Q&A with Portland-based, Ben Rice - deeply rooted in traditional blues, yet at the same time fiercely original

"I'd like to think that it opens up the opportunity for people from different walks of life to relate and understand each other's life experience and stories. This music is very much a personal and societal expression of what it means to go through life's ups and downs and come out the other side better."

Ben Rice: Rising Blues Star

Ben Rice has been leaving huge impressions on audiences around the Northwest and winning awards for his vocals and guitar playing for the last seven years. In 2014 at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee, he left the audience speechless with a raw emotional delivery of his version of “Key To The Highway.” On his second consecutive trip to the International Blues Challenge, he made the finals in the solo/duo category and was awarded the St. Blues Guitarist award for best guitarist. His debut on the international stage in 2014, was a landmark step forward in his career from being a regional act playing primarily around the NW to a national and international touring artist. Captivating audiences and presenting himself as someone who has a lot of depth in the various sounds-capes of American music, Ben is gaining fans all over the world who love his playing, singing, songs, and stage performance. His original music blends Soul, Delta-Blues, Rockabilly, Jazz, and Funk into a Roots Stew. Influenced heavily by his parents record collection, from Al Green to Alice Cooper, Teddy Pendergrass to Marshall Tucker, at a young age Ben began investigating Blues and it’s history. Starting with B.B. King and going through the various regions and time periods, he is inspired and influenced by historical figures like Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, and Skip James to name a few.

Ben spent his college years studying Jazz Guitar at the University of Oregon as well as classical music while also playing in the Celtic Folk ensemble and Mariachi group on campus. He is well versed in a lot of musical styles that all contribute to the unique sound of his originals. As a performer Ben looks to the greats for inspiration and is always striving to connect with the audience through his music and stories. He also has an interesting arsenal of guitars playing resophonic guitars and homemade cigar box guitars. More important than the visual appeal Ben has an amazing way of making these guitars sound, often bringing audiences to tears with his slide playing. Ben Rice has been a growing talent in the NW, winning awards for his singing, guitar work, writing, and performing. He is stepping into the national and international scene using the vast influences of the American music to fuel his music and performance.

Interview by Michael Limnios      Photos by Sam Gerke / All rights reserved

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

Music has been influencing my world view since I was five. That's when I first picked up my father's acoustic guitar and began strumming it. Listening to the stories of the songs on the radio and my parents music collection and watching all of the people coming in and out of our house when my brothers held their band practice in our living room. It opened up my view to the outside world diverse individuals than what I was experiencing in my peer group at school, which was my largest social outlet growing up.

Out of college I began working with a lot of the Portland musicians who were in my mind legends and people I deeply admired. I am still in awe of everyone and their story. I learned that this whole blues lifestyle is about as broad as the music we create. I began to witness in real life some of the parallels with the Portland scene and what we hear about the figures in Blues history. People battling addiction and watching some of the most musically talented people I’ve ever met flounder and struggle with the routine of everyday life. I learned not to judge people in their journeys because we all have different things fueling us and different experiences that put up obstacles and not all of them are easily seen, avoided, or overcome. I think reading up on the personal lives of the musicians we listen to is a solid taste of what people who gravitate to a life in music but to witness it in real life on the band stand, night after night, in and out of clubs, festivals, and gigs is profound insight into the human condition. I am routinely grateful for the interesting, wonderful, and distinct people I get to meet because of music. That is equally musicians and fans. I love to hear their stories and connect with them, the other night I was hearing about a fan taking care of his father in the later stages of Alzheimer’s. We shared a few tears and moments as I reflected on my own journey in dealing with my own family scare. In those ten minutes it felt like the man and I transported to somewhere beyond time and physical place and swirling in emotions all brought on by connecting over a song I had written. It was very powerful and before we got too far gone we were pulled out of it by one my my band members coming up and talking about how much fun we had playing that night. It was such a crazy juxtaposition of deep emotion and cherishing good times.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?                                Ben Rice / Photos by Sam Gerke

As of lately, like the past five or six years ago in my writing and musical expression I've been trying to reach out and connect with other people. I made a commitment to myself to write meaningful songs and try to tackle expressing through music what may be very difficult, uncomfortable, or impossible to express with words alone. I read a great songwriting prompt, "Say something that everyone wants to say but nobody gets to, or say something that everyone needs to hear and never gets to." So, I spend a lot of time playing around and poking around with that concept when writing and performing. Most of the time I am envisioning a story line or movie in my head and dive into the characters mind to draw lyrics from. I don't focus on a genre or trying to classify anything in the moment, I just document whatever comes out and when the harmony and melody are finished play around with rhythms and arrangements that would work playing in a solo or band setting.

