Q&A with blues musician D.K. Harrell from Ruston, Louisiana - his philosophy and motto is that the Blues is Everything

"I miss the authentic sound, blues to me now is too rock-ish. I miss when the guitar wasn’t overpowered with gain or distortion and bands had horns and every man shined on stage in a nice suit and uniformed. I also miss the showmanship, the new players like Toronzo Cannon and Eric Gales have that showman ship cause they move and dance a little when they play."

D.K. Harrell: The Right Blues Man

D.K. Harrell's fascination with the blues began before just as he was becoming a teen. The Right Man (Release Date: June 30th / Little Village) is his first CD, showing his extraordinary comfort with the music, the recording studio and his own desire to sing his songs.  Songs that tell stories, his stories. Songs that just don’t fade into the night, but attach to your ribs and follow you 24/7. These are his blues, and he’s playing and singing from his soul. Make no mistake about it, he is a committed bluesman to the core. It’s the only thing he knows, and the only thing he wants to know. D.K. Harrell has an outsized and penetrating presence.  It is immediately evident when he hits the bandstand. His voice is custom-built for the blues, and his fingers work the guitar like someone who has spent decades honing his skills. The fluid nature of his talent conveys a swagger of worldliness that a 25-year-old from a small town in northern Louisiana just has no business possessing. There is a familiarity that seems ingrained. This isn’t someone who picked up a guitar because he wanted to be a blues star, but someone who had no other choice than to tap into his soul and to expose his feelings through the music... By his own admission, D.K. says he was and still is a loner. “I’m Black, I’m young and the music I like is blues,” he says. “How much do you think I have in common with people my age?”                                                 (D.K. Harrell, 2023 / Photo by Marilynn Gipson)

His fascination with the blues began before just as he was becoming a teen. He’d been exposed to the music, but after exploring the internet for any blues videos he could find, he zeroed in on his mission.  That’s what it was …. a mission. He’d devoured any and all blues videos he found, later practicing the guitar licks he had seen. There was nothing else in his world. This was his mission and he wasn’t going to be denied. This is his first CD and on iit shows his extraordinary comfort with the music, the recording studio and his own desire to sing songs he has written. Songs that tell stories, his stories. Songs that just don’t fade into the night, but attach to your ribs and follow you 24/7. In live performance, casual audience members transform into true believers. Such is the power and seduction of his music. These are his blues, and he’s going to play it and sing it from his soul. Make no mistake about it, he is a committed bluesman to the core. It’s the only thing he knows, and the only thing he wants to know. This is his triumph.. And, that can only mean one thing: Mission accomplished.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and R&B music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Blues and R&B music showed me that it’s okay for a man to cry, that it’s okay for a man to feel and that’s a big influence we need today. We need that teaching of that it’s okay to say how you feel, it’s okay to cry and have something or someone on your mind. It encouraged me to be open and honest with myself, to be able to tell the world my story. The journeys I like experiencing is meeting different people because you never know who you are going to meet as you go on in this world. If something bad happens between you and that person or people sometimes a relatable blues or R&B song can help you cope with it and if something good happens it just makes that song a lot better. The music is just life itself.

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

My sound now is a gumbo of Guitar Slim, BB King, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Freddie King, Grant Green, Django Reinhardt, and a few others. The foundation of my playing and tone is BB King style, I feel many players can hit B.B. King licks but getting that warm but bright tone and vibrato can be a challenge even for myself. When writing a song 9 out of 10 it’s about what my heart went through or what my mind dreams of. It’s hard to write when you have your emotions to express. You’re trying to find the best way to let them out in a certain box of time and when you do get it out specially if it’s about something you care about that’s when the tears roll. So, I say if you’re going to play or sing do it like it’s the last time.

"I’ve recently noticed that some of my peers have been quoting or listening to artists like Nina Simone, who of course was to me the biggest and most influential woman to musically express and speak on racism and the self-love of the black community." (Photo: D.K. Harrell from Ruston, Louisiana)

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

The blues has shown me a way to express myself in a better way than just talking to someone. The blues is life; it's waking up and facing what the world hands you, and you are able to handle it and come back home and live to see another day.

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music?

Well, I'm somewhat of a slow learner at certain subjects like note reading or writing music notes to a music sheet, but I've learned that I hear chords at first I didn't pay much attention to. But now, I in a way use my voice or the guitar for what I'm trying to get out.

What has remained the same about your music-making process?

The feelings being expressed has been the goal since day one. Being able to tell stories people can relate to or at least cry or laugh with you about.

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

Most important lessons I’ve learned is be yourself when playing or singing and always put a little more than 100% into what you are doing. Jontavious tells me, ”drag it out, let the people hear ya when ya sing man”. He is a great mentor and great friend. He’s my brother. He teaches to learn and try and just do it.

Currently you’ve one release with Little Village. How did that relationship come about?

Well, the Little Village foundation President Jim Pugh and business associate Michael Kinsman had their eyes on me during the 2022 International Blues Challenge. It was just a matter of time and thought. So, Damian Pearson, also known as Yella P, put me in contact with Michael Kinsman about a festival but then it led to a recording possibility, so I give high thanks to Damian Pearson.

