Interview with Will Hammer & Melissa Tong - a musical melting pot between Mississippi and Manhattan

"I think the blues language allows people to turn inward and tap into deep emotions ~ sometimes this grit turns up and comes out you didn’t even know was there!"

Pork Chop Willie: The Blues Bridge

Pork Chop Willie features Will Hammer on lead guitar and vocals and Melissa Tong on fiddle and occasionally keyboards. They are joined by outstanding rhythm players from both Mississippi and New York. Will (Pork Chop Willie) had been playing Chicago-style blues in and around New York City for more years than he cares to admit when one day he heard Jimbo Mathus and Eric Deaton playing the deeply emotional blues from the North Mississippi Hill Country. Will was completely taken by the power of this style of blues. For two years, he absorbed all he could about the music of R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and others, while studying under Kenny Brown and Jimbo Mathus.

Photo by David Sokol

In early 2008, Will approached Melissa Tong, an incredibly talented violin/fiddle player, about starting a new band. Melissa can do it all—and does. From classical to bluegrass, from indie-rock to blues, Melissa is one of the most sought-after musicians in New York City (it was at a juke joint on the back streets of Clarksdale, Mississippi, though, after a tussle over a 24 oz. can of Budweiser, that Melissa earned her nickname, Railroad Nails). Will and Melissa formed Pork Chop Willie to focus on their take on the music of the North Mississippi Hill Country.

Pork Chop Willie’s debut album, Love is the Devil (2014), lights a new fire under America’s musical melting pot, bringing fresh heat to the Mississippi hill country blues tradition while blending in elements of Americana, rock, alt-country and even classical music. The 13-song disc serves as a bridge between those genres, the past and the present, and the band’s Magnolia State inspirations and Manhattan home.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Will: I am an American male. Too much of the time we are taught to hide our feelings. To be logical. The blues, and especially the North Mississippi Hill Country style of blues, makes me feel my emotions.  All of them. Desire, happiness, loneliness, excitement. The blues allows me to open up to myself and be honest with what I am feeling. 

Melissa: I think the blues language allows people to turn inward and tap into deep emotions ~ sometimes this grit turns up and comes out you didn’t even know was there!

How do you describe your sound and progress? What characterize Pork Chop Willie’s philosophy?

Bill: As someone else described it, our “true north” is the Hill Country blues. And that is clear on “Love is the Devil”. But we are not imitating any particular sound and our music is our own. So you hear alt-country and Melissa’s classical influence in the middle of a juke joint shaker. But I would say that when we write and play our songs, we are looking for emotional honesty. If we are open to feeling those emotions deeply, they will be expressed and hopefully shared with the listener.

"I want to spend a Sunday at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint while Junior and R.L. Burnside tear up the place."

Why did you think that the Mississippi hill country Blues continues to generate such a devoted following?

Will: I think it’s exactly what I’ve been saying. It’s the emotional power of the songs, whether joy or sorrow. The rhythms of the Hill Country sound get inside you real quick and stay there.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? Which memory makes you smile?

Will: Well, there have been so many good times. We recently played at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale. We did a show at Red’s on Saturday night.  In the middle of one of our songs, I saw Robert Belfour dancing his way past us through the crowd. He’s one of my heros! And there he was shimmying through the juke joint to our music. I’m still smiling about that!

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

Will: Shannon McNally told me to start with a great band behind you. I’ve certainly done that. The folks that we play with in New York, Robin Gould on drums, Tony Conniff on bass, and Steve Tarshis on guitar, are incredible musicians. I am in awe of their ability. And in Mississippi we get to play with Kinney Kimbrough on drums, Eric Deaton on bass and on the album David Kimbrough on guitar. We recorded half the album with the New York based musicians and half with the Mississippi based musicians. Thanks for the advice, Shannon!

Melissa: I consider myself so very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet and work with countless inspirational people.  Some of these people have had huge professional successes, but often I find that the most memorable meetings are those encounters with the humblest people, homeless people who aren’t looking for a handout but who have happened upon hard times due to whatever set of circumstances, or a villager who is finding supreme joy caring for a newborn sheep. These are the things that stick most with me. Regarding the best advice, again, I’ve known and learned from so many teachers in all forms; one piece of advice that keeps coming back to me is my dad’s advice that money is not the goal, but is merely a tool for us to accomplish what we want. It’s helped me through times when I felt I was struggling financially, and has also reminded me to be generous when I have it to give.

"It’s the emotional power of the songs, whether joy or sorrow. The rhythms of the Hill Country sound get inside you real quick and stay there."                              Photo by David Sokol

Are there any memories from recording time of “Love is the Devil” which you’d like to share with us?

