"Good blues players have a way of squeezing life's emotions out of each note by the the way they phrase, bend, slur etc. Blues often tells of woes and adversity, but it also rejoices in feeling good. That's a state of mind."
Al Lerman: Blues With a Whole Lot of Soul
Bluesman AL LERMAN is a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter. He was founder and leader of the 2X Juno Award winning band FATHEAD, and along the way built a solid career touring as an acoustic solo act, accompanying himself on guitar and rack harmonica. An engaging and skilled artist, he is regarded among the top harmonica players in the country and his prowess on the instrument has earned him no less than ten Maple Blues Award nominations. His harp and wailing tenor saxophone have been heard on countless recordings/live sessions with some of the best in the blues, and his 2016 standout recording "Slow Burn" made the esteemed world-wide list of Top 100 Blues Albums. That same year he received a Maple Blues Award nomination for "Acoustic Act Of The Year". In 2017 he received a Recognition Award for “Leadership In Arts & Culture” from the County of Peterborough. A soulful musician with an impressive catalogue of well crafted songs and a wry wit to boot, Al casts a magical spell on his audience wherever he goes.
Al's third studio album, "Northern Bayou" (2019), offers up a tasty acoustic/electric musical mix that will not only please fans, but will undoubtedly make many new ones as well. Recorded live in the studio over two days with minimal overdubs, the disc’s eleven stand-out tracks capture the joy and excitement that is generated when a handful of seasoned pros (who also happen to be very good friends) get together to play.
How has the Blues music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
First and foremost, I've seen blues music move many people from all different cultures and races. There is something about it that is universal and the feeling comes through even if they might not speak the language. The joys and sorrows that the blues celebrate resonate with everybody. It makes it easy to see that deep down, we are all just people. It's sad that there are others out there that are filled with hate and prejudice. They just don't get it.
How do you describe your songbook and sound?
The first blues I was ever exposed to was the acoustic stuff... Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Lightnin' Hopkins etc. and there's a certain laid back vibe characterized by swampy, loping grooves. I love that stuff, and it's pretty cool playing those feels with a full band because there is so much room for everybody to move around in. I have a killer band on my Northern Bayou album which includes Alec Fraser on bass, Lance Anderson on keys and Chuck keeping on drums. My old pal Morgan Davis played on a track too. They are great musicians at the top of their game and we had a ball playing together. The album was recorded live off the floor in two days with very few over dubs.
Where does your creative drive (new album) come from?
I've been into blues music since I was eleven years old, and it's stayed with me all these years. The early blues originated in the rural south. I live up in Canada and I am in a very rural area of Ontario. It's a more natural pace here and I'm sure that that influenced my writing for this album. While hearing the final mixes of "Northern Bayou" and looking at the swamp that's just outside my house, "Northern Bayou" seemed like the perfect title.
"I would have loved to have witnessed the music in the legendary places where it first evolved. Could you imagine hearing Son House in a Mississippi juke joint, or seeing Big Joe Turner in 1940s Kansas City or Muddy Waters playing the south side of Chicago in 1950!? Those joints would be jumpin'. Hell, I might have even snagged myself a gig!"
Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
I was really fortunate to have sat in with a lot of my blues heroes; Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Sunnyland Slim and more. Any time you get to play with a master, you're gonna learn something. I remember when I first played with Muddy, his stuff was so slow, but I was so young and eager I had played all my best licks in the first couple bars! I learned real quick right there on the spot to take my time, leave some spaces and play off of all the other instruments. You need to weave in and out with everybody else and become part of the musical fabric. I thought I had really screwed up, but at the end of the song when I went to step down, Muddy said to me "Stay up and play some more. You play good." That was a huge inspiration to me.
