Q&A with storyteller Jesse Cotton Stone, a heart-wrenching boutique of vintage-toned American blues music

"It is a gift of Medicine for all who will hear it. It has transcended so many barriers of difference and brought so people together. There is a philosophy found in the heart of True Juke Joint Culture: "No Black. No White. Just Blues.""

Jesse Cotton Stone: Hell Country Blues

Jesse Cotton Stone weaves together the stylistic threads of definitive regional styles of the Blues ranging from Pre-War Acoustic Delta Blues, Electric Juke Joint Boogie, North Mississippi Hill Country, and Cotton Patch Soul Blues to the Urban Chicago Blues Roots of Soul-Funk and Psychedelic Rock, bringing his listeners through the doors of a Heart-Wrenching Boutique of Vintage-Toned American Blues Music with relentless showmanship  of a True Entertainer. Jesse Cotton Stone creates a comprehensive scope of the Original American Music, not only by playing his role in keeping the traditions of Blues music alive, but also by contributing to the evolution of this Storytelling Tradition with his own Original Flavor of what he calls "HELLCOUNTRY" and "Electric-Cotton Soul" Blues. In formative years he had the honor of  learning from and sharing greenrooms, jam sessions and  concert stages with the likes of  B.B. King, Lonnie Brooks, Magic Slim, Honeyboy Edwards, Russell Jackson, Kim Simmons, Jerry Ricks, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, John Cephas, Phil Wiggins, Link Wray, John Jackson, Koko Taylor, Derek Trucks, and the Junior Wells Blues Band, to name a few.

Jesse Cotton Stone / Photo by John King

After formal Theory, Harmony, and Ear training in College, Jesse traveled the world for about a decade, studying different musical traditions including the Classical Music of Northern India under one of the greatest musicians of all time, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. In 2013, Jesse started his own multi-faceted record label and production company, Gypsy Magik Productions, in his hometown of Manitou Springs, CO., where he currently resides and actively continues writing, developing and producing a catalogue of new original music. Since that experience, Jesse has made the Southern U.S. a second home and has toured from Colorado to the Bayous of Southern Louisiana several times. Along the way he has jammed with, learned from, and shared stages with the likes of Cedric Burnside, Tab Benoit, R.L. Boyce, Deak Harp, Mark "Mule Man" Massey, Watermelon Slim, Robert Kimbrough Sr., Lightning Malcolm, Cameron Kimbrough, David Kimbrough, Trenton Ayers, Bill "Howlin' Madd" Perry, and Mickey Rogers.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn from blues people and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

The people of the Blues culture have taught me to be myself and express who I am and what I'm going through in my life. To have confidence to express and own what's inside me - good or bad. Which, in turn, gives a voice to those who have the same things going on inside of them. See, the Blues is a medicine of catharsis for the soul to be cleansed through the expression of The Human Condition. Anyone is welcome to connect with it and find Solace amidst the Universal suffering we all experience in our lives. Through my travels throughout the world the only home I've ever found is in the Blues. It has always been there for me...so the least I can do is play my role in keeping it alive.

How do you describe your songbook and sound? What touched (emotionally) you from the Jazz music?

Each song in my original repertoire is influenced by a multitude of regional and cultural styles. I quote different styles in each of my songs to create a sense of commonality between all the forms that have influenced me. I mix Mississippi Hill Country Blues with the urban feel of Chicago Blues and tones of Acid Rock. I blend North African guitar style with Cotton Patch Soul Blues, I integrate Northern Hindustani Classical Indian slide motifs with traditional delta blues, etc. I consider myself to be a Universal Blues Man and a Rogue musicologist of the Blues. Due to the brutal honesty of its nature in the catharsis of the trials and tribulations of The Human Condition, and the mythology surrounding stories such as Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, Blues music has been considered a form of the "devil's music" by the church throughout history. And, with all the different music that I blend together, I have satirically coined the style of music particular to my sound as "Hell Country Blues" - which could be interpreted as psychedelic industrial punk rock-influenced North Mississippi Hill Country and Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues. At age 10, I set out to decode the musicology of Jimi Hendrix's Legacy which first inspired me to learn the guitar.  In that, I discovered an endless landscape of influences from around the world. I traced the lineage of influences all the way back to the Parchman Farm prison camp field hollers - and even further into the traditions of North and West Africa. Then, forward into the modern forms of music influenced by Blues Culture and beyond. Through Blues music I learned traditional song forms which were wide open to the creative interpretation of each artists' connection to the piece. Some might say, "This is an old song from way back. Everyone plays this song - and this is how I do it."

