Joe Bonamassa: The Ballad of John Henry and the Country Trail

Saturday Morning

While attempting to sleep in, I got this feeling someone was staring at me. When I opened my eyes I noticed my golden retriever Lucille her snout resting on the bed staring at me; blinking with that anticipating gaze… I knew what she wanted. I had promised to take my exercise routine outdoors. With a look like that, who could say no?

I unplugged my MP3 player from the computer, knowing exactly what I was going to play for the morning excursion. I saved it anticipating this outdoor jaunt…

I tied up my running shoes, picked up my keys and headed to the car. After a 15 minute drive, my faithful hound and I hit the early morning country trail. The sun shined brightly and there was only a light wind at our backs… I pressed play on my MP3 – Lucille and I then made our way down the chiseled forest path.

An artist who has raised many eyebrows on the current blues/rock scene today is Joe Bonamassa. His latest album The Ballad of John Henry came out at the end of February 2009. I downloaded it, but only skimmed through the album. Not because I wasn’t impressed, but because I tend to savor things I know I’m going to enjoy for the right moment. And this morning seemed like perfect timing… From the opening track, Bonamassa’s personal vision of blues folklore John Henry, I let myself drift off in thought…

Highly praised among guitar players, critics and fans, Bonamassa is not exactly a stranger to the business. Three prior releases all reached top spot on the Billboard’s Blues Chart. His last studio recording 2007’s Sloe Gin, stayed in the Top 10 for an entire year. Guitar Player Magazine named him “Best Blues Guitarist” 2 years in a row. Blues Wax Magazine also named him best “Artist of the Year” three consecutive times.

Born on Robert Johnson’s birthday on May 8th, 1977 in Utica, New York, Bonamassa began playing guitar at age four on a short-scale Chiquita given to him by his father. Graduating to a full scale guitar, he began mastering Stevie Ray Vaughn licks. At 11 years of age, he was mentored by Danny Gatton; learning country, jazz as well as heavy rock.

During this time, Bonamassa sat in with Gatton’s band whenever they played in New York. At 12 years old Joe came to the attention of BB King. Impressed by the young man’s raw talent, King invited him to go on tour.

During his mid teens Bonamassa met Allman Brothers bass player Berry Oakley’s son Berry Oakley Jr. Together they found the group Bloodline. A very unique group with Miles Davis’s son Erin and Robby Krieger’s son Waylon contributing.

After Listening to the Second Track “Stop”

I found myself hooked by Joe’s expressive vocals and emotional guitar phrasing on the tune. It’s a revved up version of Sam Brown’s slow blues song. I enjoyed it so much I needed a second listen… Moving along, another song that caught my interest was Tom Waits’ Jockey Full of Bourbon. As a writer, I love music that creates a certain imagery. And the mixture of vaudeville piano along with the Joe’s distorted guitar textures certainly provided that.

A New Day Yesterday was Joe Bonamassa’s debut album at 23 years old. This record was one of the last produced by the legendary Tom Dowd in 2000. His second album, So, It’s Like That, was more traditional rock, but still attained number one on the Billboard Blues Chart. Blues Deluxe in 2003 featured nine classic blues cover tunes along with three Bonamassa originals. It also reached number one on the Billboard Blues Chart.

“When I play blues, I try to think a little outside the box, while still paying tribute to the founding fathers like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson.”

Late 2005 Bonamassa released Had to Cry Today. Sloe Gin in late summer 2007 featured more acoustic work than any of his previous albums and was well received by fans and most music critics.

The Snowy Country Trail

gave way to a big field where Lucille met up with two of her golden retriever lookalike friends. I paused the music and watched all three romp through the open field… By this time I got half way through Bonamassa’s album. So far I loved the mixture of songs. Bonamassa effectively creates the feel of delta blues and progressive power blues-rock with a wise blend of acoustic and electric material.

To complete my workout Lucille and I shifted from a brisk walk to alternating a one minute jog then one minute walk… I used Bonamassa’s cover of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good for inspiration. The song may not appeal to faithful Simone fans, but I got right into it… I kept this pace for the remainder of the tunes on the album. I didn’t want to do anything too strenuous… Not too bad for an almost middle aged guy with heart disease.

Once in a while I like to write about some of the current artists on the music scene. Bonamassa is one of those extremely talented individuals… Yes he does rock on, but he also shares his gift with a passionate touch along with a knowledge and respect for many of the blues greats before him.

Lucille jumped in the back seat of the car and I buckled her harness into the seatbelt… I took the auxiliary cable from one of the compartments and plugged my MP3 into the car’s CD Player. I continued listening to The Ballad of John Henry and repeated a few selected numbers as we made our way back home… As I glanced into the rear view mirror, I couldn’t help notice Lucille’s golden smile. Mission accomplished I thought…

Any comments on Bonamassa or the article above are most welcome. Also don’t forget to check out some of the links within the post… For more information or latest tour schedule, you can go directly to Joe Bonamassa’s website from here.

The Blues Blogger

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Danel R. Lehrman
15 years ago

Great article TBB. Joe needs and deserves more exposure.

15 years ago

Phoenix, AZ – Several years ago Joe was the opening act for George Thorogood at the Celebrity Theater, I was absolutely knocked out by his talent; three nights later he was playing a free gig at the Big Fish Pub in Tempe – awesome! The next year he was wowing the crowd at Sturgis. And, two years ago, I caught him as he wailed to a standing-room-only crowd at the Rhythm Room.

Joe Bonamassa needs more recognition for the gift he has been given as an artist. Thank you, BB, for spotlighting this tremendous talent.

Me-Me King

15 years ago

Thanks for this post! I’m amazed.
I just got this album and can’t wait to give it a proper listen-to. Keep ’em coming!
First visit to the site, and I have to say, I’ll keep coming back.

15 years ago

Howdy: I discovered Joe when he opened a show on BB King’s 80th Birthday tour. I became an immediate fan and follower even before the second act; Kenny Wayne Shepherd. If possible, by the time Kenny Wayne finished his set, I was even more impressed with Joe because I thought he was better than Kenny Wayne was.

One of the drawbacks in being a supporter of live music is as the musician/band become more popular they start playing in bigger venues. The second time I saw Joe was at a very small bar in Atlanta where I could talk to him between sets. The last time Joe played Atlanta was at Center Stage; a 1,100-seat venue. Oh well, Joe’s artistry deserves a much larger following.

Although I am a fan of power blues-rock, it is great to hear Joe is returning to mainly blues on John Henry. [BTW, keep a look out for the revamped power-trio Back Door Slam; now known as Davy Knowles and Back Door Slam. Davy returns this spring/summer and will open for Jeff Beck as well as solo appearances. I assume Davy will be promoting his sophomore album produced by Peter Frampton.] Back to Joe – although Joe’s originals (e.g., Bridge to Better Days from You & Me) are great, I burn compilation CDs and like to include originals followed with covers. Two of my favorites are Steve Winwood’s (Blind Faith) Had to Cry Today (also album title) and John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell from the Blues Deluxe album.

Craig Ferguson
15 years ago

Came here via Stumble Upon and discovered a great site. I’ve bookmarked you for the future.

Didn’t realize that Joe had a new CD out , good to know.

14 years ago

I missed this post when it first came out. Glad you linked to it in your latest Joe-post.

This is also good music to drive your neighbors nuts with. Must be turned all the up. The talent of this man is just beyond belief.