Q&A with multi-instrumentalist Jim Aaron - unbelievable amount of soul and swagger, regardless of the context

"I hope we can realize that we’re all people and there’s just not that much difference in the grand scheme of things. My fear is that we’re too stupid and greedy as a species to do so!!!"

Jim Aaron: Sounds of North Carolina 

Jim Aaron is a multi-instrumentalist as well as a budding sound engineer and producer living in Asheville, North Carolina. A North Carolina native, Jim spent his childhood traveling the world due to his father’s military service. The Harmonica is his strongest instrument and is the one regularly featured in live shows. Performing a variety of styles with fluid mastery on diatonic or chromatic harps, Jim is equally comfortable playing Funk, Country, Blues, Bluegrass, Swing Jazz, Reggae, Rock or R&B. He brings a heavy punch and a focus on the melodic as he takes the harmonica places others fear to go! He also Sings and plays Guitar, Banjo, Upright/Electric Bass, Piano, Clarinet and Drums. Jim has appeared on such albums of Don Humphreys, Gutterhound, Pierce Edens & The Dirty Work and Logan Mason. He Co-Produced an album of original works by the French Broad Playboys with long time cohort and Wiyo’s veteran Parrish Ellis.            Photo by Bob Alexander

Together with his soul mate Autumn Greenfield of The Guitar Mama in West Asheville, he has developed a formidable home studio and has been honing his skills over the last couple years. Their cabin, located a little ways North of Asheville on a couple acres in the woods, was originally built in 1892. The 120 year old hand hewn logs come to life with amazing acoustic qualities as they track their original material and offer their services to local musicians. Jim has played professionally since 1995 with such acts as The Big Ol’ Nasty Getdown featuring George Clinton, Gary Shider (Star Child) and  Belita Wood from P-Funk, The Lee Boys, Andy Buckner Band, Pierce Edens & The Dirty Work, The French Broad Playboys, The Big EZ’s, Soul Psychadelique and Small Town Lights to name a few. Whether performing slow haunting ballads that bring a tear to the eye, or wide open rock and roll to blow your hair back, Jim is possibly the most versatile harmonica player around with an unbelievable amount of soul and swagger, regardless of the context. Jim continues to play live shows around the Southeast as well as performing session work and giving lessons. A brilliant musician & songwriter, Jim Aaron’s contribution to a band cannot be overstated. He brings his “A” Game to every performance and leaves everything he’s got on the stage or the tape.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in music?

I’ve been playing music for as long as I can remember. I used to bang on my grandma’s piano before my legs were long enough for my feet to touch the ground! I took trombone in grade school and picked up the electric guitar in high school when trombone wasn’t cool anymore. In my second year of college, my grandpa gave me my first harmonica and I started playing house parties with some fellas within a couple months. Now I play Harmonica primarily, Guitar, Banjo, Bass (upright or electric), Piano, Clarinet & Drums.  I get bored easily!!!

How has music changed your life?

I can’t even imagine what life would be like without music! Playing is essential to my well-being, I get very irritable if I don’t play enough.  Just ask my wife!!! Music definitely provides a focus and a way to apply myself. It gives a sense of inner competition as you constantly strive for mastery. It doesn’t matter whether you ever achieve it, as long as you’ve improved from where you left off last time. 

"Outlaw the Pitch-Fix!!! Make people actually be able to play or sing what they claim to be able to play and sing on a recording. It’s really dumbed down the music scene here in the states." (Photo by Cameron Yeager - Jim Aaron and Pierce Edens with Dirty Work, at Hot Springs NC, 2014)

How do you describe Jim Aaron sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I have to admit that I always wanted to be a horn player!!! I was never really influenced by harmonica players when I was learning, which made me approach it from a different direction. Once I found the chromatic harp it pushed me even further in the brass direction. I LOVE when things sound great in spite of being completely out of context.

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

Right now. Life has been making a steady upward trend for me for a long time. Ups and downs for sure but a lot more ups than downs overall. As I’ve gotten a little older I’ve hit my stride as far as balancing a great home life with getting out and about for gigs. I’ve also been moving toward production and recording which is opening whole new frontiers of possibility. We’ve got a nice home studio set up in the cabin and my wife and I have been writing and arranging while recording all the tracks ourselves.