In other words, I learned the tradition of taking old blues songs and making them into my own. I found that this is what Jimi Hendrix was doing as well as the masters of other forms of music. By age 15, I was surrounded by veteran Fusion Jazz musicians like, Barry Wedgle and Kim Stone, who taught me how to apply the improvisational skills of Blues to different styles of music such as jazz. In jazz music, I found a broader color palette to work with, so to speak. Different scales, chord patterns, and phrasing, along with applied practical Theory, broadened my horizons of emotional expression and inspired deeper exploration into the fusion of different traditional styles of music from around the world. Principles that I brought back to the application of blending different styles of Blues as well as other types of music. Jazz touched me on the level of helping me to articulate more complex emotions with music.

"The people of the Blues culture have taught me to be myself and express who I am and what I'm going through in my life. To have confidence to express and own what's inside me - good or bad. Which, in turn, gives a voice to those who have the same things going on inside of them." (Photo by Mark White)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

At 10 years old, right after I began playing guitar, I met James Cotton and had the honor of playing for him to which he responded with enthusiasm and encouragement to go all the way. This touched me deeply to feel that from one of the great Masters. At that point, my father nicknamed me "Cotton" to remind me  of the caliber of musicianship  I was destined for if I followed through with my learning process. When I was 12 years old, I had the honor of crossing paths with the great Godfather of Chicago Blues, Junior Wells. He let me sit in with his band when they came to Colorado on tour in '97. I remember that we brought the house down with "Hoochie Coochie Man" for a wild audience. After I came off the stage he grabbed me up in his arms and sat me on his knee and blessed me with a big kiss on my cheek and told me, "You a bad Motha' F*****! Don't ever let anybody tell you no different! You got it, son! Don't ever stop!" This moment basically cemented the deal on what I was going to do with the rest of my life. He had me sit with him the rest of the night with his hat on me and every time someone came up to him for an autograph, he would have me sign the item before he would sign it.  I still consider him to be my Godfather. He passed one year later and I pawned my guitars for a ticket to Chicago to perform at his memorial concert at the House of Blues where I shared the stage with Magic Slim, Lonnie Brooks, Sugar Blue, Phil Guy, Koko Taylor, and several others who were all backed up by the Junior Wells Band. There are several other encounters I've had throughout my life which influenced me greatly such as meeting B.B. King, learning Piedmont licks under John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, being taught to play the REAL "Catfish Blues" from Honeyboy Edwards, sitting at the feet of John Jackson telling old time stories for hours, intensive study under the great Maestro of Northern India, Ali Akbar Khan and his Family at AACM,  opening for Savoy Brown, Booker-T Washington, Royal Southern Brotherhood fronted by Cyril Neville, playing backup for Bill "Howlin' Madd" Perry, Mark "Mule Man" Massey, Robert Kimbrough Sr., R.L. Boyce, and jamming with greats such as Watermelon Slim, Deak Harp, Cam Kimbrough, Lightening Malcolm, Cedric Burnside, and Tab Benoit.

I think some of the best advice anyone ever gave me was when I had been playing Indian Music in the terminal of the Phoenix Airport during a layover on my way to San Francisco. Upon arrival in San Francisco I was outside waiting for my ride and a man with a black brim hat dressed in all black with a Mojo walking cane came up to me and commended me on the sounds he heard coming from my instrument back in Phoenix. Apparently, we were on the same flight. Upon further conversation, I told him I was heartbroken over a bad breakup I had been through and didn't really know what I was doing with myself. He replied to my predicament, "Hey man, people come and go. The music will never leave you. Just stay with the music." I thought to myself, "That's probably some of the best advice I've ever been given in my life." As my ride pulled up, I introduce myself and asked him what his name was. He looked at me with a knowing smile and said "Hey, I'm Dr. John." My jaw dropped, he winked at me and walked away.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?                            Jesse Cotton Stone / Photo by Evan Wiley

