Southern California Roots Run Delta Deep
By T.E. Mattox
hen you first meet Nathan James, you wouldn't think he was anything
more than a fun-loving, skateboarding, guitar-playing Southern California
boy who loves the outdoors and hanging with his friends. To a point,
you'd be right. James was born and raised in the secluded California
village of Fallbrook, nestled among the avocado groves in North San
Diego County. There's little doubt he still loves hiking and being
outside but when you start talking about the music and especially his
musical friends, well that's where the story really begins.
The attraction toward blues and Americana roots music
seems more like destiny as you trace back the generations in the James
family. Both grandmothers played piano and one, on his mother's side,
sang professionally in the 1950's and was a long-time friend of the
legendary, Rose Maddox.
Nathan's own musical journey has produced a number of
celebrated twists as well. From early open-mike gigs at the local 'Packing
House' to venerated guitarist on Blind Pig's Grammy-nominated and 2014
Blues Music Awards Album of the Year 'Remembering Little Walter.' Suffice
it to say, Nathan James' stock is on the rise.
But when you ask the man to describe his music, he hesitates
ever so briefly about calling what he plays blues. "It's kind
of a 'modge podge' of all different kinds of roots blues." He
explains, "I mean its blues
it's the closest thing, but
I hate to call it that now days especially because blues has become
stereotyped, I think. Even with blues fans and within the blues festival
circuit, to me it sounds like one thing."
Nathan stomps it out
So to be fair, blues-based but with a little extra
"Yeah, that's where it's based and I've kind of branched from that
into a little bit of rhythm and blues, a little bit of soul stuff but
I guess I'm considered a blues musician."
"My horizons broadened when I started learning
guitar and that's how I kinda' discovered blues. Suddenly, when you
pick up any instructional book for learning guitar or in my case I took
lessons for a couple of months, the first thing the teacher taught me
was a blues progression. So then I realized, without knowing it, I had
heard that my whole life in all kinds of music
like on the radio.
From classic rock, you know? Growing up in Fallbrook (that small
village we spoke of earlier) that was all that I had heard. ZZ Top,
then I got into the Allman Brothers and the Cream
and a little
bit of Jimi
Hendrix, you know? Guitar music when you're learning an instrument,
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"I remember one week, in
the same box I got a T-Bone Walker CD, Best of Little Walter, Best of
Muddy AND Big Bill Broonzy. That's ALL you need, right there!"
James on Mail order CD's
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A rarity unto itself, you are a native Californian
born and raised? "Yep, up in Fallbrook."
Yet, you don't surf? Nope, never have. But I was
a skateboard kid.
How about your family, lots of music growing up? "Not
my parents so much so, but my grandparents on both sides were very musical.
Both grandmothers played piano and sang
one in the church and
one got really far along on the piano. My dad's mom played piano for
many years and was thinking of being a piano teacher, but started a
family instead. I have her piano now
and it gets used which
is kind of cool."
Do you play piano? "Piano is a hard one for
me, I can pick up stuff on it but I haven't really focused on it yet.
I should there's NO excuse. Because it's right there in my living room
and it's beautiful and it sounds great. I've got to get focused on that."
Tell us a little about your early blues influences?
"I got into it through records. In my case I used to go to the
swap meet in Oceanside,
and there used to be a guy there that sold records. And he had them
nicely categorized and he knew about a lot of different music. He was
a big fan of Duane Allman, this guy and he was a vet
and I think he lived there, in his trailer in the back of the swap meet.
I can't remember if he went by 'Skydog,' 'cause that's Duane Allman's
nickname, of course. But he was someone like that who always wore a
bandana. And I'd go there, I was a teenager and I'd ask him for suggestions.
I'd say, 'Well, I'm looking for an Allman Brothers record' or 'I'm looking
for something that Duane Allman played on
besides this or that.'
And he'd pull out something and suggest that and one of them he pulled
out was a Robert Johnson record. So that WAS one of my first real blues
records, I guess.
Then from that I just started buying CD's and LP's.
I was lucky to come along when the CD era came out, where you can just
get thirty songs on one CD, you know? So I started getting stuff from
mail order CD catalogues that we used to have, they probably don't even
have those anymore. BMI or whatever it was. I feel lucky I did come
I started out buying LP's. It's cool to be able to say that
nowadays, now that they're getting popular again. I just started buying
random blues LP's just from the names, you know? Big Bill Broonzy, Little
Walter. I remember one week, in the same box I got from the mail order
CD's. I think I got a T-Bone Walker CD, Best of Little
Walter, Best of Muddy and Big Bill Broonzy. That's ALL you need,
Talk about one of your early bands
The Blues Pharaohs?
