Front Porch

Nathan James: Southern California Roots Run Delta Deep

Nathan James. Photo by Jon Naugle.

Nathan James. Photo by Jon Naugle.

James Harman and Nathan James. Photo by Jon Naugle.

James Harman and Nathan James. Photo by Jon Naugle.

When you first meet Nathan James, you know immediately that he’s a Southern California boy. Born and raised in Fallbrook, a sleepy avocado-growing community in North San Diego County, James personifies the term “laid back.” But the moment you start talking about music or, better still, when he picks up a guitar, well that’s where the story really begins.

The pull toward blues and Americana roots music for Nathan seems more like destiny when you trace back the generations in the James family tree. Both grandmothers played the piano and one, on the maternal branch, sang professionally in the 1950s and was a long-time friend of the legendary Rose Maddox.

Nathan’s own musical pathway has produced a few celebrated twists as well. From early open-mic gigs at the local Packing House to stellar sideman on James Harman’s Bamboo Porch to now, venerated guitarist on the 2014 Grammy-nominated and BMA Album of the Year, Remembering Little Walter.

But don’t be fooled by his relaxed manner, the guy is seriously productive. He released two different projects late last year from his own Sacred Cat Studios. The CDs highlight both the guitarist’s diversity and dexterity. Hear Me Calling is James mostly solo and at his acoustic best while the release Natural Born that Way is more electric and incorporates his full band, the Rhythm Scratchers.

But when you ask the man to describe his music, he hesitates ever so briefly about calling what he plays blues. “It’s kind of a ‘modge podge’ of all different kinds of roots blues.” He explains. “I mean its blues… it’s the closest thing, but I hate to call it that now days especially because blues has become stereotyped. Even with blues fans and within the blues festival circuit, to me it sounds like one thing.”

So to be fair, blues-based… “Yeah, that’s where it’s based and I’ve kind of branched from that into a little bit of rhythm and blues, a little bit of soul stuff… but I guess I’m considered a blues musician.”

James says he came to the blues almost by accident. “I got into it through records. In my case I used to go to the swap meet in Oceanside, and there used to be a guy there that sold records. He had them nicely categorized and he knew about a lot of different music. He was a big fan of Duane Allman; this guy was a veteran and I think he lived there, in his trailer at the back of the swap meet. I’d go there and I’d ask him for suggestions. I’d say, ‘Well, I’m looking for an Allman Brothers record’ or ‘I’m looking for something that Duane Allman played on…’ And he’d pull out something and suggest that and one of them he pulled out was a Robert Johnson record. So that was one of my first real blues records, I guess.”
Nathan begins to smile when he adds, “I just started buying random blues LPs just from the names, you know? Big Bill Broonzy, Little Walter. I remember one week, in the same box of mail order CDs, I think I got a T-Bone Walker CD, Best of Little Walter, Best of Muddy and Big Bill Broonzy. That’s all you need, right there!”

Nathan says his road opened up when he picked up the guitar. “Well, it all started from this open-mic jam session on Wednesday nights in Fallbrook at the Packing House. I would go down there before I was of age, before I could even drive, actually. There was a guy, a local musician that everyone knew, Larry Robinson,” Nathan shakes his head, “who passed away.” (Robinson was found murdered in a Temecula, California music store. His killers have yet to be identified.) “So I give most of the credit to actually getting on stage to Larry Robinson; he was the first guy to call me up on the open mic. It started from there and I’d go to other open mikes and that’s where I met Brad Karow and Billy Watson.”

Working his way through bands like the Blues Pharaohs and the Motor Kings Nathan eventually connected with legendary L.A. harp player James Harman. “It all happened so fast, now that I look back on it, it kind of was luck… part of it.” He starts to smile, “It all happened at the time when I was really trying to go at playing music…right out of high school, basically,” he laughs, “so I didn’t have to get a real job. [laughing] I really wanted to play music. I knew that this is what I had to do and I just got lucky that it came up a year after finishing high school.
And that was in part through Brad and Tom… Tom Mahon, the piano player who plays with Brad. Tom was playing with James Harman. had joined his band. and had played with everybody in the Southern California circuit.”

Those friendships were like money in the bank for Nathan. Both Mahon and former high school friend and fellow guitarist, Robbie Eason dropped his name to Harman. Nathan laughs when he remembers, “Actually, Robbie said, ‘Well, if you’re lookin’, this is your next guitar player. He’ll be ready in a couple of years; he’s still in school right now, but…’” [laughing]

You partnered with Ben Hernandez in 2006 and 2007 and performed in Memphis at the International Blues Challenge. “It’s like the Olympics of Blues. That thing has really blown up even way more since we did it.” Nathan and Ben walked away with the IBC Solo/Duo Acoustic top honors in ’07 and Nathan just shakes his head, “God, that’s a long time ago now, seems like. Honestly, we didn’t take that seriously one bit. The main reason we did it was because the San Diego Blues Society really encouraged us to. We did the competition they have in San Diego and that we took as a chance to really tighten up our show, but we didn’t have any expectations of winning regionally, you know? But they sent us twice and basically they paid for us to go out there. That’s the only reason why we did that. Neither one of us have ever been the slightest bit competitive, especially in music. It ended up being a good PR thing, meeting people that I still keep in contact with.”

