Interview with Australian Greg Bowles an artist who keeps it stark on his sharp, tight blues compositions

"Blues is all about what it is to be human. The songs have always been about things that affect us in our everyday lives. Times change but people don’t. We still have the same worries, weaknesses and problems."

Greg Bowles: Authentic, Genuine & Fresh

Perth, Australia, guitarist Greg Bowles keeps it stark on his sharp, tight blues compositions. He can thump it out with a full, modern blues band, but he's also a highly skilled picker on his National resonator guitar, evoking the sweaty, swampy tradition of the Delta Blues. Greg re-creates the blues of the 1920s-30s with as much authenticity as he can playing in the style of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bukka White, Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson and Tommy McLenen to name just a few.

Greg’s one-man shows bring the Delta blues to life playing the songs he loves raw and striped back just voice and guitar and nothing els just like the old Delta Blues men. Greg’s instruments of choice for re-creating the sound of the 1920's-30's is a pair of National resonator guitars that where popular with a lot of the blues artists from that era due to the volume they can produce which was perfect for playing on the street.

Greg’s project The Resonators, comprising of father and son Greg and Junior Bowles, bought a whole barrage of vintage American instruments with them. There was a 97 year old banjo and a 57 year old mandolin giving the sound a classic and authentic touch. When they started playing it was like they fired up the flux capacitor and shifted us right back to 1932. Greg plucked his blues guitar and sang in a husky southern drawl while Jarrad tapped and scraped along on the washboard. The play list mostly came from the deep, deep South of the States and particularly Robert Johnson, the man who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads for the gift of music. Greg Bowles might have got his talent from years of practice but he was still playing like a man possessed. He took the slide on for a few tracks and switched to the banjo for a fantastic rendition of Death Letter by Son House.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

I have learned that I am a very determined person. I have taught myself to play and sing the Blues from listening to a lot of old recordings.

The Blues means everything to me, I am always striving to play it better and learn more about the music. Blues is a simple music, you can learn the basics very quickly but then you can spend a lifetime trying to perfect it.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

I think for me having a tough time of it when I was young probably makes me connect to the Blues the way I do and I guess that is why I play Blues music.

"The Blues means everything to me, I am always striving to play it better and learn more about the music. Blues is a simple music, you can learn the basics very quickly but then you can spend a lifetime trying to perfect it."

How do you describe Greg Bowles sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I would say my sound is very raw. My music philosophy when it comes to Blues music is to keep it as authentic as I can. I am not trying to refine the music in any way, I think its fine just the way it is.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I would have to say the most interesting period in my musical life is from 2007 when I formed a duo with my son Junior Bowles. We decided to explore Blues and string band music from the 1920’s and 1930’s. We play guitar, mandolin, banjo and washboard. It’s a lot of fun and we are still playing together now, we did a gig last night and it was our first gig for 2014. As for the best and worst moment of my career that’s a hard question to answer but I won some awards locally when I was starting out so I would say that was the best moment in my career. As for the worst, well that was when I joined a cover band in an attempt to make a bit more money from music…that was really bad!

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

You don’t hear Blues on commercial radio and it’s not in the spotlight so to listen to Blues or to discover the Blues you have to look for it and that takes effort. It’s not like someone is selling it to you or telling you its good and you should be listening to it so people who love Blues are devoted followers because they have worked out for themselves how good it is and what it is that makes them connect to it.

"As far as advice goes probably the best advice I ever got was to play music because you love it and not to let all the business sides of music get in the way."

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? Which memory makes you smile?

I have been playing Blues now for 18 years now and have had so many memorable gigs it’s hard to pick the ones that meant the most to me. Junior and I once open for American Blues man Doug MacLeod in Fremantle which was a great gig. More recently I played some intimate little shows at the Cygnet Folk Festival in Tasmania, beautiful venues and really responsive audiences. I think that that’s the kind of gigs I like to play, not so much the big stages, I find the smaller shows work better for my style of Blues. One memory that makes me smile is when I was busking in Fremantle one time and I looked up and there was Bob Brozman standing there watching on, he was in town for the West Coast Blues & Roots festival and I just got so nervous, he was one of my biggest influences.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

To be honest I live 170 km from Perth, Western Australia, which is one of the most isolated cities in the world so I do not get to meet too many high profile artists. Recently, I played at the Bridgtetown Blues Festival and had the chance to meet Charlie Parr and Kelly Joe Phelps. That was really nice; they were both very friendly approachable guys.

