Q&A with Memphis-based musician John Németh, has been bridging the lines between Blues, Soul and Americana

"Blues and Soul is music of hope, originated by a people, who had to survive on hope. The feeling of despair and repair are still felt today. Memphis struggles with poverty and maybe is one of the most impoverished cities in America. I just want to help people feel better and performing songs about familiar troubles might make a person feel less lonely."

John Németh: Greetings From Memphis 

As a teenager in the early ‘90s growing up in the muddy potato fields of Idaho, John Németh was drawn to the hard-edged hip hop sounds and rock bands of the day, until a friend, Tom Moore, introduced him to the Junior Wells and Buddy Guy classic “Hoodoo Man Blues.” Together they formed Fat John & the 3 Slims, which is still regarded as a legendary band in the Boise region. John played harp and sang in local bands, often opening the show for nationally touring blues acts and quickly caught the ear of established blues musicians. It didn’t take long before he was releasing his own recordings, “The Jack Of Harps” (2002) and “Come And Get It” (2004), featuring Junior Watson, and performing in Junior Watson’s band. John relocated to San Francisco in 2004, where he had the bitter-sweet good fortune to undertake a two-year stint with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, filling in for the ailing Sam Myers. Németh immersed himself in the deep musical waters of the Bay area, absorbing more of the soul and funk grooves of what he calls “the early East Bay Grease sound” of San Francisco and Oakland bands. John’s talents did not go unnoticed and he soon signed a recording contract with Blind Pig Records. His national debut for that label, “Magic Touch” (2007), produced by Anson Funderburgh and featuring Junior Watson on guitar. In 2008 Németh was recruited by Elvin Bishop to do some performances and contribute four vocal tracks to his Grammy-nominated album “The Blues Rolls On.”

(John Németh / Photo by May Be The Last Time album / Cover Art: Debra Clark Graphics)

Németh released two more albums on the Blind Pig label, “Love Me Tonight” (2009) & “Name The Day (2010). John followed up with two independently released live albums in 2012, “Blues Live” and “Soul Live.” In 2013 John relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, where he teamed up with producer Scott Bomar and his classic Memphis Soul band, the Bo-Keys, to create an album of revisited soul classics, “Memphis Grease” (2014 Blue Corn). John won the 2104 BMA for Best Soul Blues Male Artist, followed by “Memphis Grease” winning Best Soul Blues Album in 2015. In 2017 Németh released “Feelin’ Freaky” (produced by Luther Dickinson) on his own Memphis Grease label. Later that same year, Németh was part of a side project “The Love Light Orchestra Featuring John Németh” recorded live at one of Memphis’ favorite watering holes, Bar DKDC. Németh returned to Electraphonic in December of 2019  with his seasoned road band of young gun players, The Blue Dreamers, for a rowdy southern swamp roots session resulting in his 10th album, “Stronger Than Strong” (2021), demonstrating, yet again, his uncanny ability to skillfully blend retro and modern blues and soul into compelling music that is simultaneously old and new. The Love Light Orchestra’s second full-length effort titled “Turn On Your Love Light” released in February 2022. The phrase “the Memphis sound” often evokes Sun rockabilly or the mid-‘60s “deep soul” era of Stax, but a style equally important in the city’s rich musical history. John Németh's new album "May Be The Last Time" (will be released on September 16th by NOLA BLUE RECORDS) Recorded at Greaseland Studios with with Elvin Bishop, Kid Andersen, Bob Welsh, Willy Jordan and Alabama Mike. "This album was recorded before my jaw surgery; hopefully, this won't "be the last time" and the surgery will prove to be a success. All proceeds will go toward the medical bills and expenses".

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

From the very beginning Blues gave me the feeling of freedom, opportunity, hope, and love. I believe that is the desire of any human being. I was a young man and did not know much about the history of the music, I just knew how it made me feel. It gave sympathy and compassionate for the person in the song. I always got the sense of hope from the singer’s voice and the feeling of dissatisfaction of their current situation. Soul music was the same as blues but placed in a different package. I could sense a stronger connection to the church. The music lifts me to new places both spiritually, physically, and geographically. I’ve been to war torn countries and countries living in peace and no matter where I go, there are fans of the music and fans of my contribution. 

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? What touched (emotionally) you from the sound of harmonica?

