Talking with Virginia based The Bush League: JohnJason Cecil, Shane Parch, Royce Folks & Debbie Flood

"If you have been hurt by humanity, then you can understand the blues." 

The Bush Legue: A picture painted for your ears

Richmond, Virginia based The Bush League began in March 2007 as a sonic stew one part cigarette smoke, one part cheap beer and a healthy dollop of laughter through the tears. The soul filled voice of co-founder JohnJason “Sleepy Eyed Jay” Cecil is both sin and salvation while the guitar licks of Shane “Chicago Slim” Parch paint a picture of Mississippi shotgun houses against a backdrop of the Windy City skyline. The Bush League’s rhythm section is anchored by co-founder Royce Folks on bass and Debbie Flood on drums.

Sleepy Eyed Jay and Chicago Slim represented the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society from Greensboro, NC as a Solo/Duo act in the 2010 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, TN. As a duo they have opened for Duke Robillard as well as Debbie Davies and the late Robin Rogers at the 24th Annual Carolina Blues Festival. The full band won the 2010 Sedalia (VA) Blues Talent Competition and competed in the 2011 International Blues Challenge. Representing Natchel’ Blues Network in 2012, The Bush League were semi-finalists at the International Blues Challenge.

While paying homage to those who have inspired them such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and “Hound Dog “Taylor, The Bush League imbues traditional blues with a modern flair.

Band’s first studio album “Can Of Gas & A Match” - after two previous live releases - recorded in only 14 hours at Memphis’ Young Avenue Sound. Rock tinged, raucous, and at times raunchy, The Bush League always puts on a show that is, in a word, FUN. The interaction between the band mates is infectious. You will like what you hear, and love what you’ve never heard before.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was the first time you felt the need to play the blues?

Shane: I was living in Memphis, TN in 2001 and 2002.  I was going through a divorce from a marriage that I never needed to be in.  I was hurt.  I pawned all my electric guitars and my amp in Mississippi and was unable to go back and pay them off.  I felt defeated and moved back to Richmond, VA.  When I got back I was in a music store and found a used left handed resonator guitar that I could actually afford.  So, I bought it.  I then proceeded to finish learning what I had started learning in Memphis…How to play the Blues…or should I say how to feel the blues.

JohnJason: As a senior in high school.  My friend Will Hunt started playing harmonica during lunch time and I was compelled to start making up lyrics on the spot in the hallway!  Soon a huge crowd formed around us and then the bell rang for the next class.  Haven't seen Will since '92-'93...durn shame.  He could really play that harmonica!

Royce: I had gone through one of the many rough spots in my life and I bought an acoustic guitar.  I grew up playing piano for 10 years and stopped while in high school so I just knew I had the aptitude for it; wrong!  After a year of practice I learned four chords and couldn’t transition them well at all so I stopped.  That was the first time that I needed to play something in response to some crazy stuff going on in my life as a constructive outlet.

Debbie: I have always been what I would consider a rock drummer with heavy influences in jazz and marching band as a child (I was the lead snare drum player in marching band in high school). I enjoyed listening to bands like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, etc. but I came to the blues late in life and only recently in meeting the Bush League and being a member of this wonderful band have I really begin to see the real world of blues.

How did the blues music start revealing its secrets to you?

Shane: Everything in the blues started connecting for me when I started teaching myself about open chord tunings and slide guitar on the resonator that I had bought.  Musically I was growing as well as gaining an understanding of where the music came from through my own journey and the history of Blues that I was studying.

JohnJason: The Blues doesn't hold secrets.  It IS the best kept secret of American music!  It gets the least amount of airplay on the radio here, the awards presented for Blues mastery are seldom covered in the mainstream media, and the names of Blues guitar legends rarely make the lists of "best of" musicians.  But without the Blues, American music SPECIFICALLY Rock & Roll, does not exist...Now, as far as the Blues being introduced to me as a viable option for performance?  That would be my silly guitarist Shane Parch, who will hopefully soon be considered as one of the best guitarists in the music game.

Royce: Through Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women.  I have the fortunate pleasure of being friends with Gaye Adegbalola’s son, Juno.  While living in northern Virginia before I seriously started playing bass I had access to the group that allowed me to see that group as people; people who happen to be great musicians that make awesome, relevant, heartfelt, healing music together.  Seeing them in this light I was able to witness how they would channel their own experiences to the benefits of their craft benefit the audiences as well as themselves.

