Visual artist/musician Bruce Andrews talks about Jerry McCain, harmonica and his trip in Blues culture

"Pick your passion. Practice your fundamentals. Copy your favorite masters. Find your soulful center and develop your own style."

Bruce Andrews: Blues with riffs and colors

Bruce has been playing harmonica and singing with bands for more than thirty years, also is a published visual artist; painting Blues and Jazz greats as subject matter. Bruce Andrews grew up a house filled with music and art. His parent's musical tastes included New Orleans music along with Leadbelly and Bessie Smith with some Perry Como and Tony Bennett thrown in for good measure, all of which Bruce soaked up like a sponge.


                                                                            Photo by Caroline Wright

He began guitar lessons at age 8 but dropped it about a year later when he discovered the harmonica, and started listening to Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson records. He was in and out of bands throughout high school, and was in a band called Logic when he met his wife in college. In the late 80's he worked for Benson Music as a regional sales and marketing rep, and left after five years to spend more time at home with his kids. He opened a gallery/coffee house and music venue that operated for more than six years, and paints fine art by commission. Additionally, he is part of a blues duo called 2blu which has competed for several years in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, finishing in the top 6 our of 60 last year. In addition to his work with 2BLU and The Lucky Stiffs, Bruce plays and writes for The Alabama Blues Machine and also performs as lead vocalist for The Black Jacket Symphony intheir production of the Rolling Stones' "Let It Bleed".


Interview by Michael Limnios


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

Well, I think it was Willie Brown that said “the blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad”…I would agree.

For me, the blues reflect experiences that are common to all (rich, poor, black or white and everything in between) We all hurt, we all have experienced loss and love…and we all know our earthly bodies will meet the same fate in the dirt. The blues to me is like a sonic drug that eases the pain of passage through this life. When it is played right from the soul…you feel the healing!



What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and ARIST?

Living life wide open. You take chances. You love. You lose and you win… I have mostly been one not afraid to take a chance; especially in the arts…money has always been a need, but NOT the objective. I have almost lost my house and numerous times lost utilities (power, etc) chasing my dream, I should mention my sweet wife and daughters stuck by me the whole time and still do.

Really man, life is a bit of a mystery in that it is a mix of pain and pleasure.

I know how it feels to pray at a loved one’s bedside and experience loss…at the same time, I have seen miraculous answered prayer that affirms my belief in God. This is a mystery. It’s life.

You have to bring that honesty to your performance and your art if you want anyone to feel something. I mean people can stay home and listen to a cd or their ipod… They want to “feel’ life coming out of you when they come to see you. Oddly, the older I get, the more I think this and try to deliver it.


How do you describe Bruce Andrews progress, music and art?

I would describe my progress as stagnate most of the time with bursts of inspiration. I have that “burst” or little epiphany and try to thrive on that til I get another. It’s pleasantly frustrating.


Tell me about the beginning of your Blues art. How did you start?

My mother is an artist and I have drawn and pinted since I was a child. My interest in the blues began with a Johnny Winter LP I got my hands on when I was about 14...changed my musical and artistic perspective. I paint what I think about and what I revere...much of the time...that's my musical heroes!


From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

Hard to say. I would have to say the creative process of covering classic blues tunes and innovating our own blues based music has been an education in itself…I would have to credit my band-mates with that. George and Jack Dudley, Dave Gowens… all great friends and strong musicians who put up with my preoccupation of blues and roots music. They would ALL tell you: I was the one originally obsessed with blues music. I was the one who “forced” them to listen to Blind Willie Johnson, Son House and Reverend Gary Davis. Having said that, now we all write and play with those roots in mind. As far as “secrets” go, we watch a lot of blues oriented performers play and try to be a “sponge” and soak it up. It’s been my experience; the best players cannot put into a few words what they do. It’s not really a secret; it’s the fruit of “10,000 hours “of playing and practicing!


Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

WOW. I loved recently playing for a hometown crowd of over 10,000 folks and being well received…that was a blessing (Alabaster City Fest 2012). I would say also when 2blu played the Orpheum in Memphis, TN. as an IBC finalist to a standing room only crowd. Recently though, we set an attendance record at Gip’s Place (est. 1959). They counted 420 paying customers, the place is a glorified shack! The joint was ABSOLUTELY ROCKING. It seemed like EVERYBODY was one foot in front of our face and totally connected with the music…a powerful feeling indeed.

Worst moment… I was asked and hired by a couple who I met through playing in a certain nightclub to sing at their was in a conservative Catholic Church and they paid me to sing “This Magic Moment” by the Drifters ..accapella. I felt really stupid. My pals had a big time with me for years after that.


What advice would you give to aspiring musicians and artist thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Pick your passion. Practice your fundamentals. Copy your favorite masters. Find your soulful center and develop your own style. In that order. Listen to critics you respect. Ignore random ass holes who think they know it all.


