An Interview with Welsh slide guitarist/singer Gwyn Ashton: The slide kinda imitates the human voice. It has a vocal quality.

"I’m a white guy from a bunch of places, I’ve never picked cotton or been a slave but I’ve been through enough shit to know what MY blues is." 

Gwyn Ashton: Living With The Blues

Welsh-born Gwyn Ashton migrated to Adelaide, South Australia in the '60s, picked up a guitar at 12 and joined his first band at 16. He relocated to Sydney in the '80s, playing stints with Swanee and Stevie Wright. In the 90s he moved to Melbourne, where he recorded his first two albums. He then opened for Junior Wells, Rory Gallagher, Steve Morse and Albert Lee and played with Jim Keays and Mick Pealing. In '96 Ashton relocated to the UK.

With one foot rooted in pre-war Delta blues, the other in a hotchpotch of country, swamp, jazz, rock, soul and folk, there are more sides to Gwyn Ashton than meets the eye. Ashton's experiences are amplified by the resonator of his well-beaten, electrified 1936 National guitar, his Weissenborn lap-slide and an array of other acoustic and electric instruments. His use of 21st century technology such as looping guitars, scratches and other percussive noises validates him as a modern-day rogue bluesman. Ashton collaborates and records with some of the world's most renowned musicians, his songs reflecting a wealth of experience and a lifetime spent paying his dues. Ashton has toured with BB King, Ray Charles, Buddy Guy, Mick Taylor, Rory Gallagher, Peter Green, Junior Wells, Johnny Winter, Canned Heat, Robin Trower, Jeff Healey, The Yardbirds, Status Quo, Magnum and many others. He has also recorded with Kim Wilson, Chris Glen/Ted McKenna , Don Airey, Gerry McAvoy/Brendan O'Neill. Ashton also replaced Thin Lizzy/Motorhead guitarist Brian Robertson fronting Band Of Friends - a memorial to Rory Gallagher featuring Gerry, Brendan, Lou Martin and Mark Feltham.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues, from whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
I’d been playing 50s rock and roll in a cover band in Adelaide when I was 16 years old. I hadn’t heard the blues at that stage but I look back and recognize that all the music I loved was blues-based music. Chuck Berry, Rolling Stones, Buddy Holly, etc. Then I started going to see local bands in Adelaide – Chris Finnen, Kevin Borich, Cold Chisel. Great bands. Chris Finnen is my mentor and one of my best friends. A wonderful blues guitarist.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?
I think I learned that it’s never going to be a big money earner unless you’re very lucky and that success really means to be self-supportive and not give up on the music you love just to make bucks. It’s honest, working class music that’s from the streets. That can apply to any music style, really. I’m not really a traditional blues guitarist in the fact that I’m from the streets of Adelaide and never picked cotton in Mississippi. My first exposure to the blues came about in about 1978 in Adelaide when, out of the blue, Niel told me we were going to see a blues band in the Adelaide Hills town of Aldgate. I thought he was nuts and that the blues was old-people’s music. Was I wrong!  At that stage we were playing 50’s rock n roll stuff and I never realised that all was revved-up blues. Anyway, this band blew me away. They were loud n sweaty, it was a hot night, we were in a hippy kind of pub and there were people cross-legged on the floor, smokin’ heaps of whacky tobaccy. It was rammed full of people having a wild time. That night changed me forever. They were a real tough Chicago blues kinda band. I then discovered Chris Finnen. This was a night that he opened up for another Adelaide band, Mickey Finn, who used to be called Fraternity when they had Bon Scott singing and playing recorder with them. Bon joined AC/DC and they changed their name to Mickey Finn. They had a crazy harmonica player, Uncle, who would hang upside down from the rafters and blow amazing blues harp. The two guitar players each had 2 x 100w Marshall amps. The good old days. I always remember the gear!

How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage? What compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?
I love it when they get what I’m trying to say and to be appreciated for trying to do something a little different. I have a duo these days and I use an octave pedal to fill in the bottom end and a looper. It’s a lot more expressive to me to go out in this format, without a bassist. It’s almost stopped me from getting the various comparisons that EVERYBODY gets as I want to be recognized for having my own voice and not by playing “just like so-and-so”. The best compliment I can get is if someone says they haven’t heard what I’m doing before.

"The blues will survive the test of time. We may have to disguise it a bit to keep it fresh, but that’s how music evolves. There are enough people to keep it going. Support the bands by going to see them."

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?
The preperation for my life as a child. I was born in Wales and we immigrated to Australia in 1965. We landed at Adelaide airport and, along with all of the other Brits, stayed for 3 weeks in a hostel. We’re talking about 200 people in ONE big tin shed with all of their belongings in it. No air-conditioning walls or doors. 45-50 degrees Celsius, 24/7. I went to school and all the kids picked on the migrants pretty bad. During my childhood we moved house 28 times in 7 years, I had 21 schools by the time I was 15. We drove across the Nullabor Plain from Adelaide to Perth, moving house several times, before it was bituminised. I kid you not; it took a week to drive it. There were 6ft deep potholes that you had to drive around. 20mph was top speed then and it was 1,704 miles. They were corrugated dirt roads. Dust everywhere. There were no hotels and you could drive all day seeing the straightest road from horizon to horizon. This was a tough land. My parents fought a lot. People go crazy in that heat and we were no exception. We had to take food and water and we camped on the side of the road in tents every night. That’s where I learned how to tie knots and start a fire without a match. One morning I woke up with my arm itching. I opened my eyes and there were about 20 march flies on it. These buggers have a two-inch wingspan and bite. There were only two TV stations in the country then, four if you went to a city and they all shut down at 10pm. My father was a tech guy for radio and television and he was also an electrical draughtsman. This paved the way for my life as a modern day blues guy. It’s in the blood. All though school I didn’t want mathematics. I was only interested in playing my guitar.

