"When you consider the roots of the blues and the fact that there is a place in blues and blues rock for people and groups to recite the more divisive rhetoric of the day and be taken seriously, ..and are popular, …in these genres, you can see that it’s ok that you can get out of The Blues what you want nowadays."
The Bush League: RVABlues
The Bush League was founded on a front porch in 2007 not too far outside Richmond, Virginia by college friends JohnJason “JohnJay” Cecil and Royce Folks. The combination of JohnJay’s soulful voice and Royce’s rock-solid bass playing lays the foundation for “RVA Blues,” a heady mélange of funk, soul, gospel, and rock all wrapped up in the love of the blues, particularly North Mississippi Hill Country Blues. They are joined by Wynton Davis who keeps the groove on drums. They traveled to Ardent studios in Memphis TN to record their fourth album, “James RiVAh,” with friends and guests from the birthplace of the blues. The twelve tracks (ten originals and two standards) all revolve around the soulful voice of charismatic lead vocalist John Jason “JohnJay” Cecil, who is bolstered by the rock-solid rhythm section of Royce Folks on the bass and drummer Wynton Davis together with Brad Moss on guitar. For this album, they also brought in some great guest players including Trenton Ayers of the Cedric Burnside Project, Jeremy Powell from Southern Avenue on trumpet and keyboards, Suavo Jones from the Ghost Town Blues Band on trombone, Paul Biasca on sax, and Vince Johnson on harp.
Over the years, The Bush League (TBL) has been playing the blues and paying its dues on the 21st century version of the “Chitlin’ Circuit”, playing bars, restaurants, private parties, wineries, weddings, in front of the bathroom at the VA State Fair, and various festivals throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Deep South. You name it TBL has probably played it. The band’s willingness to turn down nothing but their collar has allowed them to hone their craft to razor sharpness. All that honing and evolving has begun to pay off as TBL has gone from playing in the middle of a field on flattened cardboard boxes to the Bentonia Blues Festival, the Carolina Blues Festival and the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. TBL has opened for some of the biggest names in the blues today including Jarekus Singleton, Selwyn Birchwood, Biscuit Miller & the Mix, Samantha Fish and Lil Ed & the Blues Imperials, to name just a few. Known for its energetic live shows, TBL keeps the blues alive by continuing to push the boundaries of what the blues can be. “RVA Blues” creates a visual soundscape that evokes images of times gone by but still relatable to today’s audience. “Rough,” “aggressive,” and “Workingman’s Blues” are all descriptions by others of their music, but the band prefers to call it simply “shiny new dirty ol’ blues.”
How has the Blue and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
“JohnJay” Cecil: The only countercultural aspect of both Blues and Rock music is that the origin of both genres of music came from Black American culture which, if we’re to be truthful is not supposed to exist. Remember that Black people for the most part came to America involuntarily and were never meant to be more than chattel. Whatever cultures we came from were systematically suppressed by oppression, usually violently and we were forced to exist within the “civilized” culture of White America. Imagine not being able to worship your God(s). Imagine being forbidden to speak your native language (and then be called dumb because your grasp of a foreign language is tenuous because you have to learn under the lash), imagine being killed because you wanted to learn to READ. Imagine someone OWNING YOU and then laws being passed that defined you as a fraction of a person. Then after slavery where you were supposed to be free more laws were passed to remind you that indeed you were not. Into this environment the Blues was born. The Blues exists because, as my cousin states, “We ain’t supposed to be here!” Although the Blues is widely considered “sad” music, it is actually music of strength. It is music of hope. It is laughing to keep from crying. It is Black music. Rock music, which comes from the Blues, is also Black music. Contrary to popular belief, Rock music is not “white people music” as many black people refer to it. Clarksdale, Mississippi’s own Ike Turner is credited with creating the first Rock & Roll song (“Rocket 88”). Now, at its inception, Blues was played by Black Bluesmen all over the Deep South where it originated and it migrated throughout the United States. Now they start making records but here’s the issue; radio station won’t play any “race music” (i.e. music played by black people) so they get White performers to re-record the music so the world knows the Blues songs but think a White man is the original artist. This is a phenomenon that occurs currently. So ironically, the representative counter culture of Blues and Rock is one of Black origination blanketed by White appropriation. When people call the Blues “primitive music” I feel that the term is a misnomer. The Blues is the result of adaptation for survival, so all of those lines sung in broken English, those melodies played on a homemade guitar, those references to Parchman Farm where so many Black men were incarcerated for just being black; that is genius level music pure and simple. The fact that the Blues endures in its many forms and spawned Rock & Roll which has become the default culture of America is a testament to the strength of my people, Black people. Learning about the Blues and playing the Blues motivated me to make moves to the place where the Blues was born and let me tell you, standing in a field in Mississippi makes one realize just how strong my ancestors were! Talking with people who knew some of the legends, who worked with some of the artists we listen to, it gives you a sense of belonging especially when those people express their joy in hearing the Blues that you have created. Granted, I’m not saying that White people cannot play the Blues, it’s just that for a lot of fans of the Blues they believe that someone White is the originator of most Blues standards and that is not the case. But that is due to the aforementioned suppression of Black artistry otherwise known as racism. So I go where the people who made this music live and breathe and let them know that they are of value and that their legacy is priceless and it is the lifeblood of America and THE BUSH LEAGUE will continue to carry the torch for them.
