Polypragmon Austin Jimmy Murphy talks about the wide range of his activities and the history of Blues

"Playing blues is not as easy as many may think. It isn’t a game of speed, it’s a game of intense logic."

Austin Jimmy Murphy: Blues Traveler

Austin Jimmy Murphy was recognized with the prestigious Keeping the Blues Alive – Promoter/Festival award in 2003 by the Blues Foundation based in Memphis, TN for his work as the principle founder and former director of the New York State Blues Festival in Syracuse, NY. He managed the festival for 12 years between 1992 and 2003. Murphy was also principle founder and director of the Guinness Irish Festival for five years during this same period. Under Murphy’s guidance the blues festival was awarded several Syracuse New Times ‘People’s Choice’ awards and a SAMMY – Syracuse Area Music Award.

Murphy was also presented with a Service to the Arts award from the Cultural Resources Council of Syracuse and Onondaga County. He moved to El Paso in 2004, to be closer to his wife’s family. Austin Jimmy Murphy is band leader for one of the few blues bands in the El Paso, TX region. After a seven year run at El Paso’s famous King’s X nightclub, and after hosting alternating weekly blues jams for the past few years, Murphy is refocusing his career on larger venues as a solo artist and with his band, Los Camarones de Amor (the Shrimps of Love).

A prolific songwriter and interpreter of the blues, Murphy recently released, A History of Blues. A 4-CD, 48-song partial recording history of his musical blues journey to-date. He truly admires the richly talented musicians whose lives once crossed paths with his to create this anthology of authentic, many times live, and many times first-take blues sessions recorded in the Syracuse, NY area dating back to 1977 up through 2008. This partial library of recently recovered, mostly original material, ventures through Piedmont, Mississippi Delta, Chicago, Texas, Swing, and Contemporary blues styles. Since moving to El Paso Murphy has received a B.S. in the Arts from the State University of New York and an M.A. in Administrative Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. He has also authored, El Paso: 1850-1950, for Arcadia Publishing. Currently, besides performing regularly, Murphy is the development director for the El Paso Museum of History.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Musically speaking, I’ve often compared blues to jazz in this sense; that they are both improvisational, and while jazz music gets most of the recognition for allowing for great improvisation, that’s what I love about the blues. Blues songs have a defined beginning and a defined ending. Between the beginning and the ending there is tremendous opportunity to express yourself musically. To me, playing music (the blues) is a big mathematical puzzle that is spontaneously calculated. It presents a challenge to the mind and to the individual’s physical being. Playing blues is not as easy as many may think. It isn’t a game of speed, it’s a game of intense logic.

How do you describe the Austin Jimmy Murphy sound and progress, what characterizes your music philosophy?

Within my box set, A History of Blues, released in 2012, you hear a lot of talented Upstate New York performers. My role throughout most of these sessions was as the songwriter, arranger, and co-producer. I am in awe, to this day, with the blues talent from the Syracuse, NY area. If you strip away the expert playing of Little Georgie Rossi, Matt Tarbell, T.A. James, Paul “Big Daddy” LaRonde, Mark Tiffault, Tom Townsley and the others who joined me on this journey, you end up with real raw blues material, and there would be nothing wrong with that, but through their generosity, you have what I believe, and what others believe, is a true collection of beautifully arranged, concise blues that should be recognized on a larger, worldwide stage. In short, my music philosophy is to create a level playing field, the beginning and the ending, and then create a space for individual experimentation within the genre of a basic blues foundation.

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently?

Heartbreak, loneliness, confusion…all that love stuff. I have a new eBook coming out soon (within the next week it will be available at all eBook outlets) entitled, My Life Before I Decided To Commit Suicide. My author name is James Robert Murphy. It has been getting very good reviews as of late. If you were to read this, you would get an idea of the trials and tribulations that have led to much of my music. But another way to look at my type of songwriting is again, a musical puzzle. For instance, the song She’s Alright, She’s Alright, on disc one of the box set, is a nice little math puzzle. The music influenced the lyrics, which in this case, are about a young woman and her natural attributes.

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

Life keeps getting better and better. This is the most interesting period of life. The older I get the more expansive my artistic career has grown. I don’t write as much music these days, but I’ve recently earned two college degrees, authored four books, have become a somewhat successful artist, compiled my award-winning blues box set, and became the Festival Director and Interim Board President for the New York State Blues Festival, a festival I began in 1992 and resigned from in 2004 when I moved to El Paso, TX. The worst period was when I contemplated suicide in my early 20s. It took me eight years to crawl out of that pit.

"The blues isn’t necessarily about the past. It’s about the present. Good times and heartache happen every moment of every day. Lyrically, the interpretation of one’s feelings and current circumstance can always be told in the present." 