So many, I don't know where to start. I already told you about connection with Junior Wells and my encounter with Dr. John. I could tell you about the first time I went to the crossroads and had the Devil tune my guitar for me when I was broke and hungry and he ended up with my old shoes instead of my soul. Or the time I met B.B. King as a kid and he came out from backstage when he didn't want to deal with all the autograph scalpers and signed my guitar for me anyway. Or the time Honeyboy Edwards taught me how to REALLY play "catfish blues" on a porch. Or the time I jammed with Derek Trucks at sound check when we were teenagers. Or the time Tab Benoit played drums behind me with his hometown crew in Houma, LA.. Or when Watermelon Slim proclaimed me to be the greatest blues guitarist he had ever seen in Clarksdale, MS...Or the time I sat in with Trenton Ayers and Cedric Burnside at D.B.A. during Jazz Fest in New Orleans, or how R.L. Boyce found me busking on the square  in Oxford, MS. and swapped me hats and took me to play with him in at a Hill country party in his hometown. Or when I was on the road with Bill "Howlin' Madd" Perry and he dubbed me "Jukin'Jesse" for how I boogie all over the stage.  Or when I performed live on the King Biscuit Time radio show - longest running radio program in America. But, the story I want to elaborate on is something that happened at Junior Kimbrough's birthday party in July 2018. Robert Kimbrough Sr. and I have been working together off and on throughout this past year. He called me to go out on the road with him for a few weeks as his second lead guitarist. We kicked it off from his home in Ashland, Mississippi where he put together a birthday party to celebrate the life and music of his father Junior Kimbrough. He set it up how his father would have - everybody was welcome to come to his home and get down on that Cotton Patch Soul Blues all night. People from all around came to celebrate with us! Some folks drove hours, some just walked over from a few houses down to be there with us. The whole family was there sippin', jammin', and cuttin' up from mid-day into night. Around 11 p.m. A seven-year-old boy named Kevon Junior and his father Kevon Sr. showed up to join in the fun. While we were playing Junior's "Lord have mercy on me" the little boy made his way up to the front of the dance floor in the driveway where we were set up. He stood there in awe of what was happening around him; that music permeating the air and everyone feeling good, dancing and grooving to it. He was extremely shy but kept motioning that he wanted to sing on the microphone so we let him up there. He was so shy that at first, he was having a hard time making a sound and then his voice started to open up a little bit with some pretty musical sounding tones. After he got a little more comfortable, we gave him the phrase to sing "Lord have mercy on me". Robert would sing a call "Lord have mercy on me" and little Kevon would sing a response "Lord have mercy on me" trying to get the melody just like Robert. After about 5 or 10 minutes of jamming on that he started to nail it I mean really sing it. He felt it. We ended the song and started another jam and thought he was done then about halfway through that jam he grabbed the microphone again and started belting with a full open Voice singing everything he heard Robert doing and then making up his own. Everyone was gathered around him dancing and hollering "come on get it! yeah boy!" Giving him all of our energy and every time, he would sing a phrase it would get better and better sending chills up my spine I would turn around and look at his father and we would just start laughing and cutting up and crying with joy. It was like we were stirring an old soul into Awakening. A Revival. A baptism in the Blues. After we got done singing his father said "what you been doing in the shower boy? I didn't know you had it in you!" I stepped aside with his father and talk to him for a while. His father, Kevon Sr., Told me that they live just a few doors down and he wasn't aware of what was happening at the party and wasn't planning on coming over to the party but little Kevon Jr. Wouldn't stop urging him to bring him over to experience the music. I told him about how important it is to cultivate that and facilitate his son to help keep this music alive. I told him about how the blues culture is dying and it is as if we are all huddled around this little candle flame trying to keep it going until we can find some gasoline to throw on it. And that, children who display an interest and a talent as such are potential fuel tanks for that cause. They should be honored as Masters as they will be preserving our culture in the future so that generations to come will be able to experience the spirit of the Blues. A new Master was born that night. Or perhaps, it could have even been Junior Kimbrough himself reborn in that little boy and just couldn't resist coming his own birthday party. We Love you Junior.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?                         Jesse Cotton Stone / Photo by Mark White

What I miss about the music of the past is the presence of the experience without the distractions of modern-day technology. Don't get me wrong, I love my hip-hop and electronic music and all that. When everyone was just there to be there juking together with the music. Being of the millennial generation, I've seen the transition from those days to the current day. Part of my mission of keeping the Blues Alive is to provoke that presence in my audiences. I just want everyone to forget their troubles and differences and just be there together in that music. I want to give my listeners an experience that brings them back into the present moment and gets them in touch with what they really feel inside.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

The elimination of the exploitation of artists as a means for corporate gain and a restoration of the cultural importance of the musicians' role in global society. In times past of ancient cultures, musicians were held at the highest regard of all classes in Society. Many cultures believe that all of reality is made from the same source of vibratory sound energy. And thus, musicians, being the ones who could wield and manipulate the primordial energy of the universe, were the most powerful of all sourcerers/shamans/healers. I feel the world is in dire need of the medicine that music can bring into the picture of our predicament in the current status of the human condition. And, in order to receive the full benefit of what music can do for us we need less emphasis on corporate exploitation and more emphasis on cultural appreciation of music and those who create it.

What were the reasons that you started the world music researches and North India's music experiments?

