Interview with musician and visual artist Tom Townsley, has been a leading light in New York blues scene

"Playing the Blues is a way of channeling certain energies and emotions through a culturally-related set of musical and lyrical forms." 

Tom Townsley: Talking with the Blues

Tom (Thomas) Townsley has been a leading light in the Central New York blues scene for nearly thirty years. Tom began playing harmonica in 1980, while a graduate student at Syracuse University. Upon receiving his degree, he moved to Florida and immersed himself in the Tampa blues scene, eventually becoming a member of the band Outer Drive. He returned to Syracuse in 1984 and founded the Cold Shot Blues Band, which became a popular act throughout the rest of the decade. Cold Shot backed up legendary blues performers Pinetop Perkins, Henry Gray, and Jimmy Rogers and opened for many national acts like Johnny Winter, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells and James Cotton, to name only a few.

Cold Shot's single, "Take Me To Chicago" won the regional Seagram's Wine Cooler Talent Search and placed second nationally in the contest. In the 90s, Townsley formed Tom Townsley & The Backsliders. This successful group recorded two CD's which garnered rave reviews locally and nationally. "Moonlight Worker" (1998 Poverty Records) was the top selling blues disc in Central New York, going through two pressings, receiving worldwide airplay and being picked up by Crosscut Records in Germany. "Twice Too Much" (1999) followed with accolades of its own. In 2003, Townsley went solo with the recording of "Blue Roller" on Parvenu records. The disc explored the soul jazz genre, taking the harmonica into new territory. Townsley has also contributed to the recordings of several area artists, including Los Blancos, Ron Spencer and The King Pins. In addition to gigging, Townsley's involvement with blues includes twenty years as host of Jazz 88's "Sunday Night Blues" program. Tom Townsley sits in and gives Central New Yorkers some down home old style blues. Considered the longest running blues show in Syracuse, for years Tom has been supplying blues fans a healthy dosage of both national and local blues talent. Tom Townsley leaves no stone unturned when it comes to bringing his audience the best blues music in town. He also acts as a contributing writer for numerous blues publications, including Blues Revue magazine and teaches harmonica workshops. He currently is vice-chairman of the Mohawk Valley Blues Society.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Tom Townsley Archive, Steve Moore, Juan Junco / All rights reserved

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

To me, “playing the Blues” is a way of channeling certain energies and emotions through a culturally-related set of musical and lyrical forms. By “culturally-related” I mean that, like all folk music, blues music was created in a particular cultural milieu—at the conjunction of African and Euro-American cultures in America’s rural south, then eventually in a number of metropolitan areas (Chicago, Memphis, etc.). It is in some respects a hybrid music, mixing African rhythms and scales with European song structures, but the “stuff” that makes it “blues” clearly derives from the African tributaries. This means that, for me, a middle-class kid of British and Polish heritage that grew up in Central Pennsylvania’s “Susquehanna Delta,” blues is an idiom I have had to learn in my adult years, not something I grew up with as part of my “home” culture. Learning it has been like learning a language. Thirty-five years of studying and immersing myself in this music has, I hope, made me a fluent speaker, but I suspect I still “speak it” with an accent. I will always be something of a tourist. But part of my learning process has been to come to terms with that. In fact, I try to value it. I think it is death to try too hard to sound like someone I’m not, but on the other hand, I want to try to be true to the nuances that make the music so compelling for me. After all, I got into the blues because I love its sound! I want to recreate those sounds, but I don’t want to do some bad impressionist routine. I also love the stories blues songs tell, but I know that many of those stories may not be related to my experiences. I try to choose what I can use and use honestly. Fortunately, songs about women and drinking too much and money troubles DO match some of my experiences! And I like the fact that blues music usually tells these stories with a minimum of self-pity—unless, of course, that self-pity is delivered tongue-in-cheek. I think there are lessons to be learned from the music—and from learning the music. If we all tried to learn each other’s “language,” we might have more understanding and less fighting in the world today.

Another thing I value about blues music is the opportunity it affords for improvisation within a limited set of forms (e.g. the twelve bar I IV V chord progression). This is something it shares with jazz, though jazz seems to offer a wider array of improvisational opportunities and, in its more refined forms, may be more intellectually demanding. This aspect of my experience has more to do with states of consciousness than with culture or life lessons. People who study the brain talk about “flow states,” where you are so attuned to things, so immersed in your experience, that the right “moves” seem to come to you naturally.  Musicians will recognize this as the moment when the music plays you, rather than the other way around. It’s almost transcendental. I’ve been lucky enough to experience this flow state several times. Of course, you have to have the right musicians with you (particularly on drums and bass), and a whole lot of factors have to line up, not the least of which is your own talent on your instrument. The more talent you have, the more you are able to open yourself to that flow state when the opportunity arises. But you can never force it. That’s another thing that playing this music has taught me.

