Interview with Portland artist Lloyd Jones, the best-kept secret on the blues / roots / Americana scene

"I think blues music continues to generate a following because of its simple direct route to life. Popular music will go out of fashion by nature. Blues will remain connected to reality."

Lloyd Jones: Funky & storytelling

Portland, Oregon roots artist Lloyd Jones has recorded six critically acclaimed albums, toured internationally, and racked up dozens of major awards and accolades. He’s a relentless road dog, hitting festival stages, Delbert’s annual Sandy Beaches Cruises and clubs all across the land to enthusiastic crowds who can’t get enough of his swampy blues, his backporch picking, his serious-as-anthrax funk, soul, roadhouse two-beats, and old-school rhythm and blues. Yet he may be the most invisible, best-kept roots/blues/Americana secret on the contemporary scene.

Jones is a master of the soulful understatement, the raw growl, and the groove. From his roots in muddy Oregon soil, he’s forged a 30-plus-year career as an impassioned singer and fierce guitar slinger, a clever and soulful songwriter, a bandleader, record producer, and an almost strident torchbearer for all that’s true and good about America’s music. Jones is his own true artist who works diligently at pushing American roots music forward.

He’s shared stages and spotlights with Albert Collins, Cray, Raitt, McClinton, Taj Mahal, B.B. King, Dr. John, John Hammond, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, and a hundred more. And except for Albert and Junior, God rest their souls, all will pretty much still say nice things about him. For years he’s been living, learning and interpreting in his own way this music for which he has so much respect. He’s recorded award-winning albums for Blind Pig, AudioQuest, Burnside Records and Criminal Records that gained him international acclaim.

Lloyd Jones and his timeless, swampified American songwriting style is tailor-made for dancing like crazy people on a Saturday night. Jones is no poser; no youngster who copped a couple of quick blues licks and headed for the big time with a cocky swagger and a brand-new Strat. You see it in his face when he plays — the ear-to-ear grin, the soul-gripping grimace when he bites off another stinging note. You hear it in every heart-aching lyric, sung in a voice that genuinely shares with you life’s hard knocks and hard-won secrets. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?

To me “Blues” had the simple, strong, and direct emotional connection that grabbed my attention early on.

The message is clear and makes me feel what it is to be alive!

How do you describe Lloyd Jones sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I started out playing drums because my older brother played drums and taught me at an early age (6). I tend to write around the groove.

Later, a friend in grade school turned me on to Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf & Muddy Waters. I started teaching myself guitar by listening to Jimmy Reed because I loved the stories of the early blues.

My sound has been a steady evolution of melding the funky polyrhythms of New Orleans & down to earth storytelling of those natural blues. Both stand the test of time.

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

Most ideas are triggered by listening to lots of music & listening to my heart. Some of the most difficult times have produced the most growth. Can’t beat heartbreak for inspiration!

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

I believe THIS is the most inspiring time of my life, because I have so much going on right now. Two new recordings out at the same time and ideas for two more in the works!

Playing on Delbert McClinton’s “Sandy Beaches Cruise” a half dozen times allowed me to meet and work with so many fantastic musicians. That will remain a great memory.

The absolute worst memory was while playing guitar for Curtis Salgado a couple years ago at a festival in Montreal. I had left my tuner in the hotel room. The sound man loaned me one that only had the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 on it…not the names of the notes. Turns out, it was an open G tuning! I began the set with a scorching blazing solo of nonsense till I realized the notes were not in the right places!! Curtis wouldn’t stop between songs to let me fix it, so I left the stage, found another tuner and returned by the third song. Then I missed the shuttle and had to walk several miles (while fuming) to the hotel. Curtis knew I was bummed, invited me to ride with him down to the neighborhood jam and have some fun. Very kind gesture…and it worked!

"Most ideas are triggered by listening to lots of music & listening to my heart. Some of the most difficult times have produced the most growth. Can’t beat heartbreak for inspiration!" (Curtis and Lloyd on stage. Photo by Slim Lively)

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

I think blues music continues to generate a following because of its simple direct route to life. Popular music will go out of fashion by nature. Blues will remain connected to reality.