Debbie: I can honestly say that blues music continues to reveal itself to me. I am fortunate to play in a band that respects the traditions and the masters of the music. My guitar player and one of my best friends, Shane Parch, constantly brings me CDs filled with volumes of blues bands from decades past to present. We sit around and listen to all sorts of music often in awe of what we are hearing. I am constantly learning of the beauty and the beast that is the blues.

What has the Blues offered you and how does music help re-discover yourself?

Shane: The Blues has definitely given me a deeper understanding of pain and joy.  The pain of living in a hurtful world and the joy of expressing that pain through this beautiful music we call the Blues.

JohnJason: The Blues has offered me the opportunity to discover new talents.  I've found out that I can write a song and I'm constantly honing my on-stage interaction with fans.  I think that's one of the things that sets THE BUSH LEAGUE apart from other bands in any genre; our interaction with the fans during the show.  Music in and of itself has made me feel exultant joy, soul-deep sadness, and, at times, property destroying abandon.  Music makes me FEEL and creating music is, in my opinion, getting close to the experience of God creating heavens and the earth; music is the soul of humanity...

Royce: The Blues has allowed me to grow and explore as a musician in my own terms while sharing some extra-amazing experiences with the greatest friends I have ever had!  I’ve never had a bass lesson (well, maybe one!) so while I’m growing and exploring I’m also adjusting and applying every time I pick up my instrument.  I have to center myself whenever I do this to allow myself to be in the moment and find where I can fit in the music.  It’s very humbling because when I’m off, I’m off so I check myself often!

Debbie: This music came to me at a time when I was going through very difficult times personally. So I clearly knew what the "blues" were. However, in making this music, I was able to process those times of hardship and channel them into my music. For me, music has always been tied to me emotionally. I am often called a feel player who plays with passion. Blues helps me to channel the passion, the emotion more so than many other genres that I have played.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy?

Shane: There is a saying here in the United States and that is, “You are what you eat”.  My sound is soup pot full of all the influences on my guitar playing over the years, From Robert Johnson to Black Sabbath and everything in between.  I think if you listen closely to my playing, you can hear elements of Robert, Keith Richards, Chuck Berry, HoundDog Taylor, etc.  And the list goes on and on.

JohnJason: Imagine the moment just before God and the heavenly host met Lucifer and his legion on the plains of war in Heaven.  The sacred and secular colliding is my voice and the music that flows from the guitar, bass, and drums.  We are bad for your constitution and oh, so good for your soul at the same time.  The sound of THE BUSH LEAGUE is a picture painted for your ears that you see behind your eyelids.  Our sound is a whisper standing on a wall of sound and the bricks are made of Blues; Hill Country Blues, Delta Blues, Chicago Blues, Gospel, Rock & Roll, Rhythm & Blues, and Funk.  It is a formidable wall; very high but easy to climb...we'll help you do it.

I don't know if we have an outright philosophy of our music past "That sounds about right..."  

Royce: I mostly play an acoustic/electric bass live, the sound blurs the upright/ electric sound together beautifully, keeps the band’s sound organic.  Our music is meant to be felt when you listen to it and I can feel the vibration of the bass strings through the wood when I play those basses.  It’s kind of cool to literally feel what you play while your audience feels what you’re playing!  My music philosophy right now is to listen, Listen, LISTEN!  Playing music is a team sport!

Debbie: Let's have fun! Let's make people smile. Let's do it our way. Let's get it!  Simple mantra.

Why did you choose that name of band and what characterize the sound of Bush League?

JohnJason: HA!  Okay, this is another example of mundane beginnings metamorphosing into something bigger than its origins.  My bass player Royce Folks was the first person I met on the campus of Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA in June of 1991.  We've been best friends ever since, weathering each of the other's most ignorant, inane, and irritating life events for the past 22 years (sometimes humming the theme song to "Mission Impossible")  THE BUSH LEAGUE comes from the fact that we are both from Virginia (I'm from Lawrenceville, VA and he is from Virginia Beach, VA)  and we met in Atlanta, GA.  At the time of our meeting, the amateur (read: "bush league") baseball franchise  for the Major League Baseball team Atlanta Braves was the Richmond Braves.  Thus and therefore we are THE BUSH LEAGUE (don't forget the "The"...)  We've been attacked for supporting George Bush, accused of drinking Busch beer (guilty; it's cold and cheap...) but the response we usually give when asked the question about how the band got its name is "You are what you eat..."  The sound of THE BUSH LEAGUE is rooted in hill country Blues, that electrified trance-inducing Blues, and it is enhanced by the various musical influences of our members and that ranges from Lightnin Hopkins to convicts singing on the chain gang.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician and songwriter?

