BluesWax Sittin' In With
An interview from the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise
By Adam Harris
Photo by Scott Allen/Jen Taylor
Zac Harmon's hands are high above his head, outstretched towards a captivated crew of blissful Blues Cruisers witnessing one of many "Pro-Am Jams" aboard the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. "Can I bring it down just a bit," Harmon requests as he lowers his arms slowly, as if hushing the sound with this hands. His crew of amateur, yet competent backers, oblige nicely. Stratocaster hanging around his neck, the heels of his boots tap on beats two and four as Harmon sways his shoulders. He's leading this jam the way an evangelical minister leads a Southern Baptist tent revival, conducting his band the way a maestro oversees his orchestra. This is the kind of spirituality only found upon a cruise booked tight with Blues fans and musicians, professional or otherwise. "What I need to hear right now, is this keyboard right here," Harmon commands, pointing back to the man on the electric 88s, who has undoubtedly caught the spirit. "Awwww yeah," Harmon coos, "That's nice."
Winning an award as a "rising star" has to be sweet for Harmon, who makes his return to the Blues only now, after 15 or so years of producing hit records in the Pop music world for the likes of Freddie Jackson, KC & JoJo, and others. Two records into his solo career, Harmon's got a Blues Music Award for "Best Debut Artist" and the listeners of XM Satellite Radio have just voted him "Best New Blues Artist." Not bad considering he first hit the road at age 19.
His latest record, The Blues According to Zacariah, is an incredibly tight testament to one of Blues' inspired visionaries. The southern R&B Soul of Ray Charles, the Windy City echo of Buddy Guy's guitar, some West Coast harp, and a fervent, youthful voice are all etched deeply into the book of Zac Harmon. He is, indeed, a "Mannish Boy."
Yet for everything Harmon has received, he's genuinely grateful and eternally motivated to create. I sat down with Harmon, both of us deeply enchanted by the Blues Cruise experience. In the midst of our conversation Harmon sung the praises of some of the current players that he admires: Joe Bonamassa, Tommy Castro, Anthony Gomes, Ronnie Baker Brooks, and Daniel "Slick" Ballinger - and compared chatting with Hubert Sumlin to being "the kid in the candy store." It's this observance of the Blues greats that came before, mixed with his inherent support and optimism for the torchbearers of modern Blues that makes Harmon such an inspired leader for the next generation of Blues players.
Adam Harris for BluesWax: Tell me about the jams here on the boat; it looks like such a good time, leadin' those young guys around. You're quite the maestro.
Zac Harmon: I enjoy teaching and it's an opportunity to teach. Some of the guys who come on here are actually very good players and some of them are developing players. It's kind of fun mixing and matching different skill levels and helping those guys that aren't quite as good as the others rise to the occasion.
"Blues is like a fine crystal. It depends on how you
look at it in the light. You see a different shade."
BW: What's your musical training; the Blues and actual music training?
ZH: I started playing violin when I was eight years old. That lasted for about a year because walking home with that little violin, man, I had to fight too much. I got really uninterested in that and started playing guitar. Now, of course, that was cool.
I took formal guitar lessons from a gentleman by the name of Herman Folks, he is Cassandra Wilson's father; Cassandra and I studied together.
From there I took it further. I also play keyboards and drums, but that's stuff that I kind of picked up. From there I started playing in church and then I started playin' in the streets as I got older.
BW: One of the things you hear in all the Blues circles is about payin' dues, and no one pays the same dues. . .
BW: Even still, people are always learning, going back, searching out influences. What I want to know is how you consider your dues paid.
ZH: Well, my dues ain't paid. I don't think you ever stop payin' dues. I started playing professionally at 14. I used to play with Sam Myers and other guys around Jackson [Mississippi], Mel Browne, they taught me, pretty much, how to play the Blues. I learned how to play quartet Gospel from Frank Williams and Haron Griffin, who were part of the Jackson Southernaires.
So I played all the jukes, you know, in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. I went on the road with Dorothy Moore when I was 19, and she was opening for Bobby Bland and B.B. King when they did that second live record. I didn't know how to appreciate it though because I was a kid. I was interested in what's going on after the show. [laughter]
BW: What about your record collection growing up, where did the influential records come from in your life?
ZH: My father was a big Slim Harpo fan, so there was always lots of Slim Harpo. I mean he loves the Blues period. He loved Ace Cannon, B.B. King of course, Bobby Bland, Little Milton; those records were always around the house.
My sister did an exchange program in school one semester and went to Brown University. And when she came back she had all these records that she'd gotten from up there. And it blew my mind because it was at that point that I discovered John Lee Hooker. And this is around 1969, 1970 and John Lee just totally blew my mind. She brought back the record Hooker 'n' Heat [1971 Liberty], the record that he did with Canned Heat. She also turned me on to some of the West Coast guys like Lowell Folsom.
My record collection was really broad. I was into Ritchie Havens, I was into Bob Dylan big time, and of course I was into Jimi Hendrix, what guitar player wasn't. In Cold Blood... I was into groups like that.
BW: Diversity is a big thing. I was going to ask about diversity in the Blues, to start with. Coming from Mississippi, now you're in California, is it important to incorporate that West Coast sound as well?
ZH: Yeah, Blues is like a fine crystal. It depends on how you look at it in the light. You see a different shade. It's changing. John Lee played pretty much the Hill Country Blues. Little Milton and B.B. and all of them were playin' the urban Blues. Then you had guys like T-Bone Walker who were doing jump-swing, that West Coast thing. They were all different shades of the Blues, but it was all the Blues.
Zac Harmon's The Blues According To Zacariah
Click Cover For More Info
BW: I don't know if you agree with me on this or not, but the Blues seems to me like a very credibility oriented audience. A lot of them are interested in who's paid their dues, and "What's the real Blues; what's authentic?" Do you find that to be true?
ZH: I find it to be true, but not so much the audiences. The quote-unquote "Blues purists" that feel they have to put a stamp of approval on the Blues. I've even had my expression of the Blues questioned. "I don't know if that's real Blues."
My answer to that is I grew up in the Blues. I was playin' it before I knew it was called "Blues." So, by default, whatever I do is the Blues cause I can't help myself. But I'm not doing what Muddy did. I'm not even doing what Albert King did. The reason not is because I'm in a different generation and we have a different expression, but its Blues. You know the Blues evolves just like any other musical form. And I think the Blues purists have not allowed the Blues to evolve. You know the Blues was almost dead before Stevie Ray Vaughan came and resurrected it. And the Blues purists did not like him at all. They tried to discredit him, but he resurrected the whole market, and he was playin' the Blues, believe me!
BW: I never questioned it at all and it almost breaks your heart to hear someone question it. But when you think about the number of people he brought to the Blues, there were a lot of people that said, "I like this, I wonder what he listened to."
ZH: One of the things I get all the time is people that come to my show not necessarily knowing what I do. And at the end of the show they tell me "I didn't like the Blues, but I really like what you're doing" and they buy my CDs. And I tell myself it's only because they haven't been exposed to the evolving Blues and that is what's happened to the Blues market. These Blues purists try to keep this 1950s, 1960s sound by attrition. The audience that's into that is fading. You got to let it evolve to bring in new folks.
BW: Is that frustrating to get people that are trying to question your approach?
ZH: It is a little frustrating, but you gotta keep pushing past it because I'm gonna to be doing this 'til I die. I got an 8 year old that plays the Blues. He's performed with me at several festivals and he's really good. And he's gonna be part of the next generation of the Blues. I don't know what his interpretation is going to be, you know what I'm sayin, but it's gonna be Blues, you can believe that.