As far as advice goes probably the best advice I ever got was to play music because you love it and not to let all the business sides of music get in the way.

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

I like to record at home. I have a small studio in my backyard that I do most of my recording in. I have tried recording in a commercial studio but I didn’t enjoy that much. My son and I recorded an album here at home which came out really good. We decided to keep it old school and just sat around one mic and played. The result was an album called “Introducing the Resonators”. There are still a few copies of it available on CD Baby.

"I would have to say the most interesting period in my musical life is from 2007 when I formed a duo with my son Junior Bowles. We decided to explore Blues and string band music from the 1920’s and 1930’s." (Photo: The Resonators, Greg and Jarrad (Junior) Bowles at Blues Challenge 2013)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

I have a field recording of Son House that was recorded by Allan Lomax. Son was playing his version of “Pony Blues” and you can hear a steam train going past as he was being recorded. It is so raw I think that’s what I miss… the raw power of the old Blues.

My hopes for music in the future are that musicians continue to make real music that means something to them. My fear is that with all the social media that is around at the moment that too many of us are chasing instant fame and not making music that has any real substance.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of the 1920's-30's Blues with the modern electric urban blues?

I am by no means an expert, but to me I see the lines being from the rural Blues from the South being taken to the cities like Chicago by people moving up north looking for work, where it was amplified to be played in noisy clubs in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Then, when the English musicians started collecting American Blues records, drawing inspiration from them and even covering some of the old Blues songs, that raised the profile of Blues worldwide.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Australia. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

Australia has a vibrant blues scene as do many countries throughout the world. We have Blues Clubs and Blues Festivals all across the country. It also has lots of Blues programs broadcasted mainly on community radio stations.

Again I am not an expert on this subject but I think the most interesting period in the local blues scene was probably the 1970’s when musicians like the late Dutch Tilders and guys like Matt Taylor and Phil Manning from the legendary Australian Blues Band Chain started writing and recording Blues songs about their own culture and country.

"My hopes for music in the future are that musicians continue to make real music that means something to them." (Photo: Greg and Southwest musician Martin Cropper jaming at Bridgetown)

What are the differences between American, European and Australian blues scene?

I have not experienced the Blues scene in America or Europe as yet, but here in Australia Blues music is often put into a wider category called ‘Roots’ music. Roots music can be any type of modern music which has influences of blues, reggae and folk. Many of the Blues Clubs and Festivals in Australia are labelled as ‘Blues and Roots’ and incorporate many genres into one festival.

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

Ok well I think slide is one of the sounds that has always been used in Blues right from the start. You hear it in the recordings of Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson all the way through to the Chicago Blues of Tamper Red, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and the list goes on to the present day.

The resonator guitar on the other hand was not used by many of the early Blues artists as they were very expensive instruments to buy. Many of the Blues musicians couldn’t afford them, however before the electric guitar was invented the resonator guitar was the loudest acoustic guitar money could buy and that made them perfect for playing on the street and in noisy Juke Joints and Clubs. Some Blues musicians used them so they could be heard in these noisy environments. Son House, Bukka White, Tampa Red and The Black Ace are some of the artists that used National resonator guitars to great effect.

The fact that there is a company like National Resophonic Guitars that are making these wonderful instruments again is why they are so popular with Blues musicians today. I have two of them myself.

When we talk about Blues usually refer past moments. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Yes I do believe in the existence of real Blues nowadays. Blues is all about what it is to be human. The songs have always been about things that affect us in our everyday lives. Times change but people don’t. We still have the same worries, weaknesses and problems.

"My music philosophy when it comes to Blues music is to keep it as authentic as I can."

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

I would love to go back to the 1960’s. I think it was 1967, The Newport Folk Festival, when Son House, Skip James, and Bukka White appeared on stage together. It would have been amazing to see! I’m such a Blues nerd!

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