Q&A with Memphis-based musician John Németh, has been bridging the lines between Blues, Soul and Americana

"Blues and Soul is music of hope, originated by a people, who had to survive on hope. The feeling of despair and repair are still felt today. Memphis struggles with poverty and maybe is one of the most impoverished cities in America. I just want to help people feel better and performing songs about familiar troubles might make a person feel less lonely."

John Németh: Stronger Than Strong

As a teenager in the early ‘90s growing up in the muddy potato fields of Idaho, John Németh was drawn to the hard-edged hip hop sounds and rock bands of the day, until a friend, Tom Moore, introduced him to the Junior Wells and Buddy Guy classic “Hoodoo Man Blues.” Together they formed Fat John & the 3 Slims, which is still regarded as a legendary band in the Boise region. John played harp and sang in local bands, often opening the show for nationally touring blues acts and quickly caught the ear of established blues musicians. It didn’t take long before he was releasing his own recordings, “The Jack Of Harps” (2002) and “Come And Get It” (2004), featuring Junior Watson, and performing in Junior Watson’s band. John relocated to San Francisco in 2004, where he had the bitter-sweet good fortune to undertake a two-year stint with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, filling in for the ailing Sam Myers. Németh immersed himself in the deep musical waters of the Bay area, absorbing more of the soul and funk grooves of what he calls “the early East Bay Grease sound” of San Francisco and Oakland bands. John’s talents did not go unnoticed and he soon signed a recording contract with Blind Pig Records. His national debut for that label, “Magic Touch” (2007), produced by Anson Funderburgh and featuring Junior Watson on guitar. In 2008 Németh was recruited by Elvin Bishop to do some performances and contribute four vocal tracks to his Grammy-nominated album “The Blues Rolls On.”

(John Németh / Photo by Valery Latypov)

Németh released two more albums on the Blind Pig label, “Love Me Tonight” (2009) & “Name The Day (2010). John followed up with two independently released live albums in 2012, “Blues Live” and “Soul Live.” In 2013 John relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, where he teamed up with producer Scott Bomar and his classic Memphis Soul band, the Bo-Keys, to create an album of revisited soul classics, “Memphis Grease” (2014 Blue Corn). John won the 2104 BMA for Best Soul Blues Male Artist, followed by “Memphis Grease” winning Best Soul Blues Album in 2015. In 2017 Németh released “Feelin’ Freaky” (produced by Luther Dickinson) on his own Memphis Grease label. Later that same year, Németh was part of a side project “The Love Light Orchestra Featuring John Németh” recorded live at one of Memphis’ favorite watering holes, Bar DKDC. The 10-piece band was initially envisioned by guitarist Joe Restivo, vocalist John Németh and arranger/trumpeter Marc Franklin. Németh returned to Electraphonic in December of 2019  with his seasoned road band of young gun players, The Blue Dreamers, for a rowdy southern swamp roots session resulting in his new 10th album, “Stronger Than Strong” – will be released October 16th - demonstrating, yet again, his uncanny ability to skillfully blend retro and modern blues and soul into compelling music that is simultaneously old and new. 12-track album produced by Németh and recorded at Electraphonic Recording in Memphis, features 10 original compositions.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

From the very beginning Blues gave me the feeling of freedom, opportunity, hope, and love. I believe that is the desire of any human being. I was a young man and did not know much about the history of the music, I just knew how it made me feel. It gave sympathy and compassionate for the person in the song. I always got the sense of hope from the singer’s voice and the feeling of dissatisfaction of their current situation. Soul music was the same as blues but placed in a different package. I could sense a stronger connection to the church. The music lifts me to new places both spiritually, physically, and geographically. I’ve been to war torn countries and countries living in peace and no matter where I go, there are fans of the music and fans of my contribution. 

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? What touched (emotionally) you from the sound of harmonica?

My sound is what I love in life, the energy that I receive and the energy that I give. I raise a wide variety of organic sounds in my musical garden and feelings that have slowly evolved over millions of years. My songbook is a reflection of my life, and the world around me. The harmonica is powerful instrument and very responsive to emotion, it allows me to cry and moan.

"From the very beginning Blues gave me the feeling of freedom, opportunity, hope, and love. I believe that is the desire of any human being. I was a young man and did not know much about the history of the music, I just knew how it made me feel." (Photo: John Németh)

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

Paul DeLay was one of my first mentors. He told me, “Look bubba you can’t play the chestnuts your whole life, you’re going to have to write some songs, so you can get that mailbox money!” I went back home and wrote “Let Me Hold You”!   Junior Watson loved that song and we recorded it on my “Come And Get It.”  Anson Funderburgh liked it and played it on my “Magic Touch.” It’s great to meet someone who cares enough to be honest with you.  

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

The last gig I remember was the other day on my front porch! All my neighbors sit on their front porches and watch the show while I perform for fans on Facebook. I had the fans request the songs for the play list and was surprised how deep they went into the songbook  It was great to perform songs that I wrote over 20 years ago. My fans are the greatest. I also performed my new single “I Can See Your Love Light Shine.” It was a great success and I love performing these songs acoustically. I perform for donations these days and the fans take great care of me. Always have.

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

I think there is still a tremendous amount of talent in the world performing at an exceptional level. I do miss the organics in the music. I miss the days when popular music was spontaneous. These times come and go. I love the creativity, heart and soul that is on display today. The vocalist is a great vocalist even though many can’t cut a complete song in one take.

"My sound is what I love in life, the energy that I receive and the energy that I give. I raise a wide variety of organic sounds in my musical garden and feelings that have slowly evolved over millions of years. My songbook is a reflection of my life, and the world around me. The harmonica is powerful instrument and very responsive to emotion, it allows me to cry and moan." (Photo: John Németh)

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

Memphis has a lot of musicians and venues. There has been a long tradition of people coming to Memphis to hear music much like that of New Orleans. The town has many great hit making studios and hit making musicians - Yo Gotti, B.B. King, Elvis, Carla Thomas, Justin Timberlake, Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Cotton to name just a few. Southern Avenue and Victor Wainwright are coming up through the ranks to be contenders as well. The town is famous for funky grooves with a lot of soul.

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

Communication is everything. You can be successful in any style of music if it speaks to people. 

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

Blues and Soul is music of hope, originated by a people, who had to survive on hope. The feeling of despair and repair are still felt today. Memphis struggles with poverty and maybe is one of the most impoverished cities in America. I just want to help people feel better and performing songs about familiar troubles might make a person feel less lonely.

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 Stax Records on the day Otis Redding cut “Try A Little Tenderness!”

John Németh - Home

(John Németh / Photo by Laura Carbone)

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