Q&A with bluesman Lightnin’ Willie, an irresistible blend of tradition and spontaneous creativity, with deliciously groove

"If you look at the world and see where music has taken us, surely you will see that changed in the fifties with the likes of Bill Haley, Elvis, and Carl Perkins. Color barriers were slowly being broken down."

Lightnin’ Willie: The Blues of Iris

Bluesman Lightnin’ Willie has a distinctive approach to his music. The sound is an irresistible blend of tradition and spontaneous creativity, with a deliciously insidious emphasis on the groove. It is a compelling, hard swinging brand of blues that, whenever he performs, packs the floor—his audience can’t not dance. A guitarist of impressive facility, a vocalist of coolly stylish authority and a composer of persuasive original blues that both extend and enhance the idiom, Willie’s music has a rare individualistic quality. It is at once airy and full of open space yet also loaded with earthy, intense emotion, and as featured on his new Pete Anderson produced album NO BLACK NO WHITE JUST BLUES, it showcases a master at the top of his game. Lightnin’ Willie operates at a high altitude in the wild blues yonder, and his impressive reach is the result of a near lifelong musical journey. Barely out of his teens, the Texas-born musician toured the Southern chitlin circuit as the only white member of an R&B-funk band, absorbing a powerful dose of deep insider information, rich both in technique and spirit. Gigging as a solo headliner for almost three decades, Willie has gone from low down beer joints to become a staple on the international festival circuit, with plenty of wild stops  along the way, from London’s Royal Albert Hall Ignite Series to Willie Nelson’s infamous 4th of July Picnic, where he appeared alongside Paula Nelson, Willie, Bob Dylan and Leon Russell.    Photo by © Joy Neely

The always dapper Lightnin’ Willie from Los Angeles -biggest little band on earth- consistently genuine, never flashy, boundlessly entertaining, is reliably a high quality blues powerhouse who makes new fans with every performance. He brings an elegantly juxtaposed blend of influences to the bandstand—from T Bone Walker to the Kings, BB & Albert and Muddy Waters, with whom he frequently consorted in Chicago—and in Willie’s hand’s, the blues are a sinuous, lissome, high-voltage force loaded with soulful depth and an almost alchemical appeal. These attributes have won him stacks of enthusiastic praise from the international press, landed his original tunes on numerous film and television soundtracks and with the arrival of NO BLACK NO WHITE JUST BLUES (2017 his eighth release, expect Lightnin’ Willie and his brilliant Biggest Little Band on Earth, to elevate the blues into a new stratospheric dimension.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music and people?

Humble comes to mind as I grew listening to all the great musicians and having had the pleasure to meet and know some. When you meet someone like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix and you actually talk with them you realize how humble there were, that has always stayed with me. B.B. told me it all comes down to two things; your guitar and the people you play for, to always make time for your fans, and to never be in a hurry ‘cause they’ll know. I try to do just that and remember how they treated me.

What does the blues mean to you?

Blues means pure joy to me. I love listening and learning. Even if I have heard a song a million times, I always find something new to learn. It’s an open ended book for me. Blues has it’s own charm and it communicates more directly and readily than any form of music.

How do you describe Lightnin’ Willie’s sound and songbook?

I’m an amalgamation of everything and everyone I’ve listened to, have seen, or read about. When I was young I tried to copy what I heard and be that person, but somewhere down the line someone said, “Man you got to shake your own stick, you can’t be me.” Later I understood what had been said to me. I still copied but I realized I was listening better, and instead of stealing licks word for word, I would get an idea in my head and try to create my own version of what they were doing. So when you hear Lightnin’ Willie you’ll hear a lot of different influences, but I’ve evolved into my own person and write my own style of songs. I don’t bury you in meaningless solos. It has to fit the song without overshadowing the song.

What characterizes your music philosophy?

My philosophy is to write a good simple song about things we all go through and hopefully make you go, ya, I can relate to that.

