Q&A with acoustic blues slide guitarist Donna Herula, passion for Deep South and Chicago blues improvisation

"My hope is that modern musicians will continue to play from their hearts and share their stories about life with their listeners. It is our job to keep this great music alive!"

Donna Herula: The Fresh Blues Blossom

Donna Herula is a Chicago-born singer and acoustic blues slide guitarist that has a passion for playing traditional Delta and country Blues, early Chicago Blues, folk, roots, and Americana in addition to original songs. Using acoustic and electrified resonator guitars, her sound combines her love for music of the Deep South and Chicago with her love of blues guitar improvisation. Her songwriting tips the hat to the tradition while creating a fresh, contemporary perspectives on blues and roots music. In 2016, Donna was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. The same year, Acoustic Guitar Magazine featured her in an article, “Down and Dirty: 10 contemporary resonator players talk about their love for that nasty sound.” In April 2018, she was featured in the Blues Blast Magazine article, Chicago Blues Guitar Women. Donna has been a regular performer at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago for the past 10 years and has opened for Buddy Guy multiple times. She has performed at the Chicago Blues Festival, King Biscuit Blues Festival, the Juke Joint Fest, the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, the Woodstock Folk Festival, Fox Valley Folk Music and Storytelling Festival and was also the headliner at the Durban International Blues Festival in South Africa.

(Donna Herula / Photo by Robert Erving Porter III)

Donna is a guitar teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago where she teaches fingerstyle and slide guitar. She has taught at Blues & Swing Week at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College (WV) and the Great Guitar Camp (NC). She has provided numerous Blues in the Schools and blues educational programs. She plays solo, in a duo with her husband, Tony Nardiello, and in a trio/band. Donna’s inspirations include: Son House, Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, and Rory Block. Chicago born guitarist and singer songwriter Donna Herula and her partner in crime, Tony Nardiello, embarked on such a journey to record her third album, Bang At The Door (2021), in North Carolina.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Roots music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I've traveled from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta because of the blues – to the Piedmont of North Carolina and all the way to South Africa to play at an international blues festival. What I have learned is that people all over the world love the blues. I've met all kinds of wonderful people on my blues journey. I have been deeply affected by these experiences, relationships and friendships - so much that I wrote a song, “Pass the Biscuits”, on my new album “Bang at the Door” about a friendship that I had with my mentor “Sunshine” Sonny Payne who, for over 65 years, was the radio DJ host of King Biscuit Time, the longest running blues radio show.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I would describe my sound as traditional blues in a contemporary style. I am an acoustic fingerstyle and slide guitar player and I play on electrified resonator guitars. I love Delta Blues, Country Blues, early Chicago Blues and roots music.  So when I write songs, I like to tip the hat to blues tradition while creating a fresh modern blues sound with words that would ring true in today's world. For example, on my new album, I wrote a blues ragtime tune called "Movin' Back Home" about moving back to live with your parents in your childhood home - but as an adult! This is something that many people can relate to nowadays. I also wrote a song called "Who's Been Cookin' in My Kitchen" that combines Mississippi John Hurt style fingerpicking with double entendre words similar to the 1920's female blues singers with a modern take on cooking in the kitchen. But it's really not about cooking in the kitchen, if you know what I mean. As far as my creative drive, it comes from speaking from the heart and sharing the truth about life and its struggles and joys. It's about expressing the emotions that a regular person would feel in everyday life -- humor, sorrow, excitement and joy. It's also about empathy, understanding and connecting to the stories of people’s lives through music.

"I've traveled from Chicago to the Mississippi Delta because of the blues – to the Piedmont of North Carolina and all the way to South Africa to play at an international blues festival. What I have learned is that people all over the world love the blues. I've met all kinds of wonderful people on my blues journey.(Donna Herula / Photo by Robert Erving Porter III)

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

In 2014, I had the great opportunity to play at the Durban International Blues Festival in South Africa with Chicago Bluesman, Charlie Love. The experience was exhilarating for both of us. I never thought I would travel to South Africa and blues music made this possible. The blues fans were excited and appreciative. I performed both a solo acoustic Delta Blues set and also an electric blues set with a band. I was told by the festival director that fans said that they wanted more acts like “Donna Herula” in the future because they liked the traditional blues sound. Also, back in 2012, I played at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in a duet with Liz Mandeville. There were thousands of people in the audience that evening and I remember looking out to see both Paul Geremia and Doug MacLeod sitting down in the second row to watch us play. It was touching to me because I had been at their concerts so many times and to see them coming to my concert was something special.

