Q&A with Arizona-based harpist-vocalist, R.D. Olson - brings high-energy blues to fill your soul and move your feet

"Blues knows no color at least not with the people I know we never talk about black or white some of the things making news today are not even talked about in my circles. The music binds us together."

R.D. Olson: The Real Deal

R.D. "The Real Deal" Olson brings high-energy blues to fill your soul and move your feet. His album "Keep Walking Woman" (2017), recorded as the RD Olson Band, showcases the many talents of harpist-vocalist Olson along with his band-mates, Darryl Porras (guitar), Jamie Waldron (bass), Robert Sellani (drums), and Eric Williams (piano), staying true to the Blues styles of Muddy Waters, Luther Allison, Mojo Buford and Chico Chism, but with a contemporary spin. Olson, who resides in Prescott, Arizona, won the 2014 Arizona Blues Challenge and the 2015 Northern Arizona Blues Challenge, advancing the International Blues Challenge finals in Memphis, TN each year. Olson was inducted into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame in 2015 and currently serves as Vice-President of the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame. Fast forward to a long career he's continuously spent honing his harmonica chops and polishing his vocals, all of which have led to Keep Walking Woman, which Olson considers his finest, most complete recorded musical statement yet. "It was time for me to write and record my own music,' acknowledges Olson. "The CD has six originals, and I lived all of them. 'Johnnie Walker' tells the story of my dear friend Larry Danielson who took his own life".                (R.D. Olson / Photo by Maile Alday)

In October 2017, Olson began collaborating with Beverly 'Guitar' Watkins, who he will be performing some selected dates with for the foreseeable future, backing her with his tight R.D. Olson Band and filling the role as Watkin's Musical Director. R.D. Olson returns in 2021 with "Momma I Miss Memphis", a song that sees Olson cobbling together several different styles into one song with the help of Ms. Linda Thompson. On his new track “Momma, I Miss Memphis,” acclaimed musical artist R.D. Olson pays tribute not only to Elvis Presley. There is an Elvis homage, a New Orleans-style funeral celebration mixed with some sweet rockabilly, and a Gospel-tinged ending bringing the song to a rousing conclusion.

Interview by Michael Limnios 

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

When I was much younger I played with Luther Allison he taught me so much about the blues and while I was with Luther I met and spent time with BB King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and many others. The blues to me is a living form of communication handed down generation after generation. When your time comes you add your chapter.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues researches? How do you describe your songbook and sound?

My sound is a mix of new and old. I like to mix newer sounding styles with the old anything to keep this musical form alive. As far a research I hung with the men and women that made the music as much as I could.

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

Music has shaped who I am as a person. I have used music as a platform to express my views, including political and spiritual views.

Where does your lyrics/music creative drive come from? How have you grown as an artist since you first started?

It seems that the songs just come to me. It often appears I am channeling. The art of writing is getting out of your own way, and letting the music flow to you. Over the years I have become more dedicated, and have treated my music as more of a craft, rather than a hobby.

"When I was much younger I played with Luther Allison he taught me so much about the blues and while I was with Luther I met and spent time with BB King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and many others. The blues to me is a living form of communication handed down generation after generation. When your time comes you add your chapter." (R.D. Olson / Photo by Maile Alday)

Why do you think that Elvis Presley music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Elvis had an undeniable charisma, that had a profound effect on anyone who heard or saw him perform. During the 25th anniversary of Elvis's death, I was in Memphis, and interviewed hundreds of fans. Everyone had stories of how Elvis touched their lives. I wrote "Mama I Miss Memphis" back in 1994, and it was received with open arms at the 25th anniversary of his celebration of life. I have now re-recorded the song, and today's Elvis fans are still receiving it with the same enthusiasm.

What do you love most about "The King" and what touched you from the song "Momma I Miss Memphis"?

He took Blues music, played it the way he felt it, and they named it Rock-n-Roll.  He was a pioneer in the early days of Rock-n-Roll, and brought, what was essentially Blues music, to a white audience.  

In 1994 I was driving to work, when the song "Mama, I Miss Memphis" literally came to me. I pulled over to the side of the road, found a pen, and quickly wrote down the lyrics before they vanished from my mind. Later that evening, I sat down to finish writing the song and realized it was August 16th- the same day Elvis had passed away in 1977. Since that day, I was compelled to record and release this song. It was as though Elvis knew his fans needed to hear from him again, and to proclaim he was still with them in spirit!

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

I think Luther Allison was my biggest inspiration he taught me the most but also Mojo Buford and Chico Chism also helped me along the way. Keep this music alive and if that means creating sounds and rhythms that younger folks can identify with that’s what I’m doing now. The blues as always been about expressing emotions and life’s circumstances. I write about stuff going on in peoples lives in the here and now."

"Though I now live close to Memphis, my 30 years in Arizona were well spent. In 2015, I was inducted into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame, and represented Arizona twice in the IBC held each year in Memphis. My Blues roots run deep in Arizona, and we plan on returning to Arizona often, to visit my children and other family members. Arizona's Blues scene, when I arrived from Austin TX in 1983 rivaled any Blues scene in the country.(R.D. Olson & Long John Hunter / Photo by Loretta Jane Hito)

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

The birth of my children, and ending up raising them as a single parent, put a stall on my music career for over 15 years.  Then my youngest daughter, Jade, at age 15 said "Didn't you used to be a musician?  Why don't you go back to what you love?" So at age 58 I took her advice, and began performing live again at a venue called the "The Market Place Cafe" in the Village of Oak Creek- right outside of Sedona, Arizona. As far as my musical career highlights, I value the opportunity to have been band leader for Alligator recording artist, Long John Hunter, as well as Grammy winner Beverly 'Guitar' Watkins. I also played with Luther Allison, and had the pleasure of being on the same shows as the likes of BB King, Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and many others.