Studying the roots of American music history lead me to explore music from around the world. I guess it started with my curiosity about where the origins of blues came from before the people of Africa were brought to the Americas as slaves. Part of that fascination was invigorated by my mentor Barry Wedgle, who I mentioned earlier. He turned me on to alot of music from different cultures of the world. But I discovered the Classical Music of North India while listening to The Beatles' collaborative recordings with Ravi Shankar featured on the Sgt. Pepper album. I had never heard anything like it. I couldn't get it out of head.  I began researching with little no resources. This was before the internet was an efficient research tool. I was basically walking around asking people if they knew who or what that music was sourced from. After a few years I found myself in Portland, Oregon where I found a sign hanging from a second story window of an old antique store building that read, "Grilled Cheese -$2 Peanutbutter and Jelly -$1 Pull for Service". A bit hungry, I pulled the sign which rang a bell above. A young fellow popped his head out the window and asked, "you want a sandwich?" to which I replied "yes!"

"Come on up through that door!" he exclaimed. I made my way up an old wooden staircase into a small apartment blaring Drum and Bass music where the fellow from the window was preparing my sandwich while his friend sat on the floor plucking a sitar to the blaring music. I asked him if I could try out his instrument. He said, "No. But, if you are interested in Classical Indian music you should check out the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California. They have everything you'll need to learn." At this point, I now had a direction and began setting goals to attend the AACM which would not come to fruition for a few years. I returned to Colorado and started a collective blues project with past members of the first incarnations of the Jesse Cotton Stone band. That didn't pan out, as all the members had varying personal-life issues which would eventually lead to the dissolution of the project. This left the drummer and I to our own collaborations and lead us to undergo higher educational studies in classical theory, practical technique, and ear training for about a year. I then travelled to the Big Island of Hawaii for a wedding and ended up traveling the island and took work as caretaker for various properties and farms for about a year, saving my money to study sitar. During that time, I met a shaman woman who was very insightful as to my spiritual life and its correlation with my musical path. She felt it was very important for me to train with Ali Akbar Khan at his college in California so she volunteered to sponsor my first session enrollment. Two months later, I was sitting at the feet of the Guru. He and his family brought me in as one of their own to learn not only the music, but cultural traditions, history, how to cook the food, how to use intention, and how live a fulfilled life through the joy of music by sharing it openly. I found many common threads between hindustani music and American blues that were uncanny. The most apparent was that both are oral traditions with precise structures and specific rules which contribute to the definitive characteristics of the mood and emotions being expressed through the piece - though only considered to be authentic when executed through the means of the originality of the artists emotional expression. In other words, you gotta play with your Soul. I realized that no matter what the cultural origin or style, the source of real music is a primordial center in the human soul. This is the point I came to see a conclusion upon the completion of a full circle in my musical path - Call it what you want - It's All Blues.

"What I miss about the music of the past is the presence of the experience without the distractions of modern-day technology. Don't get me wrong, I love my hip-hop and electronic music and all that. When everyone was just there to be there juking together with the music." (Photo by Evan Wiley)

How has the Blues and Rock counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Well, my folks were children of the 1960s. I was raised by a beat nick and a flower child, so to speak. The music of their generation was always in the air while I was growing up. When I took up playing music and they were exposing me to the roots of rock in the blues, I was essentially learning the history of rock n roll and the roll it played in the counter-cultural revolution of America during the late 1960s. It was a movement of a people speaking up for a better world and Music was the Voice. I always thought how Woodstock was such a heavy moment. At the peak of everything happening in the world at that time and all these people came together around music and morals of unity to show an example of world peace. It was quite an impact. Though it may have had different results and resolutions than expected at the time, it was a moment that spoke to many of us decades later of what is possible with Love and Music. Learning about that history left an impression in me that the power of music will bring the world together. Many of my generation feel this way and do our best to navigate our own journey to world peace through the different means we available. So, that's why I do what I do - play my role to bring us together.

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

Blues is by origin the product of expressing the brutal, dehumanizing conditions of pain and suffering experienced by African slaves in the cotton fields of the Southern U.S. over 150 years ago. Despite the cultural exclusivity of its origins, there is a primordial element to it that rings true to the experiences of modern times and it has become a Universal language of the human condition which has expressed everyday struggles and hopes of human life and influenced all music that has come after it in a multitude of ways - the world over. It's aim is to achieve catharsis - to feel and to heal what is in the Soul by expressing the pain. It is a gift of Medicine for all who will hear it. It has transcended so many barriers of difference and brought so people together. There is a philosophy found in the heart of True Juke Joint Culture: "No Black. No White. Just Blues."

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

If I could take a trip back in time in a time machine, I would want to go the moment of birth and hear the very first chain gang field holler on Parchman farm.

Jesse Cotton Stone - Home

Photo by John King

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