Do you remember anything funny from Earl King and Charlie Musselwhite?

I have stories about everyone you mentioned. Those relationships are my greatest joy. I don’t have enough time for all that here. Charlie & I go back the farthest (40 years). I played with him just last month and it was a delight. When we first played together in about 1972, we played a festival in Eugene Oregon. There were a couple kids in the audience that day…Curtis Salgado & Robert Cray! I’ve actually written a short story called “Traveling With Charlie” in which we relate some great adventures and some of Charlie’s history with Sonny Boy & Walter.

My band & I backed Earl King on the west coast several times over a period of about 3 years in the early 90’s. He was a great story teller and historian!

I remember warning the band just before hitting the stage at a festival in Eureka California that “No matter what happens, just keep playing and keep smiling”.

Poor Earl just could not keep his guitar in tune and after a few drinks; he didn’t know where he was or how long he had been playing. Sure enough, by the second song, the guitar was horribly out of tune, by the third song his hair was sticking straight out sideways, by the fourth song he was down in the audience with the guitar behind his head and the amp was shorting out! Apparently Earl thought he had been playing for a long time, so he continued to wander through the crowd to his hotel room! Now the promoter is hollering at me…”Where’s Earl?” Once Earl is rounded up and returned to the bandstand, he says…”I’m the only person that was not afraid of Guitar Slim. Slim practiced hoodoo and had all kind of potions. He would put spells on people so they was all afraid of him, but not me. One day Slim said… Earl… someday I’m gonna have a number one hit record. A million seller! And if something should ever happen to me, and I find you’re playing my hit song, I’m gonna make your guitar go out of tune, your amp go crazy, & everything go wrong! Then Earl looked straight out at the audience and sang that opening line…The Things That I Used To Do!” Now Earl is back in control. How great is that?!

“Blues” had the simple, strong, and direct emotional connection that grabbed my attention early on. The message is clear and makes me feel what it is to be alive! (Photo: Lloyd with Brown Sugar, the great blues band from Portland, Oregon)

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from Robert Cray and Delbert McClinton?

Robert Cray & I had a mutual friend named Richard Burdell. Richard fought ALS disease for an incredible 14 years! When the time came for him to pass, he asked that Robert play a fund raiser for ALS research. The concert was to be at the zoo and I was asked to put a band together. On the day of the show, Robert & I sketched out a set list and talked about Richard. When we reached the stage, there were all these other musicians that suddenly wanted to participate. Yippes! I suggested they wait in the wings & I’ll call them out toward the end. Everyone thought it would be best to come out all at once and compete for speed & volume! Robert was content to just play quiet rhythm in the back. Since the audience had paid to see & hear Robert Cray, I introduced him and waited for the fireworks. Low & behold, Robert took a step back, turned DOWN and in seconds people were starting to pay attention. Then it happened. A string broke! I felt sooooo bad. I had loaned him an old backup guitar I rarely use. I should have put new strings on it! Robert just smiled and kept on playing. Then it happened again! Another string broke. My head snapped around in disbelief. Robert shot me a glance, winked, turned down again, dropped to one knee and played one of the most devastating solos you ever heard on the bottom three strings. Brought the house down!! I learned that night why Robert is a giant among giants!!

One last memory that I remember being aware of at the time, was when Delbert invited me to sit in, then Bonnie Bramlet, then Michael McDonald! The three of them sang the ol’ classic “Bring It On Home To Me” till I had goose bumps just being in the middle of it all! Delbert is a wonderful soul. Truly loves the music and the people that make it.

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

When we made the “Triple Trouble” CD on the Telarc label, I learned an important lesson by some fantastic people. Tommy Castro was nice enough to invite me to that project along with Jimmy Hall. If that wasn’t great enough, the rhythm section turned out to be “Double Trouble”! You know, Tommy Shannon, Chris Layton and Reese Wynans.

Besides playing like a freight train they were the kindest people I’ve been around. Nice combo. We worked hard and had a ball. The lesson I learned was focus and follow through. On playback Tommy Shannon said “Whatcha waitin’ on…turn it up”! Good lesson.

