Interview with Nedra Russ & Julio "Inglasses" Guerra - capturing the true spirit of Americana blues & roots

"The Blues to me is a form of Art and history. Poetry in motion - Everybody gets the blues."

Nedra & Julio: Sierra Foothills Blues

Nedra Russ and Julio "Inglasses" Guerra make up nJr - a duo performing Americana, Blues, Country, Originals as well as hand picked covers. Both seasoned, award-winning musicians, they are true soul mates united by a bond of performance and composition. At the crossroads of Calaveras and Amador counties awaits Americana/blues duo nJr, ready to exchange music for the vibe of a live audience. The duo captures the sound of Sierra Foothills Blues Nedra Russ and Julio "Inglasses" Guerra make up nJr - a duo performing Americana blues - true roots music capturing the spirit of their home in backwoods of the Sierra Foothills. Both seasoned, award-winning musicians, they are true soul mates united by a bond of performance and composition. Their sound reflects the blue-collar, hard-working class who know misery as well as joy and appreci-ate the solitude as much as the company of soul mate. Russ' husky voice and diverse harmonica selec-tions pair well with Inglasses' emotive tenor vocals and expressive guitar and dobro playing. Their union started in 2011.

Nedra started playing harmonica at age 12, and sat in with other musicians throughout her youth. But it was a near-death experience that got her musical energy flowing in unstoppable waves. A car accident in 1992 found her with 110 broken bones. She coded three times and suffered from a lacerated liver, holes in her spleen, and an induced coma from the brain swelling. Russ has also received her certification in electronic publishing. On the debut "Everybody's Been Somewhere" album (2012), she mastered her own tracks and produced the album start to finish.

Julio Inglasses was born Julio Stanford Nicholas Guerra in Quito, Ecuador - 10,000 feet in the Andes Mountains. He comes from a long line of musicians, starting with his maternal grandmother, Toinette Anderson-Snyder, a lifetime musician, playing first violin in the Colorado String Symphony, as well as organ for the silent movie industry, and gave her grandson piano lessons when he was a child. When Guerra was 2½ years old, he moved to the United States. In 1961, when Guerra was a high school freshman, he became inspired by his father's record collection, particularly a 45 of Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock." Also that year, his best friend introduced him into the Kingston Trio. In 1963, Guerra formed his first band - the Merced Viscounts. Guerra returned to Ecuador in 1966 and formed a band called Los Insectos.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos courtesy of  Nedra Russ/Julio Guerra archive & Relish Photography, All rights reserved 

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

Nedra: The Blues to me is a form of Art and history. Poetry in motion - Everybody gets the blues. My father was born a Southern share cropper in South Carolina he was from a hard working bible belt poor family, my father would tell me stories and take me back south, being born in California myself, we would sing gospel songs on our road trips and tell lots of stories, a south tradition born from the black sharecroppers called toasts and Dozens a way to cope with the hard times a way to lift out of the blues, so it is in my blood and music and song writing what it means to me. Carrying on Tradition

Julio: Aside from being immersed in a truly historical exploration of the hard truth inherent in the roots of this genre, I learned that expressing my musical truth couldn’t be forced. After playing for about five years I was beginning to understand, ultimately, after playing about thirty years I finally found that, to pardon the expression, I had paid enough dues and it became easier to relax into a zone of pure expression. I like to think that when I play the blues I jump into a river that is a union of the common subconscious of mankind and get carried along in a timeless current of spiritual unity. 

How do you describe Nedra & Julio sound and what characterize duo’s music philosophy?

Nedra: Americana blues -True roots music capturing the blues spirit of my home in the backwoods of the Sierra Foothills Songs I write reflect the blue-collar, hard-working class who know misery as well as joy and appreciate the solitude as much as the company of your soul mate.