How do you describe Tom Townsley sound and songbook?

It might be safer to let someone else listen to the recordings and tell me! I guess when I am fronting, I tend to go for a mix of swing tunes, shuffles, slow blues, and the occasional foray into funk or related grooves (rhumbas, Bo Diddley things, etc.). Fairly typical harp stuff. It’s gotta groove, and it’s gotta swing. I would rather tilt toward jazz than rock. In fact, I recorded an album of soul jazz instrumentals.

Lyrically, I try to write songs about characters who have trouble with self-discipline when it comes to relationships and controlled substances—and nine times out of ten I try to make them funny—give them a twist that will make them memorable and not simply a set of typical blues clichés. Willie Dixon, Rick Estrin and the like.

As for my harp sound(s), that’s still a work in progress after thirty-five years. Little Walter is the primary influence and always will be. I could bore you for hours talking about him. Hearing his music is what got me into blues. I can still listen to “Juke” and hear new nuances in it. Little Walter is like a water mark for measuring how far your ability to hear has progressed. He’s always lapping you! Other influences are Charlie Musselwhite, Sonny Boy, Big Walter Horton (tone!) and William Clarke—among dozens of others. So I guess I am trying to master those classical amplified blues harp guys’ styles while adding something of my own—though often what’s added are my ways of “cheating” when I can’t get what they’re doing! But I have always believed that someone’s “style” is defined by his or her blind spots and opacities as much as it is defined by their influences. Also, it’s a matter of how those influences are blended. My style is always evolving and occasionally devolving. Lately, I’ve been trying to make it simpler—leaving more spaces, clarifying my attack, phrasing in unexpected ways, and staying away from pet licks (especially above the 6). But I have yet to record something that captures what I’m after.

What characterize your music philosophy?

I think I’ve already hinted at this. Keep listening with a purpose. Find the thing that’s honest in the music and strive to make it yours. Don’t go for cheap effects. Energy channeled is better than energy released in a spray of sparks. Find the music that keeps talking to you over years and years—not the music that dazzles you for a few minutes. Know your limitations, but don’t necessarily settle for them.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

The most obvious answer would be the times I played with Jimmy Rogers (photo). My band backed him up for a few shows in the late Eighties. What I remember more than playing is the time we spent simply hanging out. Jimmy was my house guest on some of these occasions. We would come home after the gigs and sit up for hours drinking whiskey and listening to old blues records from my collection. Each song would elicit a personal memory—usually a funny story—from Jimmy. I just tried to soak it all in. The guys whose records I was playing were like mythological figures to me, but to Jimmy they were part of his old gang. He sat there smoking his More Menthols, throwing a ball to my dog, telling anecdote after anecdote. He told about Wolf and Willie Dixon getting into a fight in Chess studios. He told about Henry Strong’s murder. He told childhood stories about rabbit hunting with Snooky Pryor. He was having a ball telling these stories, and I was having a ball listening. How do you top an experience like that?

I’ve been lucky enough to hang out with many of the musicians I admire—no doubt because I had a radio show and also because I wrote for Blues Revue for a number of years. That gave me the great opportunity to conduct “shop talk” with most of my favorite harmonica players under the guise of “an interview.” Most of them appreciated that they were speaking to someone who knew their instrument and their music from “the inside,” so to speak.

But in another sense, the accumulation of many typical gig nights is perhaps the most important experience—always trying to achieve that alchemical musical mix, trying to find that lick that will make the audience go nuts not because it’s cheap but because it’s deep.

What is the best advice ever given you?

I had a dream once that I was sitting up late on a rainy night, trying to play some licks on an acoustic guitar. I heard footsteps, and there was a knock at the door. Next thing I knew, the door flew open, and there stood Robert Johnson, soaking wet, glaring at me. I knew who he was and that he was dead, so this was a bit unsettling! He came into my living room, tracking mud on the carpet, and grabbed the guitar from me. “You ain’t ready yet! Let me show you.” Then he sat down and hunched over the guitar and began to play. This was dream music, of course, so it was startling and ethereal and cut right through me. As he kept playing, the riffs came faster and faster, with ever-increasing intensity, as if the music itself was adrenalin. His fingers were a blur. He began banging a rhythmic accompaniment on the guitar... faster, louder... faster, louder... Then a string popped. Then another. He kept on playing on the remaining strings with no diminishment in speed or capacity, no reduction in feeling. Another string popped. Another. Finally he was down to one string, and it was as if the speed of his fingers was multiplied. The sounds coming out of the guitar were unearthly and harrowing and yet very exciting. Finally the last string gave way with a loud pop. Johnson remained motionless for a good thirty seconds. Then he slowly looked up at me with an expression I’ll never forget and said, “Now you’re ready.” And as he extended the guitar toward me, I woke up. True story.  I’m not exactly sure what kind of advice that constituted, but let’s just say that I certainly felt “advised.”