JohnJason: I'm a storyteller.  My life experiences in particular are not really the fodder out of which my songs are created.  Truth to tell, my life is pretty vanilla.  I am, however, able to take a mundane nugget from my life or anyone else's and spin a scenario that, when coupled with the music that comes from Shane, Royce, and Debbie makes for a toe-tapping, finger snapping, house burnin' time!  Ironically, the songs that have the most direct connection to anything in my life have not even been recorded.  They've been played out live, but never recorded.

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

Shane: I think the best moment has been the fact that my guitar playing has brought me to the International Blues Challenge 3 years in a row and the third year going to the semi-finals.  The worst moment would probably be the fact that my mom, who passed away in July, 2009, was not around to see any of that.  I know she would have made her way to Memphis to cheer me on.

JohnJason: Best moment watching my mother and Miss Dianne Price sing together at Molly Fontaine's in Memphis during the IBC. Worst moment playing to an empty room while everyone was on the other side of the wall watching a basketball game.  They take college basketball VERY seriously in North Carolina, especially when the college teams are both based in North Carolina. 

Royce: I believe The Bush League’s CD release party for ‘Can Of Gas & A Match’ has been the best so far!  We’d gone through some amazing stuff that connected the dots for it all to come together and in the end we had a party that included many of the people that we’ve befriended along the way and it was awesome!  The worst is the time that I let life’s stress actually make me seriously contemplate stopping music all together.  That’s not going to happen and thankfully I’ve moved on.

Debbie: The worst moment in my career lasted 15 years. I stopped playing music and I never felt complete without it in my life. So as long as I am physically capable I will never do that again.

 The best moment in my career - that is a tougher question for I have had many memorable moments. With the Bush League, I would say our trip to Memphis in June, 2012 was a highlight for me to this point. The first road trip with the guys. I had been playing with them about 1 month when the CD was recorded. So getting to know them, play the Hard Rock Cafe on Beale Street, play at the Bentonia Blues Festival,   to live music with them, and the birth of the CD - "A Can of Gas and A Match". All of these events that weekend, well they were epic.

Do you remember anything funny from the recording time and International Blues Challenge?

Shane: I was really focused on getting the recording done in one day, so funny would not be the word I would use.  We all had a fun time recording, but I was really trying to get everything accomplished in a quick way.

Now for funny, we would have to go back to the second year we were in the Blues Challenge.  We were in Memphis with another band, Barrelhouse, from Richmond that we are all friends with.  Their guitar player and I helped ourselves to a lot of Jack Daniels and Cheerwine.  Basically whiskey and coke.  Cheerwine is a cherry flavored soda from North Carolina.  Barrelhouse’s sax player was upset that we would even consider mixing the Jack Daniels with anything, much less a cherry soda.  By the end of the night at 4 in the morning I was face down at an all night eatery in Memphis.  Good times!

John: Background vocals on "Penicillin" were sung by a bunch of people who cannot sing, HAHAHAHA!!! 

We went to a jam session at the Beale St. Taproom during the 2010 IBC where Shane and I competed as the duo "Sleepy-Eyed Jay & Chicago Slim".  The drummer  during the jam was not, shall we say, syncopated enough, until one of the horn players from the Plantation All-Stars (house band) leaned over and yelled "STAY IN THE MOTHERFUCKIN' POCKET!"  The drummer then became syncopated...

Royce: There are so many memories of laughter and good times from all of those times that it is hard to narrow down one particular!

What the difference and similarity between the urban northern Blues and southern Blues culture?

Shane: I’ve been asked this before and I always tell people the same thing.  The difference is Electricity.  If you look at Elmore James and Muddy Waters early recordings they are playing the same songs they play in the south, but with electric guitars, drums and piano.  Everything in Chicago was amplified and gave the music this larger than life sound.  It’s infectious.

JohnJason: The Blues is the Blues wherever you go; North, South, East, or West.  What I have found is that Bluesmen (and women, natch) have been very nice to me and my band almost unequivocally, regardless of from where they hail.  We all have a tendency to overdress at times on stage, but hey, if you're gonna do a show, do a show...

Royce: Can’t say really, all of the band’s experiences so far have been in the south and I can’t speak to anything culture wise to the urban northern blues because I’ve never experienced it.