My sound is what I love in life, the energy that I receive and the energy that I give. I raise a wide variety of organic sounds in my musical garden and feelings that have slowly evolved over millions of years. My songbook is a reflection of my life, and the world around me. The harmonica is powerful instrument and very responsive to emotion, it allows me to cry and moan.

"From the very beginning Blues gave me the feeling of freedom, opportunity, hope, and love. I believe that is the desire of any human being. I was a young man and did not know much about the history of the music, I just knew how it made me feel." (Photo: John Németh)

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

When I first started out as a teenager, I covered songs that I loved from musicians I admired. A few years down the line, the late great Paul Delay took me aside and told me I'd never get anywhere if I didn't start writing my own material. So, I went home and wrote "Let Me Hold You" for my then girlfriend, now wife, Jaki. As I became more confident vocally and, on the harmonica, song-writing became second nature and my style started to develop. I've always been influenced and inspired by the musicians I've worked with and the cities I've lived in. I have an immense respect for melodies and lyrics, but I also like to joke around and have a good time and my music reflects all of that.  

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

My songwriting is and always has been primarily inspired by conversations with others. A thought or idea will catch my attention and I build from there.

Where does your creative drive come from? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

My creative drive is my natural born talent. I can’t shut it off. Soul is what makes technique authentic to a particular artist. Technique is clearly important and can be honed and mastered, but soul is the unwritten language that binds and inspires us. Some musicians bring out sides of my soul that I never knew I had. It’s like finding something in common when talking to a friend.

How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

I make sure I'm in good health physically. I eat well and get a good night's rest. When recording, my adrenaline starts pumping in fight or flight mode.  Sometimes I have to balance that with whisky and reefer. I give each song everything I have, which usually comes in only one or two takes.

"We all contribute to the human experience in different ways. To me, the meaning of life is to connect and share with others, to be a part of the bigger picture. Music is like church for me, it's a shared, spiritual experience." (John Németh / Photo by Valery Latypov)

Currently you’ve one release with Elvin Bishop, Bob Welsh, Alabama Mike and Kid Andersen. How did that relationship come about?

I opened for Elvin Bishop in 2006 and we’ve been friends and collaborated several times since then. Kid Andersen and I met at Biscuits and Blues in 2004. He asked me to sit in and we’ve been friends ever since. I jammed with Bob Welsh on a Mark Hummel Harmonica Blow Off in 2004 and same thing, friends ever since. Willy Jordon and I met on the Blues Cruise in 2018(?) and you guessed it. I played on Alabama Mike’s record in 2007 and we were instant friends. We all think alike musically and deliver a good time whenever we play, it comes together very organically.

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album "May Be The Last Time" (2022)?

Alabama Mike showed up to the studio with a homemade tamale casserole. It was the only time any of us were quiet during the whole session. Man, that hit the spot. It was a very special moment; I get misty just thinking about it. Pre-surgery, due to the size of the tumor in my jaw, I didn't know if I'd be able to make the magic happen again. The fact that they all donated their time to the project speaks mountains of these men and the quality of their souls. 

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

Paul DeLay was one of my first mentors. He told me, “Look bubba you can’t play the chestnuts your whole life, you’re going to have to write some songs, so you can get that mailbox money!” I went back home and wrote “Let Me Hold You”!   Junior Watson loved that song and we recorded it on my “Come And Get It.”  Anson Funderburgh liked it and played it on my “Magic Touch.” It’s great to meet someone who cares enough to be honest with you.  

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

The last gig I remember was the other day on my front porch! All my neighbors sit on their front porches and watch the show while I perform for fans on Facebook. I had the fans request the songs for the play list and was surprised how deep they went into the songbook  It was great to perform songs that I wrote over 20 years ago. My fans are the greatest. I also performed my new single “I Can See Your Love Light Shine.” It was a great success and I love performing these songs acoustically. I perform for donations these days and the fans take great care of me. Always have.

"My biggest obstacle is being eclectic and unconcerned with business trends.  I create what feels right and relevant to me in the moment. It hasn't always resulted in record sales, but it's definitely helped me become a better blues musician. As the late great Howlin’ Wolf said, “When you aint got no money, you got the blues.” (John Nemeth on stage / Photo by Laura Carbone)

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

I think there is still a tremendous amount of talent in the world performing at an exceptional level. I do miss the organics in the music. I miss the days when popular music was spontaneous. These times come and go. I love the creativity, heart and soul that is on display today. The vocalist is a great vocalist even though many can’t cut a complete song in one take.

