Blues-Rock harmonicist Jason Ricci talks about Kimbrough, RL Burnside, Johnny Winter, and Charlie Parker

"The blues is about honesty, integrity, sincerity, loss and redemption from our human errors. Being "cool" is not what the blues is about to me. Being real is."

Jason Ricci: A Cool Blues Human Being

Jason Ricci is one of the most popular harmonica players on the planet today. Listed in almost every top ten list of players on the internet today Jason Ricci is a polarizing force always in the spot light and on the tips of critics, artists and fans tongue’s everywhere. Through two plus decades of endless touring, TV appearances, recordings and the internet Jason Ricci’s style of playing is so revolutionary and influential that there exists an entire younger generation of players imitating his music, clothes, gear, and even stage presence. Nick named “Moon Cat” (a street name he once used in Nashville and New Orleans to avoid police detection) Jason has been an almost constant force for decades in the studio, festivals, club dates and press. Love him or hate him, through performing, singing, song writing, teaching, harmonica playing and activism in the fields of L.G.B.T., mental health and addiction, it is not an overstatement that this young, white, queer, skateboarding, punk rock loving, multiple convicted felony having Moon Cat from Maine is currently changing the world through music and education. Ricci's new release on Ellersoul Records, “Approved By Snakes,” is due June 16, 2017 and it's guaranteed to knock your socks off!    (Jason Ricci / Photo by Beate Grams)

Raised in Portland, Maine, Jason Ricci is the son of the controversial businessman/activist Joe Ricci, founder of Elan School. Ricci started playing music in punk bands at the age of 14. After discovering a love of the harmonica and Blues music, he turned his attention in that direction. In 1995, Ricci moved from Portland to Memphis, TN, where shortly thereafter he placed first in the Sonny Boy Blues Society contest at 21 years of age. Later that same year Ricci recorded his first album, Jason Ricci. In Memphis, Ricci began playing with David Malone Kimbrough, son of blues great Junior Kimbrough, and soon was a part of the bands of both Kimbroughs and was sitting in with R.L. Burnside. In 1999, Ricci won the Mars National Harmonica Contest, and began playing with Keith Brown, later recording with him as well. After 15 months with Big Al and the Heavyweights, and a brief period of living in Raleigh, NC, Ricci started his own band, Jason Ricci & New Blood, in 2002 (features Shawn Starski). In 2005, Ricci was honored with the Muddy Waters Most Promising New Blues Artist award. In 2007 Ricci and New Blood were signed to Electro Groove, a new subdivision of Delta Groove Productions. His first album with the label, titled Rocket Number Nine (2007). Later in 2009 the band recorded "Done With The Devil" for the same Label. By January 2011, Ricci had relocated to New Orleans, and assembled a new band, Approved By Snakes, with guitarist John Lisi. Jason Ricci featured in Jay Willie Blues Band’s album Rumblin' and Slidin'. Jason was a featured performer on Johnny Winter’s Grammy award winning ‘Step Back’ (2014). Has received multiple Blues Music Award Nominations 2009 - 2016, and won a Blues Music Award in 2010. Featured performer at the Rock & Roll hall of fame for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band induction in 2015. Jason has worked and/or recorded with Junior Kimbrough, RL Burnside, Nick Curran, Walter Trout, Ana Popovic, Cedric Burnside, Joe Louis Walker, Peter Karp, Sue Foley, and many others. 

Interview by Michael Limnios       

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

The thing I've learned the most is to be yourself. Don't try and be someone or something your not just because you think or someone told you that’s what the blues is. The blues is about honesty, integrity, sincerity, loss and redemption from our human errors. Being "cool" is not what the blues is about to me. Being real is.

What experiences in your life make you a good Blues musician? What is the relation between music and life?

Practice, listening, living life outside of music. Art imitates life so you have to have some real shit behind all those fancy chops. Nobody HAS to do all the stupid, self-destructive, dangerous and hurtful things I have done to play this music. We all experience loss and lamentation we don't need to make things worse then they already are to be better players. Stay in school and don't do drugs kids.

