Interview with Austin Lee Young, a new blues artist who feels, observe and respect the legacy of blues

"The blues is an art form where everybody is there and cares for one another. Through, the blues we all are healing through being able to express our varying emotions."

Austin Young: Looking For A Better New Blues World

Austin Lee Young, a Colorado native, picked up his first guitar at age 12 and hasn't put it down since. Self taught, he churns out the blues and displays his music with electrifying passion that defies his young age. He engages his audience and can match any seasoned performer that currently draws large crowds. His inspirations run the gauntlet of the Blues from historical giants such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters to contemporary masters like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

"I wish that the blues would bring a smile to a child in the hospital. I wish the love for blues would be the foundation for the start of a lifelong friendship."

Currently Austin and his band perform locally and nationally in established music clubs, numerous music festivals, private functions, and special events. He incorporates the sheer honesty of the blues and performs it with a modern, high energy sound that remains faithful to its traditional roots.

Austin talks about the legacy of Blues, Bob Margolin, Muddy, SRV, Derek Trucks, Ann Rabson, Ronnie Baker Brooks, "British Invasion", the past and future of Blues. Discussing with Austin Young, we can understand why the blues never dies.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues?

The first time I wanted to become involved in the blues was when I saw my dad’s band play at a local blues club in my hometown of Colorado Springs. Back then, I always wanted to be a drummer and learned how to play piano at the age of 8. My dad always wanted me to wait until my fingers were long enough to play the guitar…I guess being patient paid off in the end! Also the first time I watched a Stevie Ray Vaughan video I knew I wanted to do the things he was doing almost instantly. I know I will never get there, but Stevie was the first guitar player who’s endless and relentless passion caused me to drop my jaw in awe. His music speaks to me like none other! Really, the blues is a language that everyone speaks no matter what genre of music. Without blues….there is no music at all. Therefore, it is crucial to keep the blues alive by supporting live music and local artists. The blues is the only genre of music that would never leave me alone....if I listened to a song by Stevie Ray; I would have to then listen to Albert King. After listening to Albert, I have to listen to Muddy Waters. After listening to Muddy, I would have to go way back and listen to Robert Johnson. The blues is a timeless genre, and has captured my heart ever since the first note!

What do you learn about yourself from the blues?

Playing the blues has revealed to me many things about my own personality. Most importantly, I have learned how to interact with other players and other blues lovers. Before I started playing the blues, I was a painfully shy student in middle school that struggled to approach anybody without stuttering. Thankfully, playing the blues forced me to introduce myself to new faces and new players, and now I do not have any struggles getting to know new people. I believe the blues community is more like a blues family. Both fans and musicians give to each other. It is really a beautiful thing. The fans come out and spend their time and money to support the artists, and in return it is our responsibility to make the crowd feel like they are part of the show and the experience. Consequently, through this whole process we get to know each other on deeper levels, and build emotional connections with each other. Now if that is not one of music’s most powerful gifts, then I have no idea what is.

What does the blues mean to you?

To me, the blues is not just a music genre. It’s not just a screaming loud guitar. It’s not just about the string bending or the harp blowing. To me, the blues is solely about being able to share emotions with others in a bar, club, venue, or theatre. They are not always emotions of happiness or joy, nor are they always emotions of despair and loneliness. The blues is an art form where everybody is there and cares for one another. Through, the blues we all are healing through being able to express our varying emotions. There is an indescribable you get when you listen to the blues. You will feel a little tingle in your skin. Sometimes your face will tense up with the sharp slide vibrato of Muddy Waters. Other times will you will be soothed by the sweet and smooth bends of B.B. King, or the serenading voice of Ray Charles. The blues helped me discover who I am and why I was put on this Earth. I love it with all my heart and soul, and I always matter if I am playing guitar or just listening to one!

How do you get inspiration for your songs?

Inspiration for writing my songs comes from many different places. Some are based off of true stories and experiences in the past. For example, on our last record, the tune “Magdalena” was written about an old, abandoned ghost town that my family and I discovered on a summer vacation to New Mexico. I was amazed by the lonely beauty of the town. My good friend and fellow musician Big Jim Adam helped me with the writing of that special number. Other songs are simply based off of other tunes from other artists. For example, the title track of the album, “Blue as Can Be”, is a tribute song to Muddy Waters and is based on Muddy songs such as “Mannish Boy”, Hoochie Coochie Man”, and “Catfish Blues”. I really don’t consider myself a good writer. In fact, I really struggle with songwriting. However, I have gotten lucky as a few songs have pretty much wrote themselves with the aid of my pen.