"Oh, yeah we had the leader of the Blues Pharaohs here today,
Brother Brad Karow."
Was that your first band? "There were some short
little stints before that
well, it all started from this open
mike jam session on Wednesday nights in Fallbrook at The Packing
House. I would go down there before I was of age, before I could
even drive, actually. There was a guy, a local musician that everyone
knew, Larry Robinson who just passed away. So I give most of the credit
to actually getting on stage to Larry Robinson, he was the first guy
to call me up on the open mike. And from that
that's where I met
everybody. It started from there and I'd go to other open mikes and
that's where I met Brad and Billy
Watson. But I had a couple of short bands before, maybe during the
Blues Pharaohs. There was one called the Motor Kings with the bass player
from Aunt Kizzie's Boys."
How did you run into Billy Watson? "I met him
and Brad the same night at a little coffee shop in Carlsbad called The
Art House, in the village there at Carlsbad. It was a really cool
little coffee shop that had music a lot. A fellow guitar player friend
of mine from Fallbrook, Robbie Eason, who played with James Harman before
I actually went to high school with him. We started hanging
out a little bit when he was not touring with James Harman. And he took
me out one night just to look for music and we were driving by and saw
Brad's T-Model Ford parked out on the street and he said, 'Aw, I know
who's there! We gotta' go in and say hi.' So we went in and I saw this
crazy guy playing harmonica; it was Billy Watson. I remember that night."
Nathan working with James Harman. Photo:
From the pan, into the fire
you eventually connected
with a legendary L.A. harp player, James Harman. "It all happened
so fast, now that I look back on it, it kind of was luck
of it. It all happened at the time when I was really trying to go at
playing music right out of high school. Basically," he laughs,
"so I didn't have to get a real job. (laughing) I really
wanted to play music. I knew that this is what I gotta' do and I just
got lucky that that came up like a year after finishing high school.
And that was in part through Brad and Tom
Mahon the piano player that plays with Brad. Tom was playing with James
had joined his band and had played with everybody in the
circuit in Southern California. And Tom put in a name for me and so
did Robbie Eason, actually. Robbie said, 'Well if you're lookin,' this
is your next guitar player. He'll be ready in a couple of years, he's
still in school right now, but
You play in so many different types of venues, cafés
to festivals, sometimes with friends or your own band, other times as
a solo performer. Do you prepare for them or approach them differently?
"Yeah, a lot of it is just feeling out the type of crowd it's
going to be, the type of event it is. But yeah, there are obvious differences
between a solo show and a band show. 'Cause I'm kind of limited to what
I can even do with a solo performance, you know? Overall that's probably
my favorite way. See, I'm half in the acoustic world and half in the
electric world, but these (referring to the solo performance on
this day) are my favorite things to do when it's like a real intimate
thing and I can really play the stuff I want to play and not have to
worry about pleasing people. (laughing) When people are sitting
there listening they're forced to listen to what you're going to do
and as long as you can keep them entertained, they'll stay there, you
You feel the audience connection can get lost in the
larger venues or events? "If I do that on a big festival stage,
even if it's like the Back Porch Stage or something, it still gets lost,
a lot of it gets lost. Distractions or they'll be another stage with
another loud band going on or something."
All the guys you play with Billy Watson, James Harman,
the Rhythm Scratchers, I've noticed you all seem to enjoy the audience
interaction. "But, I like to mix it up. Last night I played
with my band and we were playing (snapping his fingers) song
after song for people dancing, having a good time and it's a totally
different thing and that's great too. So I'm very fortunate to get to
do different things and then to get to play as a side man with other
Nathan plays with Billy Watson's 'Submariners' on
a perfect SoCal day.