"I miss the days before the internet. Information was more important to people then and was harder to get thus respected more and reserved for those who were dedicated." (Photo: Jason Ricci)

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

I think my sound is just based upon being open minded to different styles of music and sounds all the while really loving and revering the traditional blues players that came before me without worshipping their work over their philosophies. My musical philosophy is pretty simple I write and play the shit I think sounds good and is funky to me, I try and write ONLY about what I know and about real true life shit that means something to me…I think most people that have been to my shows like them because of that, I'm not a great vocalist but I get my point across because people can see in my eyes that I'm not lying to them and that I mean all this stuff for real, in the end that’s more important than hitting the right note not that I couldn't work on that a lot better too!

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

I don't think that it does actually; I think the following that does exist is getting older and slightly but steadily dwindling. The following that DOES exist IS devoted, your right, and I think thats because people just naturally dig the music, found something small, and kind of hidden and are excited about that, plus many of the artists are very sociable, approachable and willing to hang with the fans and people like that too…

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Meeting, living with and playing with Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside naturally were heavy experiences. Growing up with people like Per Hanson (Ronnie Earl's Drummer) and others were very influential, Dw Gill, Nicky Curran, Sean Costello, Billy Gibson, Pat Ramsey, Big Bad Smitty, Big Al and the Heavy Weights, Walter Trout, Nick Moss, Johnny Winter and more and more... Even local guys when I was living in Florida like "Famous Frank Ward" and people like him (well there’s nobody like Franky exactly) meant the world to me. These people either raised me like their son or I grew up alongside them like brothers. This music HAS been my life in many ways and its people are incredibly important, even sacred to me. It's impossible to only pick a few and tell a couple of stories; I'd be here all day if I tried. Best advice I ever got was from a Piano player in Boise Idaho named Judd, he use to sing the best version of "Do nothing 'till you hear it from me" he told me : "say what you mean and mean what you say" Also my Dad told me to never nickname myself any stupid fake ass blues shit like "Blind Lemon Lead Dick" That was good advice he told me: "to remember that I was a Ricci, that I was a white bot, and that I'm from Maine and theirs nothing wrong with any of that shit."

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

Hmmm Pick one huh? Here's one: OK,  I remember I was recording for Delta Groove records on one of the last Mannish Boys Albums…Rod Piazza was there…I was newly sober again, newly fat and felt all ackward…I was all stressed trying to get a good tone out of this amp and get a good take…Rod was watching and it was stressing me out because I grew up listening to that dude, I use to cry and shit when I listened to his music because I dug him that much…Any was he was kind of pissing me off watching and all because I was stressed…Then after it was his turn, I was like OK fine I'm gonna sit in the window now and stress your ass out…Rod plugged into the first amp he found and in like 10 seconds he sounded fucking amazing, with little to no tweaking at all…Then they did the tune, it was 19 years old, Jackie Payne was singing it, Jimmy Bott was on drums, Bill Stuve on bass, Mike Finnigan on Piano and Kirk Fletcher was on guitar I think, any way Rod took a solo at the end of the tune and it was fucking amazing! Amazing phrasing, totally improvised, incredible, blew my mind, then after the song ended rod told the producer/engineer to back the song up about 17 clicks (somewhere in the middle of his solo)…I thought he hit a note or did something he didn't like but he had heard a 7th note on one of the guitar chords instead of 9th (or maybe I'm backwards) and it didn't fit just right. It just totally blew my mind how seasoned, professional and what a GREAT LISTENER Rod is even in the middle of his own sol he was hearing all this shit everyone else was doing. That’s a great musician. Needless to say the last thing Rod was concerned about was my dumb ass looking through the stupid window. Nothing phases that guy.

These need mentioning too in short: Recording with Johnny Winter was amazing, meeting him and talking about dope and life and recovery and Pat Ramsey etc…was crazy…Recording with Nicky (Curran) before he died meant a lot to me. All the great conversations I had and my friendship with Sean Costello (RIP) were and are very important to me and I take those people everywhere with me all the time since I'm luckily still here and don't really know why. Hanging with and knowing Jimmy Lloyd Rea from Oregon all these years (over twenty now) has been cool too, he's been around a lot and is very wise and makes bad ass music that not enough people know about. Touring with Walter Trout for a brief time was great, Walter is so cool I wish I could of done more of that, He's been at this a while and really played a great father type figure to me wish we could of continued that but some dumb stuff happened with the biz not between us.

