Q&A with LA-based guitarist Johnny Main of The 44s - one the brightest rising stars on the American blues roots scene

"It’s been nothing but pure love and respect on the music aspect. Even though we are living in a very racial time right now here in the States...I just surely hope all people of all ethnicities can come together and be as one."

Johnny Main: Blues-Fired Rocket Fuel

After seven long years, The 44s return with Twist The Knife, a new album of blues-fired rocket fuel that pays homage to the greats while keeping a firm eye fixed on the future. Bandleader Johnny Main spent the past few years rebuilding the 44s with an all-new lineup, and the result is the best album of the band's long and storied career. "This is the frst time I've really been able to stretch," says Main, whose guitar playing is the core of the 44s sound. His expert string work leads the band through a 33-minute rock and roll reclamation that spans everything from psychedelic blues-rock to vintage Michigan Avenue grooves and more. The 44’s are: Johnny Main – Vocals, Guitar; Eric Von Herzen – Harmonica; Mike Hightower – Bass; Gary Ferguson – Drums; and Junior Watson – Guitar.                                         (Johnny Main, TX / Photo by Elaine Thomas Cambell)

The 44’s are a L.A-based band who play blues-roots-rock music.The 44’s are one the brightest rising stars on the American blues roots scene. Make no mistake about it. The raw rough and tough sounds generated by these expert musicians during live performances and in the making of their Sophomore album Americana, on the Rip Cat label, demands to be heard by Blues music fans World Wide. They evidence a genuine gift for creating blues in the moment while at the same time showing loyalty to a remarkable blues-and-r&b tradition that goes back decades through the James Harman Band and the Red Devils to storied greats like Howlin’ Wolf, Albert Collins, and Muddy Waters. They’ve become a favorite band across North America. The 44’s seem to be literally exploding across the Blues scene as a fully formed and functional unit commanding audiences with their in your face, yet highly contagious musical sound.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?

I was about 11 and I played classical violin. My music teacher would get mad that I would play my violin like a guitar. I knew then I had the bug. Jimi Hendrix was my first inspiration, then I tracked down who had influenced him. Albert King, B.B. King and Albert Collins. That was my foundation.

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?

My first gig was at my friends backyard party. We called it Barnfest. It was 5 bands that all played different styles. Of course, I was the only blues player there. I was 15 yrs. old playing voodoo child and the whole crowd of teens were freakin out. They didn't know I even played the guitar. I was a closet player.

How has the blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

It’s been nothing but pure love and respect on the music aspect. Even though we are living in a very racial time right now here in the States...I just surely hope all people of all ethnicities can come together and be as one.

Tell me about the beginning of the 44s. How did you choose the name? How do you describe the sound of the 44s?

The name came from me reading a vintage gun magazine sitting in the bathroom. They had a special issue on the colt 44. The same time I was reading it a Howling Wolf song came on Bluesville Sirius radio I have. I thought, The 44's.... and it stuck. The sound of the band is just raw, rough and tough.

"Meeting these guys... Eric Von Herzen, Mike Hightower, Gary Ferguson and Jr. Watson have really been the cure all. This band has had its ups and downs and these cats just showed up and killed it for the recording. We overcame some big obstacles and persevered in the past 7yrs. The best advice was EV telling me...let’s just get it done. Clean up on isle 44." (Photo: The 44s and Kid Ramos on stage)

How do you describe TWIST THE KNIFE sound and songbook? What characterize The 44s music philosophy?

We wanted to pay homage to the greats that came before us in our style. We mean no disrespect not trying to play it exactly like the original artist. We are not a cover band. We wanted to do it in our own style. We put our own Twist on it. Hence the title “Twist The Knife”...because some folks may like it, and some folks won’t. And that’s The Knife part. We are walking on top of a blade nowadays with what music is good or bad. And its all an art form. Our philosophy is...let’s just have a good time and play for the people that came out to see us.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your experience in Rip Cat Records?

It is so cool to be part of a label that is more like a family than a label. Everyone on R.C. is just so Damm cool. I love all those guys. Thank you to Scott Abeyta for having faith in us.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

Wow...that's a tough one. If there was a secret or secrets, I wish someone would have told me years ago!!! Hahaha. I was never told secrets, just stories. I just try and treat other players and fans the way I would want to be treated. I did some roadie work for Paul Oscher in Canada. Now that was an experience. He has some of the best stories. One after a gig he and I shot pool for hours and shared stories. Imagine that, two different generations of the blues but the same Passion for it. He always had an answer for everything.

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

Meeting these guys... Eric Von Herzen, Mike Hightower, Gary Ferguson and Jr. Watson have really been the cure all. This band has had its ups and downs and these cats just showed up and killed it for the recording. We overcame some big obstacles and persevered in the past 7yrs. The best advice was EV telling me...let’s just get it done. Clean up on isle 44.

"Because its real. No lip synchronized crap. No jumping around the stage with your pants down to your knees, showing off your underwear. You know if these kids knew what that really meant, I think they would pull up there pants quick...In prison in the 50's and 60's men would do that to try and get a lover. True story." (Photo: Johnny Main, Eric Von Herzen, and Mike Hightower)

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

Well of course playing with the amazing cats on the record. Eric, Mike, Watson and Ferg....and yeah we’ve had our fair share of sitting in and jamming and studio time with some amazing artists ...but if there is something special I would say it would be when I had spoken to Michael Ledbetter a week before he passed and I had sent him the recording of this album. And he really dug it. I have the most respect for that man. He was gonna change the blues world. He did change the blues world...For the better. RIP our brother.