Duo’s music philosophy: Work harder… I have worked with full bands. in the the Duo setting you have to be more like, I do lead and rhythm I also play a stomp box so I sing play harp and stomp box Julio has to play like licks rhythm and a few bass lines so we have to cover more ground to sound full and keep it interesting, we always are learning and adding to our songs as well so our fans know our songs and are surprised by the new stuff as well.

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

Nedra: Meeting Howard Levy, Norton Buffalo David Barrett and Joe Filisko and Joe is the one I got the best advice from he said to learn the best techniques and study how the old greats did what they did and then find your own unique voice.

One of the things that stood out was meeting Howard Levy he seemed to have a magical presence about him and from that day on I really dug in deep to learn under him he teaches more then the blues he is a master of all types of genre. And when it comes to the Blues David Barrett rocks.

Julio: When I was about 11 years old I found the Elvis record, Jailhouse Rock in my father’s collection, I was flabbergasted and was moved by music for the first time. I would pantomime Elvis songs in front of the mirror for hours at a time. When the folk music revival hit in 1962 I picked up a guitar for the first time simply to gain status among the school mates…I soon found myself at the library listening to the old country blues artists and was intrigued by the haunting complexities which got fixed into my musical background early on. There was a group popular in our town then, The Merced Blue Notes. They popularized early electric blues, notably, Freddie King and some of that material was the first I learned on electric guitar…so, when we started our first band, The Merced Viscounts in 1963, we were playing blues, as well as surf music, and, a few months later when it arrived on our shores, music of the early Beatles and Rolling Stones which likewise had a solid blues foundation. I carried on my musical path of blues discovery by carefully studying the work of John Fahey, the singular pioneer of solo steel-stringed fingerpicking guitar. He was an ethnomusicologist that traveled the south tracking the origins of the blues and has been credited with the invention of the ‘American Primitive Guitar’ style.

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

Nedra: Gary Smith gave a talk at one of the David Barrett master classes that inspired me to paint a painting of him he talked about holding on to the rich tradition of the blues born here in America he played in such a deep rich tone that it moved me I wanted to jump up and say halleluiah brother. Gary has helped shape the sound of West Coast blues brought in down from Chicago. I took a class on performance training with David Barrett that lead to us having to perform at the night concert with a top backing band and I had a case of stage fright, I did got my mojo working. I got a good response from the audience after I was done then I was sitting with a glass of wine and David Barrett walked over and said Good Mojo Ned made me feel very good. Plus the lead guitar came up and asked if I was a pro planted in, as he loved it. That gave me the confidence to keep on going. Now on gigs I just love to play for people to see how much they love it really makes me happy kids are super to watch and you never know how it is going to make people feel, it is wonderful when they step up and share it with you on break or after the show. 

This week we were out of town having lunch and a young man came up and asked if we were Nedra and Julio the singing duo we said yea and he thanked us for giving our music to the people made our day wished we would of hade a Cd with us to give him. Studio sessions can be amazing and go great but it really is lots harder then you think it is hours of work to get it right I now after many classes and lots of learning feel I can kind of do right.

Julio: Having played out since 1963, there are oh so many, and I am grateful to audiences far and wide for having allowed me to touch their souls, but, one particular episode in Guayaquil Ecuador in 1967 was burned into memory: at a party celebrating the enlistment of one David Ladd into the Ecuadorean Army, I tried my hand at playing a solo version of the Michael Bloomfield solo from ‘Mellow Down Easy’ and was transported, taking all the guests with me on a tremendous non-stop high-energy magic carpet ride, an unprecedented cascade of expression that must have lasted all of fifteen minutes…a musical experience that was as foreign to my Ecuadorean friends as modern jazz would have been to an early cave man. I thought I really had invented a new way of playing, building on the Bloomfield influence.  A couple of months later after I had returned to the USA after a half-year absence, I heard the Grateful Dead at the Café Au Go Go in New York City and was absolutely floored, Jerry Garcia sounded just like what I was playing! At that point I really understood the interconnectedness, the subconscious unity of musical expression that I earlier described, as I had progressed, while isolated in Ecuador, on a similar path as was occurring in the USA. Now, almost 50 years later with Nedra, I find that the magic continues as we weave new magic carpets every time we are honored to perform.

