Q&A with Boston-based Erin Harpe & Jim Countryman, one of the most exciting roots rocking blues duo

"Music is for healing in a very crazy world. It is an escape, it is education, it is entertainment. Music is magic!"

Erin Harpe & Jim Countryman:

Joyous Roots Blues Meeting

The Boston-based multi-band leader, producer, indie label owner, singer-songwriter, and guitarist leads the electric blues quartet Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers with her husband and label co-owner, bass player Jim Countryman. Erin has jammed with iconic acoustic blues artists Phil Wiggins (of Cephas & Wiggins), Warner Williams and Jay Summerour, Eleanor Ellis, Jontavious Willis, and James Montgomery. She’s opened for legends such as ZZ Top, T-Model Ford, Honeyboy Edwards, Roy Bookbinder, and James Cotton. Erin has played at the House of Blues, Caffe Lena, Club Passim, the International Blues Challenge, South by Southwest, the New York State Blues Festival, and many other festivals and venues around the US. Blues is the first music Erin (Erin’s father is Neil Harperemembers hearing, specifically Piedmont blues, a syncopated, fingerpicked variant of the blues popularized in the East coast region by artists such as Blind Blake and Josh White, and later Rev. Gary Davis and Cephas & Wiggins.

(Erin Harpe & Jim Countryman / Photo by Dave Geissler)

During college, Erin studied abroad in Kenya and developed a love for Afro-pop. After graduation, she moved to Boston and began playing at coffee houses and open mics performing solo blues. This is where she met her husband, Jim, who remains a big part of Erin’s story, and co-founded with Erin the boutique label Juicy Juju Records. For a period of time, Erin took a detour from the blues, indulging her Afro-pop jones with Lovewhip which earned her a lot of plum exposure. However, in wake of the group’s success, she also found herself revisiting her father’s blues record collection. In 2010 Erin and Jim formed the band Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers. Erin’s album Meet Me In The Middle (2020) is an inspired return to the country blues that shaped her. The 10-song album is produced by Erin—her third production credit—and co-produced and engineered by Jim. It was recorded during pandemic lockdown in the couple’s third-floor Boston apartment, using what they had on hand: namely, some acoustic guitars, including a 12-string, a ukulele bass, Erin’s foot as percussion, and a kazoo.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Erin: I was brought up listening to the blues and roots music, played by my dad, Neil Harpe, and his friends. He taught me to play acoustic fingerstyle country blues & Piedmont blues guitar, originating in the 1920’s and 30’s, but still a vibrant style when I was growing up in the Washington DC area (and still is today). He was an original member of the Washington DC Blues Society, and the acoustic blues was what was very popular around DC (whereas electric blues was bigger down the road in Baltimore). There were a number of great musicians in the area who would all meet up for jams at Archie’s Barbershop after hours, such as the well-known world-traveling guitar/harp duo Cephas & Wiggins, as well as John Jackson, Rick Franklin, Eleanor Ellis and others. The music was a big part of my life, hearing my dad practice every morning, and watching my dad play at festivals and clubs in the area. It influenced me to create a life around music, and the music has taken me all over the US, and to Europe (the UK and Spain so far…). And there are many more places I’d like to go!

Jim: Blues music fans are global! When we first toured the UK, we were surprised by the strong interest in acoustic country blues. From what our touring friends say that is also true throughout Europe.

"I miss the stripped down, laid-back realness of the blues. Nowadays, you go to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, and overplaying seems to be encouraged. Too many notes! Often the acts that win are more like a big Vegas show band to me than the blues I grew up loving. I grew up loving Memphis Minnie, Mississippi John Hurt, Koko Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf, etc., and I like for there to be space in between the notes." (Erin Harpe & Jim Countryman / Photo by Archie Fergusson)

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

Erin: My sound is based around fingerstyle guitar playing, and a lot of my songbook comes from songs that were passed down to me from my dad (his own arrangements of songs by Tommy Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Minnie, Willie Brown, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Blake and many others), or that I learned from listening to his record collection. I got really into Memphis Minnie when I was a teenager, I tried to emulate her singing and guitar playing. Now, after playing for quite a few years and putting out 6 blues albums, I’ve developed my own style of singing and playing, and I branched out and started playing some electric guitar too with my band Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers (fingerstyle at first and now I’ve added some boogie blues to the mix using a pick, like the Slim Harpo tune “Shake Your Hips”!).

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Erin: I opened for Lil’ Ed & the Imperials a few years back, and he is a great guy. Such an awesome stage presence, and a nice guy when you meet him. It was a snowy night in Syracuse NY, and we got to know Ed and the band, hanging out backstage. A couple years later, we played the Tall City Blues Festival with him in Texas. We just arrived and were standing in the lobby, when in walks Lil’ Ed and his band. We said hi, and at some point we asked, what’s your secret? He said, he’d finally become a headliner at blues festivals, and that all he’d had to do was wait for Koko Taylor to die. (They had the same booking agent for many years…) In other words, keep doing what you’re doing.

Jim: Some fun meetings were with Billy Gibbons, James Cotton, Honeyboy Edwards. The best advice given to me about music was by bass player Tina Weymouth, of the band Talking Heads, "Don't do music for money, do it for the life style".