Are there any memories from gigs, jams and studio session which you’d like to share with us?

Having Joe Bonamassa do a guest spot on a cut from my Blue Roller CD was memorable! Joe played some of his first gigs with my band at the tender age of ten or so. I remember the first time his dad brought him out to one of my gigs and asked if his son could sit in. Let’s just say the prospect didn’t thrill me. Having a young kid like that on stage with us would be a big, scene-stealing distraction. I’d just as soon have someone bring in a poodle to jump through a flaming hoop. But I said yes. Well, we called him up and he plugged in and we kicked off with a shuffle. The first thing I noticed was that he was playing rhythm. Most kids that age just noodle the whole time—they play solos but have no conception of rhythm parts or of how to interact with the rhythm section. But Joe already knew how to back someone up—and he knew how to step forward when it was time to step forward. I was impressed. A few months later his dad hired us to go into the studio with him. So Joe Bonamassa cut his first tracks with my old band, Cold Shot. I don’t think he’d even gone through puberty yet. In fact, that was the joke at the time: “Imagine how good he’ll be when he goes through puberty and knows what the blues is really about!” Anyway, it’s been a thrill top see how well he’s doing for himself. He’s an amazing, jaw-dropping player, and he’s also a nice, centered guy. He deserves everything he’s got. Naturally I was thrilled when he agreed to return the favor and play a track on my Blue Roller CD. That same track is remixed on my latest CD, Still Backslidin.’ The song is called “Scufflin’.” It’s a Jack McDuff tune, sort of an up-tempo swing number. I play chromatic on it. At one point Joe and I trade licks. That was a bit daunting! But it turned out okay, I think; it’s actually one of my favorite recordings.

Another memorable occasion was meeting Henry Gray and playing with him at The Chicago Blues festival the next day. I used to go to the Chicago Blues festival every year; it was my trip to Mecca. One year I was checking in to the hotel and noticed Henry Gray in the lobby, waiting to check in, too. Later, I was in my room, and I heard piano music coming from the room next door. Really good piano music—I knew it had to be him. The sound carried right through the wall! So I took a harp out and began to jam along, sitting right next to the wall so I could hear him better. Well, the music stopped. I heard footsteps in the hallway. Then there was a knock at my door. I thought, “Uh oh, I pissed him off.” I opened the door, and there was Henry. “If you’re gonna make all that racket, come on over here!” So I grabbed my harps and went to his room. Some of his band members were there also. Henry had this little practice piano, and we got down! Great time! Then he asked if I’d like to join him onstage at Navy Pier the next day for a few tunes. Would I?! So that was a blast, also.

There were so many other great memories: playing with Jimmy Rogers on several occasions, playing with Pinetop Perkins, sitting in with Mark Hummel and James Harman and Steve Marriner at The New York Blues Festival,  sitting in with Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers—it’s hard to settle on just a few!

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

The era of great players like Muddy and Walter and Wolf and Sonny Boy is over. I don’t think we can get it back. There are some good imitators out there, some people who are dedicated to preserving their music, and I think there is a role for that. For one thing, those kinds of acts educate the public about these great artists. What’s more, there are valuable lessons to be learned by devoting oneself to mastering their music, if such a thing is possible. Too many musicians out there today have skipped those lessons. They may have a lot of flash and filigree, but the swing and the soul isn’t there, for me. It’s more than a matter of fashion or taste. It’s something deeper, more fundamental. It comes back to that idea of blues as a language. The old guys always had a story to tell, not just lyrically but musically. A lot of the newer stuff sounds like someone who simply loves to hear himself talk. On the other hand, to simply imitate songs from the Chess label shouldn’t be an end in itself for most of us. It should be something we do on the way to something else.  We all have our own stories to tell.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

Not much.  I hate to say that, but it’s true. I’m happy to see there are a handful of younger people trying to keep this music alive. And I’ve certainly had fun at some shows. But anything that’s really touched me on the local circuit? Not lately. We have some damn fine musicians in Central New York, don’t get me wrong. I mean some really stellar players. But in part because the scene isn’t that supportive financially and otherwise, many of those fine players are confined to part time gigging with pick-up bands, so they seldom get a chance to grow musically. And there are other bands and musicians whose major talent seems to be self-promotion and schtick. They’re average musicians who are more concerned with getting gigs and publicity than with doing the hard work of understanding and mastering their craft. And they often get rewarded because. . .well, they’re entertaining, and you can fool most of the people some of the time. But I’m getting old and jaded, so I’d rather stay home. Let those who will find fault with this. When I was younger, I used to hate people who stayed home on weekends. I had to be at a show—if not mine, someone else’s. I’ve seen and heard a lot of musicians, so now it takes something special to get me out.

