Zac Harmon, Jay White headline Blues & Brews Festival
FARMINGTON — Like almost every other hotshot young guitar player of his era, Mississippi native Zac Harmon thought the legendary Jimi Hendrix was the be-all, end-all of ax men, and he aspired to follow in Hendrix’s footsteps in the blues-rock genre.
But as an 18-year-old trying to make a name for himself in the music business in the 1970s, Harmon knew it was a long road to the top. So he secured a gig for himself as the lead guitarist for blues, pop and R&B singer Dorothy Moore, whose new record, “Misty Blue,” was zeroing in on the top spot on the R&B charts. As luck would have it, Moore was hitting the road as the opening act for blues master B.B. King, and the young Harmon, eager to display his chops to a broader audience, was going with her.
Still, he wasn’t exactly ecstatic about his situation — at first.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of respect for (King’s) style of blues,” Harmon said, explaining his mindset at the time.
Just a few days into the tour, Harmon came to understand how wrong he was. Touring and developing a friendship with King turned out to be perhaps the most fortuitous thing that had ever happened to him, he said.
“I realized this guy was light years ahead of anything I thought I ever knew,” Harmon said, recalling how humbled he was by his exposure to King. “It was like going to college. I started a collegiate-level study of the blues. This guy was so incredible, and he taught me so much — not just about playing, but about being a real blues man. Every night, no matter how tired he was, no matter how many people wanted his autograph, he would sit there until the last person was gone.”
That was a lesson Harmon never forgot, explaining how King impressed on him the importance of relating to his fans.
“He told me, ‘If somebody likes you and cares enough to pay money to see you, then you owe it to them to sit there and make sure you are gracious,’” Harmon said. “He taught me that humility. That stays with me today.”
Throughout his long career in the music business, Harmon — who will headline this weekend’s 11th annual Animas River Blues & Brews Festival with his band – has had the opportunity to benefit from the experience of some of the biggest names in blues and R&B. As a youngster in the 1960s growing up in Jackson, Miss., where his father was a pharmacist and ran a drugstore, Harmon was able to interact with such legends as Muddy Waters, Ike and Tina Turner, Albert King and Little Milton when they came through town.
“This was during the Jim Crow era, so if you were a black entertainer and you came through Jackson, Mississippi, you had to stay somewhere in proximity to my father’s store,” Harmon said by phone last week from his home in Mansfield, Texas, part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. “So when they needed toiletries of any kind, all of 'em came to see my father. I was exposed to all of them, coming and going. In fact, the first blues musician I played with was Sam Myers, the drummer for Elmore James. So I had a strong and thorough blues education.”
That education was furthered by the actions of his neighbor, blues scholar Bill Farris, who would go on to found the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Harmon said Farris was pursuing his doctorate in those days, and he decided to move to the Harmons’ neighborhood as part of his effort to document and study blues music and culture. Harmon recalled how Farris often drew some of the biggest names in blues to his back patio, where marathon jam sessions would take place.
“I was this little kid looking through the fence and absorbing all this stuff,” Harmon said. “The music became second nature to me. I don’t play it because I learned it, I play it because I heard it at a certain point in my life, and it just came out.”
Harmon’s mother and father were both musicians, and he grew up in an environment in which blues music was an everyday fact of life. But his parents also valued traditional education, and they weren’t about to let young Zac ignore that part of his upbringing.
“My parents were really into education,” he said. “Most folks in Mississippi at that time thought education was the key. So I went to school and did everything they wanted me to do. But at the end of the day, I was going to play music.”
That time finally came when Harmon hit the age of 21. He had been playing professionally since 16 and had even gone on the road with Moore at 18, but by his early 20s, his parents finally came to accept the fact that the die had been cast for their son.
“I had to get out of the house,” Harmon said. “My dad told me, ‘If you’re going to play music, then you need to go where the music business industry is. It’s in California, not Mississippi,’” Harmon said. “He thought I’d go there and fall on my face, and come back home, but I never did.”
Harmon laughed as he recalled how naïve he was as an early twenty-something trying to build a career for himself in L.A. — and how people in the business didn’t hesitate to take advantage of that until he learned to protect himself.
“I didn’t know about the different careers you could have in the music business,” he said. “I went to California to become a blues artist. I was going to the next B.B. King. But all the record companies I approached were not receptive to the blues. They said it was a boutique market, and they couldn’t sell enough records for it to be worthwhile. They were all into pop, rock and R&B.
“But they loved my playing,” he continued. “I had that soft, bluesy style, so I started getting a lot of opportunities to record on other people’s sessions. At first, I didn’t know how to charge them, so I was exactly what they wanted — good and cheap.”
It didn’t take the young Harmon long to wise up. In addition to his work as a session man, he also learned how produce other artists, and started creating music for TV and films. Along the way, he honed his songwriting skills, crafting tunes for the O’Jays, Evelyn “Champagne” King, the Whispers and Freddie Jackson, among others, before finally landing a gig as a staff songwriter for Michael Jackson’s publishing company.
Through it all, Harmon never forgot his first love, the blues. He continued playing and writing songs in that genre, and after several years of helping shape music for other people, he was ready to return to the blues full time.
“By 2000, the music industry was kind of dead, and work was kind of slim,” he said. “So I had to ask myself, ‘What do I want to do with the rest of my life?’ I realized, ‘You’ve never done what you came here to do for yourself.’”
Harmon recorded and released an independent album, “Live at Babe & Ricky’s Inn” and did what any real blues man would do — he hit the road with his band. By 2004, Harmon and the Mid South Blues Revue found themselves wowing the crowd — and the judges — at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, where they won the Best Unsigned Band title.