Which was the best and highlight moment of your career?

I was playing with a group called The Big ‘Ol Nasty Getdown at a festival outside of Asheville, NC. My friend put a band together featuring George Clinton, Gary Schider (Starchild), Belita Wood and a host of P-Funk Allstars along with a boat load of local Asheville musicians. The lineup rotated in and out with each song, creating an awesome new band on stage from one tune to the next. I was featured on an old song by the band War, Slipping in the Darkness. We got about half way through the song when Gary called me out to take a lead.  I closed my eyes and hit it with everything I had in me. I heard the crowd roar but I kept on ‘till I was finished with it and when I opened my eyes, there stood George Clinton, right next to me, grinning from ear to ear! He wasn’t supposed to be on that tune but had heard me taking my lead and wandered out from backstage to see what was up.  I grinned right back like a school girl and all I could do was shove the mic in his face and let him sing!!! I considered it a huge honor.

Why did you think that the American Roots music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Definitely the soul and the feeling. American roots music came from a time when life was a lot harder than it is now. Whether it’s from the City, the Delta, the Piedmont, or somewhere in between, folks had a lot heavier worries they were dealing with. It seems to make the music more honest and heartfelt when folks have it hard. 

"Blues, Folk and Country all came out of the same place. The Country. Folks had been singing Gospel forever and you add a little misery and soul and you’ve got the Blues."

What’s the best jam you ever played in?

There was a bar in downtown Raleigh called the Berkeley Café. They had a Wednesday night blues jam that I went to religiously. It was really my first experience playing out and I had to drink heavily to combat the butterflies in my gut to get up in front of a room full of folks!!! It wasn’t a normal open mic jam either. The guy in charge of the music would have all the musicians sign up, and then he’d make random bands all night from the list. Some “bands” crashed and burned, but a lot of the arrangements were absolute magic. The intensity and originality that came out of us in those moments of shear togetherness was unimaginable. You may never play that song with those people again, but in the moment, everybody knew it and played accordingly. I can’t put a finger on a single night, but I’d bet it was at that jam. 

Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?  What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I’d have to say one of the most memorable gigs I’ve had was with a gypsy jazz outfit at a treatment center for severely Autistic folks here in western NC. There was a fellow right up front who was really bad off. He was severely physically affected and I didn’t think he could get up out of his wheel chair at all. I hit a solo and the crowd got so riled up that my buddy in the front row stood straight up out of his chair screaming gleefully at the top of his lungs, dropped his pants and underwear right there in the middle of it and commenced to swingin’ everything he had!!! I’ve never felt so appreciated in all my life.

Which memory makes you smile?

My Grandpa played old time country straight harp around Rockingham County at square dances and social events when he was a younger fellow. He got me started but the style never really stuck.  When I first figured out how to bend notes and give it a little hell, I went home one weekend and played for him. Grandpa was a very proper country gentleman and rarely used any profanity at all. He looked at me and said “Damn boy, you play like the old black folks do!!!” I always smile when I think of the mix of shock and admiration on his face.

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

I saw Taj Majal play one time in Chapel Hill. We talked in the green room for near an hour afterwards about playing from the heart. He gave me the best advice I think I’ve ever had when he said “Whatever you do man, don’t ever miss a chance to play out in public. You never know who’s gonna be watchin, and money ain’t everything.” That always stuck with me and I’ve never been overly concerned with getting rich. I’d take a big 8 or 10 piece band that makes a huge impact but not much money over trimming it down any day. I’ve never supported myself playing music full time, but I’ve never gotten up in the morning and thought “Dear god if I just didn’t have to play this gig tonight” either!!! Tradeoffs I guess.

"Life has been making a steady upward trend for me for a long time. Ups and downs for sure but a lot more ups than downs overall. As I’ve gotten a little older I’ve hit my stride as far as balancing a great home life with getting out and about for gigs."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

I’d have to say live analog recording. Don’t get me wrong, I love my digital setup. With all the instruments I play I’ve been getting into tracking everything myself at the house. It allows for a lot more creative freedom and certainly makes an easier medium to distribute. That being said, back in the day musicians had to nail their recorded performances the first time through or the band had to start over and waste expensive tape. I think the ability to correct mistakes so readily has taken away some of the musicianship that used to be required of performers. When we recorded the French Broad Playboys album we recorded it as a live performance in the studio. We over dubbed the vocals to make the signal match everything else but all the starts, stops and solos were recorded live. I really think you lose a lot of the magic when you record a band one track at a time. 