"It’s a little tough in Boston lately because the cost of living has really gone up over the past 20 years, and it’s tough for musicians to afford. A lot of musicians have moved away or gotten out of the business, and many of the best blues and roots specific venues have closed. So, Boston isn’t necessarily a hotbed for the Blues like it was in the ’70’s. But the greater Boston area and the rest of New England has a pretty vibrant scene." (Photos: Erin with his father Neil Harpe & Erin Harpe with Billy Gibbons)

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

Erin: The most exciting artist I have opened for was ZZ Top, about 5 years ago, at an outdoor amphitheater called Indian Ranch in Webster Massachusetts. ZZ Top only allows openers to play solo, so it was pretty nerve-racking to go out all by myself and play solo acoustic blues for thousands of ZZ Top fans! They really gave me a nice reception though, and I had a good set, though it went by like a flash. And ZZ Top was great of course! Afterwards, as we were packing up our merchandise, someone came to tell us Billy Gibbons wanted to say hello. He came out of the tour bus, and we chatted and took a couple photos. There was a guitar a kid wanted signed, and Billy picked it up and played a lick that he had liked from my set – he had been listening (!), though he was backstage so he couldn’t see my set. Then he said, “wanna go out on the town?” And we said yes, of course! The only problem was, we were in a very small town, with not much going on. We saw a bowling alley nearby, so we headed in that direction, following Billy and a guy from his crew in their pickup truck. The bowling alley was closed, so they continued on. We passed a church with something going on in the parking lot, and they pointed to it out the window. We stopped, it was a Greek festival, so we ended up having spinach pies and listening to great stories of being on the road from Billy! We bonded over our love of blues, and had a really great time. Of course, he was very recognizable and several people came up asking for pictures, to which he politely said “not right now, I’m with my friends.” I will never forget that!

Jim: One of our most memorable shows was opening for ZZ Top. After the show Billy Gibbons asked us to go bowling with him. That would have been super fun but there weren't any bowling alleys anywhere near the venue. Instead, we went to a Greek Festival being held at a Greek church, lots of food and Greek music. Billy bought us a Greek dinner and talked with us for over 2 hours about life, music, and his recent solo album that he recorded in Cuba. It was a blast!

"My sound is based around fingerstyle guitar playing, and a lot of my songbook comes from songs that were passed down to me from my dad (his own arrangements of songs by Tommy Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Minnie, Willie Brown, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Blake and many others), or that I learned from listening to his record collection." (Erin Harpe / Photo by Dave Geissler)

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

Erin: I miss the stripped down, laid-back realness of the blues. Nowadays, you go to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, and overplaying seems to be encouraged. Too many notes! Often the acts that win are more like a big Vegas show band to me than the blues I grew up loving. I grew up loving Memphis Minnie, Mississippi John Hurt, Koko Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf, etc., and I like for there to be space in between the notes. It’s more about the feeling, the phrasing, and the beauty of each note, than how fast someone can play or over-emote vocals. What I am excited about for the future is that there are young players who are going back to the roots of the blues, like Jontavious Willis, Marquis Knox, King Solomon Hicks, and quite a few others. It’s so great to see, especially young black musicians, carrying on the tradition and making it their own, as we (inevitably) lose some of the older generation.

Jim: The past is so close these days. Boston used to be a hotbed for blues music over the last 40-50 years but due to increasing real estate prices and now Covid, it is an almost impossible city for working musicians to be based out of.

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

Erin: It’s a little tough in Boston lately because the cost of living has really gone up over the past 20 years, and it’s tough for musicians to afford. A lot of musicians have moved away or gotten out of the business, and many of the best blues and roots specific venues have closed. So, Boston isn’t necessarily a hotbed for the Blues like it was in the ’70’s. But the greater Boston area and the rest of New England has a pretty vibrant scene. There are quite a few fantastic blues and roots festivals within a few hours drive of Boston. And there is a good touring circuit because the cities aren’t very far away from each other like they are out west.

Jim: Once one of the best, the Boston blues scene has emigrated out to the suburbs, as well as the surrounding New England states. There are still 1-2 local promoters who put on great festivals but those are all held outside of Boston these days.

What is it like to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?            (Erin Harpe / Photo by Joe Harrington)

Erin: I sometimes think that if I’d been male, I would be taken more seriously as a guitar player. Ever since I started playing, a lot of guys are really patronizing, like, “the little lady’s gonna strum a little” – but I’ve always been playing pretty advanced finger-picking. I get lots of really surprised looking guys coming up to me after shows, but then the compliment is an underwhelming “you’re pretty good”. Eye roll. Meanwhile Living Blues Magazine is calling me “one of the finest fingerpicking acoustic blues singers in the land”. It seems like it’s going to take a little longer for women instrumentalists to be fully accepted, but I’m hopeful. There are quite a few ladies doing well in the blues world now, like Samantha Fish, Ana Popovic and Larkin Poe, and that’s really great! But women-lead bands are often an afterthought at many blues festivals, with one or two at most on the bill (and sometimes none), and it puts us in the position of competing against each other for those slots. I know some great festivals that are actively hiring more female artists though, and I’m hoping it’s a trend!

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Erin: That even though it’s very hard to make a living playing music, and it’s a lot of work, it can be worth it to see the joy it brings to people. Musicians have to do their own promotion, and grow their own career, without much advice or support. If you love it enough, and you’re hard-working and savvy enough (and are either independently wealthy or have a good side hustle like teaching lessons), you can have a career in music. I didn’t say “make it” – because there is no making it!

Jim: Play everyday, stay positive, realize it's a lifelong journey, enjoy the bad as well as the good. Do it for the lifestyle, the blues audience are some of the most friendly and dedicated people out there!

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

Erin: I really hope that music can bring people together. It’s been a tough few years, especially here in the US, with people being very divided. That’s what my new album, “Meet Me In The Middle” is about. Music is healing, and I want fans to come away from my show feeling some joy.

Jim: Music is for healing in a very crazy world. It is an escape, it is education, it is entertainment. Music is magic!

Erin Harpe - Home

(Erin Harpe & Jim Countryman / Photo by Dave Geissler)

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