A mentoring influence on me was Carey Bell. I met him when I was just starting to play seriously, maybe when I was about 16 years old or so. At the time, I looked old enough to get into the bars he was playing even though I was under age. From our conversations, he understood I was a big blues fan that was aspiring to be a musician. He'd invite me to drop by his hotel during the day and hang out. Sometimes we'd play together and he'd show me stuff on the harp, or sometimes we'd just listen to music and cook hot dogs in his room. He was with Willie Dixon at the time, and those guys would all come into the room to eat hot dogs too. I remember one time when I asked Carey about an upcoming album, he called home to Chicago and had his wife play it for me over the phone! Those were really fun times. Years later, playing with Willie Big Eyes Smith was pretty cool too. He was really down to earth and I considered him a friend. We had a lot of fun in the studio recorded and had a ball when we came to Athens to play. As far as advice, there were lots of lessons learned from so many great bluesman: be yourself; take your time; be humble; listen; don't overplay; treat people right.
Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
I recently opened for Jimmy D Lane. When I was offered the gig, I was hoping I might get a few minutes to ask him about his dad, Jimy Rogers. As it turned out, we got to hang out together after sound check for about two hours. It was a treat hear many of the road stories his dad would often tell. One of the best was about Earl Hooker. Once when it came time to get paid after a gig, the money was light. When Hooker complained, the owner said that the agreement was a door deal and it wasn't very busy. Earl said, "I ain't working for no door!", but the owner stood firm. Reluctantly, Earl took the paltry sum of money and went outside to the station wagon where his band had already packed up the equipment. He leaned into the window and grabbed a screwdriver from the glove box. In no time he had the tavern door unbolted and strapped on to the top of his car. He drove it back to Chicago and sold it. Working for the door indeed!
In recent years, I was invited by Electro-Fi Records prez Andrew Galloway to attend a studio session with Mel Brown, Snooky Pryor, Willie Smith and Pine Top Perkins. We were all going out to dinner afterwards and again, I was hoping to hear a lot of great stories. As soon as the waitress brought our waters over, Mel Brown took a pill out and swallowed it. Soon after, they all started taking out little pill bottles. Needless to say the entire dinner conversation then shifted to the topic of aches, pains, cholesterol and medical ailments.
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
I guess I mostly miss the great bluesmen themselves that I could go see six nights a week in a bar or coffee house. I used to live in Toronto and they'd all pass through a few times a year.; Muddy, Wolf, Jimmy Reed, BB King, Bobby Bland, Willie Dixon, Big Walter Horton, Albert Collins, T-Bone Walker, Sonny & Brownie, Bhukka White, Buddy Guy & Jr Wells, James Cotton and so many more. They were all accessible and it was easy to go meet them and strike up a conversation. Now the blues stars of the day play bigger concert halls and festivals where meeting them is not as easy. Nevertheless, I'm happy to see them getting better gigs!
For blues to thrive, it has to evolve. Howlin' Wolf was quite different from Son House as is Guy Clark from BB King. I like seeing younger blues bands on the scene. They are the future of this music and it's up to them to put their own stamp on it. They are the ones that will attract a younger audience for this music and hopefully keep it going.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
That folks would actually buy the artists' music that they like instead of downloading or streaming for free.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music circuits?
You have to work hard to make it in music. Even though it's a fun, loose atmosphere to perform in, you can'y treat it as an excuse to party all the time. You have to hustle to get gigs, practice hard and really learn your instrument. Be professional. Don't be an asshole; it doesn't matter how good you are, you won't hold onto any gig for long if you act like a jerk.
Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?
Obviously, there are certain musical perimeters that help define the blues genre such a chord structure and 12-bar verses, but it's more a feeling than anything. I often stray out of the 12 bar form but still consider myself a blues player. Good blues players have a way of squeezing life's emotions out of each note by the the way they phrase, bend, slur etc. Blues often tells of woes and adversity, but it also rejoices in feeling good. That's a state of mind.
Blues was the first music that gave African-Americans a voice. It gave white people like myself an insight into their struggle and made me very aware of how important the Civil Rights movement was.
"That folks would actually buy the artists' music that they like instead of downloading or streaming for free."
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 have loved to have witnessed the music in the legendary places where it first evolved. Could you imagine hearing Son House in a Mississippi juke joint, or seeing Big Joe Turner in 1940s Kansas City or Muddy Waters playing the south side of Chicago in 1950!? Those joints would be jumpin'. Hell, I might have even snagged myself a gig!
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