"I believe the blues community is more like a blues family. Both fans and musicians give to each other. It is really a beautiful thing."

How do you describe Austin Young sound and progress and what characterize your music philosophy?

My music philosophy is that you can never stop learning as a musician. Especially as guitar players, we borrow licks and phrases from other innovators, and incorporate them with our own personal phrases in hope to find our own personal style. As a beginner, I always tried to look at Stevie Ray Vaughan’s fingers and try to place mine at the same places on the neck. To this day, I am focused on learning new techniques that other artists inside and outside of the blues are using to find my own style. Through years of intense listening, I have been able to incorporate different styles into my playing. However, the beauty of music is that we all are students of the music, and we will all continue to improve. Right now, I am looking  to incorporate styles other than blues into my blues music. This has been done by many artists before. For example, Derek Trucks incorporates many Middle Eastern phrases in his blues work. Another thing to constantly work on is finding the right tone. One times out of one-hundred, a guitar player will find the exact tone that he or she wants. Therefore, it is essential for any musician to learn what tone they want on a certain song. Finding a good tone without being too loud has always been a struggle for me. Thankfully, I have had many musicians and gear masters give me advice that has helped me find different tones to experiment with. However, being a perfectionist I can admit that I’m still in search of that perfect tone that few guitar players have mastered.

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

Throughout my experience with the blues, I have been blessed with so many great mentors, including my friend Jim Adam, Buddy Whittington, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Chris Duarte, Dave Maxwell, as well as Bob Margolin. All have taught me valuable lessons about the blues, and about being a respectable and good person. My friend Jim Adam has shown that playing music is a great way to give to others. Ronnie Baker Brooks has taught me to be generous and humble to other musicians. When I was starting out, Ronnie invited me on his stage during his set and selflessly handed me his guitar. Most importantly, Bob Margolin has taught me to give my heart to the audience through my playing and my individual conversations with all audience members. Mr. Margolin always talked to each and every one of his fans after each of his shows. His countless stories about his journeys as Muddy Water’s guitar player have shown me that the blues is truly about family….and about healing and loving one another through music. Also, Bob has pushed me to extract every ounce of meaning from each and every one of my notes that I play. His endless passion is extremely inspiring. After watching Bob play, you can still see the smoke emitted from his guitar strings. His playing has pushed me to play every note like I would never get a chance to play one again. However, most importantly, Bob has always taught me how to be a humble musician and has shown how to treat other musicians with love and respect on and off the bandstand.

"The best jam I have ever participated in was at the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, MS, when I got to play “Mannish Boy” with Bob Margolin. We kept trying to outdo each other and he eventually won!"

What is the best ever given you?

 I have been given so much throughout my life. The most valuable thing that I have received is guidance by so many great people. Mentors such as Big Jim Adam and Bob Margolin have always taken hours out of their day to talk with me on long phone calls in order to help me make the right decisions. My parents have always been behind me in my music endeavors. In fact, to this day, I always check with my family before I make any big decision in my life. Thanks to the many helpful figures in my life, I have been able to avoid many pitfalls and obstacles that are prevalent in life. I have so much to be thankful for. Overall, I am just very blessed to have parents that come to every gig (my mom sells cd’s and advertises the band, while my dad plays the drums). So many people have helped keep me in line and steered me straight…which is not the easiest thing in the world to do smile.  

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

Some of the best and worst memories onstage have come at the same time. For example, I was thrilled when Ronnie Baker Brooks called me up to play with his band at a venue in Woodland Park, Colorado. He handed me his guitar and let me start soloing. Talk about a tough act to follow!!! In the middle of the solo, I broke one of Ronnie’s strings on his beloved guitar! You can’t imagine how embarrassed and bad I felt. Thankfully, Ronnie laughed and I kept on soloing. Another key moment would be October, 2012 at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas. I was scheduled to play on the youth stage in the afternoon. However, earlier in the morning I was watching my good friend Bob Margolin alongside the late, great Ann Rabson lead a fiery band, when Mr. Margolin called me up on stage and handed me his guitar. My fingers were ice cold in the 15° weather. I forced my icy fingers to move as fast as they could and I was very humbled by the applause that I received at the end of my solo. I will never forget that memory. However, the show with my band in the afternoon was unfortunately rained out. Ironically, the most memorable memory of music I have is not on the stage. For me, the greatest experience that I have had in my career was being able to go to a hospital and set up an electronic drum kit for children that were fighting cancer and other life-threatening diseases as a representative for Blue Star Connection, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing donated music instruments to children fighting life-threatening illnesses. It was at that point that I realized the absolute power of music and the positive effect it has on all.