Also Curtis Salgado said to me once…"Don’t forget to get all the little bits & pieces. Then just do that stingy thing you do!"

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

About fifteen years ago I was playing an empty little bar on a Tuesday night solo. The only people in the club were two people playing darts in the corner. James Cotton was going to be playing a concert in town the next day so he had just flown in that night. He and his driver stopped in for a drink on the way to the hotel. Without a word being said, Mr. Cotton calmly strolled up to the microphone in the middle of “It’s Alright” and played about three chorus’ on the harp, finished his drink and walked out. The two people playing darts departed soon after and I just sat there in that empty room thinking….I’ll remember that one forever. Then I left too.

Are there any memories from Big Mama Thornton which you’d like to share with us?

Big Mama Thornton was a treasure. Played with her in the 70’s. In those days you played a club five nights a week. We were playing this big beautiful club that George “Harmonica” Smith had just played the week before (that’s another great story). George & Big Mama were friends. The gig George had gone off to play got cancelled, so he came back to hang out with us. He’d get all excited and want to play, then jump back off the stage and apologize for intruding. Eventually he got on the drums. Big Mama laughed and then pushed George off the drums and took over. She held her head up high, stuck her chin out, and laid down the groove as if to say I can do anything you can do! Both those people were very sharing of their music and taught us a lot! I saw Big Mama on the last gig she played. The club saved $40 by not getting her a room. She died the following week.

What do you miss most nowadays from the Blues of Past?

What I miss nowadays is the work. Used to be clubs all over the place six nights a week. A lot of people never thought of leaving town. There was always enough work right at home. Sometimes gigs were for months or years at a time in one club. In the late 70’s I worked two clubs five nights a week for two years each. Made $250 a week. My House payment was $100! A brand new car was $2000.! Costs have risen 1000% and incomes remain the same. Now the club pays you nothing and only allows you to play once or twice a year. Gotta travel a long way between gigs. Used to be about the music. Now it’s about marketing. I’m glad to have lived when I did. The memories make me smile and the music will never be a part of the culture it once was. It used to be everything. Now it’s just one of many, other things.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of Blues?

The blues will never be what it was in its hayday but I don’t believe it will disappear completely.

Which memory from Albert Collins makes you smile?

Albert Collins used to live in my part of the country so we knew each other. He’d stop in if he was looking for a drummer to take out on the road. We’d let him play with us if a gig fell through. He was my first hero. A real self made man. Created his own style, his own songs, drove the bus, got the money after the gig, and carried a gun. Matter of fact, one night a couple fella’s followed him to his car after the gig with the idea of robbing him. He saw ‘em coming, kept on walking to the trunk of his Caddy at the time, calmly opened the trunk and dropped them both with the tire iron! Never said a word.

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

I like people, and hope to send them home with a smile. I’ll engage people and let ‘em know we’re just here to have fun & hopefully raise their spirit some.

"Blues today is different than it was, but that’s only natural because blues (and all music) is just a reflection of the times. And times change." Photo by Rob Finch 

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with New Orleans rhythms, Memphis music and urban style?

There are so many mini cultures within our culture. The difference between dialects in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New England, Chicago, Los Angeles, let alone the foods, are so diverse. All these influences are what go into who we are. I revel in the connection. For me it goes back to the rhythms. Being a drummer, I wanted to learn different grooves like a guitar player wants to learn different songs. It’s very surprising to me how different rhythms frighten many blues listeners.

Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Blues today is different than it was, but that’s only natural because blues (and all music) is just a reflection of the times. And times change.

When the field hollers moved into the city. Then got electrified. Wow, that was a huge change! Then people like Freddie King put the funk and the rock into it. Just keeps going. Then it spread to the white audience of my generation. It’s a powerful and undeniable influence. If you read the book “Deep Blues” you’ll see how similar things are today to what they were doing when Robert Lockwood was traveling with Sonny Boy to learn from other players (Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Son House), getting a gig in Arkansas, then going on the radio to get people to come to the gig. Sound familiar? Oh yeah!

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

I’d want to travel back and see Mississippi John Hurt play.

Lloyd Jones - Official website

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