Q&A with Southern musician Lew Jetton - produces critically acclaimed Southern-Fried Chicago Blues sound

"Blues music has been one of the major factors in bringing the races together. The music brought black and white fans together and brought black and white musicians together. In the music there is common ground and love because the blues is about the basic feelings and emotions of everyone, no matter their race."

Lew Jetton: Blues Trip on the 61 South

Lew Jetton learned The Blues while working in the cotton fields of his native West Tennessee as a teenager and young man. Musically, he had 2 of the best mentors you could think of. While working in Jackson, Tennessee, he became acquainted with the legendary Carl Perkins. Later, after moving to Western Kentucky, he was befriended by blues legend Snooky Pryor, who hailed from just across the Ohio River in Southern Illinois. Lew joined the blues band 61 South in 1994 as a guitar player, then took over as the frontman a year later, when the original singer, Fast Layne Hendrickson, moved to New Orleans. Since then, they've become favorites on the Midwest club and festival circuit and Lew has continued to write and produce critically acclaimed blues music. Jetton released in the summer of 2016, the CD, Rain. The band's previous 2 releases, State Line Blues and Tales From A2 Lane.

Lew Jetton was raised on a farm between Trenton and Dyersburg, Tennessee, and yes, worked the cotton fields as a child and continued with farm work into his 20s. Palestine Blues (2017), the new album from Lew Jetton & 61 South, includes 10 original songs, all recorded "three piece" with just Lew on guitars and vocals, Erik Eicholtz on drums and Otis Walker on bass, with 2 tracks featuring Shack Shakers harp slinger JD Wilkes. Last year's release, Rain, cemented Jetton's reputation as a clever songwriter, and dynamic, original vocalist, finishing in the top 40 of Roots Music Report's Contemporary Blues Releases for 2016!

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

To me the blues are the rhythm of life. I first heard the blues as a child while working in the cotton fields of West Tennessee and the music has been part of my soul ever since. The blues are part of the basic emotions of life: love, hate, yearning, betrayal, joy and depression. Every basic emotion is covered in the blues.

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

I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and I think the blues and the rock music from those times had a profound influence on most of us who grew up during those turbulent times. It's made it easier for me to relate to hard times, and other peoples and cultures. It's also led me to question authority more, since I came up in those very politically turbulent years.

How do you describe Lew Jetton sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I try to write earthy, yet catchy blues songs. I want to write tight songs which resonate with people and songs which people will leave my live performances singing to themselves over and over. Memorable songs which everyone can relate to. Sometimes my songs might bring a little smile to your face. Other songs of mine might bring a tear or two. They are simple songs which celebrate the basics of life, down to the little things of everyday living.

"In the future, I hope blues can continue to allow for enough change to stay relevant and not just be an old style of music in a museum. We've got to let blues continue to grow, in order to stay true as an art form, and attract new, younger fans." (Photo: Lew Jetton & 61 South)

How do you describe PALESTINE BLUES sound and songbook? What characterize album’s philosophy?

We used a very stripped-down approach to recording Palestine Blues. It was only one guitar, bass, and drums for the most part. We did not want any elaborate instrumentation to take away from the powerful messages of the songs. The songs are a reflection of a very tough ten-year stretch of my life, which is still continuing today to some degree. I myself and people close to me dealt with a number of problems, not unlike many of the problems a lot of people face today: problems with alcohol, drugs, death, opiates, joblessness, depression and struggles with anxiety.

Are there any memories from PALESTINE BLUES studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

We took our time and used a variety of guitars, amplifiers, and recording techniques to try to capture the mood that we were after. In the end I thought we did a pretty good job of capturing that dark mood. I wanted to take the listener down that dark road with me, even though I know for some it might be tough to listen to, if they had experiences similar to mine.

What moment changed your life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

The moment that changed my life the most was the death of my wife. I still deal with that on an almost daily basis. As far as my career goes, I've gotten to play some really cool places and meet some really cool people. I did a show in St. Louis with the father of rock 'n' roll himself, Chuck Berry. I've got to open shows for, and meet legends in the Blues world, such as Little Milton, Lil Ed & The Blues Imperials, Mike Zito, Luther Allison, Koko Taylor, RL Burnside, Snooky Pryor, Junior Kimbrough and many more. I tried to learn something from all of them.

"I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and I think the blues and the rock music from those times had a profound influence on most of us who grew up during those turbulent times. It's made it easier for me to relate to hard times, and other peoples and cultures. It's also led me to question authority more, since I came up in those very politically turbulent years."

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

The two biggest influences who were actual acquaintances of mine were Carl Perkins, and Snooky Pryor. I met Carl when I lived in Jackson, Tennessee. He taught me to make everyone I met feel important. Because everyone IS important! Musically, he taught me the value of a catchy groove and good hook in a song. As a person, he taught me to always treat others fairly and never think you're too good for others. A favorite Carl Perkins saying of mine is “Be careful as you move up the ladder, because the higher you move up the ladder, the more your ass is showing!”