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
Adaptability, switching from solo performer to band
leader to side man
lots of different skill sets. "Yeah,
like last night we had a special guest, Stephen Hodges, Grammy award-winning
drummer that plays with Tom Waits and is Mavis Staples' drummer. I didn't
think he'd be available, because my drummer couldn't make it, and I
thought I'll try to call Stephen and maybe by chance he's not playing
at, like the Lincoln Town Center with Mavis. (laughing)
That small community feel, "
the BIG community. That's what's really cool about living here. We're
very fortunate. That's really special, that part of it. Like last night
we had a guy come up and heckling us, and joking to Stephen, 'bet that
doesn't happen on a Mavis Staples gig,' (laughing) when you're
playin' for the President of something." (laughing)
You partnered with Ben Hernandez for a while and performed
in Memphis at the International Blues Challenge. "It's like
the Olympics of Blues. That thing has really blown up even way more
since we did it; '06 and '07." Nathan and Ben walked away with
the IBC Solo/Duo Acoustic top honors in '07 and Nathan just shakes his
head, "God, that's a long time ago now, seems like. Honestly,
we didn't take that serious one bit. The main reason why we did it was
because the San Diego Blues Society really encouraged us to. We did
the competition they have in San Diego and that we took as a chance
to really tighten up our show, but we didn't have any expectations of
winning regionally, you know? But they sent us twice and basically they
paid for us to go out there. That's the only reason why we did that.
Neither one of us have ever been the slightest bit competitive, especially
in music. It ended up turning out being a good PR thing, meeting people
that I still keep in contact with."
You're saying more word of mouth as opposed to competitive
hype? "Unfortunately that's what the blues scene has become,
it is really competitive. I, for awhile, was really trying to make a
go at it and really promote myself, with my band and trying to tour
and stuff. I just kind of got overwhelmed with it. Yes, you can get
your name out there and it's great but it all comes down to what makes
you happy and what kind of a gig is fun to play, really. A lot of times
that gig could be overseas or out in the country somewhere, or it could
be fifteen minutes from your house, like this. (laughing) The
big picture just comes down to what you make of what you have."
In essence, blues is a feeling? "Yeah, yeah.
I think the real stuff is not anything that's too heavily promoted or
trying too hard, you know?
'What You Make Of It' CD cover
Let's talk about the Rhythm Scratchers and how they
came to be? "Well, that was my next project that I segued into
after my duo era. During the last year or two of Ben and me playing,
I had been wanting to do a band thing. I had always dabbled in that
but never really led a band until I was kind of forced to, when Ben
moved back East. That gave me an opportunity with my A-Team band, that
I'm fortunate to have all the time now. The drummer, Marty Dodson grew
up with Ben, and who is from Central California. I met Marty through
Hummel, actually. And Marty has played with every harmonica player
that's ever been on stage, basically in the last twenty years, or so.
And Troy Sandow, who is somebody from North County I had met through
the Blues Pharaohs. He was another guy who would come out, talk and
would sit in. Actually the first duo gig I did was with Troy, before
I met Ben. But Troy didn't sing, so I didn't continue to keep pushing
the duo with someone else that didn't sing. He DOES sing now, but he's
more of a sideman."
Troy's another guy who plays with everyone. I saw him
perform with James Harman and another Southern California band, the
Fremonts. "Yeah, I think I introduced him to those guys, now
that I think of it."
Nathan James and the Rhythm Scratchers. Photo:
Your catalogue of music is now up to seven CD's; do
you have a process when writing? "Well I just try and try and
try until I can get a song finished. (laughing) I really admire
people that are songwriters, like James (Harman) or any singer
songwriter that just writes songs everyday when they get up. I wish
I could have that talent with words. I feel like I've developed a little
bit with that. To me, it's always a little bit of the words will come
to mind or music ideas I canoodle around on the guitar. Pretty much
I can always come up with new music ideas on the guitar or any instrument,
everyday. Probably more music first or separately and see what fits
with what. A lot of words come to my mind when I'm out doing things.
I'm an outside person, growing up in Fallbrook in the country, I'd always
be out hiking or riding bikes around, and I still do that living at
About the diversity of your style, do you feel that
you are a student of blues music? "Oh yeah, I always will be
that. Obviously, I'm not born naturally into that demographic. I'm lucky
to call the music I do
from the country
it's such a broad
thing with American music
you come to learn."
Roots music. "It really is. My
grandma was a country singer on my mom's side, that sang professionally
in the '50's. She knew Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson and everyone. She
knew Rose Maddox, she was her best friend. I have a couple of pictures
that I treasure, with my grandma and Rose."
A Nathan James original production
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
When did you start making your own guitars? "In
my senior year. Metal shop AND wood shop. I took all
the elective classes in school. Basically half way through high school
I was just goofing off, I wanted to get out of there. I didn't want
to finish school. I mean, I probably wouldn't have dropped out; I would
have gone for my G.E.D. if my mom would have let me. But she wouldn't
let me; she wanted me to stay in school for the social aspect. But I
knew what I wanted to do."