Debbie: This is a question I defer to my boys. But I will say that I love the Hills Country style that we emulate. It is raw and passionate and dynamic. 

Tell me about your meet with Duke Robillard and Debbie Davies, which memory makes you smile?

Shane: I’d have to say opening for Duke Robillard makes me smile.  He was very warm and welcoming. That was the first gig that I thought, “well maybe I can play the blues at a competent level where people would enjoy what I do."  I don’t remember much about Debbie Davies.

JohnJason: Both Duke and Debbie were nice to me when "Sleepy & Slim" opened for them in North Carolina.  Quite conversant and willing to take time and "chew the fat" with basically unknown musicians who lucked into actually sharing a stage with them.

Royce: I was not at the Duke Robillard show that was a Sleepy Eyed Jay and Chicago Slim event that I was not a part of.  I was at the Carolina Blues Festival where the duo opened for Debbie Davies and Robin Rogers.  I got an autograph from Debbie Davies on my festival t-shirt (as well as many others!) but I also had an awesome conversation with her co-headliner Robin Rogers that night and that makes me smile!

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

Shane: Because the Blues is the song in all of our souls, not just poor sharecroppers in Mississippi.  If you have been hurt by humanity, then you can understand the blues.  It may have come out of the fields of Mississippi, but the Blues is something that everyone on this planet can relate to.

JohnJason: Try as hard as you might, but it's impossible to get away from your parents totally.  Even if you were to move on the other side of the earth, you still carry 50% of your mother and 50% of your father on those 46 chromosomes that make up 100% of you.  Not to mention the older you get the more you tend to act like your parents.  Same thing with music.  Sometimes musical styles go far away from their progenitors, but eventually it comes back and it's grown up and has enhanced the original blueprint with its own experiences and observations.  The Blues is like that.  In it's purest form, a lonely voice floating along strings stroked by fingertips made hard from clinging to life, it calls to the soul of the listener letting them know that they're not alone; that someone knows exactly how they feel and will intercede on their behalf to the Heavens because Lord knows everyone has gotten the Blues from time to time.

 Royce: Most of what has become popular after it’s discovery has been based on the blues, it is truly the root music.  A tree can not live without its roots!

Debbie: One of my lessons from brother Shane is that the Blues is the root of all music. And he is so right about that. Some of my favorite music - Led Zeppelin, the Stones, etc. they all have a major blues influence. I think it is because people get the blues. They have lived it at one time or another. People like to feel the music. Relate to the music. All of this is achievable with Blues music.

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

Shane: I don’t think I can pinpoint any one person as an all around teacher.  I learned how to play slide guitar from Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Fred McDowell and HoundDog Taylor.  I learned to play electric Blues from John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Buddy Guy.  I learned how to fingerpick the Blues from Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt.  Finally, I learned how to rock the blues from R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford and Junior Kimbrough.

JohnJason: There you go with "secrets" again, LOL!  You know what the biggest "secret" is about not just Blues music, but music in general?  The biggest "secret" is that there is NO such thing as an "overnight success" Even these "prodigies" who are like 14 years old and play the guitar like Robert Johnson himself after he made his ill-fated transaction have been playing and honing their craft for YEARS before being discovered.  Just because THE BUSH LEAGUE has an album on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and anywhere else you can find music ("Can 0f Gas & A Match" pick it up!)  doesn't mean that I can quit my job and just go on the road.  Now, for just learning about the Blues in general, some teachers who have left an indelible mark on me are Shane Parch (my idiot guitarist), Kenya Watkins (my neurotic manager), Gaye Adegbalola of Saffire the Uppity Blueswomen, Jackie Scott of Jackie Scott & the Housewreckers,  and Cy Taggart (who happens to be Greek by the way! AND hairy!  AND short! AND a great guitar player and singer!)

 Royce: Cumulatively from our guitarist Shane Parch; he’s been lived in this world a lot longer than I have and is an excellent source of blues knowledge.  I would have to say that Memphis pianist DiAnne Price was is the one person who gave me my one bass lesson that I will never forget though!  She invited me to play with her when we went to visit her at Mollie Fontaine’s after the 2010 IBC.  During our first song together she stopped playing and asked, “Son, what the hell are you playing?!” Mind you this was in a packed room of eager music listeners.  I had been trying to feel where she was going because I was not familiar with the song that she was playing and got caught in a very basic repetitive loop.  She stopped that and gave me a blues education right there!  She told me that before the 70’s blues bass told its own story in a song.  If left up to just the guitar most blues songs would sound more alike than they already do so it was the bassist’s job to distinguish the songs from each other.  She looked me in the eye and said, “Tell your story, baby!”  That was the key that opened the door to so many possibilities for me musically.

