Q&A with harmonica master Chris O'Leary, ranks among the blues and roots world’s most talented unsung heroes

"My hope is that younger generations will fall in love with this music much like I did ... My fear is that they’re not being exposed to Americana is big amongst younger audiences in my opinion Blues should be a bigger part of that. When you talk about American Music Blues is woven into, and provides the bedrock for everything Rock country R&B jazz etc. so if you’re talking Americana. What’s more American than Blues."

Chris O'Leary: The Hard (Blues) Line

Chris O'Leary's musical background includes duties as lead singer and front man for rock and roll hall of famer and Grammy award winner Levon Helm’s band, The Barnburners. During the 6 years that Chris and Levon played together they toured across the US and Canada lighting up stages everywhere they went. Chris has appeared on stage with: Legendary Rolling Stones sideman Bobby Keys, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jimmy Vivino, Jeff Healy, Dan Akroyd, Albert Lee, Dave Edmunds, Dave Maxwell and the great James Cotton to name just a few. Chris has also recorded with Bill Perry and Hubert Sumlin, among others. The Chris O’Leary Band’s debut CD “Mr. Used to Be” won the 2011 Best New Artist Debut CD Blues Blast Award and was nominated for best new artist debut at the 2011 American Blues Music Awards. In January 2024, Alligator Records released the new album of soulful vocalist, dynamic harmonica master and gifted songwriter, Chris' label debut, titled "The Hard Line".

(Singer, songwriter, harmonica master Chris O'Leary / Photo © by Paul Natkin)

O'Leary is among the blues and roots world’s most talented unsung heroes. The Marine veteran, ex-Federal police officer and former lead singer of The Barn Burners (featuring Levon Helm) has walked a hard line from his upstate New York home to stages all over the world. Between his large, athletic frame and his military-style “high and tight” haircut, O’Leary commands attention, singing his indelible original songs with pure, unadulterated soul and playing harmonica with urgent locomotive power. His keenly written songs come directly from his colorful and sometimes harrowing life experiences. 

Interview by Michael Limnios / Photos © by Paul Natkin

Special Thanks: John O'Leary & Marc Lipkin (Alligator Records)

How has the Blues influenced your views of the world? What touched you from the sound of harmonica?

While the blues (the music itself) has touched on my world views, my life as a blues musician has definitely had an impact on how I view different people places cultures etc. Going from seeing the world as a Police Officer or US Marine to touring as a blues musician are in many regards absolutely polar opposites. As a Marine especially a combat veteran you experience places in turmoil., sometimes people and cultures at their very worst moments. As a musician I experience the exact opposite. The common joy of music is a powerful thing. The interaction between my band and I and the audiences we play blues for all over the world has given me back a little bit of optimism. It’s all about perspective this music, when it’s good is a real bridge that crosses language, cultural, racial and religious barriers. One of the most relatable aspects of blues music is its simple commonality. Everyone feels it at one point or another regardless of who you are. What touched me about Harmonica was more due to the player than the instrument itself, when I first heard James Cotton on Muddy Waters’ album Hard Again, I had never heard anyone play an instrument with that kind of brutal ferocity, even as a kid it spoke to me on a deep level, like music is supposed to do and still does. I have listened to those album tracks thousands of times, and I still go back to that record and James ‘s playing like a well of inspiration.

How do you describe your sound and songbook? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

My sound and songwriting are very eclectic while still attempting to be respectful to the tradition of the music I love. There’s a lot of New Orleans, Memphis and Chicago of course. I try to write about what I know, I’ve lived a bit of a crazy life, I look back and sometimes it seems I’ve lived twenty separate lives. Living thru it has been harrowing at times but the beauty of it is that I think it affords me with a large pallet to draw from. In my opinion technical prowess without soul is just that, soulless and honestly, I don’t find it very interesting to listen to, on the other hand simplicity can be very engaging, as long as it’s honest and played with feeling and soul. When there is a combination of both like BB, Albert Collins or Little Walter it’s pure magic! Little Walter redefined what’s technically possible on the harmonica while still playing some of the deepest blues ever recorded… That’s what it’s all about!!!            (Chris O'Leary / Photo © by Paul Natkin)

"What I miss most about the blues from the past is all about the Artists themselves. There will never be another Cotton, Muddy, Sonny Boy, Walter or Wolf. Like I said, if I want inspiration or music that truly moves me ... my “go to” is a record made almost 50 years ago or sometimes much older."

Why do you think that Alligator Records continues to generate such a devoted following?

Alligator has maintained such a devoted following because there will always be an audience for real honest blues music, before I was a working blues musician, I was a blues fan and whether it was Hound Dog Taylor, Albert Collins, or Delbert McClinton I knew the stuff on Alligator was the real deal and the stuff I dug. After all this time, decades of great blues and all of the legendary artists that made Alligator their home, folks know what they’re gonna get when they buy an Alligator release. I picked up the latest Cash Box Kings release with the same excitement and anticipation as I had when I got a William Clarke or Carey Bell record decades ago. I knew it was going to be killer before I listened to one note, Bruce and the staff just put out good honest blues.