And why washboards? "Oh I don't know, I guess
part of it was ideas that I had with Ben, with the duo, because we had
all these 'down home' instruments. Or should I say HE had most of them
that people always took notice of
instantly. The washtub bass,
at the end he was really getting good at the washboard, too.
So after that I was just trying to figure out my next 'identity' both
solo and with the band. In a way it's a gimmick, but in another way
it's something that's unique. You know all those blues guys; they would
do anything to set them apart from the rest.
Like James 'Super Chikan' Johnson? "Super Chikan
was a big influence. I'd seen a lot of his guitars he'd made and of
course those cigar box guitars are real popular."
So you're also a producer now? "I don't ever
call myself a producer. More of an engineer producing the sound, but
I've never really done too many projects. The closest I've come to producing
is maybe working with another local artist, Ben Powell. I recorded his
two last records and played on them. And that's kind of the closest
I've come to suggesting what to add to the song or how to do the song.
I'm really proud of both of those, he's a great songwriter."
Didn't you just record Kim Wilson and some of his friends?
"That came out of nowhere. Although I've known Kim for a long
time and we've played together, off and on, mostly as a duo or in stripped-down
versions. I've never played with his band, his All-Stars band, but we've
played together quit a bit on little shows. He used to come out and
see me and Ben a lot when we played up in San Clemente and we had always
talked about doing some acoustic recording and it just never came about.
Of course he's busy
playing with Eric Clapton, and the Thunderbirds
people like that.
There's this new kid in town, don't know if you've
heard of this guy yet, Big Jon Atkinson? He's a real talent, young guy,
real enthusiastic. Basically Kim met him at a jam session in Long Beach,
I believe. And hired him on the spot, kinda' thing. But I had known
Big Jon who's only lived here in town, for less than a year actually.
He moved out here from Tennessee. I had recorded Big Jon's CD in November
and it just came out. And he started hanging out with Kim all the time,
obviously because he was playing with him and I think he played Kim
some of the stuff that we recorded. And so Kim wanted to get in on the
action 'cause he liked the sound of it. He came down just kind of a
loose thing, no plans, no serious intentions and we recorded it in my
garage on a little home reel-to-reel machine that I had used on Big
Jon's record. Like really simple setup. Just because that was a recent
thing I had gotten into and I was just experimenting with it and the
Big Jon CD came out real well. Kim came down and saw the little tape
recorder there and laughed at it and said, 'Oh, we're gonna' use that
for echo, huh?' A lot of people use little tape machines to get echo
as a loop. I said, 'No, that's the recorder.' (laughing) So it
started with that but that machine, as they all do, they're kind of
unreliable, but those sessions did come out really good. But I think
he wanted a little more fidelity
a little more flexibility and
luckily I had just gotten another tape recorder, a multi-track recorder
it was good timing."
All analog? "Yeah, but it's really not so much
about that, it's more about how you set up and play all together in
the same room, with minimal production. I started on the tape machine
but then I put it into the computer and it's gonna' be mixed from there,
'cause tape is super expensive now. He keeps calling me and sayin',
'Can you do this day?' and then we'll have to cancel it some times because
something will come up. A lot of it's been kind of spur of the moment
Can we expect a CD eventually? "Yeah, I didn't
know what his intentions were at first. But I think, unless he changes
his mind, I believe that it's for his next solo release, Kim Wilson
solo project. Some of it has been with my drummer, Marty and then the
last session was with his drummer, Richard Innes and then the next week
it's most of his band. He's slowly bringing in his whole band. I think
he felt bad he wasn't using them. It's been fun. I've been engineering
it and playing on it too. Either bass or guitar, it's a fly by the seat
of your pants kinda' thing." (laughing)
How about new James Harman recordings or projects, anything
in the works? "We've done a lot of little stuff here and there.
I would love to have a new release with James. The thing with James
though, he has such a huge back catalogue of music that's been recorded
that's not released from the last twenty years or so. He wants to get
most of that stuff out, I would prefer to do brand new stuff
just a matter of getting it together. We did a live record I recorded
with him and his band at this little theater in Carlsbad, that's his
latest release. I wish we could get back in that theater because I did
a live recording with Kim Wilson there."