Royce Folks: I had already traveled a bit in my life before starting my blues journey so my view of the world in general is about the same as before!
The majority of this band’s travel has been through the American southeast and on purpose; we want to get as close to the root of this music as you can get in this country and give our reflection of that through our music. but I’ve been amazed at the glue that Blues has been in connecting that genre’s admirers across the globe! Going to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, TN a few times and seeing the throngs of international artists that participate each year is mind blowing!
How do you describe James Rivah sound and songbook? What characterize The Bush League philosophy?
“JohnJay” Cecil: It’s “James RiVAh”. “RiVAh” I spelled that way because when you take out the “I” and the “h” you have “RVA” which is the de facto colloquial nickname for the city where we reside (Richmond, VA). “RiVAh” is also the way most folks around here who live on the river pronounce the word. The James River runs right through the city of Richmond and remains a conduit of commerce and trade and tourism. Remember how I talked about slavery being the bedrock from which the Blues was formed? Well, you don’t become the Capital of the Confederacy for nothing. Up to and during the Civil War slaves were bought and sold on the banks of the James River in Richmond. There are still monuments to Confederate generals strewn about the city. We have slave trails where you can walk the paths that shackled human beings walked after being purchased. Richmond is also home to Native American tribes that, if they had been just a wee bit more xenophobic, America might look a whole lot different. Nevertheless, Richmond is a mélange of cultures and THE BUSH LEAGUE is a musical representation of that culture clash. We call our music “RVABlues”, a combination of North Mississippi Hill Country Blues, Funk, and Rock. That’s the start at least. Over the past 11 years one of the hallmarks of THE BUSH LEAGUE is that the band in whatever iteration it’s been has been able to seamlessly incorporate various musical elements into our representation of the Blues and make it palatable to our audience. Playing a 12-bar Blues song with a drummer using a double-kick makes for an interesting interpretation, that’s for sure! Reggae? Gotcha. Hip-Hop? That’s how we started! Soul? I grew up on soul. Rock? Royce introduced me to Fishbone and my first mosh pit (I really think he tried to kill me…best night EVER). You hear #RVABlues all in “James RiVAh” and then some! We made Blues songs that make people say “DAMN that there is a BLUES song!” and then we made some rock songs that make people say “DAMN, you hear that?” and then we made a love song that evokes the spirit of the great Luther Vandross (I grew up listening to Luther, fat and skinny Luther), We got songs for the ladies, we got songs for the fellas, we got horns, we got harmonicas, we got piano and piano-like instruments, we got guys stomping and clapping and hootin’ and hollering! THE BUSH LEAGUE plays well with others, and we like inviting people into our sandbox, especially incredibly talented people.
Royce Folks: The ‘James RiVAh’ album sound is the embodiment of our “shiny new dirty ole Blues” description of our style of music! We did four days of recording starting one day after our semi-final appearance at the International Blues Challenge in 2017; you can hear the excitement of us then stepping into Studio A of Ardent Studios with Ari Morris at the board and our musical family and friends from Memphis and Mississippi stopping in and guesting on parts of this recording! The James RiVAh songbook is filled with well written songs of a man’s blues that cover a range of blues perspectives and stylings.
At first it was to see just how far this thing could go; people were giving positive reactions whenever we performed and we’ve all known people doing this for a living all of our lives and we felt that we were at the least capable of being comparable so why not go for it! Now we are more of a champion for keeping the spirit of The Blues alive. In the blues community we all are doing our part to keep The Blues alive by either imitating the sounds and/or visuals of the past and for some, keeping many of the same attitudes around from then as well. None of us in this group have had the hardships of those that were around at the beginnings of this genre (many of those who were discovered on plantations throughout the south around 70, 75 years ago) but we have had to navigate and experience the trials of real and hard life today and still within the scope of and having to deal with the remnants of an oppressor/oppressed society. The spirits that birthed the blues are alive and well and always have been all this time; we are just reintroducing her to the world for everyone to see from our neck of the woods!