Are there any memories from Luther Allison, Mojo Buford and Chico Chism which you’d like to share with us?

I lived on lake in Minnesota called Lake Zumbro. Luther Allison was playing at a small bar down the road, called Mary's in Mazeppa. I went to the show, asked to sit in, and he was gracious enough to let a young 24-year-old farm boy sit in with him and play harmonica. After the show, Luther asked if there was a motel close by. The band had 6 days to kill before their next show in St. Cloud, Minnesota. I then asked him if he liked to fish. He stated he never went anywhere without his fishing pole. I asked him "Why would you spend 6 days in a motel when I have a 3 bedroom home with plenty room for you and the band with a fishing dock right out front?"  For the next week, I was in heaven listening to his stories, and getting personal harmonica lessons from the GREAT Luther Allison!

A few years prior to meeting Luther, I was living in Minneapolis, and became friends with harmonica player Mojo Buford, who played shows with Muddy Waters. When not on the road with Muddy, he had his own band in Minneapolis. He gave me harp lessons and let me sit in with his band.  It was through Mojo and Luther Allison, that I was able to meet Muddy Waters at a Labor Day festival in Wisconsin in 1981.

After 4 years in Austin, Texas, I left and moved to Phoenix,  Arizona where most of my family members had moved to. On my 3rd month there I would meet legendary Blues drummer, Chico Chism, at a small Phoenix bar called 'Char's Has The Blues'. I had been a drummer for several years, as well as a harp player, and that night I sat in on drums, and was later called back to play harmonica. And, being unaware at the time, on drums and vocals sat the famous Chico Chism.  Later that night Chico would hire R.D. Olson to play in his band, utilizing my skills as both a drummer and harmonica player. This would free up Chico to front the band during portions of the show. I spent 3 years with Chico before leaving the band to play with 'Buddy Reed and the Rip It Ups'. After two years with Buddy Reed, R.D. Olson decided to start his own band. The name was 'Richard Dean and the Blues Machine", which I later changed to the R.D. Olson Blues Band.

"Keep this music alive and if that means creating sounds and rhythms that younger folks can identify with that’s what I’m doing now. The blues as always been about expressing emotions and life’s circumstances. I write about stuff going on in peoples lives in the here and now.(Photo: R.D. Olson & Linda Thompson)

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

During my journey in the Blues world that I came up in, my mentors were kind and gracious in sharing their knowledge, and giving tips to those young musicians who were passionate in their love of the Blues. As an older musician now, I try to never forget those lessons I learned as a young man.

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

So many of the old bluesman really were great about giving advice to younger players like myself color was not an issue, keeping the blues alive was. My hope for the future of the blues is to hand it down to the next generation just like it was handed to me.

Keep this music alive and if that means creating sounds and rhythms that younger folks can identify with that’s what I’m doing now. The blues as always been about expressing emotions and life’s circumstances. I write about stuff going on in peoples lives in the here and now.

If you could change one thing in the local (Arizona) scene and it would become a reality, what would that be?

We are working on change here in Arizona by bring more quality touring acts to the state as well as Blues In The Schools programs and more youth jams that will be sponsored By The Arizona Blues Hall Of Fame.

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

Though I now live close to Memphis, my 30 years in Arizona were well spent. In 2015, I was inducted into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame, and represented Arizona twice in the International Blues Challenge (IBC) held each year in Memphis. My Blues roots run deep in Arizona, and we plan on returning to Arizona often, to visit my children and other family members. Arizona's Blues scene, when I arrived from Austin Texas in 1983 rivaled any Blues scene in the country.

"Elvis had an undeniable charisma, that had a profound effect on anyone who heard or saw him perform. During the 25th anniversary of Elvis's death, I was in Memphis, and interviewed hundreds of fans. Everyone had stories of how Elvis touched their lives." (R.D. Olson with Beverly 'Guitar' Watkins, 2018)

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

I was playing an outdoor festival with Luther’s band in 1980 there he introduced me to Muddy Waters, I think I was about 25 years old. Later that day after we had played and Muddy had finished his set I was hanging around back stage with all of the great’s BB King was there Albert King and many others, I was in blues heaven!!

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from Beverly 'Guitar' Watkins?

I met Beverly Watkins about three months ago and agreed to do some shows with her as an opening act and than as her back up band. She is the mother of the tribe that’s for sure!! She is kind and good natured and after every time we talk she prays for me…I guess she thinks I may have picked up some of those old bluesman bad habits along my travels she makes me laugh and cry!!

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

Blues knows no color at least not with the people I know we never talk about black or white some of the things making news today are not even talked about in my circles. The music binds us together.

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

Where would I like to go for a whole day??? I say Greece could be on the top of my list. I would love to meet the many blues fans already in Greece as well as visit the ancient cities and take in the art and culture.

R.D. Olson Band - Home

(Photo: R.D. Olson)

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