BluesWax Cruisin’ With
By Mark Goodman
On the Blues Cruise there are few places outside your own cabin that are peaceful enough to conduct an interview. Until I found out the ship had a library. It provided the perfect location to sit and talk normally with one of the most talented artists I have met.
Not only has Victor Wainwright burst on the blues scene convincingly with his own band, The Wild Roots, he has recently joined forces with Damon Fowler and JP Soars to form Southern Hospitality. This band, managed by Reuben Williams (Royal Southern Brotherhood, Tab Benoit), has been generating considerable buzz with their live shows throughout the Southeast. Born out of a chance get-together at a festival after-party, they jelled into a formidable musical force.
Even though he has been putting effort into this new venture, he has not put the Wild Roots on the back burner. It just gives you a twice the opportunity to see this incredible singer and pianist.
Mark Goodman for BluesWax: You’ve really burst out on the scene in the last few years. I’m sure you’ve been around a lot longer but I just became familiar with you. Were you going in another musical direction?
Victor Wainwright: Hello, This is Victor Wainwright
BW: Have you always been into blues? Give me some background.
VW: Well, my grandfather taught me everything I know… basically. My grandfather started a band with my dad when my dad was like thirteen… and my uncle. My dad played drums, my granddad played the piano, and my uncle played bass. Some other family members played, too.
They were playing in Savannah, Georgia, way before I was born. So, when I came along, I was carrying their amps, drum pieces, and stuff.
BW: [Laughing] So you started out as a roadie?
VW: Yeah, and listening to them play. They were playing music I like to call “honky-tonk,” which is like a cross between Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Price. They did country and western, swing, to Jimmy Reed. “Boss Man,” you know… that kind of stuff.
Well, that’s really when I was starting to learn. I was learning how to be part of a band. They were teaching me how to play things and I took an interest in the piano. So my grandfather was teaching me how to play what he was playing so that he could get up and play guitar.
BW: Now that’s versatility!
VW: Yeah, and he was a singer, too. So, while I was playing a little bit of the piano, trying to figure it out, my dad was also was teaching me how to sing. My grandfather is a tremendous entertainer. He’s really good with a crowd and has a personality that’s bigger than life. That lasted until… I guess ‘til my late teens. I took interest in the blues when, uh… being just like “mischievous” I would go out, sneaking into clubs and stuff. I found my way inside Savannah Blues.
BW: Does Savannah have a pretty good blues scene?
VW: It used to more so than now. I’m not really hip to what’s going on now in Savannah. Back then a fella named Eric Colbertson owned Savannah Blues, and Eric has done real well for himself over the years. He’s been in magazines and released CDs… been on labels and stuff.
BW: That was the first step, you got to jam?
VW: Right. You gotta go into a blues jam, so I brought the piano. That was the only way to get into the bar really, to be holding a piano, so they wouldn’t check your ID. They gave me some John Mayall CDs, and some really early Junior Wells and Buddy Guy… stuff like that. But it wasn’t until the next year where I just like started listening to these CDs and stuff and not really finding someone to latch onto, even though these are like, some amazing artists. Then I watched a DVD of the benefit for Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was like a big thing with Bonnie Raitt. I was watching it and I was kind of interested. As a piano player I was a little interested, but then B.B. King came out and just stole the show in my opinion.
Everybody seemed to look up to him. There was something about his personality that I really dug and the way he kind of commanded the stage. I went right out and bought a B.B. King CD and it was over, every B.B. King record I could possibly buy.
BW: Truth be told, that’s what got me into blues in 1969. “The Thrill Is Gone,” that was it, I was hooked.
VW: B.B. King has done that for a lot of people. So I guess that’s how I got started.
BW: Okay, now you’re living in Memphis, what’s your assessment of the blues scene there with the exception of the Blues Music Awards [BMAs]and the International Blues Challenge [IBCs]?
VW: Hmm… kind of loaded. So a loaded question, but I’ll answer it the best way I can. I think the community itself is strong. Beale Street has gone through some growing pains… trying to identify itself really. It goes from all this rich history and soul to kind of getting like Disneyland, then it kind of switches back and forth. I think I’m still learning to identify what it really is. I haven’t been there long enough really to put my finger on it.
BW: In that respect, after the last day of the IBCs or the BMAs you can hear the music switch back and the crowd just changes.
VW: We definitely have a different crowd. There’s just a few…I can count on one hand the amount of clubs that you can go to. I guess in the past there was a lot more. I’ve lived there for almost seven years now so I know the artists to go see. You know Brandon Santini and Reba Russell, and now I’m looking for Ana Popovic?
BW: I heard John Nemeth is considering a move to Memphis.
VW: I’ve heard some rumors John Nemeth is coming. Maybe there’s a resurgence going on in Memphis. I have a really strong connection to Memphis already. Within six or seven years I feel like I’ve been folded into the family very quickly. Being a part of the blues scene, they put me on the Board of Directors a couple of years ago now for the Memphis Blues Society, you know.
BW: It’s really great when the artists get involved. The societies are really the grassroots and can contribute immensely to the growth of the genre, as well as help young musicians get a foothold.
VW: Blues societies can make or break an artist. But it’s also vice versa, if none of them are supporting the societies then they start to dwindle. So showing up to a jam or showing up to a meeting or just giving their two cents or an interview, you know… that’s a big deal. Our society is doing pretty good. You would think that in Memphis it would be huge, it’s not. You know, Memphis is an impoverished city, it’s a poor, poor area. I think if you look into the demographic, the people that are really into blues, and supporting blues, is a small number.
BW: I think a lot of blues societies are started by people that just love the music. They don’t necessarily know a lot about it, so the information that they can get from a professional musician, you know…someone that’s really working in it, is invaluable.
VW: To answer your question more correctly, I’ll say that Memphis is growing again, with the emphasis on “growing again” as people like Ana Popovic and John Nemeth move here and join me, Brandon Santini, Billy Gibson, and Reba Russell. Whether or not we choose to play on Hill Street is irrelevant really, because the community is there. That’s why I was trying to talk about the society. If we all get together and decide and go to a jam, you know… I pick up the phone and call Reba and Brandon and some other people, the community is there. That’s why the campfires and cookouts are really cool in Memphis. [Laughter] So there’s a buzz, there’s a buzz happening.
BW: You recently joined forces with Damon Fowler and JP Soars. How did that come about, and are you in it for the long run?
VW: How it came about… I guess Damon and JP were looking to get together. We actually stumbled across each other at a jam after a festival. I think that was the first place… you know, the after-party.
BW: Those things have spawned a lot of good match-ups.
VW: We just sort of ended up on stage together, and it was great. It was an immediate connection.
BW: Well you guys look like you’ve been playing together forever.
VW: It feels that way too; it’s pretty remarkable. I think there’s something really special going on there. I guess it started with Damon talking to his people and JP, I guess. They were looking for a piano player so they called me and I said, “Yeah, I think it’s a great idea.” I think the initial concept was to make it a showcase band, where it doesn’t really exist outside of that. But we get together and do a show, a festival, and go back to our own things. Um… I don’t know. I think in the very beginning we were even talking about not doing a CD, just having it a showcase. Sort of like a Memphis Revue showcase where me and Reba would go out and do something. But after doing a few shows, I think we immediately realized it had to be something bigger because the buzz and energy we were getting from just our friends and fans. It was way more than what we had anticipated.
To be continued…
Mark Goodman is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax.
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