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

If we’re talking about music, then I would have to say I would love to go back and see Little Walter performing at the peak of his powers, when he was really hot—one of those shows you read about where he played far better than he did on his best recordings. That would be something to see and hear!

Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older? What is your BLUES DREAM? Happiness is…

I wrote a lot more when I was younger, but I think I have a better idea of what works for me now that I’m older, so I don’t spin my wheels as often. I’m fortunate to have a group of musicians whom I’ve worked with on and off for years, so I can usually find someone who knows me and my tendencies well enough to help flesh out my ideas. They’re kind of like musical family, but without the dysfunction. Well, okay—there’s some dysfunction! But having all those years together certainly helps!

As for a blues dream... I don’t know. I’ve done a lot of what I’d hoped to. I’ve played with some great musicians and gotten to see some of my idols before they passed. I’ve played in all kinds of clubs and festival stages. I’ve made a few half decent recordings, and I’ve gotten to talk with and write about some of the greats. And I’ve made a lot of friends. Maybe it would have been nice to have more natural talent and to have made it on some higher level. But for me, the dream isn’t some distant, hard-to-attain thing—like wringing silver from the moon, to quote the great Johnny Shines. The dream is what I’ve lived every day. It’s simply being out there, doing what I can to channel this music through me, gig after gig. It’s the highs and the lows. It’s the discoveries. It’s the fleeting moments when you hit it just right—man, there’s nothing like it! So if that moment happens in a little dive instead of on the stage of The Apollo—how much difference does it really make?

You are also a visual artist. Would you tell a little bit about that? What is the relation: music and visual art?

Actually, I’m a painter and a writer, too! I have a book of poetry coming out soon. So I guess I’m something of a Renaissance man. I do think about the similarities and differences between these art forms. I guess that because music is a performance art, the rewards are, in some sense, more immediate. A writer shuts himself in a room for weeks or months or years, and then solicits opinions on his or her work. A painter shuts him or herself up in the studio, then works for months trying to get an exhibition. It’s true that musicians spend lots of time woodshedding, but they are actually creating their art in front of an audience, so it feels a little different. You know in the moment whether you are reaching someone. It’s like having someone read over your shoulder and cheer while you write—except that I would hate that! The solitude is necessary for writing—and for painting, too, I think, though I’ve had fun painting with fellow artists from time to time.

Another connection between my painting and my music is that improvisation plays a significant role in my creation processes for each. Most of my artwork is in the Abstract Expressionist vein, so I am not worried about a lifelike rendering of some person or object; instead, I’m trying to create interesting harmonies and dissonances of color and texture, and for me, that entails flinging a lot of paint around and waiting for the “lucky accident” to happen—the moment when I see what the painting could be. Then I proceed with a greater sense of direction. If after a while, I feel like I’m mucking it up again, I’ll find creative ways of destroying what I’ve done which, if I’m lucky, will lead to new discoveries.

Really, I’ve been enormously fortunate to have a lifestyle that allows me to pursue all these forms of creativity.  I don’t know if diversity is a good thing in terms of achieving top tier success—maybe it would be better to focus like a laser on one thing. But the older I get, the more the notion of social and financial success fades, and the more aesthetic success and love of the process takes precedence. That’s not to say I don’t set goals or that the end product doesn’t matter. Far from it.  And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t competitive or driven to be the best. But those feelings, I’ve come to realize, are just fuel for the process. They’re the carrots I dangle in front of myself in order to keep me charging ahead. To some extent, they keep me honest and self-critical. But they aren’t the most important things. Again, the dream isn’t to GET this or that—it’s to live it! And it’s in the process—not in the attainment of this or that goal—that the living takes place.

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

I’d like to regenerate interest in live music again, and I would like to find a forum for it outside of the bar scene. Mind you, I love bars! But because live music is tied to clubs to such a great extent, and because club owners are having a tough go of it owing to the draconian drinking laws and competition from all sorts of things, it’s hard to get many of them to pay bands or even book them. For many of them, the music is a secondary thing, like an advertising expense.

It’s hard to blame some of them for feeling that way. But I’m not sure what we can replace them with. Coffee houses? Drinking and live music have gone hand in hand for a long time. I really don’t have an answer.

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