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

Nedra: In the music of today I feel it is very commercialized and really lack substance in the words. It is like big business has come in and design a lay out that sells, then with dubbing, tuning and tweaking you get a very polished song in the past you had to sound as good live as you do in studio my fear is that the people will grow up not understanding that and then all think they are critics on what is good and what is bad.

Julio: I miss the gritty reality and solid connection with internal spirit of the country and electric blues. Popular music is often too shallow, trite, contrived, phony and full of cliché for my taste. I am encouraged by the many young folks I see that are taking up blues or have a strong blues component in their repertoires. As always, commercialization is the enemy of the divine spark…

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

Nedra: I address that in the statement above to some degree. Live music needs to be heard more and appreciated more as well, we have big concerts but I like the smaller theater style setting were the music is more on the one on one scale.

Julio: Eliminate the musical licensing machine (BMI, ASCAP, CESAC) that hounds any place that offers music, including neighborhood venues, (in the process eliminating musical opportunities for the constituency they claim to serve, but don’t) for money that 99.9999% of musicians will never see.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Harmonica with Folk/Blues music? What are the secrets of harp?

Nedra: Woody Guthrie I feel stood as a figurehead in the Folk movement, providing inspiration to a generation of new folk musicians, including mentor relationships with Rambling Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan. Blues legacies like Little Walter, Shaky Walter, Sonny boy 1 and 2 laid down the footprints for the players that have followed. Secrets of harmonica my secret is simple I love it I dive in both feet and just learn, play, share and live it.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in art?

Nedra: Woman have always had a hard time in Art we get less for the same work and so on, not big news in the music as well, but I also feel we do get a far shake and have as much opportunity as the next guy. I just do what I do the best I can and try to help other woman as I go, some of my young girl student are now doing their own shows and opening for us from time to time. I feel like woman are doing real well in the harmonica world as well.

You are also known of your work with several charitable projects. What is the relation between music & activism?

Nedra: HUGE it is a great way to send a message and help at the same time.  You also can put the cause out there and spread the word with social networking I feel like I have been blessed with this art and if in a small way I can help it is a good thing. Locally I do lots of work on that with The Harmonica Lady (my Hohner harmonica jewelry and art) I get into shows that the money goes to our Veterans our woman shelters Cancer groups our local School our youth center I believe community starts where you live and works outward to change and improved the lives of many.

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

Julio: I have a very limited perspective on this subject.  As far as I know, ‘Los Insectos,’ that I founded in late 1966 with my keyboard-playing brother John, was the first primarily Blues band in Guayaquil, Ecuador. We disbanded that effort in February of 1967 and I devoted myself to ‘Los Cool Cats,’ a blues-influenced band after that. By May 1967 I had returned to the USA and lost contact with the Ecuadorian scene. Photo: Los Insectos, Ritmo A-Go-Go, Ecuador, 1966

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the 60s – 70s blues/rock in Ecuador?

Julio: What touched me emotionally and made me laugh, was that the Ecuadorean people were so open and receptive to our music, foreign as it was.  I remember teenage girls saying it was “bellisimo,” which means very pretty, not exactly how it would be described in the USA, but in their culture quite a compliment. Los Insectos, and Los Cool Cats were fixtures on the only television station in Quayaquil, population about 1 million. So of course, everywhere we went we were recognized on the street!

What is the Impact of Folk/Blues & Rock music and culture on the racial and socio-cultural implications?

Julio: This music was created by underdogs, for underdogs. It can be clearly understood that sentiment in favor of the civil rights movement was fertilized and nurtured by the Blues, and disseminated far and wide through Folk and Rock!

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

Nedra: Woodstock. The day the music changed the world even if it was only for that one day.

Julio: I would want to be sitting th……………………………………….

Nedra and Julio - Home

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