamped it and kept playing. The next morning I woke up early. We were staying at a hotel near Grant Park and I found an old music store and bought some strings. I got to the picnic table and there was Smokey. I told him "It hurt my heart to see you pull out those old strings yesterday. Here." and I gave him two packs of strings I just bought. He looked me over handed me his guitar and said "You put them on." So I did. It was a Strat with a whammy bar on it and it was more complicated to change than I thought. I wiped the fretboard clean with my shirt. And then he said "you play it." And he went to go get lunch. And I just sat there. This crowd gathers to see what I am doing with a white Strat in my lap. And Smokey is gone. These folks from the park are saying "Play, play!" So I did. They dropped some money in the hat. I played til I ran out of ideas. Then they said "Play, play". And put more money in the hat. I played some more just trying to survive. They tipped again. Smokey came back. I had a good crowd. He sat down. And he said it, too "Play, play." And it was my baptism of fire.    (Photo: Jason Vivone & Son Seals)

"The songs I wrote in my teens and twenties were pretty serious, angry. Songs about being abandoned by my father. Failed romances. I would write and perform the songs to try to exorcise the pain. I could be up there so vulnerable and the audience could get very uncomfortable."

Which memory Son Seals, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Yank Rachell makes you smile?

Son Seals. He was here in a club in Kansas City. I was underage but I was a big kid and I could grow a beard so I could kind of sneak in. Well, one of the bartenders pegged me as being a teenager and started to coming after me. Son was on break and I ran right to him. And I said 'Son, they want to kick me out because I'm too young but I deserve to be here. I know more about you than any of them." He looked at me and said "Like what?" And I just regurgitated some interview I had read of him "You're from Arkansas. Your dad was part of the Walcott Rabbit's Foot Minstrels. You were Albert King's drummer." And that was cool with Son. He said 'Stay by me." and stared the bartender down. And Sons sat me on the stage for the rest of the night.

Jessie Mae. She was playing a big bass drum. Napoleon Strickland was with her on fice. There was somebody on snare. And it was that Hill music. And she just moved her little body like she hit that drum.

Yank. Very funny. You see any of these interviews with him and he's a comedian. I remember talking to him about jugbands and how did that transfer over to the classic Chicago blues and he just put it back on me. "What do you think?" And I'd answer -- hoping I would get a confirmation. He'd raise his glass and say something like "I'll drink to that." ME: Yank, are you tuned lower than a regular mandolin? YANK: What do you think? ME: I think you are. YANK: I'll drink to that.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Blues will always be a music that draws cultures in conflict. Times are bad; let’s party. I think underneath there’s an underlying context that things are going to change. I can heal.

And would you like to tell your best memory about Hubert Sumlin?

I'd go to see him live anytime I could and reintroduce myself. He always said he remembered me. I would like to think so but who knows. One gig he says you're too young to drink. And I said Yes. And he says I'm gonna buy you your first beer. He goes up to the bartender and proudly announces "Give him anything. Put it on my tab." I just had a can of beer. I didn't even drink it. Later, he gave me his A.T. and T. calling card number. Told me to copy it down and call him whenever I wanted. I'd ask him about the old guys - Wolf, Nighthawk, Earl Hooker - he knew them all. He'd tell me great stories and then hand the phone over to his wife, B. She wanted to talk baseball to me then.

"Our philosophy of the blues is E.T.C. Entertain. Train. Cultivate."

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

I’d like to see Blind Willie Johnson play. I’d like to see if he really played slide on his lap flat like a steel guitar. I’d like to see Robert Johnson and find out what Bing Crosby tunes he played for tips. Wouldn’t you love it if it was “Pennies from Heaven”? 

What do you miss nowadays from the “feeling” of the 20s - 50s Blues era?

There’s a self-consciousness today that wasn’t around then. There were no laws. There was no question about what is authentic and what is not. If Elmore James was playing today, someone would say “You know he should be playing a Strat through a Tube Screamer not an acoustic and a DeArmond pick-up.” Those guys in the Golden Age were creating their art and innovating along the way. We need to see more unique signatures today.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Another day with my Grandmother would be great. We would cook together and then go sing and play at the piano.

Jason Vivone & The Billy Bats - Home

(Photo: Jason Vivone & The Billy Bats, Photo by Heather McKenzie)

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