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

The blues beat is at the core of our heartbeat. There is something primal and unintimidating about the music and the lyrics. It creates a swagger that the human just can’t resist. It’s simple from an audio standpoint and all of us can relate to the stories told.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The best jam would be hard to define. Any time you have the opportunity to perform with other musicians anything can happen. Lately, the best experiences have been with Wes Gunderson, the other guitar player in my band here in El Paso. I managed a blues jam here for three years. There were several great moments. Most memorable gigs lately, the few times I have performed with Savoy Brown’s rhythm section consisting of Pat DeSalvo on bass and Garnett Grimm on drums, and keyboardist Scott Ebner in Syracuse in 2008 and 2012. Excellent musicians. I performed at the Silver City Blues Festival and Ruidoso Mountain of Blues Festival last year, both in New Mexico. They were both very good gigs, and anytime I can score a gig within El Paso, they are usually good gigs.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

My most important meeting came last summer (2013) when I met with the NYS Blues Festival Board of Directors and was accepted on the board and placed in the position of the festival director after being away from the position for ten years.

What is the best advice ever given you?

It’s not what you play; it’s what you don’t play.

In other words, take it easy, leave room for the imagination.

"The blues beat is at the core of our heartbeat."

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

Yes, much, not all, of the A History of Blues box set was recorded in living rooms and bedrooms and then later, sometimes years later, mixed and mastered in a professional studio. My point is this, with the right people it doesn’t matter where you set up and record, it’s the atmosphere and fellowship that matters. You also do not need the latest high-tech equipment to record great music. On one song, My Baby Likes to Boogie, there are two harmonica players, Matt Tarbell and Mike Petroff. They came into the studio at different times and recorded separate tracks without hearing the work each other had performed. In the final mix, my co-producer Steve Lloyd and I pulled up each performance when we deemed it necessary, but there are times when both players are performing at the same time. The natural blending of their styles is beautiful. Also, many of the tracks were primarily spontaneous recordings which showcases the true genius of the participating artists.

As far as a particular show goes, we opened up the Silver City Blues Festival in New Mexico last year. The band was spot on. It was one of our best performances.

From the musical point of view what are the differences between the locals’ blues scenes around the States?

In El Paso, TX there isn’t much of a blues scene per se. There are a few blues bands, but the audience is more into 80s rock it seems, so it’s a bit tough. The saying goes that your only famous out of town. In your hometown you’re just another band, and for the most part I believe that to be true. Not to say we don’t give it our all locally. When the band performs out of town, the expectation is high and the adrenaline is pumping and everyone seems to work harder to get in the groove.

"I love many types of music, but my greatest love is for the blues. It’s so simple and yet so powerful. It is good to know that the music we perform is an original American art form and that we carry on an American tradition."

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

Personally, I miss living in Syracuse and being surrounded by a host of incredibly talented musicians of all genres. I think within each generation of blues performers there have been, are, and always will be great interpreters of the various blues stylings. Blues, jazz, country, you name it, they will always evolve to a certain degree, but within all of the evolution there remains an uninterrupted trueness to a music’s foundation that will never stray too far before returning home. I don’t fear the future of music other than the fact that I may not personally understand its rhythm or lyrical sense.

How started the thought of New York State Blues Festival? Which memory makes you smile?

As mentioned, there are a lot of talented blues musicians in the Upstate area. In 1990 I went to the Chicago Blues Festival with a few friends. I was very excited upon returning and had the realization that a lot of East Coast folks were traveling to Chicago every year to experience the blues. Syracuse it seemed was half way between Chicago and the East Coast so I pulled together some interested folks and started the Central New York Blues Society. There had been another society earlier in Syracuse’s history so I wasn’t the first to have this idea. Out of the society I began I introduced the idea for a festival. There was a very successful jazz festival in downtown Syracuse already. We met every Wednesday for a couple of years, put out a monthly newsletter, and slowly but surely produced our first festival in 1992 featuring Bob Margolin, Carey Bell, Magic Slim and a few others. It is a tremendous amount of hard work and takes the input of several likeminded individuals, volunteers and sponsors. There are several great memories. To just name a couple, we had John Mayall and and Mick Taylor on the same bill. We brought Otis Rush. He broke a string while in mid song. His wife came on stage, took the guitar from around his neck, took the guitar backstage and changed and tuned the guitar in minutes. She placed the guitar back around his neck and on he went. It was beautiful. Bobby Blue Bland, Little Milton, Canned Heat, the Animals, Koko Taylor, Marcia Ball, Johnny Clyde Copeland and his daughter Shemekia; the list goes on and on. My last full festival before moving to El Paso was in 2003. Dickey Betts was the headliner. He had just left the Allman Brothers. There must have been 15,000 people in Clinton Square. I’ve never been involved in any other event like this.

"Blues songs have a defined beginning and a defined ending. Between the beginning and the ending there is tremendous opportunity to express yourself musically."

What is the legacy of Blues history in the music todays? What means to be Bluesman?

I think everyone agrees that there would not be a rock music scene, country scene or possibly even a jazz scene if it weren’t for blues music. It’s a shame that blues isn’t more main stream and played more on accessible radio stations. Stations, labels and artists would generate millions in dividends annually.

I love many types of music, but my greatest love is for the blues. It’s so simple and yet so powerful. It is good to know that the music we perform is an original American art form and that we carry on an American tradition.

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

Absolutely. The blues isn’t necessarily about the past. It’s about the present. Good times and heartache happen every moment of every day. Lyrically, the interpretation of one’s feelings and current circumstance can always be told in the present. Music and lyrics whether written yesterday or today are still relevant to society as a whole.

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

The crossroads.

Austin Jimmy Murphy - official website

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