John Long is the focus of this interview by David Mac for the May 2016 edition of BLUES JUNCTION Productions. In this feature Long discusses his background, his relationship with his adoptive father, Homesick James, his influential older brother Claude, and of course his brand new album, “Stand Your Ground,” on Delta Groove Music.
Interview by David Mac / BLUES JUNCTION Productions (Published May 2016). Photo by Jessica Chortkoff.
David Mac (DM): Before we get too far down the road and I forget. I just got off the phone with a mutual friend who, like me, is big fan of your music and that is Al Blake. He asked me to say hello.
John Long (JL): Oh man…I love Al and his music. He is one of the premier harmonica players out there these days and he sings real good too. I wanted to have him on my new record that’s coming out on May 20th, Stand Your Ground. He had a prior commitment so he couldn’t make the session, but he is going to sit in with us out at the Doheny Blues Festival on the 21st of May. It is real honor to have such an accomplished blues musician take such an interest in my career. He and his special lady friend Alice are just great people.
DM: Don’t I know it.
JL: You probably know the story of how Al got me started at Delta Groove.
DM: I do, but you are welcome to share it with our readers.
JL: I was working out of Denver in the 1990’s and Al was passing through. Some guy who was a friend of Al’s was at one of my shows and picked up a cassette. He set it aside on the front seat of his truck. It ended up under the seat and a couple of years later Al found it while cleaning up the truck. Just out of courtesy he played it. To make a long story short he looked me up and we became fast friends. He brought some of my music into Delta Groove and they loved it to and the result was they brought me into the studio to record Lost & Found which came out in 2006.
DM: It was a great record. I liked the cassette better. Al and I listened to the both of them in his kitchen some years back. Great stuff, but with all honesty, the new record is better. It does beg the question, why ten years between albums?
JL: I moved to Springfield, Missouri, and took a job doing maintenance and whatever needed to be done at the Green County Courthouse. I was able to woodshed some, write some songs and continue to get gigs around this part of the country.
DM: Let’s back up a bit. Where are you from?
JL: I was born in and grew up in Saint Louis. I now live in Springfield.
DM: Do you come from a musical background?
JL: Well my first father played the harmonica and taught me how to tongue block. He also played baseball for the Atlanta Crackers.
DM: Wow…that is the first AA Southern Association Baseball reference to appear in the “pages” of BLUES JUNCTION.
Let’s talk about your adopted hometown of Springfield, Missouri. It is down there in the Southern part of the state. It is a place where several American musical forms can trace their roots.
JL: You hit the nail on the head Dave. We are in the Ozarks and a lot of music came from around here. We just met a guy by the name of Bob Hubbard recently. He was from the gospel quartet, The Jordanaires. Do you know who I’m talking about?
DM: Are we talking about the gospel style vocal group who famously backed up Elvis when he went to RCA in the late fifties?
JL: One and the same. The Jordon Creek runs right through here. It is where the band got its name. They backed up Sister Rosetta Tharpe before that and others as well before they sang with Elvis.
DM: Where did this meeting take place?
JL: It was here in Springfield that they used to broadcast a T.V. Show called The Ozark Jubilee and they were doing some kind of reunion show. They had the Son’s of the Pioneers on the bill. I just love that old timey cowboy music. If you listen to some of those old recordings of singing cowboys that John Lomax did way back in the day, its blues.
I told Bob that I really love his music and their singing. He told me that it all came from the black folks and those musical traditions. You know I love talking to people like Bob who are just so humble. I just love talking to musicians who were around before me. You know…the old timers.
DM: I do know what you are talking about. While every piece of info it seems is available to us via our computers, nothing can replace that oral history those old timers can provide us.
Let’s talk about the man you refer to as your adoptive father, Homesick James.
JL: Homesick was playing on a North Side club in Chicago called Alice’s Re-visited. It was kind of a hippie type place with organic food. I opened the show for James. We struck up a relationship that night. We were lifelong friends until the day he died.
He was in and out of the hospital in the last five years of his life. He moved out to Fresno, California. He needed specialized medical treatment. I told him that he should move to Springfield. He got some good medical care here as well.
His auntie, Katie May and I helped to provide a dignified funeral for him. I wanted to let your readers know Dave that his family is taking real good care of the gravesite. It is in one of the oldest African-American cemeteries in the south.
DM: What does the man known as Homesick James mean to you?
JL: It is why I do what I do. He had a gentle side to him, a sacred side to him. He left this world clean and sober. He left this world as a gentle man. He mixed blues with some sacred numbers. That’s why both will always be part of my repertoire, because it’s the unseen creator that keeps us going. I’m not preachin’ here. Folks have to find this out on their own.
