Q&A with award-winning singer-songwriter and guitarist Jon Spear, one of the best Blues band in the mid-Atlantic area

"I enjoy thoughtful lyrics set to good music and that’s very typical of old blues.  Some of modern popular music is quite interesting but unfortunately some of the lyrics are just crude and vulgar, and sometimes glorify violence and misogyny. The old-time blues singers wrote songs about the struggles of life, love, lust, pain and sorrow, and even revenge, but it was always thoughtfully done using clever references and double entendre. I worry that the younger generation will think of blues as their grandparents’ music and fail to appreciate its power and beauty."

Jon Spear: The Music Of My Life

Nominated for the prestigious Blues Blast Magazine award for best Live Blues Recording of 2016, the Jon Spear Band performs regularly in the US mid-Atlantic area where it has entertained appreciative audiences at numerous outdoor festivals, clubs, and other popular venues since 2012. Known for their award-winning original songs, red-hot live shows, and unique arrangements of blues standards, the band’s previous three albums charted in the U.S., France, UK, Spain, and Australia including the annual top one hundred Roots Music Report Contemporary Blues Chart for the past three consecutive years. Award-winning singer-songwriter and guitarist Jon Spear doesn't admit how long he's been performing but here's a hint: Jon was in a band that opened for the Isley Brothers at the Capital Theatre in Port Chester NY when Twist and Shout was top-40 hit.  Since then, Jon has performeded with numerous bands from New York on down through DC and Virginia, playing a wide range of styles including swing, rockabilly, classic rock and blues. His electric playing has been influenced by such guitar greats as Hollywood Fats and Debbie Davies.                                                              (Photo: Jon Spear Band)

Based in Central Virginia, the band’s members are Jon Spear (guitar and vocals), Andy Burdetsky (bass), John Stubblefield (drums) and Dara James (lead vocals and guitar plus harmonica). Celebrating ten years as one of hardest working bands in the mid-Atlantic area, contemporary blues/roots rock quartet, Jon Spear Band, released their fourth album, B-Side Of My Life (2021). Coming out of a lockdown that took the central Virginia band off the road and into the studio to record its third studio album allowed time to stretch out and explore new musical routes and journeys they call a collection of B-sides, like the old 45 records that sometimes yielded a surprise hit song. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

When I think of “counterculture” I think of the social and political upheaval of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Those were decades when we witnessed firsthand the power of music and lyrics to drive change and force people to think more deeply about things including war, social justice, racial equality and caring about your fellow man. Of course, folk singers like Woody Guthrie and others have always used song as form of social commentary but the ‘60s brought this type of protest music directly into the popular mainstream on an unprecedented scale. The entire Woodstock experience epitomized the power of music to both reflect and influence political thought and for me, this was a revelation. It showed the highest and best purposes to which music can be put. It’s what I try to do in my own songwriting – make people think about how we can make a better world for ourselves. 

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I cut my teeth on early rock ‘n’ roll which was heavily influence by blues so to this day, that’s my strongest influence. But in my youth, I also sang in a church choir and later studied classical guitar, and likewise learned to appreciate classical music. I also began to follow blues back to its roots and studied the great “old masters” of blues – and began to understand how it also led to the creation of other genres such as big band, swing, jazz, Latin, folk and country. As a result of this confluence of many different influences, there are really not many genres of music that I don’t like. I just ask myself basic questions about a song like is it good music? Does it have intelligent thoughtful lyrics? Does it touch people emotionally? Is it different and interesting? If a song checks all those boxes, chances are it will find room in my songbook. 

"The mid-Atlantic area – especially around Central Virginia where I live – is a smaller music market set in an area with rural spaces and smaller cities. That gives our local music a little bit of a rural flavor and taps into local traditions like Piedmont Blues, which is one of my favorite styles." (Photo: Jon Spear Band)

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

My favorite meetings have been held by local blues music societies. This is where musicians and fans of the blues can get together and talk about the music, plus enjoy jam sessions. There are many talented blues players who can’t gig fulltime because of work and family obligations. Local blues jams give them an opportunity to play publicly with other musicians and perfect their craft. These are especially good for young people who are interested in the blues but don’t have an opportunity to perform because their own generation tends to prefer other genres. The average blues fan today is 50 or 60 years in age or older. We need to keep educating young people about the blues and giving them opportunities to play the music. As far as advice is concerned, the best I ever received was “Do what you say you’re going to do.” Any musician who keeps his word and follows through on his commitments will be seen as a reliable friend and business partner.

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

When I was a teenager, I was in a band that opened for the Isley Brothers at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester NY, when “Twist and Shout” back when that song first became a big hit. I had never experienced anything like that before. The place was packed with young people ready to rock and when the curtain was raised, the stage lights were blinding but I could hear the cheering of the crowd even if I couldn’t see them. The energy and excitement I drew from that day was more powerful than any drug I can imagine, and I was hooked for life.  Even though it’s now many years later, I still draw enormous energy from an enthusiastic and attentive audience.

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

I enjoy thoughtful lyrics set to good music and that’s very typical of old blues.  Some of modern popular music is quite interesting but unfortunately some of the lyrics are just crude and vulgar, and sometimes glorify violence and misogyny. The old-time blues singers wrote songs about the struggles of life, love, lust, pain and sorrow, and even revenge, but it was always thoughtfully done using clever references and double entendre. I worry that the younger generation will think of blues as their grandparents’ music and fail to appreciate its power and beauty.

"What I love most about blues is that its fans are more interested in hearing good music than they are in seeing or hearing pop stars. Popular music is often caught up in superficial appearances and the latest trends. But with blues, fans don’t care if the performer is old, young, fat, skinny, ugly, male, female, beautiful or whatever, as long as they can “Play the Blues.” If the artist is creating good music, the crowd will love them." (Photo: Jon Spear Band)

What would you say characterizes mid/Atlantic area blues scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

The mid-Atlantic area – especially around Central Virginia where I live – is a smaller music market set in an area with rural spaces and smaller cities. That gives our local music a little bit of a rural flavor and taps into local traditions like Piedmont Blues, which is one of my favorite styles.

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

I’ve had a non-musical career and what surprises me most is how strong are the friendships I’ve forged in music, compared to other areas I worked in. I’m still in touch today with musicians that I hung around with in the 1960s but not so much with coworkers from other times and business environments. What does this tell me? There is a special bond among musicians that goes beyond just earning a living or having a job. It’s a unique calling that does away with many economic or social barriers and allows people to come together based on their common appreciation of music, which is a universal language. 

What is the impact of Blues on the socio/cultural implications? How do you want the blues to affect people?

What I love most about blues is that its fans are more interested in hearing good music than they are in seeing or hearing pop stars. Popular music is often caught up in superficial appearances and the latest trends. But with blues, fans don’t care if the performer is old, young, fat, skinny, ugly, male, female, beautiful or whatever, as long as they can “Play the Blues.” If the artist is creating good music, the crowd will love them. The audiences are also often very diverse. The blues touches a universal feeling and brings people together.

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(Photo: Jon Spear Band)

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