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

I miss the myth...of what a real deal bluesman was...the rawness, pain, anguish, sorrow and at some point happiness... When you finally succeed at something you have invested your whole life towards. This isn’t a game to us...this isn’t a popularity contest. It’s a lifestyle. And it can be a lonely one. We don’t do this for shits and giggles. We’ve had a lot of loss in our lives. It’s what we are. Bluesmen...!!! As far as the future artists...that’s up to them to decide. Stay true to yourself and don’t get caught up in the hype...just keep it real.

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

If I could change one thing in the musical world...? Why is everything a contest? Everyone has a gift...we either except that or we don’t. Our society has become very cutthroat and the music scene as well. And trust me in my early years of playing I’ve been in a few contests...and never won. Just be you...be confident and true.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The best is getting the opportunity to play with all of my idols. Kid Ramos, Junior Watson, Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, Dave Hildago and Ceasar Rosas of Los Lobos, Johnny Dyer, Rick Holstrom, James Harman. One night I played with Slash at a bar in Hollywood. He wanted to play scuttle buttlin by S.R.V. and I was like sure. The worst was when my truck got stolen with my amp, mics and vintage gear was in there. A part of me died that day.

"I was about 11 and I played classical violin. My music teacher would get mad that I would play my violin like a guitar. I knew then I had the bug. Jimi Hendrix was my first inspiration, then I tracked down who had influenced him. Albert King, B.B. King and Albert Collins. That was my foundation."

What touched (emotionally) you from the local (L.A.) blues scene? What do you learn about yourself from the blues people?

Well for me the LA Blues Scene was Babes and Ricks in Crenshaw, Ca...This was the real deal spot for me...a Juke Joint based in a non-white part of South Central LA at the time when the Rodney King trial was going on... Mama Laura was the owner... A woman that didn’t take no jive. And they excepted me with open arms because I could play Albert King and BB King notes on my guitar. Keep in mind this was 1993....and I learned a lot from the love they had given me...I cut my teeth there and made my name. When it was 5 people or 150 people...I found myself every Monday night right there playing for the people.

Why do you play GUITAR & what were your favorite guitars back then?

I play because I feel I have this connection with the instrument. I can't explain it. There is just a feeling you get that you can't fake. It's the best day of your life and the worst at the same time. There is so much emotion that goes into it. My favorite guitars are and always will be Fender Stratocaster's.

Are there any memories from tour with Los Lobos, which you’d like to share with us?

Those guys invented the word, "cool". They are just so down to earth and have so much respect for everyone. I remember one night at the belly-up tavern in Solano beach, it was Dave Hildago, Ceasar Rosas, Kid Ramos, Kirk Fletcher and myself playing with Lobos at end of the night, and I'm lookin around on stage goin wow, I hope someone is taking pictures. The song we went into was a Lobos tune called, "mas y mas". I turned to kid and said, " what key are we in? ". He looked at me and said I have know idea. I think it was E flat.

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the recording time with Kid Ramos?

Hahaha....yeah. I came into the studio that day with my boots, cuffed Levi’s and a western shirt and he called me the midnight cowboy. I thought I looked cool but I guess I didn't.

"I miss the myth...of what a real deal bluesman was...the rawness, pain, anguish, sorrow and at some point happiness... When you finally succeed at something you have invested your whole life towards. This isn’t a game to us...this isn’t a popularity contest. It’s a lifestyle. And it can be a lonely one. We don’t do this for shits and giggles. We’ve had a lot of loss in our lives. It’s what we are. Bluesmen...!!!"

Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new?

For Harmonica players its... James Harman, Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin, William Clarke And Lester Butler. Old Harp players are Sonny Boy, Junior Wells and Little Walter. And for Old guitar players it's...T-Bone Walker, Lightnin Hopkins, All the Kings, Albert Collins, Luther Tucker, Hubert Sumlin and Otis Rush. And For The New School guitarist its...Kid Ramos, Junior Watson, Rick Holstrom, Hollywood Fats, the Vaughan brothers, Derek Trucks, Doyle Bramhall II, Johnny Moeller, Dave Gonzales (Paladins), Nick Curran and all my ripcat brothers.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?

Because its real. No lip synchronized crap. No jumping around the stage with your pants down to your knees, showing off your underwear. You know if these kids knew what that really meant, I think they would pull up there pants quick...In prison in the 50's and 60's men would do that to try and get a lover. True story.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture on the racial and socio-cultural implications?

It’s not a racial thing for me… It’s a soul thing. Ain’t no color in soul.

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

I don’t do time machines...everything happens for a reason...that’s why I’m doing this interview. Because if I went back in time, I would disrupt the time continuum and everything thing would be screwed up. Just watch Back to the Future. It explains everything.

How do you see the future of blues music? Give one wish for the BLUES....

I see it coming back, especially in these hard times. It's a piece of Americana that will last forever. My wish for the Blues is that everyone have more respect for it.

 (Johnny Main, TX / Photo by Elaine Thomas Cambell)

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