Hotshot guitarist Noah Wotherspoon from Ohio talks about Sumlin, "Blue" Bland, slide, and E.A. Poe

"The blues is so elemental.. it's like earth, water, air, fire and it never seems to die."

Noah Wotherspoon: A Blue Star Born

Noah Wotherspoon hails from Dayton, Ohio. At the age of eleven, his brother bought him a guitar. Noah immediately took to the instrument and quickly became noticed as a remarkable blues guitarist. At thirteen, he opened up for Derek Trucks. By sixteen, he had jammed onstage with Bobby Blue Bland, and opened for Leon Russell, Latimore, and Boz Scaggs.

Since then, he has played around the country, making multiple appearances at the Chicago Blues Festival, The Blues Masters at the Crossroads Festival in Salina, KS. and has released several albums including Buzz Me (APO Records), which featured Hubert Sumlin and garnered a top ten spot on Living Blues Magazine's radio chart. Throughout his 20's, Wotherspoon has developed into a prolific songwriter, interweaving diverse influences into a unique and truly original style rooted in the ongoing tradition of the blues while exploring new artistic territories (visit noahandtherescueradio.com). He has shared the stage and studio with the likes of Delmar Brown, Will Lee, Hiram Bullock, Jon Mover, Michael Hill, Cedric Burnside, and John Hammond. XM/SIRIUS satelite radio has recently been spinning Noah on "B.B. King's Bluesville".  His inspired live performances continue to move & resonate with audiences wherever he plays. Noah's new album ready to out at the end of April.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues and who were your first idols?

When I was around the age of 10 my older brother Adam's best friend Greg Balog was a huge Stevie Ray Vaughan fan. He would bring over VHS tapes of Stevie & Jimi Hendrix. I really wanted a guitar and my brother bought me a one for my 11th birthday. I had a guitar teacher named Michael Harris that helped me learn the basics as well as some rock & roll tunes. He then helped me through SRV's "Couldn't Stand the Weather" and that style seemed to come a little more natural than some of the other things I was trying to learn.

A year or two later I met a Dayton, Ohio. guitar player named Tim Arnold. He was really the one that opened my eyes to the blues. He'd say "this is who Stevie listened to" & would send me home with Cd's of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and introduced me to all the greats and a lot of the folklore behind it all. The riffs and basics of the music were really only half of what he was trying to get across to me. The other half was more of the spiritual side of the music. He'd tell to play from the heart & to take my time when I playing in order to say something.

My first idols were a combination the classic artists… and then the local players like Tim, Shake n' Dave Hussong & others. Dayton, OH. has always had a lot of talented & soulful musicians around.

What does the Blues mean to you and what has it offered you?

The blues have given so much to me in life. I think of Willie Dixon at the beginning of the song "Goin' Down Slow" when he says, "I've enjoyed things kings and queens will never have". The sound of the blues has been a part of my life for so long now... the feeling I get from hearing or playing blues is emotionally heavier as I get older.

I'm lucky enough that it's what I do for a living. It's offered so many experiences as far as giving me a chance to go to interesting places & to meet so many incredible characters... you could write a book about these people.

I've always seen even the simple local blues jams as such a beautiful excuse for people & musicians to get together; the blues communities & Dayton & Cincinnati, Ohio are like big families.

Blues is a huge part of my life. But I also listen and explore other styles. I'm a big Beatles fan, and I love Dylan, Neil Young & all the great songwriters & bands on down the line. I have a 60's/70's influenced rock/pop & beyond band called Noah + the Rescue Radio

What do you learn about yourself from the blues?

That's a really interesting question. It may be a tough one to put into words!

Playing a slow blues is the fastest way that I can express myself deeply without a lot of thought. It's a place to go that feels deeper & more honest than using words. Ronnie Earl has an album called "The Language of the Soul"; it's that language that can be used in any place in the world & people can understand. It absolutely has the power to bring people together, give great joy and heal.

I know I can't go too long without playing the blues... it's like a vital escape valve for all the stuff that goes on in life.

What characterizes the sound of Noah Wotherspoon?

I think I'm still looking, searching, & forming my own sound...

I'm hoping the music I've been putting together most recently gives off some of the feel of the music, people & places that inspire me. I've been inspired by a lot by the different places where I've lived or spent time. My guitar playing is kind of hodge-podge of the tapes, cds & records I grew up on and the guitar players that I could go see play in my home town. Robert Ward is one; he played a lot in Dayton but I never had the chance to see him.

