What: Joe McMurrian, Delta blues guitarist
When: Concert 7:30 p.m., Saturday. Blues guitar workshop 1 to 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Crash Music at the Historic Aztec Theater, 104 N. Main Ave., in Aztec
Where: Concert tickets are $12. Children 12 and under are free. Workshop fee is $20. Workshop is limited to 20 students.
AZTEC — After recent storms, the Animas River's waters resemble the great muddy Mississippi River's. And that seems fitting.
That's because Joe McMurrian, an acoustic blues guitarist and singer who specializes in the music of the Mississippi Delta, is coming to town for a concert Saturday at Crash Music at the Historic Aztec Theater. McMurrian also plans to lead a master class in traditional roots guitar on Sunday.
McMurrian, 45, grew up playing guitar but came to a musical crossroads in 1986 when he was given the complete Robert Johnson collection, a Harry Smith anthology and a Newport Folk Festival recording.
"I had a conversion moment with those three records," McMurrian said. "I remember knowing that music, but it was something in Johnson's playing that left a mark on me. It's music that'll leave a spell on you if you let him. I just followed him from that day, couldn't help it."
George Rowe and Sue Rys, who own and operate Crash Music, heard McMurrian's music and immediately wanted to bring him to Aztec.
"I heard him and within 10 seconds into one of his incredible finger-picking acoustic songs, I knew we had to have him," Rowe said. "I called him that day. His style is hill-country music. The interplay between his guitar and singing is all call-and-response, in an American musical tradition. It will blow you away."
McMurrian agreed to journey from his home in Portland, Ore., for an extended visit to the Four Corners.
"I'm actually really excited to do some sightseeing, too," McMurrian said. "I'm hoping to get out on the trails and go to Chaco Canyon, Aztec Ruins, Mesa Verde -- all the archeological jewels in the area."
McMurrian feeds his musical sound with steady infusions of the outdoors and regular live shows. He also performs with his four-piece blues band, Woodbrain.
But his heart is in the solo chair, with a guitar or banjo in hand, singing stories of his own or standards by blues greats Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt and Son House.
McMurrian eschews any tendency for novelty in music, preferring to carry on traditions he feels are bigger than any one individual.
"I love acoustic blues -- I just love it. As a songwriter, I feed off of it," he said. "Delta country blues is a more interesting, open-ended world to go to. It's hard in this modern age for people to get that sometimes. Man, to sit in a trailer and talk with Johnny Winters, trading stories or favorite licks by Robert Johnson is about as great as it gets."
When McMurrian met bohemian ethnomusicologist Harry Smith, he found an artistic soulmate.
"I got Harry Smith on an art level," McMurrian said. "Smith emphasized the gumbo of artistic expression, that categories are limitations. You know, the giants of 20th century music, like Johnson, knew they wouldn't make any money. They were just making music as part of a big tradition -- just writing about their lives as part of a common stream."
McMurrian's love of old country and roots music is a little challenging now that he has a family, but he says he can't help but keep it alive.
"I'm a roots musician with a lot of Delta intake there. My quest is to debunk the black fedora and a shiny guitar and 'ooh baby, I woke up this morning' kind of thing," he said. "I toured around with Honeyboy Edwards and Louisiana Red, two giants, y'know? Every time we'd talk, they'd always say, 'It's a tradition. You don't just do it. You do it right, even when I'm gone.' I took that to heart. So, I'm 45 now, but I want to do this till I'm 90."