An Interview with Kathy Murray & Bill Jones, combined their vision into the Texas music experience

"Because roots/blues music is real and vital, and it makes you feel something, like a release of true emotions. And even if it’s a sad song, feeling something real makes a person feel good."
Kathy Murray & Bill Jones: Austin Blues Love

The legendary Kathy Murray needs no introduction to Austin’s musical faithful. Murray developed her vision of the blues in the formative days of the Austin blues scene, jamming with luminaries like Stevie Ray Vaughan, W.C. Clark, and members of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. A blues singer and songwriter par excellence, she first burst on the Austin music scene with her early band Kathy and the Kilowatts - with her longtime music partner and husband Bill Arthur Jones - wowing audiences with a tremendous live show, and sharing the stage with everyone from Albert Collins to Koko Taylor.

Murray is currently performing live with two projects, her full electric blues band, Kathy Murray’s Blues Groove, and with her exciting new acoustic act, features Murray on guitar and ukulele, along with her husband and guitarist Bill Arthur Jones on guitar, ukulele and accordion. Freddie King’s show at the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1972 Austin, Texas, was the religious conversion to the blues for Bill. His first band was The Kingpins featuring Paul Orta on harmonica, from Port Arthur, TX. Then, he met and joined with Kathy Murray, who's band, Kathy and the Kilowatts, were already established on the Austin blues scene. Murray and Jones synergistically combine their talents into a one-of-a-kind Texas roots music experience. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the “BLUES” mean to you?

Kathy: My love of the blues saved my life. There have been dark times when I cared more about the music than I was able to care about myself. Music has been my compass, directing me how to take care of myself physically, emotionally and spiritually, in order that I could deepen and develop my ability to experience and transmit the blues that I love so much.

Bill: From the first time I heard the blues, it struck a chord in me that rings true today. The first time I witnessed the blues live was at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin with the great Freddie King smokin’ his red 355 Gibson hollow body guitar. That night changed my life.

Growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, the blues was all around.  Janis Joplin lived just two blocks down from me. Local harmonica player Paul Orta hipped me to a lot of great blues and we played together while growing up. I had to leave Port Arthur to fully realize the blues. Funny thing about the blues, it makes one feel good when you play it.

How do you describe your sound and progress and what characterize your music philosophy?

Kathy: My sound encompasses influences of all of Texas’ rootsy regional musical styles that I’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to throughout my life: blues, rockabilly, swamp pop, zydeco, soul, and conjunto.  As my basic philosophy, I would say that music is not about fortune or fame, music is about love.  When your music is coming from a place of love, you cannot go wrong.

Bill: As a guitar player, I want to play my guitar in a manner that reflects the mood of the song.  I want to say something interesting with my guitar playing and not just blasting loudly or playing too many notes. I love the tone of a Fender Deluxe tube amp with minimal effects. That tone is heavenly.

Are there any memories with the band and Kathy, which you’d like to share with us?

Bill: Once I was playing a Chuck Berry riff and was “duck walking” through the crowd at Casablanca Club on 6th St Austin, when I saw ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, leaning into the doorway giving me a “thumbs up” gesture. We rocked that club!

What the difference and similarity between the electric full band and acoustic duo feeling?

Bill: Playing in an electric band setting is very exhilarating having that full amp sound. When those amp tubes get cooking…LOOK OUT!  Pure guitar tone nirvana! I also love playing in an acoustical setting. It is very personal and up close with the audience. I think an artist can bare their soul in a very intimate way on an acoustic instrument.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

Kathy: Many years ago, when my band opened a show for the great Koko Taylor in Houston, Koko generously shared some of her secrets with me.  In essence, she told me not to get too distracted by the audience, but instead to create a sacred and authentic experience, grounded within your space on the stage…and then to extend your energy out to invite the audience into the real experience that you are creating.  One of my prized possessions is an encouraging post card Koko sent to me about my original songs saying, “Them songs is sharp!”

Bill: Hubert Sumlin (at Antone’s Nightclub) was always supportive and complimentary of my playing. Hubert taught me some wonderful guitar-timing licks. Freddie King and Jimmie Vaughan have been my inspiration for many years.

                                                  Kathy Murray & Bill Jones with Koko Taylor

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

Kathy: Here in Austin, when I was a young singer, the legendary Blues Boy Hubbard played some amazing shows with my band.  Hubbard knew that I had not had any professional vocal training and he was kind enough to come over to the house and work with me, explaining that one should make the musical changes with your voice just like it was an instrument – which it actually is!  That advice really got me off and running.

Bill: Well, BB King told me to “stay with it”, while playing the blues guitar back in the 1980’s.

And Billy Gibbons once told me to “Be true in your music, push that pickup selector down and GIT IT!”

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Kathy: The best moment was the first time I played on stage with my husband and guitar player, Bill Jones. It seemed as if the air crackled with the instant connection of our souls. We stayed up all night after the gig, playing music and talking about life. It’s something I will never forget and our connection has just continued to deepen over the years of playing together.

The worst was when my friend and role model Stevie Ray Vaughan died. It still hardly seems possible that he’s gone. Stevie taught me so much, especially about being in the present moment and laying it ALL on the table every time you play.

