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James Blood Ulmer: There is Another Place to Go

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AAJ: I like the band that's on those two albums. Vernon's great, but there's also Charles Burnham, who you go back with a long ways.

JBU: That's where I was lucky. The lucky part was that Vernon chose the band, but I'd already played with these guys before. They've been playing with me for a while, except for Vernon and the organ player.

AAJ: I think before those CDs, you'd been thought of first and foremost as a guitarist—even though you've been singing as far back as the Southern Sons, the gospel group you were in as a kid. But those band albums show off what a great singer you are. I think you sing "Ghetto Child as well as anyone has, and I listened to Wolf's version of "Little Red Rooster a couple days ago, and your vocals stand up to his. Now do you think of yourself as a singer, or a guitarist who sings?

JBU: No, no, singing and playing music are two different things to me. I can only sing the blues, probably. But playing guitar—I don't know what I can play.

AAJ: Well, you've already played everything!

JBU: Yeah! I really, really refer to myself as a guitarist. But vocals are necessary sometime. Somebody should do it. Because at first, we always had a singer in the band. I used to try to hire singing in my early times in the band. I would always sing one or two songs on a record at least. But I really separate the two, singing from playing, simply because I can't sing anything—I don't sing no opera [laughing]. The singing I'm doing is storytelling. The blues is about the only thing I can sing.

AAJ: Let's talk about your great new CD Birthright, which is just you and your guitar. All right, Vernon Reid talked you into doing Memphis Blood. Did he talk you into this one?

JBU: No, this record is me rebelling and saying that I am not doing any more cover songs. That's it; I'm finished with singing cover-song blues. If I was going to [record] some songs, I'd do my own songs. It was my retreat back to my own music. I would never do another cover-song album—well, you can't say never, but I hope I don't have to take no more musical exams. I want to continue on with what I've been doing all the time. Because my [own] music was blues. The blues, see, people don't want to look at it right. They don't realize that blues is an ingredient. And it's in everything. You can put it in all music, all kind of music. Blues is in everything. So that ingredient is there, and you can make it stand alone, it'll stand alone, too. But it's in other things, and I've been doing that forever. I don't have to make it stand alone just to prove that I am bluesy.

AAJ: Or because it's a gig. So most of the songs on this album are your own tunes. Have you had these for a while or did you write them shortly before recording?

JBU: Some I had before and I made a few new ones. But I'm always writing songs, stories. It's just something you do; I don't know, it's nothing I try, it just happens. I sit down and think about something and I write it down.

AAJ: The blues was the bad music in your home when you were growing up, right?

JBU: Well, it wasn't in there! It wasn't in the house! Whether it was good or not, it never got in the door, because my folks were definitely gospel people. Nothing else existed. When I was a child, we were tutored into being gospel people. That's how I grew up: gospel, the church, and I was the Sunday school treasurer [laughing] until I finished high school. I kept the money for the Sunday school. That means that I was there every Sunday. Can't be the treasurer and not there.

AAJ: On your song "Take My Music Back to the Church, it's as if you're making a statement that not only is blues not bad, guess what, it's good: "the soul of the man for sure. What was so wrong about blues music when you were younger?

JBU: Well, if you're playing in church, as long as your story is about Jesus—you have no problem. But don't you get up in the church and start singing about your baby and how you felt and what you were doing last night. They would put you out of church no matter what you were playing. I don't really know, but I was singing in church, and we had more blues in it, and it was funky, and soulful— everything. Old ladies would jump up and shout, that shit. That was on! But the words, the story lines, were about Jesus. And in blues, with the guitar, once the guys started playing the slide, glass bottles, throwin' it down on the floor and playing it with your teeth, behind your back [laughing], it kind of pulled it away from the church. Because you can't really do that in the church; people start looking at you real funny [laughing].

AAJ: Well, the tritone has always been known as the devil's interval.

JBU: Well, I didn't know that about the tritone. [Thoughtfully] Devil's interval. Tritone. I'm going to check that out! But what I do is tune my guitar different, to make it impossible to get some of those forbidden sounds, you know what I'm saying—to tune it away from that tritone. I've got that unison sound, where everything is humming by the gauges of the string instead of notes. It kind of changed the way that you have to play. 'Cause certain things you play on guitar, you really get that gut sound. So the guitar tuning kind of eliminated that sound. So once you get that, it's sounding peaceful and in harmony.

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