Plenty has changed for Little Joe McLerran since winning the 2009 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. No longer struggling to find a gig, his weekly Monday night gigs at Shades of Brown and busking in the streets during Tulsa's Blues Fest are a thing of the past. Now he's touring nationally and internationally as an ambassador of the blues to multiple generations of listeners.
In 2010, Little Joe and his band toured Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain for a month on behalf of the U.S. State Department and Jazz at the Lincoln Center. That was just the beginning of his travels, however, as he has since toured Europe, the U.S. and South America as his career continues to grow.
Currently, a large part of McLerran's touring is tied to his association with the U.S. State Department and music education programs. When asked about his involvement in those programs, he explained that it really started with the Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rhythm Road program, which took him to the Middle East. With the Rhythm Road program no longer going on, he's now part of a different educational program that takes him around the country to discuss music and take the blues into schools.
"It's called 'American Roots Soup,' and it talks about the development of blues music," McLerran said. "It equates the blues to being like a pot of soup and all these ingredients go into it to create a stew, but blues is where rock and most American music forms come from."
"I've heard some people say that the blues came from Africa, but if that were so, they'd be playing the blues in Africa as well," he added. "The blues really is an American art form, but it draws from other influences. It definitely takes from Irish fiddle reels and Ragtime and I remember Jelly Roll Morton talking about how the blues has a 'Spanish tinge' and habanero."
"Many people have called what I do classic Piedmont Blues, which is an East Coast finger picking style," he said to explain how it all incorporates into his playing. "That's definitely where I started and my style of playing, but over the years I've been listening to all kinds of music and mine has started to take on a life of its own."
Part of that evolution no doubt comes from Little Joe's travels over the past few years. The 2010 tour of the Middle East was just the beginning of what has more recently taken McLerran and his band to South America.
When asked how that came about, Little Joe said that Embassy Cultural Affairs officer James Russo heard about what McLerran and his band were doing and brought the band to Paraguay.
"He loved it and said, 'Wherever I get stationed, I'm going to bring you guys there,'" McLerran said. "When you get that opportunity, you have to go."
"I love it," he continued. "We get to meet great people and awesome musicians. You find out that blues bands are everywhere. It's definitely an American art form, but it's had such a broad reach, everyone knows the blues."
"Paraguay has some really, really good blues players and accomplished musicians," McLerran said of the experience.
"They asked, wondering how they could get to the United States to play, because it's hard to get visas. I told them to get involved with the International Blues Foundation and set up their own blues society, then let the foundation do all the footwork. They did just that and now there's a group in Columbia doing the same thing," he said.
More than just traveling the world as an ambassador of the blues, Little Joe has also toured nationally and recently finished up a new CD, FaceBook Blues, which he is preparing to release with a show this weekend.
When discussing the new disc with McLerran, he explained, "I never really had a computer before; I was totally in the dark ages. About a year and half ago, though, I went to Paraguay and my wife bought a computer, so I finally got on Facebook and got high-tech. So when it came time to make a new album, I laughed and thought, 'Why not just call it FaceBook Blues?'"
Over a year was spent recording the album as McLerran and his band initially entered Mi Casa studios with Mike Peace doing the recording. "Then we took the recording to New Orleans and recorded with some friends there," McLerran said. "We took those tracks to Boulder and had Dexter Payne, who's been on all of my records, put some horns on them, and then we brought it back to Tulsa and had Travis Fite do the mixing and mastering."
Fite proved to be essential in the completion and success of this disc as McLerran took a classic approach to recording the current disc. "Most of those really old records were recorded with one microphone and what you hear is exactly what they were playing," he explained. Although there are some overdubs and instrumentation that was added from traveling to various rotations, he said, "We ran into some problems with this record. We cut all of it pretty much live, with the guitar, vocals, bass, and drums all together and when we got to the mixing stage, we got a lot of bleed through. Travis was amazing in cleaning it all up and making it work, though. He just listens differently and can hear things that we didn't hear until he pointed them out."
As a result, Little Joe said that "I'm pretty happy with it. It's never perfect, but I've learned if I don't let it go, I'll just keep going and never finish." With a touring schedule that continues to keep McLerran and his band busy, he found a good stopping place and the result is an album that creates a good snapshot of where he and his band are at the moment.
Although he revealed that he believes his sound will continue to evolve and incorporate more of his international influences in the future, this new disc strikes a strong balance and still heavily favors his Piedmont style background, even if that may be changing more in the future.
"You don't hear it so much on the CDs, but in the live show, we definitely will play with more of a Latin rhythm," he shared. "It's like Jelly Roll Morton said, there's a Spanish tinge to the music and I've noticed it more, that you can put a little break in the beat and it really translates well."
Right now, Little Joe McLerran continues to grow as both a musician and an ambassador of the blues. He'll be celebrating the release of FaceBook Blues this Saturday night, Nov. 17, with a CD release party at the "Uptown Lounge," upstairs at the local VFW (1109 E. 6th Street). The show starts at 8:30pm and not only features Little Joe McLerran and his band (which includes bassist Robbie Mack and drummer Ronnie Mack), but will also include guest appearances by Dexter Payne, Jimmy Markham, and David Berntson over the course of the evening. Tickets are only $5 at the door and you'll be able to get your copy of the new CD at the show.
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