"Blues and R&B music showed me that it’s okay for a man to cry, that it’s okay for a man to feel and that’s a big influence we need today. We need that teaching of that it’s okay to say how you feel, it’s okay to cry and have something or someone on your mind. It encouraged me to be open and honest with myself, to be able to tell the world my story." (D.K. Harrell / Photo by Trevor Reid)

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album The Right Man?

Oh boy, there are so many, but I think the coolest one is when Jerry Jemmott (the original bass player on "The Thrill Is Gone") told me that BB King played the same kind of Gibson I have in the studio the day they recorded "The Thrill Is Gone."

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

In 2019, I was invited to the bb king symposium in Indianola Mississippi. There I met many great musicians but one of the most important encounters was with Walter Riley King, BB King’s Nephew. He encourages me to still play and learn certain subjects of music. He says, “have a good list, have a good variety let people know you have more to you.” So now with being associated with Jontavious Willis, Quise Knox, Sean Macdonald, Dylan Tripple, Jayy Hopp, and Stephen Hull I slowly but surely learn from them like certain chords and licks.

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

Honestly, more films about reputable artists that paved the way for today's music.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better blues musician?

The hardest obstacle is honestly finding musicians to work with cause in north Louisiana there aren't many blues musicians. I do have to go elsewhere to find them, I mean 3-5 hour drives. But it's all worth it cause it leads to finding great musicians.

What moment changed your music life the most?

I honestly can't say cause my life has been nothin but music. But if I really had to say, it was the recording session of “The Right Man” cause a recording session with legends on your first record is sometimes a rarity, so it made me more grateful for the music I do!

"Blues and R&B music showed me that it’s okay for a man to cry, that it’s okay for a man to feel and that’s a big influence we need today. We need that teaching of that it’s okay to say how you feel, it’s okay to cry and have something or someone on your mind. It encouraged me to be open and honest with myself, to be able to tell the world my story."  (Photo: D.K. Harrell from Ruston, Louisiana)

What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

Technique is when you're home alone learning your craft, and soul is when you hit that stage and the technique goes out the window and you just spill it all out on the floor for people to see, listen and understand.

Do you think there is an audience for blues music in its current state? or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

Yes, but they first have to listen to what's being delivered and also study the history and evolution of blues. Like rap is nothing but blues on a different delivery. Music is universal-blues music is emotionally, mentally, and historically universal, you can't run from it. It'll always be there.  

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

I don’t have a favorite gig or show just yet. I feel every show I’ve done has been good but never the best because each show I get better and better. A great but recent memory was the first annual blues retreat held at foxfire. The guys I mentioned before Jontavious etc. were all performing on a Thursday night and I sometimes lose myself when performing, I become someone else. I say this because I started playing on my knees and back and busted my shirt open, first time I ever did something like that. I laugh about it now cause that’s really realizing that I’m a showman at heart.

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

I miss the authentic sound, blues to me now is too rock-ish. I miss when the guitar wasn’t overpowered with gain or distortion and bands had horns and every man shined on stage in a nice suit and uniformed. I also miss the showmanship, the new players like Toronzo Cannon and Eric Gales have that showman ship cause they move and dance a little when they play. You can’t be so technical, be more spiritual. I feel the blues is in good hands with the many young men and women who play blues. Now the business and society just need to notice them and embrace them and put what’s needed into them to prosper and keep this father and mother of all music alive.

"Technique is when you're home alone learning your craft, and soul is when you hit that stage and the technique goes out the window and you just spill it all out on the floor for people to see, listen and understand." (D.K. Harrell / Photo by Trevor Reid)

What would you say characterizes Louisiana's blues scene in comparison to other US local scenes and circuits?

Where I live (Shreveport/Bossier city) there isn’t too much of a music scene. If there is its mostly rappers or southern soul. New Orleans is the spot where you may hear more blues and jazz than where I live. I wish Louisiana had the type of places like buddy guys legends or historical juke joints that are spread all over like in Mississippi. I wish we had more blues lovers and players in Louisiana. But thank god Louisiana Blues is still acknowledged by many.

What is the impact of Blues on the racial and socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

I’ve recently noticed that some of my peers have been quoting or listening to artists like Nina Simone, who of course was to me the biggest and most influential woman to musically express and speak on racism and the self-love of the black community. If my peers are listening to her then they are influencing cultures and future generations about the same topics Nina taught our grandparents and parents and so forth. So, I feel if the right songs or right artists are played to each individual person and they can relate to it we will have more blues lovers, players and listeners in the world. I got my cousin in love with Bobby Bland “Aint no love in the heart of the city” he learned from that song that love is hard but to keep loving.

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

A day wouldn’t be enough haha but I’d say the 60s. When I look at Woodstock and the type of performances given then it gives me chills. Seeing footage like muddy waters and Lonnie Johnson playing overseas or Sammy Davis Jr. singing “birth of the blues “for interracial audiences. That time was packed with so much love for music and the fire to love one another during the hard times of segregation and 'Jim Crow'. That’s a very deep time. We need that type of drive now that says we want to hear and feel emotions and we want to walk hand in hand, and we want to be a force of nature and symbolism for positivity. The artists of the 60s emphasized that desire in their music, films, and literature. We need that now.

D.K. Harrell Blues - Home

(D.K. Harrell from Ruston, Louisiana / Photo by Marilynn Gipson)

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