I also lived in Providence and Newport, Rhode Island for a few years. It's the oldest part of the country and that old world feeling is in the aether (granted not as old world as Athens)! When I play I close my eyes and have visions of those cobblestone streets or the ships on the bay. Chicago & down south are in my mind as well. So, I'm not sure if I have a sound or not yet... but maybe all these influences & old visions are beginning to form something.

What experiences in your life make you a good songwriter?

I'm not sure if I'm a good songwriter or not... but I think being honest with your emotions is at the heart of it. I think people can read through you if it's not honest emotion.

How do you get inspiration for songwriting/who were your mentors?

I grew up around a lot of old musty books; my mom always had shelves full of Washington Irving, Shakespeare, and Edgar Allen Poe. As I got more into music I was inspired by the writers that were really prolific... the artists that seemed possessed by the muse. The Beatles Anthology TV series sparked me. A local song-writer named Greg Drumm who had a satchel full of hand-written lyrics came around & always encouraged the importance of writing and to approach it like a craft. Around that same time someone introduced me to Jack Kerouac.. which changed the way I looked at the world. Little things about people & places I may have over-looked before, all of a sudden turned into things of cosmic importance that I should write down.

I've always been recording; when I was 5 & 6 I would make up stories & record them onto cassette tapes. For years, I've been writing in notebooks and recording musical ideas onto micro-cassettes and then piecing together songs from the fragments. I started an ongoing tradition of writing 20 or so songs every few months and compiling home-made albums. I think I'm on #18... hopefully it all goes to good use somehow!

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

It'd be tough to pick out one best moment... but I always go back to when I was 16 & my band was called to fill in for a band at the Chicago Blues Festival. We played at the Best Buy stage and the streets filled up with thousands of people; it felt like a transcendental experience. In 2012, my band made it to the finals at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, TN. The crowd in the Orpheum Theatre gave us a standing ovation & I about passed out... those two stand out in my mind.

As far as the worst, there have been a few periods where I was having trouble finding the meaning behind what I was doing & performing felt a bit spiritless; it felt like I was just "playing a bunch of notes".

I imagine that state of being comes along to a lot of musicians & artists. Thankfully, I have some good friends that remind me what it's all about and the right books/records at the right time have offered the rejuvenating juice & light to keep on keeping on... that's all I'd ever wish do to for someone with my music.

                                                                                                                      Photo by Jessi Bair

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Bobby Blue Bland, Leon Russell, Latimore, and Boz Scaggs?

I unfortunately didn't get a lot of time to hang out with Leon Russell or Boz Skaggs though it'd be great to someday. Latimore was a very kind man.

My experience with Bobby is very vivid!

I was about 16 and my mom took me to Dayton's premiere Blues & Jazz venue called Gilly's. We walked in & a few nice older ladies offered me a seat up front close to the stage. Bobby's band did their traditional big introduction and Bobby walked out. I should mention that I had long blond hair and still some baby fat at the time. The first thing he did was walk up to the edge of the stage & began to serenade me with something along the lines of "You're My Red Hot Little Mama" (mistaking me for a girl). The place was in an uproar of laughter and excitement (whether they all knew exactly what was happening I'm not sure). One of the older ladies beside me then alerted Bobby he was mistaken & shouted, "he's a boy"! Bobby said, "now wait a minute" & cued the drummer to stop the song. I remember the sound the abrupt silence that followed the snare crack. Bobby leans over & asked. "now what"? She said, "he's a boy & he can play guitar"! Bobby then called me up to the stage & instructed his guitarist to hand over his axe. We played Stormy Monday & he asked me to play like various guitar heroes.. "play like T-Bone.. alright.. play like B.B...Stevie.. He asked me one question on the mic & I remember replying "I'm scared to death" which got a laugh. After the show I hung out with him and he was a really nice man as was his son (and drummer) Rod Bland.

What's been their experience from Hubert Sumlin? Are there any memories, which you’d like to share with us?

Hubert was one of a kind. He had such an amazing effect on so many people. He'd talk to you like he had known you for a million years. I remember the first time we sat down to play together in Salina, Kansas. I naively offered him a guitar pick… and he just pointed to his right hand to tell me he didn't use one. Wolf told him to lose the pick way back in they day & that's how he gets his distinctive sound. I was lucky enough to record an albums worth of tunes with him that are still in the vault. We did 3 shows together too. When he came to play Dayton, we had him over to our house and a thunderstorm had knocked our power out. In candlelight, he told stories about the Wolf, Magic Sam, Stevie, & Jimi.. I remember his hands throwing shadows on the wall while he was sharing all these visions of the past. He was always very encouraging. The last time I saw him he took me aside & told me that I better be out there doing my thing.