"The only countercultural aspect of both Blues and Rock music is that the origin of both genres of music came from Black American culture which, if we’re to be truthful is not supposed to exist. Remember that Black people for the most part came to America involuntarily and were never meant to be more than chattel."
Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
“JohnJay” Cecil: Meeting Vince Johnson and Jeremy Powell in 2010 at the Beale Street Taproom. It was during the International Blues Challenge (IBC) and there were jam sessions going all up and down Beale St. and we walked in, walked up to the band and we made the whole PLACE jump!! It was the start of a beautiful relationship. This past IBC we met Vince down on Beale St and he said, “There go my family…there go my family.” Both Vince and Jeremy are featured on “James RiVAh” and man, let me tell you they brought the PAIN!
Another great meeting was when Royce, our manger Kenya, and I decided in the middle of the week to drive 3 hours one-way to ask Cedric Burnside would he play drums for us at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. We had been selected as one of the first non-Mississippi based bands to play at the picnic and our drummer at the time was unable to attend. Cedric was playing in a city three hours away from Richmond on, like, a Wednesday, and we jumped in the car AFTER WORK and rolled on up. We got there, got down on Hill Country, and asked him would he play and lo and behold, he said yes! Talk about an experience! Playing at the Hill Country Picnic with a Descendant of Hill Country! That was a HOOT! All because Royce, Kenya, and I decided to have faith. The three of us have been called “The Three-Headed Monster” and we pretty much have a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” type attitude. Like my Grandaddy used to say, “A closed mouth don’t get fed…”
Advice-wise, I had a friend who told me once, “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen if you don’t quit, but I can tell what’s going to happen if you do…” Essentially he was telling me to not give up. So I haven’t. Not giving up is easy to do when you got good friends.
Royce Folks: It is all about the moments and the moments that I am Royce the Bass Player and my interactions with everyone from everyone in my crew, other artists, crew, venue staff and all supporters are never taken for granted; there have been many moments for me that I will be forever grateful for many reasons throughout this journey but I do know that there have been moments when we are just doing what we do that didn’t mean much to me but ended up meaning the world to someone else.
In terms of my paying bass the best advice I was given was from Ms. Di Anne Price, a pianist in Memphis, TN who told me in the middle of us playing a song together that she had just stopped to “…stop playing the same duh-duh-duh duh-duh and to play your song”! She shared that since most blues songs started with vocals and guitar and many of the guitar parts for different songs sounded the same and that the bass had to make the song ‘The Song’. Ever since I have been finding my way to playing my story every time I’m onstage and into each song that we develop.
Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
“JohnJay” Cecil: Well, there are the aforementioned Beale St. Taproom and North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic sessions. Let me see…Playing with DuWayne Burnside here in VA was hysterical! His amp only has 11 on the volume control; maybe 12...The marathon recording session that was “Can of Gas & a Match” was running the Rubicon for real. We recorded a whole album in 14 hours. 14 HOURS MAN!!! Performing at Havana Mix (cigar bar in Memphis) with the house band was a blast! Oh, the recording of “Didn’t See This Coming” was EPIC! Check out the promo video on our website. Funniest part of that night was my frat brother walking up to me eating a tortilla and drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon talking about, “This is the best night ever!”
Royce Folks: Richmond Folk Festival after parties are legendary for the collaborations that end up happening; you have musicians from different folk cultures from all over the world jamming out to whatever on the live stage or in one of the acoustic rooms set up or just in the hallways and corners of the hotel! This one particular year I played two songs with blues harmonica legend Phil Wiggins and after he stepped off stage was joined by members of The Original P which featured members and family members of original P-Funk artists and we jammed out to some made up funk; that was an awesome time to be a bassist!
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
“JohnJay” Cecil: I don’t know if I miss anything, mostly because I’m an acolyte of the art form so I’m still learning about the Blues. There are a multitude of Blues artists out here sincerely playing the Blues of the past. What I really wish is that more artists would take their presentation more seriously and remember and realize that the majority of Bluesmen came “Suited & Booted” to performances, meaning that they dressed to impress. Look at old pictures of Muddy and Wolf and you will see men in their Sunday best at the microphone. Sometimes folks really miss the mark in their presentation where they think they’re supposed to look like sharecroppers wearing bib overalls and whatnot or even worse, looking like they just came off the street in dingy jeans and a t-shirt. Not cool.