"Compared to the blues of today, I miss the honesty of the blues from the past. When you listen to Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Charlie Patton, and many others you can’t doubt that those men have seen some hard times."

What's been their experience from the road with Blues? Which memory makes you smile?

Playing the blues has taken me to some very hallow ground. I have had the esteemed privilege of traveling to Memphis, Tennessee as well as Helena, Arkansas, as well as Arlington, Texas and Clarksdale, Mississippi. In Memphis, I have played in the International Blues Challenge and have been a part of some amazing blues jams on the famous Beale Street. In Helena, Arkansas, I had the extreme pleasure of playing at the King Biscuit Blues Festival with Ann Rabson, Bob Stroger, and Bob Margolin. In Arlington, Texas I was asked to play for the Stevie Ray Vaughan Remembrance Ride and Concert! I was so honored to be able to play blues for my hero! In doing so, I have made many lifelong friends and musicians that live in Texas. In Clarksdale, Mississippi I have been a part of the Pinetop Perkins Foundations Guitar Workshop led by Bob Margolin for 2 years now. This is held at Hopson Plantation, the old stompin’ grounds of the legendary Pinetop Perkins. There is something magical about the air down there....if you listen closely enough, you can hear the sounds of the old blues ghosts!! I have learned so much about the blues and about life through the teachings of Mr. Margolin. Also, I have made so many friends that I am very close to now! I am going back for my third year this summer and can barely contain my excitement!!! Overall, the memory that makes me smile THE MOST, is playing Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” with Bob Margolin at the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi as a part of a guitar workshop performance. We were both trying to outdo one another with as we both shouted “I’M A MAN!!!” I think Bob won that one smile.

Are there any memories from recording time which you’d like to share with us?

Although the whole summer recording experience was special, there is one session that is incredibly significant and will always stick with. This was after the Waldo Canyon Fire had come down the mountain and devastated a large part of our hometown. My family and I had been evacuated and we did not know if our house was still intact or not. All that waiting and worrying had gotten the best of us and we needed something to do. We worked it out with the studio and planned a time to come up and record a few vocal tracks. Those sessions were very emotional for myself and my family because they served as a distraction from our present troubles and worries. Also, those vocal tracks ended up turning out really well. It was then that I knew in my head that no matter what everything was going to be ok. I had a feeling that our house was fine, and my prediction was true. Unfortunately, so many others were not so lucky and lost their homes and many of their possessions. To this day, my heart goes out to those families who are in the middle of rebuilding their homes.

"The blues is a music genre that should be characterized by humility. So therefore, it is my prayer that no matter our role in the blues community, that we would treat each other with respect and love as we listen to and play the music that we all love."

What are you miss most nowadays from the Blues of past?

Compared to the blues of today, I miss the honesty of the blues from the past. When you listen to Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Charlie Patton, and many others you can’t doubt that those men have seen some hard times. Most of their songs are directly related to their personal hardships. Also, the heart-wrenching sound of the slide on an old, beaten acoustic guitar helps convey the hardships that these men had to endure. The old bluesmen were such great storytellers and had a very unique way of sharing their blues with others. As a guitar player, I have so much respect for those blues master that carried a melody while playing a slide lead and adding percussion sounds on their guitar all at the same time….and they never lost the emotion of the song. To me, there is just something honest about a man singing his blues on a single guitar, without a full band. This is sort of what I was trying to capture with the track, “Magdalena” on our new album.

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

Like I previously mentioned, the best jam I have ever participated in was at the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, MS, when I got to play “Mannish Boy” with Bob Margolin. We kept trying to outdo each other and he eventually won! It was just such a thrill trading verses on a Muddy Waters song with the man that played alongside Muddy for 7 years. The immense passion and raw energy on that stage was incredible….and everybody was smiling and enjoying themselves!! Another fond memory would be after the Blue Star Blues Fest in Littleton, Colorado. Tab Benoit headlined the festival. After his set I headed over to a local venue where they were having the after-party jam. Tab and his bass player Corey Harris came in as well as the band Trampled Under Foot. Later into the night, I found myself playing in a jam that included Tab Benoit on DRUMS, Danielle Schnebelen on bass, Nick Schnebelen on guitar, Corey Harris on vocals, and myself on another guitar. The song literally lasted for 30 minutes and I was so humbled to play alongside such a great cast of musicians. One of the most memorable gigs I remember is a set at the Arvada Blues and BBQ Fest…I had the pleasure of meeting a young lady named Delany Prather in the audience. Delany was struggling with some very complex and challenging medical issues and was in a wheelchair. In the middle of the set, she caught my eye, and during a solo I jumped off the stage and kneeled down right next to her…to this day I will never forget the smile that was on her face. That’s when I realized that this whole music thing is not about me....rather, it should be used as a tool to heal the hurt and bring smiles to all, because it really is a universal language that has the extraordinary power to move people in such a positive way. Another fantastic show was opening up the Greeley Blues Jam. The night before, I had the pleasure of meeting Jimmie Vaughan, who was headlining the festival. There were so many supporters in the audience, and I was able to turn my amps up LOUD!!! I remember in the middle of the set getting the irresistible urge to smile amid the overwhelming support I was receiving from so many blues lovers.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