Are there any memories from John Hammond, Michael Hill, and Cedric Burnside which you’d like to share with us?

I opened for John Hammond at Dayton's Canal St. Tavern. He is like Jekyll & Hyde. Off-stage he is this kind, humble man... and then on-stage he's a man possessed. I'll never forget his version of Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen".

I did some session work in New York City with Michael Hill on a mutual friends record (Philip Masorti). Michael is an exceptional human being. He radiates so much warmth, peace & love.

Cedric Burnside was very cool; we played together behind Earnest 'Guitar" Roy at the Mother's Best Festival down in Helena, Arkansas.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?

This isn't really a jam.. but it came to mind..

Henry Townsend was wonderful. He's a legendary bluesman who recorded in every decade since the 1920's. He knew Robert Johnson & used to play juke joints opposite him. He was on another level.. he'd always have these really philosophical answers to things. He actually fixed me a chicken dinner for my 18th birthday at his home in east. St. Louis. (he was I think 93 at the time.. with a 12 year old son). He also sat down & showed me how he played Cairo Blues. It's a really complicated figure-style technique that he said I wasn't ready for.. & I can tell you I'm still not ready for it!

One time I jammed with Hubert Sumlin and Little Hatch… that's a great memory as well.

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

That probably still goes back to the kind of things Tim taught me… to play from the heart & soul and to take my time.

Do you know why the sound of slide guitar is connected to blues? What are the secrets of slide?

The slide goes back to Africa.. and then the Diddley bow (single wire string instrument) that was used in the South (a lot of the great blues guitar players started that way). The slide can be so expressive & sound a lot like the human voice.

Early on, Tim Arnold showed me this little pattern on the guitar neck that I now realize is the same pattern that Muddy Waters used. But you can pretty much play any lick you'd play with your fingers with the slide. One of the main things is to make sure when your playing a note with the slide it should be right over the fret. It's also helps to play on a guitar with a little bit higher action. Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Robert Nighthawk, Ry Cooder, and George Harrison are some of my favorite slide players.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

I'd love to meet B.B. King. If I could go back in time I would love to meet Hound Dog Taylor.. that guy seemed like he knew how to have fun. Robert Johsnon, John Lee Hooker, Stevie, Jimi...well all of those guys..

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

Tim Arnold

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 so elemental.. it's like earth, water, air, fire and it never seems to die. John Lee Hooker sounds like the earth; whatever he plays sounds like it grew out of the ground. When played honestly, its a direct line to the soul... so that's got to be here to stay.

Some music probably fades away because the intention behind making it was vain or shallow. It's like a house built on a weak foundation that gets knocked over by the first storm that comes along...

My wish is that the "feeling" of the blues keeps getting handed down and those roots never get severed. It's important that that there are people out there that want to carry on and preserve the traditional approaches to the music but also people that continue to push the music forward. Muddy Waters bought an electric guitar... that must mean something! He obviously wasn't stuck on just recreating the past. I love how Hendrix weaved the feeling of the blues into new realms.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

I can see it two different ways…

On one hand, there's some things that just can't happen again... like the blues scene in Chicago in the 60s with Wolf, Otis Rush, Magic Sam...on down the line. These guys gave their life to the music and as Hubert would say "died in the stuff". But I also genuinely think they wanted the music carried on by the next generation. So many of the blues guys encouraged that. Maybe only time will tell where the real blues is as far as the younger generation. Maybe blues exists where ever someone is playing from their heart & freeing themselves of pain.

My idea of blues tends to get broader than where a lot of people draw the line. I hear deep blues in Hank Williams Sr., in John Lennon and in different types of world music… Albert King said, "everybody understands the blues".

Do you believe that Robert Johnson would ever like to receive a music award?

Robert's a mysterious character. He seems to have been a pretty ambitious guy and obviously wanted to share his gifts... but it's hard to say what he would've thought of an award.

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

I'm not sure; I just hope I'm not misusing it! I get consolation on that subject thinking back to how encouraging the older bluesmen were.

What is your music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is…

I love playing blues festivals and I hope to play more abroad. I love traveling; it'd be great to play Greece! I just hope to keep playing and hope to grow as a musician and song-writer. I want to continue recording & also want to explore other styles & art. But no matter what, I never want to lose touch & the feeling of the blues.. to remember to remember. I'm eternally grateful to have shaken the hands of Henry Townsend, Jimmie Lee Robinson, & Hubert Sumlin. Those experiences mean so much to me and I feel a responsibility because of those blessings to keep on doing what I'm doing.

Noah Wotherspoon - Official website

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