"Blues means pure joy to me. I love listening and learning. Even if I have heard a song a million times, I always find something new to learn." (Photo by © Moses Sparks)

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

Blues music has give me a great respect for other cultures, races, religion etc. I was raised that we are all the same in that we all see the same sun, breath the same air, we all hurt, cry, laugh, love, win and lose. When you listen to the struggle in blues music, if you really try to understand what these guys went through to do what they did and fathom what it must have been like; how can I not be affected? Early experiences of traveling as the only white member in an all black band made me see things in a whole different light, even if it was from a distance. As short as it was, I got to see what they dealt with everyday, and I can only imagine that it must have been worse for the older bluesmen who are no longer with us.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

Meeting Jimi Hendrix was a great influence on me. It thrilled me and made me dig deeper and listen to what he did. Muddy, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Albert King, Freddy, and B.B. were all foreign to me at the time, but later I went and sought out these guys, and that opened my life’s journey. Later, meeting Muddy, B.B., Albert, Junior Wells, Hubert Sumlin, Willie Smith, Pinetop Perkins, and having the chance to play with some of them, became a never ending thrill for me. Music has taken me all over the world, chasing shadows of the great bluesmen that came before me.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The best advice ever given me was to be yourself, and know your own strengths…songwriting, vocals, guitar playing in that order. Never compare yourself to anyone. They can’t be you and you can’t be them.

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

Memories playing on stage with Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Junior Wells, sunlight being paled by Willie Nelson as he walks behind you to join you as you are performing. Having Junior Wells compliment your playing (while still not believing it was you playing). Having a great producer tell you your strengths are in this order: songwriting, vocals and guitar playing, and not to change - Pete Anderson-guitarist/producer.

"My philosophy is to write a good simple song about things we all go through and hopefully make you go, ya, I can relate to that." (Photo: L.A. bluesman Lightnin’ Willie on stage)

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

What I miss is seeing all the greats play in small clubs without all the security. If you were respectful you could meet these guys and talk. Just being in their presence was enough to make you want to practice twice as hard when you got home. They encouraged us to do what they were doing and never put us down. There was a raw passion and grit to what these guys did, it excited me as a young man. You can’t get that now; the landscape has changed, and, unfortunately it will never be like that again. Most of that generation of performers have all passed. I hope that we can keep the candle burning for the next generation, encourage them to look at this great genre of music, and hope that it never goes away. How sad it would be if the world woke up one day having no one to carry it on as we have. I can’t imagine the blues becoming an extinct form of communication. That scares me.

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

I’d love to see more clubs and venues promote their acts again by building a reputation for being a magnet for good talent. That means compensating your talent, just like you would in any other profession. When people dance, sing along, clap and scream to what they hear, it is because someone took the time to craft a song, those lyrics, rhythms and put it together in such a way that it moves an audience. That’s not an easy thing to do; if it was, it wouldn’t be special. It’s not a part time job, it’s what I do.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Folk and Americana to Gospel, Rock and beyond?

Everything starts somewhere and our history created a music made out of suppression, pain, and struggling to survive. Out of that came a simple form of communication. As time moved forward, so did this way of communicating; instruments were brought into the mix to accompany the songs and stories passed down from past generations. As time moved on the complexity of communicating branched off like a tree into different musical forms — delta, folk, jazz, swing, rock and roll. The blues is often mistaken for a lamentation, but it can be anything from a lullaby to an ode to joy. It’s not all sad. It has it’s roots in the human experience, and when it’s whittled down to pure emotion, you can’t fake it…it has to “be real.”

What is the impact of Blues and Roots music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?                        Photo by © Corryography

If you look at the world and see where music has taken us, surely you will see that changed in the fifties with the likes of Bill Haley, Elvis, and Carl Perkins. Color barriers were slowly being broken down. This influenced the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Rory Gallagher and numerous others who only saw the music not the color. In turn they influenced the next generation of musicians.

If you look hard the blues is still there in form, weaving it’s way through other styles of music. Maybe the melody and the content has changed, but it is still being used. In that way it still lives on whether people are aware of it or not. So in it’s own way it still goes on.

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

I would love to go to the early fifties and see Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker and all the men I have so admired and learned from in my life. To see them young, vibrant, their swagger in full swing, attitude poring out of them as they sweat and the freedom they must have felt at that moment while performing. I’m lucky I got to see some of them and I saw all those things in them as a glimmer in their eye, but you could see it when they performed and joked around with each other. When I’m playing with my band and we’re cookin’, I feel as young as I did when I first started playing. Its funny, but I can remember when and where I learned things I play every night and for that brief moment I’m transported back in time. I think my heroes felt the same thing. 

Lightnin’ Willie - Official website

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