While you can always like other genres of music, you can always love the blues. As a kid, I bounced around from listening to different genres of music. One day I was bouncing to hip hop. The next, I was swinging to country. And other days, I would dive into the overwhelming rhythms of heavy metal music. However, the first time I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan play the blues, I was hooked. There is something unique about the honest passion that the blues demands. It demands fans that are loyal to the music and the fans that understand the deep rhythms that are instilled in the listeners’ hearts. As a player, the blues is in my mind the hardest style of music to play because it depends on the player’s emotional connection to the music. Unlike any other form of music, you can’t just simply play the notes….when you have to feel what you are playing and the audience can always tell when you are simply “playing” the music and not “feeling” it. As I mentioned earlier, there is something remarkable in the genuine honesty of a blues guitar combined with a vocalist who contemplates and reminisces over his or her troubles. The blues is not always sad or melancholy either. You can sing a blues song about a love struck relationship or a number of other jovial subjects. Overall, the blues is more than a music genre, it is a lifestyle. All blues lovers can think up a I-IV-V blues progression on the spot. As blues lovers, we are all connected through the wailing of a blues harmonica and the biting tones of a slide guitar. Thankfully, the blues is a timeless tradition. Like any other world pastimes, the blues has had so many innovators passing the torch to other players. Thankfully, this tradition is alive and growing stronger every day.

Why did you think that the Blues continued to generate such a devoted following in new generation?

The blues continues to take new shapes and sizes each and every day. Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, The Who and many other mainstream bands in the 1960’s and 1970’s brought blues to the forefront of music. All of these bands and musicians are blues based. It is not uncommon to have heard a slow blues done beautifully by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. However, I believe that Stevie Ray Vaughan’s influence on the blues brought the music back to the “mainstream” and attracted many young listeners to learn who in the world Howling Wolf, Albert King, and other blues legends were. Stevie incorporated elements of rock and blues into his fiery licks. This technique is carried on by many blues players including Warren Haynes, Joe Bonamassa, Derek Trucks, Gary Clark Jr., and many more. Gary Moore was especially instrumental in bringing rock licks into blues songs without damaging the integrity of the song. The blues will continue to evolve with the passing of the torch of the blues. I have hope for the blues when I hear about Joe Bonammasa selling out theatres in London and Germany. Like I said, the blues will never die. However, it is impossible to deny the inevitability of blues evolving over time and adapting to younger generations.

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage? Happiness is……

When I am onstage, I make it my goal to involve the audience in the show. After all, they took time out of their night and spent their hard-earned money to see me perform. I am there to make them feel involved in a manner that does not put pressure on them but makes them feel involved and engaged in the music. Therefore, I enjoy putting the guitar on them and playing it in a way that makes it seem like they were playing. I love standing on chairs next to tables...and occasionally I will grab someone’s cell phone to play slide guitar with smile. To me, happiness onstage is hearing the thundering and sometimes overwhelming applause from the audience at the end of a long jam. Happiness is seeing audience members getting on the dance floor and shakin’ it! Happiness is getting a request from a 5 year old blues fan for a guitar pick and an autograph after a set. I truly believe that I have been blessed with the best supporters in blues music. Also, I have developed so many close relationships with audience members who just happened to stumble into a club we were playing and asked for an album….and the next thing you know you see them at the next show!!! I have been able to see firsthand the strong relationships developed through my music…and if nothing else….I believe I have fulfilled my purpose in bringing smiles to the faces of a few close individuals.

From the music point of view what are the differences and similarities between the UK & US blues scene?