DM: Speaking of repertoire. Let’s talk about the new album, Stand Your Ground. I just got an advanced copy from Jeff Fleenor at Delta Groove Music. It hasn’t even been mastered or manufactured yet, but will be out on May 20th and it sounds great. The entire album is just marvelous. Congratulations.
JL: Thanks Dave. Well, it was done live in the studio. Jeff (Fleenor) and Doug Messenger did everything live on analog tape. It was mostly first takes. It is what John Long sounds like playing live. When I go into a studio I don’t want any over dubs. When I leave the studio, I don’t want anybody over dubbing my stuff either.
DM: Let’s talk about your song and the use of it as the title track, Stand Your Ground.
JL: Stand Your Ground…It’s really about ‘don’t give up and don’t back down’.
DM: ….back down from what?
JL: Anything and everything…take for instance all this talk radio out there. Well, when you hear somebody say, “It must be true…I heard it on the radio.” We have to stand our ground to any and all of this nonsense.
DM: (laughing) The chance of anything being true coming out of talk radio these days is becoming more and more remote.
JL: (laughs) That is so true. Remember Dave…we just have to stand our ground. It is a pretty simple message really.
We have Washington Rucker playing brushes on the record. He is a wonderful person and a wonderful musician. I felt so fortunate that he could play on the new album. He wrote a book called The Art of Brushwork. As a former drummer I thought the book was fascinating. I played drums in grade school in the drum and bugle core. Back in the day I would see little combos in Saint Louis with guys who would play brushes which sounds so cool.
We’ve got Bill Stuve playing bass on the session and he sounded just great. We also had Fred Kaplan as well. He did a real nice job like he always does. These guys are what old folks would call, “solid senders.”
DM: There are thirteen numbers on the new record including eight tunes that you wrote. There are tunes written by Willie Johnson and Blind Willie McTell and others including Homesick James whom we have discussed, but I’m curious about a name that might not ring a bell with many of our readers.
JL: That would be Michael Cronic. He is a Nashville songwriter. He was having BBQ at some local place one day in Nashville and he heard one of my songs on the radio. The song was Pressure Cooker which was on my 2006 Delta Groove Music release, Lost & Found.
He then called out to California to Delta Groove and they contacted me and well, to make a long story short, we got on the phone and he told me that he had written a song called, Mop Bucket and a Broom that he would like me to record.
DM: You got such a great sound all the way around on that number.
JL: I wanted to get a sound on bass like a tuba. You know like those sessions that Big Bill Broonzy did with Willie Dixon on bass. Well Bill nailed it, just the way I wanted it. He did a real excellent job.
DM: How do you pick the covers that made it on to the album? Let’s start with the old gospel number, Precious Lord Take My Hand.
JL: You know Dave, we used to go to tent revivals together.
DM: Who is we?
JM: My brother and me. He’s a blues man too. But he’s retired. His name is Claude. Anyway…we used to go to these tent revivals. They have those big fields just outside of Saint Louis. Well, they had these guys come up from Mississippi and they would pitch the tents out there. They had this lady playing with no shoes on. She was kickin’ the pedals barefoot. She sounded like Jimmy Smith.
DM: Or vice versa…
JL: Exactly! Not only would they have these outdoor tent revivals, they used to have these old movie houses in Saint Louis where the Preachers would rent out these old facilities. They had this one guy who played jazz guitar with a ‘Gospel flair.’ I ran into some people at one of the services and they saw the same guy over in East Saint Louis playing in the jazz clubs over there. Same guy…so you see what I mean it all kind of runs together. That’s where we first heard that tune.
DM: Let’s talk about your brother Claude.
JL: He’s the one that got me to Springfield. He is visually impaired, although he is fiercely independent. He plays a terrific slide guitar which comes closer to Homesick’s style than me.
DM: You know what; if you keep adding this, that or the other to the music, at some point you then start taking away from the music.
JL: You hit the nail on the head brother. Look at all the variety of great musicians who set kind of a template in which we could make our own music and interpret their tunes to fit our own personal style. You have big time names like Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy who I mentioned. There are others not so well known like a guy I worked with out of Saint Louis, Doc Terry. He was an incredible harmonica player. There is Hammy Nixon and of course the great Scrapper Blackwell and the work he did with Leroy Carr and of course the list goes on and on. That’s the stuff I like. I call it PRIME music. It’s the stuff without all the shellac and veneer on it.
DM: How do you choose what to play?
JL: I play what I feel. It’s just home cookin’ brother.
DM: I know you and I could do this forever but you have some traveling to do. I’ll see you in California.
JL: It was real joy talking with you to Dave. We will pick this up again up real soon.