"Roots music has always had a strong impact on society by pointing out social injustice and galvanizing people to action against political and cultural situations that cause harm to others."
Teresa James: Blues In Babylon
Teresa James was born and raised in Houston, Texas where she was introduced to music at an early age by her father and grandfather, both guitar players in the old tradition. She started playing piano at five and hasn’t stopped since. Teresa has been called a singer’s singer by many. (When the SAG Singer’s Committee got together to honor composer Randy Newman, Teresa was chosen as the soloist to perform his favorite song to him.) She has recorded with Tommy Castro, Eric Burdon, Spencer Davis, Randy Newman, Lee Roy Parnell, Neil Diamond, Walter Trout, Stephen Bruton, JP Soars and many others. She has performed live with lots of other artists, including: Levon Helm, Eric Burdon, Delbert McClinton, Marcia Ball, and Doyle Bramhall, Jr. to mention just a few. Teresa and her band the Rhythm Tramps are a Los Angeles based band made up of players that have either played or recorded with such artists as Eric Burdon & the Animals, Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, Jimmy Reed, Lightin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Vaughan, Allen Toussaint, BB King, Johnny Nash, Dixie Chicks, Jennifer Warnes, Smokey Robinson, Tom Jones, Tower Of Power, just to name a few and have had their songs recorded by Paul Rodgers, Eric Burdon, Bill Medley, Tommy Castro, Marcia Ball, Janiva Magness and others. As one critic said, “there are no clichés in this band.”
They move easily through Texas style grease and blues into Memphis soul or New Orleans flavored grooves and all points in between with fun and abandonment. She was nominated by the Blues Foundation in 2008 for “Contemporary Female Blues Artist of the Year.” Teresa’s last two releases have both earned 4 Star Review in DownBeat and two of her previous CDs have been awarded Independent Music Awards for blues by popular vote. Her tenth album ‘Here In Babylon’ (2018) is the first one that she and the Tramps tracked ‘live’ in the studio. James was joined by her longtime partner, Terry Wilson, on bass and Billy Watts on guitars along with drummer Jay Bellerose to record all the songs in two days of tracking. The twelve original tracks of roots, blues and soul keep the focus on James and her vocal skills backed by just the right amount of instrumental flair.
How has the Blues, Roots and Rock counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
One of the great things about Blues, Roots and Rock, to me, is that the music tends to bring together people of all social and economic levels, and all races and nationalities - it definitely brings a spirit of community wherever you find it. Because the roots of this kind of music come from such a humble beginning, there seems to be less of a division between the players and the audience, too. I have met so many wonderful people in my travels and been very inspired by all the opportunities that I have had.
How do you describe Teresa James sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?
I consider my band’s sound and songbook to be coming from a ‘roadhouse’ vibe – soulful music that makes you feel good and make you want to get up and move around. There are so many different influences at work in our sound – blues (of course), but having grown up in Texas, there is also a wide variety of styles that come through; I think there is a strong flavor of the Louisiana sound in there, and southern rock, R&B (from the old school) and a sprinkling of country blues that adds a little more earthy sound at times. I guess I would have to say that my ‘philosophy’ is that music should be as much about how it feels as how it sounds. I don’t care how perfectly the music is sang or played if it doesn’t feel real and touch me somehow. When I sing, I always try to stay in the moment and not get too locked into any one way of approaching a song; when I have a song that is especially meaningful or that I am able to lose myself in, sometimes I will ‘retire’ that song for a while so that I don’t get tired of it or get too locked into a way of singing it that gets to be too rote – so that when I bring it back I am able to approach it in a fresh way and have the emotion and the performance be that much more connected. I am always hoping to reach that point where I am not thinking about what I am singing – just letting the emotion and the music come through without analyzing it. I am afraid that sounds a little corny, but I really don’t like ‘careful’ music – I would rather try for something and not quite make it than to always be perfect and have it sound sterile or too precious.
"I just hope that blues music can continue to be a thriving music form –that people never forget the raw emotion (the joy and the pain) that defined the blues of the past, but also that new music that has its roots in that traditional music can be integrated into and appreciated by the blues community."
What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people and culture? What does the blues mean to you?
I love singing the blues and anything with a blues feel to it - when I am singing or even just listening to blues and soulful music, it is easy to get lost in the feeling and let the stress of life get away from me. In today's world where things are happening so fast and so many of our interactions with others are through texts or social media, I feel like music (and blues in particular) is one of the ways that we truly connect with other people from a real and honest place. Also, I find that the people that you meet in the blues community tend to be some of the friendliest and most genuine people anywhere.
How do you describe "Here In Babylon" songbook and sound? Are there any memories from studio which you’d like to share?
When we were recording, it felt a little more organic than what we have done in the past; maybe that is because we cut all the tracks 'live' in the studio in just a few days, but more than that, the music feels a little more mature and the grooves feel a little deeper. I think the songs just have a very cool feel to them and I know that I tended to sing them a little lower in my register - not always going for the big 'money' notes, but just singing in and around the groove and trying to bring out the heart of the song without imposing too much of myself on it. Also, we have always had the joy of working with great drummers, but it was very fun to get to work with Jay Bellarose on this one - I think he brought a slightly earthier feel to the project overall.
