Q&A with NY-based roots and blues musician Phil Gammage - brings a unique depth and drama to music

"For Americans our Blues, Roots, and Jazz are the music genres that have helped defined us internationally. We’ve exported them as our cultural ambassadors. They’ve given birth to numerous other important styles of music such as rock n roll and soul music. Can you imagine a world without them?"

Phil Gammage: It's Real Good Music

Phil Gammage’s style of roots and blues influenced music has been compared to everyone from Roy Orbison to Johnny Cash to Tom Waits. Eight solo albums and numerous songs featured in television shows and commercials have earned Phil a growing following and a steady hum of praise. His new album It’s All Real Good (2019) features nine of Phil’s song compositions and has received great reviews and radio airplay internationally. As on all of his recordings, it features Phil singing, playing guitar, and playing the harmonica. It’s All Real Good is a follow-up to 2016’s Used Man For Sale, an album of outstanding Gammage penned songs. It received numerous rave reviews and made numerous ‘Best of the year’ lists. Originally from Houston, Texas, Gammage released two acclaimed solo albums Night Train and Kneel to the Rising Sun in the 1990’s on France’s influential New Rose Records.                (Phil Gammage / Photo by David Schell)

In the years before the music genre term, “Americana” was even being used, these albums explored the blues, country, and folk music genres. By paying tribute to these styles through his own songwriting, Gammage gave the music a fresh and unique sound. Subsequent albums appeared on American and European labels into the 2000’s including the critically acclaimed Cry of the City on Alive Natural/Marilyn Records. Phil returned to recording in 2014 with his stellar Adventures in Bluesland album. Later that same year, a collaboration with poet/activist John Sinclair resulted in the album Keeping the Blues Alive. 2015 saw Phil record and release the essential The American Dream (under the band name Adventures in Bluesland) which features nine original songs. He currently performs his roots and blues based music as a solo performer or with his full band The Phil Gammage Quartet. Phil is the consummate live performer, lyricist, singer, guitarist, and harmonica player who brings a unique depth and drama to music.

Interview by Michael Limnios   Photos by David Schell / All rights reserved

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you have taken?

It’s given me an artistic direction to express myself. The journey continues to have its ups and downs for me like everything else, but I’m still standing.

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

I’m all about the power of the song and the vibe the music can create. These two things usually strengthen a song — dynamics and not over playing. Blues music in particular really benefits from dynamics within a song. My repertoire is a collection of songs that I’ve written and continue to enjoy performing either solo or with a band. Some I may have written last week and some may be songs I wrote years ago. I often work in a cover song or two in my set… I like to take early 20th century blues songs and give them my own spin. In some cases, I’ve “borrowed” the lyrics and put them to new music of my own as I did with Ride With Railroad Bill. Ultimately the decision for whether I should perform or record a song is how well I can sing it. If I feel my vocals are strong it could be a keeper, if they aren’t I’ll ditch the song, even if I wrote it. Inspiring work of other artists spurs my creative drive.

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

There’s not one particular person that I’ve met who was THE huge influence on my music with their teachings and/or advice. I’ve tried to pick up some wisdom from whomever and wherever I can along the journey. Sometimes the best teachers are your own mistakes and that’s the only way you’ll learn. Sad but true.

"I’m all about the power of the song and the vibe the music can create. These two things usually strengthen a song — dynamics and not over playing. Blues music in particular really benefits from dynamics within a song." (Phil Gammage / Photo by David Schell)

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

Performing in Europe is always great. I played some solo acoustic shows there a couple of years ago and it was an amazing experience. I’ve also toured there with bands. Music truly is the universal language and you can really see that when you play music in a country that doesn’t speak your language.

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

Embracing new technology has affected music in so many ways, good and bad. Recorded music is largely generated by computers and often it sounds like that. Is this an improvement over the analog process of the past? Can we ban auto tune on vocals forever please?

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

I want musicians be paid fairly for their work. Live performance, recordings, royalties, and more.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from Allen Ginsberg and John Sinclair?

John is a beautiful wise soul whom I feel lucky to know and to have collaborated with. He’ll always be associated with the Detroit MC5 / White Panthers but his true passion is blues music and he’s a dedicated scholar who has written several books about it. Our album together “Keeping the Blues Alive” is a collection of his blues readings with our improvised music. It was recorded live in Brooklyn, New York a few years ago.

What I recall most about Ginsberg was his high energy level and sense of humor. It was like the man never slept, always go go go. He wasn’t a youngster by then either — but the man GOT AROUND. For several years I’d run into him in different cities. When I lived in Colorado he was teaching poetry at the Naropa Institute in Boulder. I remember him from Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. Later, when I moved to New York, his apartment was a block down the street from mine. All by chance… we were just traveling down the same paths there for a while.

"Performing in Europe is always great. I played some solo acoustic shows there a couple of years ago and it was an amazing experience. I’ve also toured there with bands. Music truly is the universal language and you can really see that when you play music in a country that doesn’t speak your language." (Phil Gammage / Photo by David Schell)

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

Patience.

Listen more and talk about yourself less.

Gig more and rehearse less.

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

For Americans our Blues, Roots, and Jazz are the music genres that have helped defined us internationally. We’ve exported them as our cultural ambassadors. They’ve given birth to numerous other important styles of music such as rock n roll and soul music. Can you imagine a world without them?

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