What moment changed music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

Beyond hearing Hard Again when I was a kid the moment that changed everything was when Levon Helm asked me to move to New Orleans. I moved to the one of the greatest musical cities in the world and fronted the house band at Levons club on Decatur, (the subject of one of the cuts on The Hard Line) Playing music with a Legend 5 nights a week and absorbing the music and culture of NOLA it changed me in every way imaginable. Levon was a great man and I owe him everything. He was kind and hilarious, mentoring without being harsh, and generous to a fault. Before I lived in New Orleans, I was very tunnel visored as to what blues was. Playing with him and living in that great city opened my eyes as to what could be played and still remain respectful of the tradition. The other highlights include recording with the great Hubert Sumlin, afterwards touring and playing with Levon for 7 years. Also, thru Levon, I got to share the stage with my musical hero James Cotton ... Cotton plain and simple is the reason I play this music! i got to know him and had the honor of calling him my friend. Finally, a definite highlight is being signed by Alligator Records. To be on the same label as all my heroes is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream ... it’s also definitely validation for years of playing countless number of gigs, thousands of miles in the van ... etc. etc.

"My sound and songwriting are very eclectic while still attempting to be respectful to the tradition of the music I love. There’s a lot of New Orleans Memphis and Chicago of course. I try to write about what I know., I’ve lived a bit of a crazy life, I look back and sometimes it seems I’ve lived twenty separate lives." (Chris O'Leary, blues and roots world’s most talented unsung heroes / Photo © by Paul Natkin)

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

What I miss most about the blues from the past is all about the Artists themselves. There will never be another Cotton, Muddy, Sonny Boy, Walter or Wolf. Like I said, if I want inspiration or music that truly moves me ... my “go to” is a record made almost 50 years ago or sometimes much older. I’m not saying there aren’t artists today that kill on every recording ...they absolutely do, it’s just that I fell in love with the music of the giants of this genre and those are impossible shoes to fill. Maybe it’s the realness. the production, the larger-than-life personalities, the rawness …there’s just something about those records. My hope is that younger generations will fall in love with this music much like I did ... My fear is that they’re not being exposed to Americana is big amongst younger audiences in my opinion Blues should be a bigger part of that. When you talk about American Music Blues is woven into, and provides the bedrock for everything Rock country R&B jazz etc. so if you’re talking Americana. What’s more American than Blues.

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?

For better and worse my service in the Corps has played a large part in who I am as a man and an artist. The physical obstacles left over from old injuries and multiple surgeries have made getting older a lot more challenging in a way those physical challenges led me back to a life as a musician, in that I wasn’t able to physically perform the duties of my previous job anymore, like many other Vets, the scars left from the life I chose as a kid will follow me forever. On the other hand. I’m proud of my service and of being a Marine and thankful for the lifelong friends and many of the experiences that go along with that life, it’s a double-edged sword for sure, Like I mentioned earlier these experience form the basis of who I am now and provide me with a huge pallet to draw from as a songwriter and blues musician.

"As a musician the biggest lesson learned is that despite those vast differences of race culture religion and economic conditions. People are people and the joy of music is something we all share, It’s truly transcending." (New York based award-winning Chris O'Leary sings the Blues / Photo © by Paul Natkin)

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

I’m not sure if this answers the question Blues is visceral music ... it’s obviously music to be heard (like all music) but most importantly it’s music to be felt, it’s the tension of one bent note held for an impossibly long time while your ear longs for the resolution but at the same time revels in the suspense, it’s stories of desperation and joy, heartache and victory. They might be stories whose settings and characters are completely unrecognizable. Culturally and economically totally removed from the listener’s own personal experience but at its best, the twists turns and lessons learned strike home and ring true. There are universal themes that transcend, it’s a backbeat and a lowdown dirty shuffle that begs the listener to move, Not everyone is going to relate to every song I write but I just hope that something there hooks them into giving it an honest listen ... then regardless of who you are and where you’re from I think, at the very least I got a shot With some of the tunes on The Hard Line ...I Cry at Night for instance, I’m definitely trying to raise awareness. PTSD and suicide amongst our Veterans are at epidemic proportions and is an issue that absolutely needs more exposure. Without a doubt, it’s an issue that’s important and personal to me. As I see it, I have a platform so with that comes an obligation. I have to say something. It’s an uncomfortable topic but that’s half the problem. If more people know, more can be done to fund, treat and de stigmatize and then maybe a few less suicides.

What are some of the most important life’s lessons you have learned from your experience as Marine and Musician?

In answering this last question, I refer back to the initial question. In the Corps there were some hard lessons learned at a pretty young age. my own mortality being first and foremost, that period of time where a young man is bullet proof, for me, was very short lived. Coming from middle class roots I was exposed to abject poverty and the human condition overseas that was jarring and left a lasting impression. To have any kind of real empathy whatsoever and fully appreciate the things I had I needed to see the world, I’m not saying everyone does, but I definitely did ... I know it’s cliché but it’s true. The worlds a big place! As a musician the biggest lesson learned is that despite those vast differences of race culture religion and economic conditions. People are people and the joy of music is something we all share, It’s truly transcending.

Chris O'Leary - Home

(Chris O'Leary / Photo © by Paul Natkin)

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