Debbie: My brothers Shane, Royce, and Jay....the entire band - The Bush League. At first, I didn't think that I could play the blues. As a drummer, it can be redundant at times and I thought that I may not enjoy playing it. However, what my Blues brothers have all taught me is that it can be what I want it to be. That I can add my own stamp to it. I can say that I have never had so much fun making music as I do with them. It is a wonderful musical marriage that just works.

How is the Blues "World" for a woman who plays the Blues? Is the Blues... a Man Man World?

Debbie: Music of most genres is a man's world but I never look at music like that. I just do what I do and hope that people see that women can play as hard/well as men. I think that this mindset is shifting somewhat, but we still have a long way to go. When I have a chance, I always encourage girls to start playing music if they are drawn to it, to work hard, and believe that they can do it.

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

Shane: Best Jam would have to be the first year we went to the IBC’s in 2010.  Our first night there, we went down to Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, MS.  It was me, JohnJay and Royce jamming with a 19 year old local kid on drums and a Harmonica player, Eyal, from Israel.  See, the Blues is worldwide!

Most memorable gig was playing at Café 21 here in Richmond when I was 22 years old.  I had just begun the introduction to Johnny B Goode and my parents walk in and I can see them smiling with pride that I was up there on stage doing what I was doing.  That will stay with me forever.

JohnJason: jam?  Well so far I'd have to say playing with Vince Johnson and the Plantation All-Stars at the Beale St. Taproom in Memphis for the 2010 IBC.  Got to play a THE BUSH LEAGUE original with a horn section (don't get that too often, ya know!)  We had the place JUMPIN'!!!  literally...I think there's a video floating around on youtube...

Some of the most memorable gigs I've had so far include winning the solo/duo competition with Shane "Chicago Slim" Parch in the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society's Blues challenge (that was our first time playing out as a duo---EVER), opening the NC Blues Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina (first time ever signing an autograph; I laughed at my manager when she told me to be prepared to do so...gotta start listening to her more...), Playing at Ground Zero in Clarksdale, MS and playing the Bentonia Blues Festival in Bentonia, MS. 

Winning the Sedalia Blues Society's Blues band competition (and getting some of Big Bill Morganfield's mojo rubbed on us), winning the Natchel Blues Network's Blues band competition, our CD release party where Jeremy Powell of Ghost Town Blues Band drove to Virginia from Memphis, TN (13 hrs) to play with us....Those are just a few of the memorable gigs THE BUSH LEAGUE and "Sleepy Eyed Jay & Chicago Slim" have had.  Here's to having a whole bunch more. 

Royce: There are two jams that stand out for me!  One was at the 2011 Richmond Folk Festival After Party where I joined Phil Wiggins on stage for two songs!  Right after he left the stage members of Original P (a group started by and featuring members of the original Parliament/ Funkadelic lineup) joined me onstage!  The other one took place at The Beale Street Tap Room during the 2011 IBC.  The Bush League took the stage joined by a crew of horns, another slide guitarist and it was the first time we played with Jeremy Powell who is featured on 3 songs on ‘Can Of Gas & A Match’!  We jammed out on two of our original songs and it killed!  Having that much sound and the different ideas that people were adding to both of the songs was mind blowing!  It’s on YouTube somewhere, look it up! Everyone one of our gigs has very memorable moments for me!

Debbie: I had the chance to play with most of Bruce Hornsby's band at a friend's party in the summer of 2012 and that was an incredible experience having a chance to play that caliber of musicianship. I love jamming with people and being creative and seeing what comes out is always interesting.

Then of course there is every rehearsal that I have with The Bush League as that is how we write music by jamming and see what happens. The Bush League CD Release party was very memorable. We were surrounded by friends and family in a packed room in our hometown and it was a significant show for us as the band worked very hard for 5 years to make the CD a reality. This CD is by far one of my favorite recordings that I have ever done. 

Another memorable gig for me was with Sonia in Woodstock NY, where in the audience was the B-52's, The Indigo Girls, Budgie (drummer for Siouxie and the Banshees). Having all these people that I looked up to in the audience enjoying the music that we were making was a feeling I will never forget.

The Bush League - Official website

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