Will: Hmm…In our song, Falling, a very dark song about murder and suicide, the subject of the song says at the end, “Tell Mama I love her…forgive me”. As I said, it’s a dark song. Anyway, I was in Water Valley working with Winn McElroy who did all the mixing and went out for breakfast at this great place. The special breakfast was biscuits with sausage gravy, eggs on top and bacon on the side.  Winn texted me asking where I was. I confessed to be eating a most unhealthy breakfast and texted him back, “tell mama I love her…forgive me”. Well, I thought it was funny anyway.

Melissa: This is going to sound really cheesy, but I really just love the whole recording process…I love the takes, I love the camaraderie, I love being in the booth listening back, I love having “my cocoon” with my case and my water and my coffee and my sound shield, I love it all. However, I’m also a foodie, so I guess one of my favorite days was when our friend and engineer Winn Elroy brought in these incredible po’ boys that had been made for us by a musician/chef friend of his at this random restaurant in the middle of Mississippi. That meal was delicious!

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

Will: Maybe I miss the direct honesty of some of the blues from the past. Sometimes it seems that the point of the song gets lost in the urge to show off technical ability. But that’s probably not true. When we think of the blues of the past, we remember the music that endured. And there are plenty of people making great music in all genres that will endure as well because they use the music as the way to convey something important. The music is bound to change. I don’t mind that. Ours is firmly grounded in tradition without, I hope, being in any way an imitation. I’m not really worried. I think the blues will always survive.

Melissa: My tastes tend to be on the conservative side when it comes to roots music, and music in general; I’m wary of anything “traditional” becoming too slick. I much prefer the acoustic sound, raw and unfiltered.

"The blues, and especially the North Mississippi Hill Country style of blues, makes me feel my emotions. All of them. Desire, happiness, loneliness, excitement. The blues allows me to open up to myself and be honest with what I am feeling."

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Mississippi hill country to streets of Manhattan?

Will: I think it’s that emotional honesty thing again. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what music you’re playing if you do it in a way that you feel it. If you really believe and feel the music you are playing, others will do and will appreciate that you could share that emotion. 

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Jazz and Classical music?

Melissa: I have absolutely no idea…like the line that is attributed to Duke Ellington, there (are) two kinds of music ~ good music, and the other kind.  I think we are all just drawn to what speaks to us!

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Will: That more musicians would be recognized for their brilliance and even the sacrifices they have made to make this music. I’m not talking about myself.  I admire the musicians from the Hill Country so much. Maybe I do worry, to come back to your last question, that the Hill Country tradition is struggling to survive. I do what I can to support the music and musicians. They certainly deserve it!

Melissa: Oh boy, I have a lot of answers for this question. Let’s just say that if I ever get married, my DJ can expect a laundry list of what NOT to play. I can only pick one? I think I would go back to the days before Kenny G ruined our opinion of soprano saxophone forever.  (Sorry, Kenny G.) Either that, or I’d go back to the days before digital correction and autotune. Blech.

"My tastes tend to be on the conservative side when it comes to roots music, and music in general; I’m wary of anything 'traditional' becoming too slick. I much prefer the acoustic sound, raw and unfiltered."

What does to be a female artist in a “Man Man World” as James Brown says?

Melissa: Identity is a funny thing; there’s how we label and identify one another, and there’s how we label and identify ourselves. I look forward to the day when I identify myself by the substance of my soul, separate from my gender, intelligence, musical ability, professional accomplishments, and obviously appearance. I really look forward to the day when we all do!

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

Will: We were playing a show one night down in Como, Mississippi.  I was playing an instrumental song, no words. All of a sudden this guy walks in and comes straight up onstage and takes the microphone. He starts singing. Now I know the song has no words, I wrote it. And I can’t even really understand what he’s singing. But, man, it sounded good. I sure wasn’t going to stop him. That was how I met R.L. Boyce who lives in Como. We brought him up to New York to play a couple of times. That man can do it. Watching him moan and grin and sing to his special brand of music while the entire bar was on their feet was wonderful. 

Melissa: This week I’m working with the Musical Explorers program through the Weill Institute at Carnegie Hall, with a wonderful artist named Sasha Papernik, and we’re on stage, along with Nanny Assis and his band, and Puma Sojola & Andrea Jones Sojola in front of hundreds of children every morning, doing two shows a day. These kids are all familiar with the music coming in to the shows, and they are HILARIOUS!!! Just this morning, we heard about 250 kids getting frustrated because the host was pretending not to know the name of the balalaika. Maybe you had to be there. As far as putting me in tears? Bach will get me every time; I recently played a rehearsal of St. Matthew Passion that reconnected me why the heck I’m doing this in the first place. It’s important to have those moments from time to time.

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

Will: Without question I want to spend a Sunday at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint while Junior and R.L. Burnside tear up the place.

Melissa: As a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs; I would love to go back and be with the dinosaurs. Just the vegetarian ones though…when I was growing up it was the brontosaurus and stegosaurus, but it’s my understanding that scientists have figured out that they didn’t really exist. Either the dinosaurs or wooly mammoths. That would be amazing.

Pork Chop Willie - official website

Photo by David Sokol

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