"I think my sound is just based upon being open minded to different styles of music and sounds all the while really loving and revering the traditional blues players that came before me without worshipping their work over their philosophies." (Photo: Jason & Bob Margolin on stage)

Which memory from Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Nick Curran and Johnny Winter makes you smile?

Just Junior always sitting in this one chair at the juke joint, or in his car outside the record store in Holly Springs all old and wise. I use to always go up to him very drunk and high with some problem or whatever bullshit my 20 year old ass was having and he's just say "J-bird Starighten' up" (good advice) RL Singing the lyric to Goin down south where he's tackling about "I'd rather be dead" and just staring straight at me right in the eye smiling this evil mutherfucking grin. That dude was awesome, sent me for real.

Nick Curran opening the van door, while we were going about 70 MPH opn the freeway when he was like 16 or 17 because he was afraid of accidentally inhaling pot smoke! I have a million Nick stories…One time he MADE an upright bass out of a dresser drawer, a 2x4 and three clothes line strings and played that shit on a good rockabilly gig as good as the regular bass player who was out sick!!!! Nick just made a bass, took the gig, showed up and played the fuck out of it like it was his every day thing!!! That kid was EXTREMELY EXTREMELY talented and gifted! He worked real hard too! I miss him every single day EVERY DAY and Sean a lot too, They were too young, makes me sad and a bit guilty that I'm still here after all the stupid shit I have done.

Just meeting Johnny Winter and swapping stories about Pat and all the dumb shit I've done was cool. Johnny is telepathic, he sees right through your bullshit, theres no use lying with that guy, he knows, he's one of the most amazing people I have ever met!

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Rock and Punk music and culture?

Just sincerity, that’s all I see, so much music shares the same structures as far as chords, harmony, melody and rhythm but the being honest is the true connecting thread no matter what the differences are theoretically.

"Practice, listening, living life outside of music. Art imitates life so you have to have some real shit behind all those fancy chops." (Jason Ricci / Photo by Beate Grams)

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

My wife Kaitlin Dibble always makes me laugh, she's wicked funny and a very good singer and songwriter too! Working with her recently has been very fun. Talking to my old band leader Big Al from Big Al and the Heavyweights after placing one of my students in his band was great. All the ways Al helped me learn this business and how to be off stage has meant a ton! Getting to help him find a new kid to take the job and getting to play a part in passing this music down like that was very touching for me.

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

I miss the days before the internet. Information was more important to people then and was harder to get thus respected more and reserved for those who were dedicated. Plus people couldn't post anonymous, bullshit critiques without saying their name and being real. There are some serious dips hits pretending to know something about music or our instruments who seriously can't play, whose tiny brains are in the way of their ears and who talk shit all day on artists that are actually working. I don't know if its jealousy or their own insecurities but some of those dudes need to get punched in the mouth (Justin Headly would do it too). The internet is great I guess in many ways for music but in other ways I hate it. I hope music gets back to more actual playing of instruments and some more solo's every now and then, although I still like a lot of pop shit. I dig Miley Cyrus I think she's awesome. It just all has to run its course and it will I don't have any fears at all. It will work out the way it's supposed to be for sure.

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

Because it's cheap and a lot of the early guys were poor as fuck, it also sounds very voice like so that makes sense to me.

"Don't try and be someone or something your not just because you think or someone told you that’s what the blues is." 

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

I'd like to go back to go back and change a lot of bad shit that happened and not make some of the mistakes I made, but who the hell am I to say I know any better now, shit just had to happen that way for things to be the way that are and thats not always a bad thing I'm learning…It would be cool to go back to the 50's and see and hear Charlie Yard Bird Parker for a few gigs, I would love that!!!!

Jason Ricci - Official website

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