By PR you’re saying more word of mouth as opposed to competitive hype? “Unfortunately that’s what the blues scene has become; it is really competitive. I, for awhile, was really trying to make a go at it and really promote myself, with my band and trying to tour and stuff. I just kind of got overwhelmed with it. Yes, you can get your name out there and it’s great but it all comes down to what makes you happy and what kind of a gig is fun to play, really. A lot of times that gig could be overseas or out in the country somewhere, or it could be fifteen minutes from your house. [laughing] The big picture just comes down to what you make of what you have.”

Let’s talk about the Rhythm Scratchers and how they came to be. “Well, that was my next project that I segued into after my duo era. I had wanted to do a band thing. I had always dabbled in that but never really led a band until I was kind of forced to when Ben moved back East. That gave me an opportunity with my A-Team band that I’m fortunate to have all the time now. The drummer, Marty Dodson is from Central California. I met Marty through Mark Hummel, actually. And Marty has played with every harmonica player that’s been on stage the last twenty years, or so.

And Troy Sandow, who is somebody from North County I met through the Blues Pharaohs. He was another guy who would come out, talk, and would sit in. Actually the first duo gig I did was with Troy, before I met Ben.”

Your catalogue of music continues to grow; do you have a process when writing? “Well, I just try and try and try until I can get a song finished. [laughing] I really admire people that are songwriters, like James [Harman] or any singer-songwriter that writes songs every day. I wish I had that talent with words. I feel like I’ve developed a little bit. A few of the words will come to mind and pretty much I can always come up with new music ideas on the guitar. Probably more music first and see what fits with what. A lot of words come to my mind when I’m out doing things. I’m an outside person, growing up in Fallbrook… in the country, I’d always be out hiking or riding bikes and I still do that living at the beach.”

About the diversity of your style, do you feel that you are a student of blues music? “Oh yeah, I always will be that. Obviously, I’m not born naturally into that demographic. I’m lucky… it’s such a broad thing with American music…”

Nathan’s musical influences are just as diverse; he says they come from everywhere, blues, Americana, roots music… even family. “My grandma was a country singer on my mom’s side, who sang professionally in the ’50s. She knew Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson and everyone. She knew Rose Maddox, she was her best friend. I have a couple of pictures that I treasure, with my grandma and Rose. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been exposed to all the different facets of blues and just American roots music in general. I am definitely drawn to the older sounds and records that were all made before even my parents were born. So I guess I am a traditionalist, but there is such a vast history of sub genres and sounds that I draw inspiration from. That is why I chose to release two albums at once instead of trying to cram all my favorite stuff onto one and further confuse people…”

Recorded in James’ own Sacred Cat Studios those two new projects were released in October. “Basically, I’d been doing a lot of recording with these tape machines and just experimenting with stuff around the house.” He says the CDs come in two flavors, “A solo acoustic thing Hear Me Calling and also a band thing,” Natural Born that Way. “On Hear Me Calling, I focus on my solo act. With that I’m really into styles ranging from 1930’s Piedmont ragtime, gospel, delta blues, Texas blues…” Nathan remembers, “When I first joined the Harman band we would travel the country and pop in a CD of an artist from the city we were playing in. It was pretty cool to listen to ancient recordings of, say, Blind Willie McTell as we would come into Atlanta, Georgia. This really made me aware of the vast history that his music has.”

Can you talk a little about your other release, Natural Born That Way? “It’s a showcase of my band, the Rhythm Scratchers, this time featuring my good friend, Carl Sonny Leyland on piano. A lot of these songs are influenced by our love of the many different sounds of Louisiana blues, jazz, and R&B, and the album is almost completely themed in this region. Carl first lived in New Orleans when he moved to the states years ago and that stuff is second nature to him.” An added twist, says Nathan, “I feature several of my original songs recorded in two different versions on each of these new albums.”

To date, both releases have received inspired reviews, critical praise, and international airplay as they climb multiple Americana, roots, and blues radio charts. James says it’s a good feeling. “I’m excited that they are getting good airplay world-wide. And selling pretty steady… for as well as CDs can sell these days.”

But Nathan remains philosophical about his musical direction. “I think that maybe all the years of doing this and continuing to put out albums that I feel continually express my growth as an artist, may be paying off. It takes a long time to get noticed in the blues world especially with so many artists out there. I am also proud that I have stuck to my own… and further developed my brand of music, which may not be the most popular style in this genre.”

So what’s your opinion about the state of today’s blues? “It’s interesting,” he says. “Part of it, to me, is that all of the big names are pretty commercialized. For some of them, I think their music is legit, but a lot of what’s called blues is not anything close to blues. It’s just a new name for classic rock. I think the thing with real true blues music, it’s not for everybody and it’s never going to be. It’s over most people’s heads. For better or worse, I think it should always stay that way. It’s too cool for the general public. [laughing] It seems that modern fans of blues music have a certain sound that they are used to hearing… but that to me is very narrow minded. They either want to hear the amped up in your face blues rock, or the popular Chicago blues band sound.”

Can you give us a glimpse into the future of Nathan James? “Well, I hope I can continue to live this dream. [laughing] Getting to play music for a living and whatever it is. I’ve kind of looked at it in the big picture… As long as I can get by by doing it, as long as I can stay true to myself and playing music that I like to play…”

Nathan appears regularly up and down the West Coast, and periodically around the nation and throughout Europe. He’s also producing shows regularly at the Brooks Theater in Oceanside. His next event will be an all Resonator Guitar Concert Saturday, July 18th featuring friends Robin Henkel, Ben Powell, Nathan Rivera, Jessie Andra Smith and of course, Nathan himself. Look to his website for the latest on all upcoming shows and tours.

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