I like to think of my sound as a big collection of sounds and styles of American music. I try to pull from delta blues, early soul, and the various styles of electric blues.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Gosh, I certainly have some nightmare experiences from shows, but luckily in those moments the music was what pulled me through and mattered the most. Probably one of my most favorite highlights ever was when I got to open up for B.B. King on his last tour through Oregon. I have a version of "Key To The Highway" that I do, that sounds nothing like the original version. When they had asked me about opening the show I knew I had to play "Key To The Highway" because B.B. played it every night for a long time and recorded it on his album, "Riding With The King." My interpretation of the song was maybe a bit more melancholy and heavier with a slower tempo and minor chords added to it. So, in spite of the fact that B.B. may have had it in his set that night, I wanted to perform what I had come to with that song for him. In the middle of my set, right before I was getting ready to play, this song that he performed every night for many years. I looked over and saw B.B. was standing there watching my whole set. My thought was, "Ben, you know that he'd be watching, don't get all nervous, just be you and play your guitar." So, I took a deep breathe and step forward and began singing in this old historic theater, "Key To The Highway." I sang the first couple verses off mic and could hear my voice reverberate through to the top of the balcony and back. It was such a wonderful moment to think about. After I had finished, B.B. walked over to my partner who had been watching next to him and said, "He's very good." I couldn't be more grateful to have had that experience.

"Music has been influencing my world view since I was five. That's when I first picked up my father's acoustic guitar and began strumming it. Listening to the stories of the songs on the radio and my parents music collection and watching all of the people coming in and out of our house when my brothers held their band practice in our living room." (Ben Rice / Photos by Sam Gerke)

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The best advice I have ever gotten... When I first began singing, I was 14 years old, up until that point I had always been in a band with my brothers and my oldest brother would sing and play drums while I played guitar. I started singing because I got a gig for a band I was in with a bunch of friends from school. Everyday, (FOR YEARS) after school I'd have friends ride the bus to my house and we'd jam. We had a drum set, bass, amps, PA, and a rehearsal room that was bricked and carpeted so it bothered our neighbors less. Or maybe the neighbors were more conditioned to the sound of teenagers "rocking out" next door. Anyways, my friends and I got this gig and so I worked up the courage and the nerve to sing two songs that I had written. Most of it was instrumental jams. After the show we were loading up equipment and this random old guy, (probably not that random or old but I was 14 so that's how I remember him) told me he had hear me singing and it sounded pretty good. He continued to say that he could barely hear me singing but what he did hear he liked, then he said, "If you're gonna sing, sing loud. There are going to be a lot of people telling you shouldn't sing, get a singer for your band, and it's going to take a while but don't listen, keep on singing. One day all of that is going to change and slowly people are going to start saying that you sound good."

 That's exactly what happened. The old dude was right, through middle school and high school I kept singing and was singing loud. I wasn't great or even very good and it was a long road full of, "You should just focus on guitar" but at a certain point singing because a secondary way of expressing myself. Then when I was in college, I got a gig as the singer at a weekly blues jam in Eugene, OR. I just laughed and thought, that old dude was right. Now singing is such a major part of music for me. On the recommendation of my friend Curtis Salgado, I started studying singing privately and it has been a whole new world. I practice guitar way too much to say I practice singing more but it's definitely becoming a closer second than before.

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

I miss real songs in today's blues music. I think it is a very wide umbrella, I am not a purist and love the wide array of styles and musicians that make up the blues diaspora. I think there are songwriting and groove traps we fall into sometimes and much like top 40 radio things get boiled down to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes it feels like we're just saying words between epic guitar solos and I guess you could argue that that is one of those many styles of blues but when I say real songs, I mean solo and all. Pulling improvisational ideas from the melody of the song rather than riffs that could be played over any song. There's a lot of space to be creative in the blues genre and a lot of material to draw upon for inspiration and musical renovation. I hope that as we continue on towards the new sounds of blues music we can still find traces of Charley Patton, Bessie Smith, Fred McDowell, Louis Jordan, Albert King, and many other pioneers sewn throughout the fabric of blues music.

"I think Portland certainly has it’s fair share of traditional blues acts but it also has a lot of people pursuing their own sounds which is encouraged by the people who go out to catch shows. There is also a high level of musicianship in Portland. There are a bunch of music schools and places to study music in Oregon and that also informs the music that gets played." (Ben Rice / Photos by Sam Gerke)

What touched (emotionally) you from a solo act? What are the secrets of cigar box and resophonic guitar?