One fun thing: We cut the tracks at a cool little studio out in the desert north of LA (Mystic Mountain Studio) and the studio owner's wife raises blond labrador puppies, so we would cut a couple of songs and then take a break and go play with the puppies - definitely a stress reliever!
What are the differences between your debut and tenth album? What touched (emotionally) you from Gregg Allman's music?
Wow - those are great questions... When we made our first album, 'The Whole Enchilada', we had been performing together for a long time, so we already had a catalog of songs that we had been doing that we always knew would go on the record. We also had different players on a lot of the cuts - living in LA, the really great players tend to go in and out of the road where the big money can be made, so especially at the time there were several guys that were in and out of the band at different times, so we were able to 'cast' just the right player for each song. Since then, we have been working with the same guitar player for many years, Billy Watts (who is an amazingly versatile and talented musician) so I feel like our overall sound has a more cohesive sound. I am always surprised at how much I still like hearing that first CD, but I do feel like we have expanded and gotten better as the time has passed.
Gregg Allman - what an amazing singer! There is just something about his voice that really reaches me in a profound way. I don't know if it is because I was raised in Texas and spent a lot of time in the deep south where my mother's family is from, but there is an earthy soul and geniune emotion that comes out in his singing that is rare and that I can relate to on a very basic, emotional level.
"One of the great things about Blues, Roots and Rock, to me, is that the music tends to bring together people of all social and economic levels, and all races and nationalities - it definitely brings a spirit of community wherever you find it. "
Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
There are so many people that I have met and had the opportunity to work with, but the most important person in my musical life, as well as my personal life, is my husband, Terry Wilson. He is an amazing songwriter/musician/producer that has been instrumental in helping develop the sound of our band and in helping me to broaden my musical horizons overall. Together we have travelled the world and spent hundreds of hours in the studio together; it is a true joy to be able to share that creative process. The best advice anyone ever gave me (besides never leave your purse in the dressing room) was just to be myself. I spent a lot of time when I was younger trying to make music that would ‘sell’ in whatever the style of the time was, but once I started just making music that I wanted to make, it all started working out better…
Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
There are so many stories to share – especially from the road, I wouldn’t even know where to start. I have toured at the lowest level (4 seater vans with just a map and barely enough gas money) and I have stayed at 5 star hotels; played tiny little joints in towns in Europe that weren’t even on the map and huge festivals in front of huge crowds, but no matter what the circumstances of the gig are, I always try and give the same show and when things go terribly wrong, I do my best to look at them as an adventure and a learning experience… I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of really talented and wonderful people, too. One of my most treasured experiences was getting to work with Levon Helm and sing a duet with him. I have also been privileged to perform on Delbert McClinton’s, Sandy Beaches Cruise for the last 15 years – a week long music cruise that happens every January and that features a ridiculous amount of talented musicians. On that cruise, I have performed with so many people - Delbert McClinton, Marcia Ball, Tommy Castro, Mike Zito, Big Al Anderson, and a ton of others – in an atmosphere where everybody supports one another and just enjoys the music.
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
I just hope that blues music can continue to be a thriving music form –that people never forget the raw emotion (the joy and the pain) that defined the blues of the past, but also that new music that has its roots in that traditional music can be integrated into and appreciated by the blues community.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
That they stop giving away our music for free - that people don’t forget that musicians need to support their families, too… that we have worked just as hard at developing our skills and learning our craft as the plumber or the lawyer down the street.
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Houston, Texas, to Los Angeles and beyond?
Growing up in Houston…there’s a long amazing history of Houston Blues/Soul artist/performers… from Lightnin’ Hopkins to Johnny Winter to T-Bone Walker to Stevie Ray to Billy Gibbons… going back to that east Texas soul sound with The Boogie Kings to Soul Bros Incorporated… Roy Head… Big Mama Thornton. These musicians have influenced so many singers/players and continue to do so.
What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?
I think that women occupy a large place in the music world today – the roots charts are full of contemporary female artists and you can hear us all over blues radio. While I have often been the lone female artist on a show bill, I have never really considered myself a ‘woman’ musician – just another musician among many. I think it is interesting that the very first best selling records were the female blues artists in the 1920s…
What is the impact of Blues and Roots music to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?
"That they stop giving away our music for free - that people don’t forget that musicians need to support their families, too… that we have worked just as hard at developing our skills and learning our craft as the plumber or the lawyer down the street."
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?
That is a hard question. My first thought was to go back to the wild west days of Texas - to see what it was really like back in the early days there because I always feel a real connection with what I have seen in the old western movies and in books from that era. But I think what I would really like to do is go to Paris in the 1920's and visit the bars and salons where Hemingway and Matisse and Gertrude Stein all used to hang out... to see F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda in action and catch a glimpse of Salvador Dali or Igor Stravinsky. I can't even imagine how exciting it must have been to be around that much art and creative energy.
Comments are closed for this blog post