Volume III, Issue III Autumn 2004

Jimmy Thackery still burns for the blues

He's been a professional musician going on 35 years now; he's a bit grayer than he'd likely care to admit, probably a bit thicker around the middle than when he was a young buck.

Jimmy Thackery But ask blues guitarist Jimmy Thackery when he first got the music bug, and he's a 12-year-old boy all over again.

"It was in the seventh grade, and I remember the exact moment," he said by telephone from a hotel in Memphis where he'd played the night before.

"I went to my first seventh-grade dance, and these buddies of mine who were seniors had a band. They were called the Minus Four. They were up there screaming into these microphones, and the seventh-grade girls we were all trying to get close to were all wiggly and screaming and I thought, 'Well, I ain't never gonna be no football player, so this looks like a pretty good alternative.'"

While still in high school in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1960s, Thackery was in a rock 'n' roll band with Bonnie Raitt's brother, David. And while his official biography credits a concert by the legendary Buddy Guy for his own three decades in the blues, Thackery said seeing Guy wasn't quite that transformative.

'Sideways in Paradise'

Jimmy Thackery reminisces about the creation of the 1993 acoustic album "Sideways in Paradise" with John Mooney:

I'd been down in Jamaica with some friends of mine. Rented a villa. On R&R. Just decided I was going to forget about music; I had been working really, really hard.

Man, I hadn't been there four hours and somebody brought me an acoustic guitar and I started playing by the pool. Something about the ambience. Somebody said you should just record an album here.

I'm not an acoustic player; don't claim to be, never have. At the last minute, I began to get cold feet. So I thought, I know somebody who does play acoustic. I called Mooney, and said how'd you like to come to Jamaica and cut a record. Bring your girlfriend, we'll get drunk and play blues music and get it on tape.

Unfortunately, in between the time I'd gone down there the first time and come back, the guy who owned the villa had gone completely insane. Talking to trees, irrational, out of control, contracted what I call the tropical loonies. Maybe too much ganja and rum; I don't now, but the guy was nutbag when I got back.

It would make one of the best black comedies that you ever saw on film if I could ever just write the screenplay of the comedy of errors that it took to make that record. The end result, I suppose, is that the record had a certain intensity it wouldn't have had if all this insanity wasn't going on all around us. That's why I think the record kind of stands apart.

"The fact remains that we were all playing blues, we just might not have known that's what it was," Thackery said. "When we were copping Ventures songs and Rolling Stones songs, we just didn't realize those Rolling Stones songs were written by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. I was playing the blues before I knew that's what it was.

"When you consider that all popular music is based on the blues – it's the musical scale that we listen to. That scale came out of blues music, which came out of field hollers, which came out of Africa with the slave trade. We're still playing that same scale. Britney Spears does it. Prince does it. The Bee Gees did it. I don't give a damn who you're talking about, it's the blues scale."

And yet, despite the blues being the basis for American pop music, the pure blues is in one of its periodic funks – with gigs hard to come by.

"I would not at all want to be a young guy trying to break into this business right now," Thackery said. "It's the third time in my career that the blues has gone out of style. It always comes back, though. We're waiting for the pendulum to swing back again."

Thackery added that most blues musicians will keep going no matter how bad the business side gets. "I'll sit on my porch and play for free!"

While Thackery's longtime gig as lead guitarist for the Washington, D.C.-based blues combo The Nighthawks during most the 1970s is still fondly recalled by blues hounds, more recent accolades have flowed from his gigs with his trio, The Drivers, and his collaborations with fellow guitarists Tab Benoit and John Mooney (including his most recent album, "Whiskey Store Live," with Benoit, although Benoit is not currently touring with Thackery).

So what does Thackery look for in another guitarist when teaming up?

"The main challenge is for both guys to be able to express themselves without getting in the other guy's way. And to find some common ground and make it somewhat cohesive. A lot of that is just being sensitive to the other guy, I think. We're both going to approach any given song a different way, but in any given song, there's common ground, and the challenge is to find that and try to use it to your advantage.

"But if you're playing blues, you kind of have a secret handshake with these people – a common structure.

"We all speak the same language, even if we've never met."

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