My hope is that the pendulum of music appreciation swings back toward the time when Blues was the most popular music in America. I have hope for that because it seems that all things kind of come and go in cycles so like bell bottoms and acid-washed jeans, hopefully America will become reacquainted with the Blues and when you turn on your radio it will be playing all over on a bunch of stations!
Royce Folks: A place in the Mainstream and Blues venues, or live music venues in general; they both are rare breeds nowadays comparatively!
I hope that people really dig us, where we are coming from, what we are doing and what we are trying to accomplish. My fear is that I hit my hand with a hammer at my day job again.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
“JohnJay” Cecil: Good question! You know, if I could change one thing in the musical world, it would be that people would not take music for granted. Stop talking about playing for “exposure” like exposure ever paid a thing. Stop assuming that artists should just GIVE their music away. If my own mama can pay for an album, you can best believe “Joe Six-Pack” is going to pay for it. Being a singer, it sometimes irritates me when I tell somebody that and the first thing they say is, “Sing something for me…” My response to that now is, “I’m a professional, let me show you this video…” even if the person requesting me to sing is drop-dead gorgeous (pretty ain’t never paid a bill either…) When you tell me that you’re an accountant, I don’t tell you to balance my checkbook. There are a lot of people out here who believe that music should be free and that will happen when the rent on our practice space is free, when microphones and guitar strings are free, when gas to get to venues is free, and recording and releasing a CD is free. Until such time, buy the album! For God’s sake, a single is .99! The effect of music on the fabric of life itself is, in and of itself, priceless and if you want to sustain the creation of those feelings in perpetuity, PURCHASE THE MUSIC…
Royce Folks: That the merit of all of the black blues musicians of the south in the past could be held up without the co-signing of the Alan Lomaxs and those from the British Invasion who have made many to think that they either discovered or started this music and that a thanks is needed in keeping this genre alive because it would have died without them; the conditions that birthed the Blues wasn’t going to just stop one day and it hasn’t.
What is the impact of Blues and Rock on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?
“JohnJay” Cecil: Well, I already talked about the fact that Blues and Rock are Black American music forms and why that fact has been forgotten (or ignored) because, well, racism. It is common here in America to think that Rock music is “White” music by both White and Black people and Black rockers frequently find themselves in an existential limbo where they are looked at like a brand new species of human being by Black people and looked like interlopers by White rock fans. Even though the Blues could not exist without the “peculiar institution” of slavery and its effect on involuntarily transplanted Africans, the attendance at most Blues festivals is over 90% White and many Black people turn their nose up at their own ancestors’ creation. Outside of that socio-cultural dynamic while both Blues and Rock have become mainstream music (Rock more so than Blues, but I digress), they have been and continue to be wonderfully seditious and rebellious when wielded as such. Check out Bobby Blackhat Walters “Run Baby Run” which is about the unfortunate American tradition of school shootings, or “Coon on the Moon” by the great Howlin’ Wolf which, while using a pejorative describing Black people also presciently celebrates the accomplishments of Blacks in America and states at the end of the song “Pretty soon, there’ll be a coon on the moon…” NASA now employs a multitude of Black astronauts, one of which comes from our manager’s hometown! Of course, Rock music has historically been the sound of rebellion so, you know, pick a song. Personally, I prefer Rage Against the Machine or System of A Down (I like my rebellious Rock straightforward).
Royce Folks: That’s a deep question that no one could truly give a short answer for. Music is music and in general I don’t know if it really has an impact on any those things more than it has the possibility to be a reflection of all of those things. When you consider the roots of the blues and the fact that there is a place in blues and blues rock for people and groups to recite the more divisive rhetoric of the day and be taken seriously, ..and are popular, …in these genres, you can see that it’s ok that you can get out of The Blues what you want nowadays.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?
“JohnJay” Cecil: There is a meme floating around social media that shows Blues legends Otis Spann and Muddy Waters together with Otis lovingly holding a small alligator while Muddy is eating while wearing a headscarf. The caption of this meme reads, “You may be cool…but you’ll never be Otis Spann holding an alligator while Muddy eats breakfast cool…” When I first saw this meme I literally laughed out loud and agreed wholeheartedly that most likely I would NEVER be that cool. I would have loved to have been hanging with the two of them for that day to first of all, figure out how the hell they procured an alligator the previous night and what all went down that the alligator was STILL hanging with them in the morning! This is something right out of “The Hangover” and pretty much something Royce Folks and I would do; sort of like starting a Blues band in our 30’s...with an alligator…and some scrambled eggs... Fun times.
Royce Folks: Twenty-four hours ago; I could really take advantage of the day knowing what I know now!
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