Where did you pick up your slide guitar style, do you know why the sound of the slide guitar is connected to the blues?
My original slide guitar heroes were, and still ARE, Rory Gallagher, Kevin Borich and Chris Finnen. Through them I discovered Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter etc. The slide kinda imitates the human voice. It has a vocal quality.

What were your favorite guitars & what were the first songs you learned?
I love my old National Steel guitar, Martin, Gibson AJ, ’63 Strat and Weissenborn. First song I learned was “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round The Mountain” in the Children’s Guitar Book when I was 12.

What characterize the sound of Gwyn Ashton, what is your “philosophy” about the blues?
There are so many variants in my sound. Blues, jazz, rock, folk. I don’t think I’ve achieved my own voice yet, though I’m constantly searching. Hip-Hop is the blues or folk music of the “now” generation. It’s all relevant. Those guys are telling stories of their lives and lifestyles just as the blues guys did in the 1930s. I like to think of music as a big melting pot. Chuck it all in and see if it sounds good. I don’t understand bands just regurgitating songs about Chicago and they’ve never been out of Essex or Sydney or wherever! I’m a white guy from a bunch of places, I’ve never picked cotton or been a slave but I’ve been through enough shit to know what MY blues is.  

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Best moments have been recording with some of the people I’ve admired all my life with whom I never would have believed I would have MET, let alone play with them in any capacity. Recording with Gerry McAvoy, Brendan O’Neill, Don Airey, Ted McKenna, Chris Glen, Robbie Blunt, Kim Wilson, Marc Ford, Mark Stanway and others. Touring with BB King, Ray Charles, Buddy Guy, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Status Quo and a whole bunch of others, too. Dobrofest in Slovakia to headlining the first two Rory Gallagher festivals in Ballyshannon. It’s ALL been good. The worst moments have been missing trains, planes and getting to places in ways that I wouldn’t want to do again.

How did you first meet Rory Gallagher, what kind of a guy was Rory? What's been their experience with Rory Gallagher?
My band opened for Rory in 1991, in Adelaide. It was the only time I met him, so I didn’t have a relationship at all. He seemed very tired and worn out. I felt sorry for him. He worked so hard that night.  

You have played with many musicians, which are mentioned to be a legend. It must be hard, but would you try to give top 3, which gigs have been the biggest experiences for you? And why?
Some of my best shows have been in small venues. There is a lot of pressure attached to being an opening act and when you’re used to being the headliner, it’s difficult. Touring with Band Of Friends, the Rory Gallagher memorial band, was a great experience. I got to play with his band and heard many stories.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
The blues is life. You can’t separate it from the rest of life. It’s real. It’s my life. I don’t like to analyze it too much.

What is the “think” you miss from the “OLD BLUES”?
I miss all the greats who have gone. Muddy, RL, Fred McDowell, all of them. Nobody can take their places. It’s all a bit nice now. The new guys aren’t as tough as the old guys. Then again, it’s a digital world now.  

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
That’s a hard one as my life constantly changes and every day is a new adventure. I travel to places all the time and I wouldn’t really say that one period is more interesting than another. I have memorable experiences that I treasure, meeting life-long friends etc.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Keep practicing and keep an open mind. Go and see as many musicians as you can. Check out all the greats on YouTube. They’re all there. You have to be hungry for it and be totally obsessive. It’s a part of your life, not just something you do when you have the time. If that’s not the case, get a real job!

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from THE ROAD WITH THE BLUES?
There are too many and more to come. So much travelling and meeting people. We’ve had van breakdowns, two day drives to gigs all over the world. I should write a book one day!

What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……
To be able to live off my music alone. For people to discover what I do and like it enough to buy it so I can go on making better music. Don’t download illegally.

Make an account for current realities of the case of the blues in Australia
I live in England but I believe there’s a healthy roots and blues scene in Australia now. There are some GREAT players there. There are a lot of festivals and support on many public radio stations.

Do you believes it has the possibility of someone musician to live only with the blues in Down Under?
The blues will survive the test of time. We may have to disguise it a bit to keep it fresh, but that’s how music evolves. There are enough people to keep it going. Support the bands by going to see them.

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between the European Blues scene & Aussie Blues scene?
I can only speak about the British blues scene as opposed to the Aussie one. Australia has tougher players that really kick ass. Modern English players seem a bit inhibited. Really, it’s American roots music born out of slavery. We are all merely imitating it. I like to think I give it a bit of an Aussie flavor.

Gwyn Ashton's website

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