Why did you think that the blues faces, culture and status of life, continues to generate such a devoted following?

In this rapidly advancing digital age people are longing for music and life experience that is REAL .The point being, you can “fake” music and shortcut art and still make money these days. You don’t have to sing all the notes on key; a computer chip will fix that. You don’t have to agonize over an oil painted masterpiece, adobe photo shop can tweak a photo and mock that. To people who know “soul” and want to feel something when they hear it or see it, that is bullshit. There are a ton of working bands like us ( I am glad to say) who go out and sing and perform from their hearts for hours at a time...EVERY weekend…Smoky Juke Joints, Bars, Festivals, Barbeques and Churches… that’s where it’s at man. American roots music that rocked the world was born in these places. To answer the question, “why is there a devoted following?” The followers know and feel the real deal when they hear it and see it.


Which memory from the road with the blues makes you smile? What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

Too many to name and most would get somebody in trouble. Suffice it to say, we have a band trailer we call the “green room”. I can’t count the hours of laughing I have experienced in that trailer with my bandmates.

As for advice: Our buddy Gip (85 year old bluesman who owns a juke joint in Bessemer, AL) always says to me something like this “Bruce, the peoples jus’ don’t know...they don’t gotta tell ’em”


What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I would not name one. I mentioned a juke joint we frequent called Gip’s Place. I have been in too many to good jams to put my finger on one.

I did get to sing Mick Jagger’s Part in 4 sold out shows of the Black Jacket Symphony’s Let it Bleed. The band was awesome, the crowd was electric. I had to audition for the part and put in a ton of homework; the outcome was very rewarding.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

Well, I think I already answered this one, except to say, I hope blues music stays in the hearts and minds of folks who love music for a long time. Music is a uniting and healing force and the blues speaks to everybody.


Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of blues harmonica?

I really couldn’t answer except o say “right place”, “right time”. The harmonica was cheap and relatively available, especially post world war two. You don’t have to know much theory initially; you just develop your technique. Sonny Terry was a great example; a masterful player who was blind, played the harmonica upside down, almost completely self-taught.

Blues Harmonica secrets… wow… tell me some. I am still trying to figure out the living masters like Sugar Blue, Jason Ricci and Charlie Musselwhite.

I do what I do largely as a by product of copying Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter in my early years and hopefully developing my own style. Thousands of hours of trial, error and jamming.

If anyone wants to play, Youtube has tremendous resources like Adam Gussow and Jason Ricci…mostly free!


What does “Blues Art” offered you? What do you learn about yourself from the colors and blues music?

Blues Art is a ‘feeling” for me. Most of my paintings are done while listening to music. You tube offers visual references in many cases. I always hope to get some insight into the soul of a player by painting or drawing them.


How do you describe Blues philosophy for the life?

I think a "blues philosophy" would have to say whatever comes my way...I can handle it by sheer determination and the grace of God...having said that: passing through this mean old world is tough....the blues is like an anesthetic to help you through the hurt AND celebrate times when they are good!


What are some of the most memorable drawing you've had?

Many, but I currently have a pastel drawing I did of Jerry Boogie McCain. It is in my house and I don’t want to sell it which is rare for me! He is an Alabama based harmonica player who recently passed.


Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from your inspiration to make a painting?

I played “Death Letter” over and over to get into Son House’s head, and came up with a very expressive painting of him…I was pleased, and I am rarely pleased with my own work. I always think I can do better.


What is your painting DREAM and how has the art and blues changed your life?

I currently have plans (you could call a dream) to develop a live show where we play and I execute a painting on stage. I have not quite figured out the details of doing this on stage, but I will. 


Which memory during of your progress and meets makes you smile?

When I think about how I met my band mates, now my best friends; it was all such random happenstance that I know it was God’s divine providence that brought us together. We have a very “unlikely mix’ of fellows…yet our common ground musically is the blues. That makes me smile. We do music that some would not consider the blues but the trained ear can hear the influence in all our tunes. We have a new cd and a new concept video due out in early 2013: I hope it re-defines us yet again. But there will be no escaping our roots: The Blues!


How you would like to spend a day with Little Walter?

Well, I am quite sure we'd have a drink or 2...and then I would shut my mouth and listen to whatever he had to say...or play!


What would you like to ask Son House?

Son House: How do you explain the providence of God? I would tell him I loved the way he expressed his faith and his dismay with the Church at the same time.

I would ask him more about Death Letter and the story behind it.

I would ask him: Are you aware you influenced music on a global scale?


What would you say to Jerry McCain?

I would say: "Hey man, let me write a song for you",,,to which he would probably reply with a laugh and an insult!


Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

NOW. Now is always the most interesting, because you know more than you did "then".

We are all a collection of our memories and life experience and hopefully figure out a way to channel that in a creative and/or positive way on a daily basis. "Now" is a gift from God.


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