And what about you, anything from Sacred Cat Studios
you're currently working on? "Last week was a big session but
I'm still trying to figure out what to put out next. Basically I've
been doing a lot of recording with these tape machines I have, and just
experimenting with stuff around the house. I'm trying to maybe put out
two different CD's at once or close together just to market to the different
kinds of gigs I do. A solo acoustic thing and then also a band thing,
so I could mix them together; I have enough stuff now to do that. But
I don't know, I might just do two separate CD's, it's so easy to put
out CD's these days. You can burn one
you can have a new compilation
CD like every gig if you wanted."
You got a rowdy club or crazy bar gig you'd like to
share? (laughing) "There's been so many and it really varies
from where you are. When I first started touring with James there was
a lot. There was one from the James Harman days in Tuskaloosa, Alabama
at a college frat party we played. That was pretty wild just seeing
the set up. It was a cement floor and a bar and the end of the night
they would hose it down with a hose. But at the beginning of the night
there was a band that opened up for us and we went to eat. When we came
back we found the opening band had played through our amplifiers on
stage, and I look at my amp and its like turned up
all the way.
I went to plug in to it and it sounded different. I said that to James
and James of course, made a stink about it with the other band and they're
ready to fight. This guy wanted to fight James, these two good old boys
But in the end we worked it out." (I suspect
the other guy probably learned that Harman is often referred to as 'Icepick.')
"But I tell you some of the rowdiest places
I've played have been in Europe. In Scandinavia, like in Finland, people
drink sooo much up in Finland. I did this cool little tour between Sweden
and Finland last fall with these really great musicians, a band made
up of Swede and Fin musicians that I've known and kind of met through
mutual friends. We were playing this mini blues cruise that went between
the fjords of Sweden and Finland. Just for one night from Stockholm
to Finland and then back the same night. And people were drinking so
much on that little cruise that they were literally falling down. There
was this guy in a wheelchair and he had prosthetic legs. We were walking
around late at night with nothing to do and this guy was lying on the
floor and his leg was turned backwards, like this. (Nathan torques
his arm inward) And this is before we all KNEW he had prosthetic
legs and he was laying there crying
on the floor. And we we're
going, 'Oh my God, he's got a REALLY bad broken leg. (I'm imagining
Joe Theismann on the football field and Nathan's laughing) His foot
was turned the other way, basically. And everyone's standing around,
'Oh My God what are we going to do? They're going to have to life-light
this guy off this cruise,' you know? And then we realized he was just
super drunk and he had prosthetic legs and he had been laying there
for hours. I guess these stories are pretty mild compared to some
Big Jon Atkinson and Nathan lay down some Oceanside
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
What's your opinion about the state of today's blues?
"It's interesting; part of it to me is, all of the big names
are pretty commercialized, I think. Some of them I think their music's
legit, but a lot of what's called blues is not anything close to blues.
It's just a new name for classic rock. I think the thing with real true
blues music, it's not for everybody and it's never going to be. It's
over most people's heads. For better or worse, and I think it should
always stay that way. It's too cool for the general public."
Can you give us a glimpse into the future of Nathan
James? "Well, for my future I hope I can continue to live this
dream. (laughing) Getting to play music for a living and whatever
it is. I've kind of looked at it in the big picture instead of really
trying to get somewhere with it. I'd rather get more obscure (laughing)
in a way. As long as I can get by doing it, as long as I can stay
true to myself and playing music that I like to play
to do little bits of stuff with my band, with James Harman, with Kim
Like I said, I was really pushing my band a couple
of years ago and going on the road and just the reality of that. It's
overwhelming. I had my van breakdown in the middle of Washington then
have to rent a van to get home. I guess that happens to anyone who goes
on the road. I think what my band was doing was too eclectic for the
blues circuit and felt it wasn't really getting over on the festival
circuit. But if I do those it's great, if not that's not the only thing
there is. I can play in a library (he swings his arm around the
room) and it's just as meaningful and fulfilling, you know? (laughing)
Nathan plays regularly up and down the West Coast, if
he can keep the van running so check out his website www.nathandjames.com
for the latest on solo gigs, with his band the Rhythm Scratchers and
occasional dates with his friends, Billy Watson or James Harman. Take
every opportunity to get out and see him and when you do, be sure to
tell him, 'break a leg!'
Watson: San Diego's Mr. Natural; Ode
to Little Walter;
Lightnin' Malcolm; Rod
Piazza and the Mighty Flyers; Charlie
Piazza' Birthday; Mark
Hummel and the Blues Survivors; Life
on the Road With Charlie Musselwhite