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I hope we can figure out how to treat each other right and all just get along. I hope we can realize that we’re all people and there’s just not that much difference in the grand scheme of things. My fear is that we’re too stupid and greedy as a species to do so!!!

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues, Folk with Country and continue to Swing & Jazz?

Somebody told me a long time ago “Music’s just music. There’s only 12 notes man...” Unless you get into Indian music it really is all just different rhythms and arrangements of the same notes. Blues, Folk and Country all came out of the same place. The Country. Folks had been singing Gospel forever and you add a little misery and soul and you’ve got the Blues. I’m from Eden, here in the Piedmont of North Carolina.  The music that came out of places like that came from people with hard lives doing hard work in a tobacco field, or a cotton mill, or not being able to find any work at all. Putting everything you got into what you’re playing is therapeutic. I’d be an absolute lunatic if I couldn’t get it all out playing harp and I don’t have it near as bad as the folks back in the day. Swing and Jazz came about when Blues, Country and Gospel met Classical. I heard an old recording of Jelly Roll Morton and he’d play a tune in a classical arrangement, then drop the stride on it and make it swing. It was the same song, just completely different and amazingly livelier. That led to the Big Bands. You had Duke Ellington and Count Bassie rockin’ it in the city and Bob Wills rockin’ it in the country.  They all loved and revered the old blues and just took it to the next level.

"Music definitely provides a focus and a way to apply myself. It gives a sense of inner competition as you constantly strive for mastery. It doesn’t matter whether you ever achieve it, as long as you’ve improved from where you left off last time." (Photo: Pierce Edens & The Dirty Work)

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to American roots music?

Well, I think the main thing is that you can get one cheap and it doesn’t take long to make relatively decent music with it!!! Mastery like any other instrument takes many years but you can blow chords on the thing pretty quick. Past those 2 reasons for picking it up, once you do get some skills it’s a really good conduit to the soul. If soul were electricity the harp would provide the least resistance of all the instruments for me. 

What are the secrets of?

Like anything else. Practice, practice, practice, practice and more practice. And when you get tired of hearing it, go back and practice it again!!! I delivered pizzas all through college without a radio in my car. I’d drive around for 6 or 8 hours night and play between my stops. Also, hit it like you mean it and drop every bit of your soul and love in everything you play, every time. Half steppin’s for half steppers.

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

Outlaw the Pitch-Fix!!! Make people actually be able to play or sing what they claim to be able to play and sing on a recording. It’s really dumbed down the music scene here in the states.

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

That’s tough man, I only get one day? I guess I’d go back to the ‘30s and crash one of my Grandad’s gigs at the square dances around Rockingham County. Hopefully I’d get to take a recording unit with me and jam with him in his prime. The man was no slouch in his ‘80s, I’ll bet he could rip it back in the day!!!

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

We were playing Merlefest last year when an obviously drunken fellow in a blazer and a captain’s hat walks up in between songs with a saxophone and asks: “How’d you like guys like to play with Johnny Rebb from The Rebel Rousers in ’58???” Parrish dismissed him with a friendly “maybe later” and we went on with the next song. We look up and in the middle of the next tune this guy had wandered up on stage and started blasting the sax as loud as he possibly could. When I went over to escort him off the stage I noticed he was bleeding all over our steel player and lead guitarist!!! I got on the mic and had the crowd give it up for Mr. Rebb and corralled him off the stage. I may have made a hepatitis joke to the boys and the guitar player FREAKED!!! Said he needed hand sanitizer IMMEDIATELY!!!

The sound man hadn’t seen the blood and all he heard was that Jon needed some lotion before he could play anymore... Obviously confused, I hear the poor guy sayin’ “That’s a weird F%&@in’ Request MAN!!!” as he stomped off shaking his head to find Jon some lotion. I caught him, explained the miscommunication and he brought the requested hand sanitizer. We laughed about it all weekend and to this day still heckle Jon and Scott about their lotion requirements being written into the contract!!!

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