Snooky Pryor became my good friend when I moved to Paducah, Kentucky. He lived right across the Ohio River in Ullin, Illinois. He taught me how to “read” an audience during a live show, so I'd know how to entertain the audience and give them what they wanted.  He also taught me how to carry myself with dignity. In other words, treat everyone nice, but don't take it when someone treats you with disrespect.

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

I did a show with the great Chuck Berry in 2006 in St. Louis, Missouri. We loaded in and began our sound check in the club that afternoon. A few songs into the sound check, Chuck Berry himself strolled out and sat down in the chair right in front of me. He sat right there on the front row as I played several songs onstage, and he was smiling and tapping his toes. After a while he got up and left, but when we finished the club owner came up to me and said “I just want to tell you, Chuck has been playing here every month for YEARS and you are the first one he's ever came out and personally listened to their sound check!” That was pretty cool!

"Blues takes everything down to the basics. The basics in beat and rhythm, and the basics in emotion, too. Each of us has a certain rhythm to our life, and the blues draws upon that rhythm of life, so each of us have something in common with the blues. So much comes from the blues. Rock 'n' roll and jazz all came from the blues."

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

I miss the people. What a shame we can no longer see those who have passed like BB King, Albert Collins, Pinetop Perkins, T Model Ford, Nick Curran, Little Milton and the rest. In the future, I hope blues can continue to allow for enough change to stay relevant and not just be an old style of music in a museum. We've got to let blues continue to grow, in order to stay true as an art form, and attract new, younger fans.

Why do you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Blues takes everything down to the basics. The basics in beat and rhythm, and the basics in emotion, too. Each of us has a certain rhythm to our life, and the blues draws upon that rhythm of life, so each of us have something in common with the blues. So much comes from the blues. Rock 'n' roll and jazz all came from the blues.

Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older? What is your BLUES DREAM? Happiness is…

I think it is easier to play and write blues music as you get older, just like it is easier to do anything, as you get more experienced with it. By that I mean experienced from a technical level and also experienced with more life events, which can add to your depth of emotion. I don't know if I have a blues dream, insomuch as I just enjoy writing songs and playing guitar.

"The blues are part of the basic emotions of life: love, hate, yearning, betrayal, joy and depression. Every basic emotion is covered in the blues." (Photo: Lew Jetton on stages)

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

I wish rank and file musicians could get paid a decent living wage. With downloading and streaming and fewer and fewer live venues to play, I'm so afraid before long there won't be any more full time musicians except for the major acts, those who have independent income sources, or those who have sponsors who can supplement their incomes. If things don't change, the days of the full time musician are numbered. There are already a lot fewer than there were, even 20 years ago.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from Snooky Pryor, Koko Taylor, and Little Milton?

With Snooky, he was so proud of his old Ford truck which he drove to Southern Illinois in the 60s. It had an old flat head V-8 which would still run, and if you doubted it he would drag you outside and start it up. What touched me about Snooky was his love for his wife, who was tragically killed in a car wreck. This was brought home to me even more, years later, when my own wife, who I love so much, passed away. I realized too well what he meant when he said it took a lot out of him. With Koko, I'll always remember her attitude and how she commanded a crowd. I also remember smiling, watching her as she grew older, and wearing a heavily sequined dress which must have weighed twice what she herself weighed, but she didn't care. She was gonna look good! With Little Milton, I'll always be touched by how before he took the stage, he gathered his band around him and led them in prayer before a big show.  I'd never seen anyone do that. It let me know how much he loved the Lord and how much he cared for his band mates.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better blues musician?

The hardest and best thing I ever did, was to concentrate of being my own artist and stop trying to imitate or emulate other artists. Luckily I did that early on. I got some great advice for my first CD to write as many originals as I could and I did.  I always have been true to myself. Even when covering other songs, I always did them MY way instead of trying to sound like the original artist.

"I'd love to go to Memphis for a day in the early 1970s. I'd love to sneak into a session to watch Al Green and Teeny Hodges work, slip on over to Stax and be a fly on the wall for a couple sessions with those great players, and then maybe wander down to Graceland to see what was going on."

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

Blues music has been one of the major factors in bringing the races together. The music brought black and white fans together and brought black and white musicians together. In the music there is common ground and love because the blues is about the basic feelings and emotions of everyone, no matter their race.

As a meteorologist - How do you presentations a (Blues) ‘weather report’ around the US different local scenes?

That's a good one! I never really thought about that! It's funny because it's almost like I use completely different parts of my brain for meteorology and playing and writing blues music. One is pure science and logic, while the other is pure emotion and artistry. I guess the closer I get to the Mississippi River, I put a little more rhythm into how I say it!

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

I'd love to go to Memphis for a day in the early 1970s. I'd love to sneak into a session to watch Al Green and Teeny Hodges work, slip on over to Stax and be a fly on the wall for a couple sessions with those great players, and then maybe wander down to Graceland to see what was going on. The ironic part was I was only about 80 miles away, but I was too young to drive to Memphis, especially by myself!

Lew Jetton - Official website

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