The first real solo act I saw on resophonic guitar that captivated me was David Jacobs-Strain, the sound of his style O National steel was incredibly gorgeous, and it seemed like he could make notes do anything he wanted to with his slide. He even played notes between the frets, semitones. He had this great way to introduce his songs by telling anecdotes and giving the audience a clue to what to tune into. Doug MacCleoud does the same thing, melding his stories into songs and his songs into stories. His New Panama Limited opened up a whole new world for me on the slide guitar. He showed me that the resonator can also sound really sweet and warm if you play it gently. The first show of Doug's I caught felt like we were sitting on his front porch listening to him play. His performance seemed so easy, relaxed, and natural. I walked away from his show inspired, I wrote two songs that I know about inspired from that performance but subconsciously I know I take it with me every time I pick up my resonator.

Secrets of the cigar box guitar, my friend Michael "Hawkeye" Herman showed me that most of the time slide guitar players are only playing the very first string with a slide. If you're tuned to a chord, then all you need to do is use your ear to find the notes that sound good then you got the whole scale. So, my secret would be, don't focus on playing all the strings with a slide, just play the first one!

The same secret holds true to the resophonic guitar too, just start with the first string for slide and play open strings in tandem to find notes that sound good. I studied guitar in college, and it taught me so much about the fretboard and music on the standard guitar. When I pickup my resonator I let all of that go. I tune to an open G or D chord and just let my ear do the playing. I let go of all the different chords and scales and just play what my ear wants to hear. This is really freeing as a songwriter and improviser. I find myself making connections that I wouldn’t have if I was thinking about what chord or scale, I was going to or from. I’m also always trying to pick up new slide guitar ideas from watching other players. Slide guitar in my mind is the wild Wild West of guitar, there are endless possibilities of how you can play and attack the guitar and notes. Whenever I hear or see something I hadn’t tried before I try to catch it and use it in my own playing. I do the same thing with standard guitar tuning and singing as well.

"I miss real songs in today's blues music. I think it is a very wide umbrella, I am not a purist and love the wide array of styles and musicians that make up the blues diaspora. I think there are songwriting and groove traps we fall into sometimes and much like top 40 radio things get boiled down to the lowest common denominator." (Ben Rice / Photos by Sam Gerke)

What would you say characterizes Oregon (Northwest) scene in comparison to other US scenes and circuits?

Portland has a really rich musical history. I am always learning more about the various musicians that were on the scene before I came around. I think Portland has a sense of originality and more of a soul and R&B flavor to it's blues music. Heavily influenced by people like O.V. Wright and Johnny Guitar Watson from the late 60s. There is also a large group of New Orleans music fans in the Portland area. We have some really terrific musicians you can see in town on a weekly basis, Lloyd Jones, Louis Pain, La Rhonda Steele, Lisa Mann, Mike Osborn, Curtis Salgado, Mitch Kashmar, and many more.

I think Portland certainly has it’s fair share of traditional blues acts but it also has a lot of people pursuing their own sounds which is encouraged by the people who go out to catch shows. There is also a high level of musicianship in Portland. There are a bunch of music schools and places to study music in Oregon and that also informs the music that gets played.

There’s some really great music being played each night of the week in Portland and so there is always a source of inspiration going on. I find myself always being in awe of the way people play and sound in our city. I think it’s a big part of why the music is so good there because everyone is always elevating each other. We also have a huge Blues festival every year on the Waterfront that brings in really great talent but also highlights some of the best music acts from our area. I think our homegrown talent always shines during the festival and is a special reminder that even next to national acts we’ve got some really terrific music going on.

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

I'd like to think that it opens up the opportunity for people from different walks of life to relate and understand each other's life experience and stories. This music is very much a personal and societal expression of what it means to go through life's ups and downs and come out the other side better.

For me the stories of the music and the lives of the performers have been a huge influence on me and how I interact with the people and world around me. I find myself at times singing choruses and songs like, “It’s all about people” by Paul Thorn or Sam Cooke’s version of, “If I had a Hammer.” And like mentioned above feel a powerful connection with the music and musicians.

"I like to think of my sound as a big collection of sounds and styles of American music. I try to pull from delta blues, early soul, and the various styles of electric blues."

(Ben Rice / Photos by Sam Gerke)

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

That is such a hard question, I’d love to go back and watch Sam Cooke sing with the Soul Stirers or catch one of those B.B. King Bobby Bland Live concert. One of my deepest lamentations is that I was never able to catch some of these blues greats live. It’d be such an amazing experience to catch Otis Rush or Freddie King live, to be hear O.V. Wright sing “Ace Of Spades” live?!? That would be soooo good! Hear Snooks Eaglin singing on the streets of New Orleans... What a great thing to think about...

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