What do you think is key to a music life well lived?

My job is to help people feel good, to help the listener understand that they're not alone in their struggles and to see the light of hope.

John Coltrane said "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

We all contribute to the human experience in different ways. To me, the meaning of life is to connect and share with others, to be a part of the bigger picture. Music is like church for me, it's a shared, spiritual experience. Sharing my musical ability is my contribution, it's how I help my neighbor. During the pandemic I performed shows from my front porch for my neighborhood. It’s what I do. If we were cavemen, I would be singing for you around a fire in cave somewhere.

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?

My biggest obstacle is being eclectic and unconcerned with business trends.  I create what feels right and relevant to me in the moment. It hasn't always resulted in record sales, but it's definitely helped me become a better blues musician. As the late great Howlin’ Wolf said, “When you aint got no money, you got the blues.”

"Memphians create music and art out of passion and love, not to prove anything. With that comes the freedom of originality and creating music based on what feels right. This city has been oppressed, disenfranchised and downtrodden for decades, but yet still it rises, and you feel that in the music coming out of here." (Photo: John Németh's side project The Love Light Orchestra, a 10-piece band—initially envisioned by Joe Restivo, John Nemeth and Marc Franklin)

How do you describe The Love Light Orchestra sound, music philosophy and songbook?

The sound is built on the pioneering sound of 50s and 60s Memphis Soul Blues. Much like that of Junior Parker, Bobby Blue Bland and BB King. It is the philosophy of love. The songs are about relationship struggles and the hope for loving resolve. 

Are there any studio sessions memories with The Love Light Orchestra which you’d like to share with us?

The sessions were magic. The communication between musicians was on point, as if we were all moving as one body. The songs were cut in three, four-hour sessions with two to three takes of each song. Singing in a large studio next to a wall of horns was inspiring and the rhythm section was grooving like they were performing for millions of people. 

Why do you think that the "Memphis Sound" continues to generate such a devoted following?

I'm not a native Memphian, but from an outsider’s perspective, Memphis has long been underappreciated, with the spotlight shining elsewhere. It's crazy to me, because the creative pulse running through this city is so impressive. Memphians create music and art out of passion and love, not to prove anything. With that comes the freedom of originality and creating music based on what feels right. This city has been oppressed, disenfranchised and downtrodden for decades, but yet still it rises, and you feel that in the music coming out of here.

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues and Soul music?

When I was a child, my Hungarian father would tell me stories of living through WWII, Nazi, Russian and Soviet Russian occupation, about the fight for homeland and survival. The pain of leaving loved ones behind and coming to the US, only to find trouble here as well. As a teenager, I instantly bonded with the language and feeling of the Blues. It's the universal story of struggle and sorrow, not unlike the stories my father shared with me, with the reminder of hope and resilience. I've always felt Blues and Soul deep in my bones, the music has always been a reminder for me that others have faced the impossible and come out on the other side.

"My sound is what I love in life, the energy that I receive and the energy that I give. I raise a wide variety of organic sounds in my musical garden and feelings that have slowly evolved over millions of years. My songbook is a reflection of my life, and the world around me. The harmonica is powerful instrument and very responsive to emotion, it allows me to cry and moan." (Photo: John Németh)

What would you say characterizes Memphis music scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

Memphis has a lot of musicians and venues. There has been a long tradition of people coming to Memphis to hear music much like that of New Orleans. The town has many great hit making studios and hit making musicians - Yo Gotti, B.B. King, Elvis, Carla Thomas, Justin Timberlake, Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Cotton to name just a few. Southern Avenue and Victor Wainwright are coming up through the ranks to be contenders as well. The town is famous for funky grooves with a lot of soul.

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

Communication is everything. You can be successful in any style of music if it speaks to people.

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

It would be for the music streaming world to be overhauled in a way that ensures artists are paid fairly for their music.

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

Blues and Soul is music of hope, originated by a people, who had to survive on hope. The feeling of despair and repair are still felt today. Memphis struggles with poverty and maybe is one of the most impoverished cities in America. I just want to help people feel better and performing songs about familiar troubles might make a person feel less lonely.

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

I would love to go to Stax Records on the day Otis Redding cut “Try A Little Tenderness!”

John Németh - Home

(John Németh / Photo by Laura Carbone)

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