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April 2024
Vol. 23, No. 7

Featured Stories

D.K. Harrell Lets his Music Do the Talking

by Alejandro AzulesJanuary 2024

DK Harrell

It seems almost unfathomable these days, but there was a time when bluesman D.K. Harrell really had nothing to say. Literally. As a toddler, he was noticeably silent. He’d cry a bit, but he’d never uttered a word. His family worried that there might be something wrong with him because other kids his age had already been speaking for a year or more.

Then one day, his mother heard a strange voice coming from the back seat of her car as she drove down a northern Louisiana highway. She whipped her head around in disbelief to find her baby son singing along to the B.B. King CD she was playing.

That moment proved to be a harbinger of the future. At 25, Harrell is now a singer of blues and a guitar player heavily influenced by King’s stylings.

His first CD, The Right Man, on the Little Village record label, was released on June 30 and raced immediately to the top of the blues charts. Since then, he’s been a major topic of discussion in the blues world as critics and concert goers have greeted him with open ears and like what he has to say.

“I always say music is my voice,” he says.

Even before he was a blues musician, Harrell was writing songs and now boasts notebooks filled with more than 300 songs. His songs convey human emotions through words and music.

He was introspective as a young African-American child in Ruston, Louisiana, who couldn’t find friends who shared his love of blues. At age 11 he took up harmonica after seeing Little Walter in the movie Cadillac Records. But he set that aside and a couple of years later picked up the guitar.

He had been inspired by the music of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker but grew frustrated by his inability to successfully learn slide guitar to his satisfaction. But he kept searching the bus and discovered King, the man whose music had originally coaxed out his first words in the backseat.

He spent hours trolling the internet, learning whatever he could about B.B. King. He watched every YouTube video he could find with King, each interview and performance, and studiously paid attention to his every nuance. That shows up today not only in his vocal or guitar work, but in the way he moves on stage and the way he conducts himself.

“If you watch the videos closely, you can find out what he did when things went wrong,” Harrell says. “Most people don’t see it because he handled it so gracefully. I learned so much from watching him play and about being a band leader.”

Most significantly, Harrell has mastered King’s renowned vibrato on his guitar, which many others have tried to emulate but cannot. Veteran bluesmen shake their heads in amazement on how effortless and skillful he is at this technique,

Ironically, King has showed up in other parts of his life. His first paying gig was at a concert for the B.B. King Museum in King’s hometown of Indianola, Mississippi. The 21-year-old Harrell boarded a bus with his guitar for the trip. But when he got there, he found that he was chosen to play B.B.’s cherished “Lucille” guitar.

Two years later he found himself back at the club playing alongside such blues luminaries as Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Gary Clark Jr., and Bobby Rush, which bolstered his confidence that a young man could have a place in the blues world.

“To be honest, I don’t know how all this happened to me, but all of those people welcomed me and encouraged me,” he says.

Perhaps they are simply drawn by the joy in Harrell’s performances, as are those who attend his shows.

“I want to do the best I can,” he says. “I love and respect the music and I want that to come through at all times,” he says.

But he learned that it isn’t easy to be a blues performer in today’s world. He struggled to piece together a hand-to-mouth existence for a couple of years until 2023, when he met Jim Pugh of Little Village, a nonprofit record label.

Pugh, a Grammy winner who has played keyboards in the bands of Robert Cray, Etta James, and Chris Isaak, saw Harrell in early 2022, but by the end of the year was convinced he wanted to record him. Early last year, Pugh arranged for Harrell to bring his original songs to Greaseland USA, a San Jose recording studio operated by guitarist Kid Andersen, who would serve as producer of Harrell’s debut. There Harrell played with a band comprised of Pugh, bassist Jerry Jemmott, and drummer Tony Coleman, all of whom had played and recorded with B.B. King.

Harrell remembers how his head swirled when he found out about the top-flight musicians he was about to record with.

The release of The Right Man led to an immediate string of high-profile gigs at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland; the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas; the Calgary Blues Festival in Canada; a month-long tour of Brazil; a guest spot on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise; and a coveted slot on the Lucerne Blues Festival in Switzerland.

He also has been featured in U.S. magazines such as Living Blues and Blues Music Magazine as well as leading European magazines such as Jazz ‘n’ More in Switzerland and Blues & Rhythm in England,

The Lucerne festival proved to be a watershed moment. Harrell’s six-piece band moved a stoic Swiss audience to dance and sway to his music in ways typically not seen there. He became the talk of the festival and attracted the interest of several European blues festival promoters who witnessed his dynamic and charismatic performance.

Since that November festival, Harrell has been deluged with offers from throughout Europe and plans five trips there in 2024. He’ll play festivals in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, and Norway, where he will headline at the Notodden Blues Festival, Europe’s most prestigious blues event.

Harrell has moments when he’s not quite sure what has happened to him, or why.

“I truly do love the music and it makes me happy that others appreciate what I’m doing,” he says. “I just hope I don’t let people down.”

Rick Estrin, well regarded as one of the pillars of the blues business for his talent as a songwriter and harmonica player, doubts that anyone will be disappointed by Harrell.

“He’s a natural star,” says Estrin, leader of Rick Estrin & the Nightcaps. “If you see him on stage, you’ll know exactly what I mean. There’s no other way to explain it.”

D.K. Harrell performs at the Gourmet Blues Concert Series at Humphreys Backstage Live on February 10, 7pm. The Fremonts will be the opening band.


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