For the next 10-plus years, Harmon would solidify his standing as a premier contemporary blues artist, releasing several more discs and touring the world, including performances in Iraq, Kuwait, Egypt and Europe. His latest CD, 2015’s “Right Man Right Now,” focuses on contemporary themes and showcases Harmon’s mastery of a variety of blues styles, carrying with it a sense of urgency that speaks directly to the way Harmon approaches his craft.
“I’m an emotional writer,” he said. “When something touches me, the only way I can get it out of my system is to write about it.”
The disc also put Harmon back in touch with a handful of other well-known blues artists he’s associated with throughout his career, such as Lucky Peterson, Anson Funderburgh, Bobby Rush and Mike Finnegan. Harmon said those guest appearances came about organically, with those performers simply dropping by the studio at his invitation and playing their parts with little or no preparation.
Then again, Harmon maintains his full-time band is perfectly capable of carrying the load with no assistance.
“I’ve got the hottest band in the blues,” he said, recalling how the Zac Harmon Band surprised the crowd during a recent opening gig for the 1980s rock band Kansas at a show in Topeka, Kan.
“It was a rock audience, but they gave us a standing ovation,” he said proudly, his grin evident even over the phone. “I think they didn’t expect what they were going to get.”
Another artist who will perform at this weekend’s festival also has crossed paths with plenty of music legends. Blues guitarist Jay White has resided and played music all over the country, but in the 1970s, he found himself living in Austin, Texas, just as the music scene there was exploding. White would go on to share the stage at local clubs with such acts as ZZ Top, Johnny Winter, Wildfire, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band while Austin was establishing a reputation for itself as the live music capital of the world.
During a phone conversation that took place last weekend as White was driving from his home in Belton, Texas, to a gig in New Orleans, the long-bearded blues man recounted how he used to hang out during that era in a blues club in Austin where the likes of Albert and Freddie King were regulars, along with Johnny Winter.
Before long, a skinny, stringy-haired 16-year-old started coming around, sneaking into the club to play with those legends. Management tolerated his presence only because the kid was a phenom. Somebody had to keep a steady eye on the door while the kid played so the joint didn’t get busted by the law, White recalled, but that was easier said than done, simply because of the magic that was emanating from the stage. Before you knew it, the cops had appeared and were checking IDs.
“Sometimes, they’d have to sneak him out the back door,” White said, laughing and explaining that the youngster in question was none other than Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“Man, that kid is good,” White used to tell himself, though he and everyone else in the club had no idea how great Vaughan would turn out to be before he was killed in a helicopter crash in 1990 at the age of 35.
“I used to get so jealous about how he was so good at that age,” White said. “I remember how he played through a Fender Twin amp, and they used to keep a Naugahyde cover on it because it was so loud.”
White already had experienced a fair amount of success himself at that age, charting his first hit record, “I Need You,” with his band the Twilighters while he was still in high school. He recalled the joy he felt turning on the car radio one night and hearing his own voice pouring through the tinny speaker.
“That just blew me away,” he said.
It wasn’t as if White needed the encouragement. He’d been in love with music since the age of 10 when he got his first guitar and started working out the riffs to some Jimmy Reed songs.
“From that point forward, I was hooked,” he said, noting that the Mississippi-born blues man remains a major influence on him to this day, and many of his songs, including “Tell Me That You Love Me Girl” off his 2015 release“Jaywalkin’” are patterned after Reed’s style.
“I just love that honky-tonk riff (that was Reed’s signature),” White said.
But White is no mere impersonator. “Jaywalkin’” is a rock-solid work of Texas blues and R&B that features an all-star supporting cast. Bassist Big John Mills’ resume includes stints recording with George Jones, John Lee Hooker, Vince Gill and George Strait, while drummer Kevin Hall has recorded with Hal Ketchum, Eric Johnson, Omar and the Howlers and Rusty Wier. Keyboardist Alan Huff tours with Roger Creager, and has recorded with the Eli Young Band and Jason Allen.
White acknowledged it took him a while to find his voice as an artist, something he managed to do only after he seriously began to study the blues.
“I was playing a lot of ‘white boys’ blues,” he said. “But once I got informed by some of the black players, it changed what I do. I’ve played country, country rock and blues rock, but the thing I do better than anything else in the world is play and sing the blues.”
After leaving Texas in the 1970s, White would move on to Los Angeles, Hawaii, Washington and Maryland, among other places, playing in several bands in a variety of genres and becoming more and more involved in his faith after a series of life-altering incidents. But it wasn’t until 10 years ago that he felt compelled to the return his focus to the music that he now plays.
“I had a strong word from God to start playing the blues again,” said White, who at the time was involved in a Christian rock band. “That became my starting point, and I now fully believe that’s what I was born to do.”
White savors the special moments and opportunities in his life that music has brought his way, describing the thrill of once standing on stage next to Gene Clark of the Byrds and playing guitar while Clark crooned his way through “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
“That was the last time I ever really got stage struck,” he said, laughing. “When you’re living your life and you’re doing those things, it’s just a normal part of life.
“But I made the remark to my wife a couple of weeks ago at a concert that there’s a certain point when you stop chasing the dream and you just start living it. I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years. And back in those days, I was living the dream and didn’t even know it. I thought I was chasing it.”
The lineup for this weekend’s festival also includes the Wesley Pruitt Band, Missy Andersen and the Albuquerque Blues Guild with Joe Warner.
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: 11th annual Animas River Blues & Brews Festival
When: 1 to 10 p.m. Saturday, July 16
Where: Riverside Park, 500 S. Light Plant Road in Aztec
Tickets: $22 in advance and $25 at the gate, free for children 12 and younger
For more information: Visit animasriverblues.com.