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

I miss seeing the live performances of some of the early traditional blues singers and musicians that I love. So, many great blues men and women have passed on. I have been lucky to have played with Honeyboy Edwards at his home and with James Cotton when we were both on the King Biscuit Time Radio Show. I’ve seen T-Model Ford play in Clarksdale – and all of these great bluesmen are no longer with us. My hope is that modern musicians will continue to play from their hearts and share their stories about life with their listeners. It is our job to keep this great music alive!

What would you say characterizes Chicago blues scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

Blues lovers in the Chicago blues scene are extremely proud of the history of Chicago Blues – including Muddy Waters, Chess Records Studio, and the large numbers of venues and clubs from the past (Checkerboard Lounge, Theresa’s Lounge) and present (Buddy Guy’s Legends, Kingston Mines, Rosa’s, etc.) There is a real diversity of music played in Chicago from acoustic blues to R&B, soul, funk, jazz and other blues styles. The great thing is that any night of the week, a blues fan will have a large variety of live blues music to choose from, which is very different from some of the cities that I have traveled to when I have been on tour.

"As far as my creative drive, it comes from speaking from the heart and sharing the truth about life and its struggles and joys. It's about expressing the emotions that a regular person would feel in everyday life -- humor, sorrow, excitement and joy.  It's also about empathy, understanding and connecting to the stories of people’s lives through music." (Donna Herula / Photo by Robert Erving Porter III)

What touched you from the resophonic and slide guitar? How did that relationship and love come about?

Being a Chicago native, I began attending the Chicago Blues Festival when I was a teenager. One time, I saw two musicians playing guitar and singing outside of the blues festival and noticed one was playing a shiny silver metal guitar with a slide.  The sound was intriguing to me and looked like a lot of fun. Later, I attended an Eric Sardinas concert and was emotionally affected by his resonator slide guitar playing of traditional blues songs including Muddy Waters and Mississippi Fred McDowell. It led me down the path of traditional acoustic blues. Once I heard Death Letter Blues by Son House, it solidified my decision to travel down the blues highway.

What does it mean to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

I feel that women have less of a voice in blues music – and it would be a benefit to all to share their experiences and stories. So, on my new album, I decided to write a number of songs from the woman’s perspective. The title track, "Bang at the Door," is about being firm about not letting a bad ex-boyfriend back into your life. “Promise Me” is about the experiences of women – wives, daughters and sisters – who have someone they love sent to prison. “Something’s Wrong with My Baby” is about the pain and frustration when a partner is not getting help for significant problems. “Can’t Wait to See My Baby” is a duet that I wrote that is about the joy and anticipation of love and reuniting after being apart. My experience has been that blues women stick together and are very supportive of one another. For six years, I had been in a group called the Chicago Women in the Blues. It was terrific to watch how other Chicago Blues Women work a crowd. I learned a lot from them, particularly from Shirley King (BB Kings Daughter), who I went on tour with.

What is the impact of Blues on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want to affect people?

I want the listener to feel something – emotionally - when listening to my music. I want the listener to relate to the song. It makes me so happy when I have received emails from listeners that have told me that what I have written describes exactly how they feel. That is my hope as a songwriter.

"My experience has been that blues women stick together and are very supportive of one another. For six years, I had been in a group called the Chicago Women in the Blues. It was terrific to watch how other Chicago Blues Women work a crowd. I learned a lot from them, particularly from Shirley King (BB Kings Daughter), who I went on tour with." (Donna Herula / Photo by Robert Erving Porter III)

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

If I had a time machine, I’d invite my favorite blues singers and guitar players to a blues jam and party at my house. I would cook a lot of great food for my guests and would play with them as well as hear their stories about the blues. Some guests would include Son House, Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell, Johnny Winter and Muddy Waters. I’d also invite Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy and some of the classic blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. I’d also invite some important loved ones from my life that have passed recently like my mom, mother-in-law and friend and mentor, “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, who my latest CD was dedicated to. We would have a good time talking, laughing and catching up.  I’d tell them all about the 2020 pandemic, thank them and tell them how much they have all meant to me, and I would give everyone a big hug and kiss.

Donna Herula - Home

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