From what I have heard the blues scene in the United Kingdom is very popular. Blues is very popular among musicians and audiences in large scenes such as London, where so many blues giants have stepped onstage at the famous Royal Albert Hall! Some of these artists include Eric Clapton, Joe Bonamassa, B.B. King, and many more. Furthermore, there have been so many great bands that made the blues more popular among younger generations such as Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and many more. All of these “super groups” worshipped Willie Dixon and incorporated many elements of delta blues into their rock music. As a result, many music fans in the UK became curious as to who the older blues masters were. To me, the UK blues scene is largely founded upon blues-rock elements. Marshall Amplifiers and Les Paul guitars were the standard for guitarists in the UK. Jimmy Page, John Mayall, George Harrison. It was in the UK that Jimi Hendrix got his start in fact! Over time, many blues artists in the US have incorporated blues-rock elements that were popular in the UK. I believe that in both the US and the UK, acoustic blues is very popular among a large group of people. Muddy Waters came to London and did an acoustic show. Many audience members did not understand it. However, Muddy came back later and played an acoustic show and was praised for his masterful delta slide techniques and his powerful voice. Sometimes, it seems as if the typical UK audience is too formal for old, down-home blues. But looks can be deceiving. So many people from London have supported the blues and have been influenced to play their own style of blues. Keith Richards and Mick Jager, for example, formed a band based on their love of Muddy Waters….this band was appropriately named after Muddy’s song “Rolling Stone”. To me, the blues scenes in the UK and the US are growing rapidly. So many US artists are sent each year to do tours in the UK. When they come back I always hear stories of how so many audience members appreciated the blues! I believe that the music styles in the US and the UK are interlinked and have many things in common. It is encouraging to know that the blues is a style that does not have to stick to certain rules and is open to interpretation. Therefore, the blues will never die, it will just continue to grow and change and develop over time.

"The incredible thing about the blues as artists is that we all love the same thing, and we speak the same language."

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Robert Johnson and Muddy to Hendrix, SRV with your generation?

The blues is connected along a chain of artists with different styles and takes on the music; however the blues is based on interpretation, emotion, and technicality. Therefore, we are all playing the same phrases and “licks”…only in different ways. With that said, all blues artists influence each other. Robert Johnson influenced Muddy Waters…Muddy Waters influenced Johnny Winter…Johnny Winter influenced Stevie Ray Vaughan…Stevie Ray influenced Buddy Guy…Buddy Guy influenced Johnny Lang...and then you have guitar virtuoso’s such as Eric Johnson who influenced Joe Bonamassa, and the list goes on and on…and on!! The incredible thing about the blues as artists is that we all love the same thing, and we speak the same language. Therefore, we all teach and challenge each other indirectly from our own playing. And just like anything else, we all improve by playing with better players than ourselves. Many artists have also been able to make a lasting impression by their showmanship and their engagement with the audience. This was popular back in the early days of blues, and is still popular today. For example, T-Bone Walker was the first guitarist to play guitar behind his head. This influenced Jimi Hendrix to play with his teeth, which later inspired Stevie Ray Vaughan to play behind his back. The legacies of the blues artists are all connected with each other based on a common a deep love and devotion to the blues. As artists, we are moved by each other’s styles, and we develop our own style by incorporating different elements of others’ styles. Blues fans do the same thing by turning each other on to different artists. For example, a listener who enjoys listening to Albert King will also love listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan! Therefore, it is my belief that the blues is all interconnected by our deep admonition and respect for different artists and different styles. Overall, this is how the blues evolves over time.

Give one wish for the BLUES

I have so many wishes for the blues…after all it is the music I love so very much. I wish for people to recognize the healing power of the blues no matter what age. I wish that blues music would inspire other young children to pick up a guitar, a bass, drumsticks, or a harmonica after listening to Howling Wolf. I wish that the blues musicians will honor great musicians who have recently left us such as Ann Rabson, Michael Burks, John Alex-Mason, Etta James, Honeyboy Edwards, Gary Moore, and so many more. I think my main wish would be for the blues to inspire people to make positive decisions that have a positive impact on others. I wish that the blues would encourage a teenager to stay away from drugs. I wish that the blues would bring a smile to a child in the hospital. I wish the love for blues would be the foundation for the start of a lifelong friendship. I wish for people to dance and enjoy themselves whenever they listen to an old Muddy Waters shuffle. I wish that listening to the blues would encourage young children to get good grades in school. I wish the blues would continue to evolve and develop into a totally unique and popular sound. I wish that we would all use the blues to heal each other. I wish that playing the blues would be a good excuse to get together and forget about all our troubles for a short period of time. Most of all, I wish to play the blues to give my whole heart to others and to acknowledge the power of my Creator. I wish that the blues community would continue to grow and expand and care about one another. As fans, let us be thankful for the musicians onstage sweating uncontrollably in 110° heat so we could enjoy the music. And as musicians, let us be grateful for those who spend their time and their money listening to us. The blues is a music genre that should be characterized by humility. So therefore, it is my prayer that no matter our role in the blues community, that we would treat each other with respect and love as we listen to and play the music that we all love.

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