Bill: One of the best was when we hired Doyle Bramhall to play drums on a studio recording project. He did such a great job; I am looking forward to when it is released. The worst was when I had to pay the bass player’s bar tab (he had already left) before I could leave the club called the Bottom Line. I lost money that night, however on the bright side, Billy Gibbons was there to give me that advice and so was Jimmy Vaughan (recovering from a broken foot).

                                            Kathy Murray & Bill Jones with Doyle Bramhall

How do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?

Kathy: I get inspired by all of the great songwriters past and present, like Willie Dixon, Doyle Bramhall, “Texas” Johnny Brown, and more recently Raul Malo and Amy Winehouse. Playing my favorite Jimmy Reed, Doug Sahm, and Stevie Ray Vaughan music gets me in the groove, and then it’s just a matter of writing down every idea that comes to me without censoring. I’m always gathering raw lyrics to be crafted into songs later. And occasionally I get lucky and a song will come to me complete and it’s like all I have to do is quickly write it down! “Room for More”, one of my songs that was recorded by the great Kate Meehan in Australia, was immediate like that. 

Why did you think that the roots /blues lyrics continues to generate such a devoted following?

Kathy: Because roots/blues music is real and vital, and it makes you feel something, like a release of true emotions. And even if it’s a sad song, feeling something real makes a person feel good.

Which memory from Backdoormen and your experience at bars and juke joints makes you smile?

Bill: The Backdoor Men was my first band in Austin along with Paul Orta on harmonica. The band was named after an incident where I had to quickly exit a girl’s house and just barely (and bare) make it out the back door because her boyfriend was coming in the front door.

Our Backdoor Men shows were raw and wild in the late 70’s, playing gigs from all night at anything  from punk rock parties to Steve Dean’s big Blues Festivals.

Tell me about your meet with Stevie Ray Vaughan, which memory from makes you smile?

Kathy: Stevie was best friends with my brother David Murray, a great Texas guitar player in his own right. We first saw Stevie play in 1973 in a band called The Nitecrawlers and he was already so good at the young age of 17 years that he put our jaws on the ground.  Stevie was always so cool, and was such a bright light and fun to be around. To my thrill, he sat in for a set once with my early band, Kathy and the Kilowatts, at a legendary club called the Rome Inn that was on Rio Grande Street in Austin.

Would you mind telling me the most vivid memories sharing the stage with Albert Collins, Koko Taylor, and more?

Kathy: One thing that amazed me about Albert Collins was that, for such a bad ass player, he was such a sweetie pie! I met him after I opened for his band at the Soap Creek Saloon in Austin. He was encouraging and kind, even kind of humble when you spoke with him. Then he got up on stage and absolutely burned the place down with his fabulous intensity-no one could do it like Albert.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Kathy: Austin’s full of great musicians and we’re always having amazing jams. Last fall some musician friends were here from Australia and we had a jam on our porch with no less than five hot Texas guitar slingers including Bill Jones, David Murray, Steve Callif, George Rarey, Steve Snyder, and assorted singers and percussion players. Yeah, that was a good ‘un!

One memorable gig that stands out was when my band opened for Sam & Dave at Clubfoot in Austin. Clubfoot was cavernous and Sam & Dave had such powerful voices that they could step completely away from the microphone and still fill the place with their huge voices. That was truly impressive. They were both warm and wonderful gentleman and even helped us carry our gear to our van after the show-can you believe? I have been so very fortunate to get to meet and know so many of my idols.

Bill: Playing shows with Koko Taylor, Matt Guitar Murphy and the Fabulous Thunderbirds were phenomenal experiences and will always stay with me. One of my favorite shows was captured on a rare 45rpm at King Bee’s Blues Crib in 1994, we had a smoking hot band complete with a big three-piece horn section.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

Kathy: My wish for the BLUES is that the current generation, and the young people to come, really takes the time to study the music. I mean get in deep, because there is a beauty there that can only be learned with time spent and hard work. I hear some players that claim to play the blues, so I take a listen, and find that I’m disappointed that they have not done their homework. It’s fine and good to stretch out, you absolutely must find one’s own voice and style, but for it to be called BLUES in my opinion, it must go along with a strong musical foundation created by studying the music of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Memphis Minnie, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Momma Thornton, Little Walter Jacobs, and too many marvelous blues musicians to name.  It would be my hope that players would not just skim over the surface and think that they have “got it” when they’re really just playing watered down blues/rock, because really getting hip to the blues is a life long journey. Dive in deep my friends, the water’s fine!

Bill: Blues will always be around as long as people have the blues. It is mainly the music of the working class people who want to party down after a long day at the job. That Jimmy Reed groove always gets my hips pumping and turns me on. My wish for the blues is that it gets more recognition here in the US and having Buddy Guy play at the White House last year certainly helped!

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Bill: It is all about the feel. Sure, there is real blues music today and, thanks to the internet; it is very accessible on You Tube. I am always looking for it, but it is hard to find. Trampled Under Foot is one new band that is really playing some great stuff.

What is the “feel” you miss nowadays from old days of Texas blues?

Bill: That is exactly what is missing these days, the “feel”. I hear a lot of guitars yelling very fast, but seldom do I hear a soulful guitar solo. When I do hear one, it is gold.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians and artists thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Bill: The best advice I can give is to LISTEN to a lot of blues styles and take bits and pieces to meld into your own style to continue the blues legacy. We will never get tired of hearing that timeless Elmore James blues riff. Keep writing new blues songs as there are always plenty of new things to say. It is up to you to influence the next generation of blues players.

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