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Interviews

Billy Jones: The Urbanization of Delta Blues

By Published: April 30, 2009

AAJ: Recording for Jan's label and having toured Europe, you can certainly answer this: do you feel that the record industry is different in Europe than it is here in the States?

BJ: Yes ... in America the record industry has become an assembly-line, one-beat type of thing.

All the rap songs sound the same. All the blues songs sound the same. All the subject matter sounds the same. If one song is a hit, then there is a rush to make every song after that sound just like that one.

In Europe, the music is not shaped by trends and fads. It's shaped by talent. And it just has to be good.

Not that I'm down on corporate American music companies, but they are about numbers, not music. There is plenty of great music in America, but it is coming from the home studios and independent artists. There's some fantastic stuff that's coming off the streets that is re-shaping the dynamics of the industry.

Billy JonesAAJ: Do you find the audiences here and abroad different; and if so, in what ways?

BJ: Yes. The European audience seems to listen to a wider spectrum of music than the American audience. They are open to all types of music and will listen to anything based on whether they like the song or not.

I find that Americans tend to see music in the same way that they see fashion and fads. There is a "herd" mentality involved here where everybody wants to do what everyone else is doing.

It's like musical segregation. If jazz is in vogue, then everyone in a certain peer group wants to listen to only jazz. Anyone who listens to anything different is considered un-cool by that group; same with blues; same with hip-hop. I think that this makes for a poor musical diet. There is something to learn from every musical genre.

I once had a friend who gave me an album of Iranian sheep herder songs. At first listen, I dismissed it as illogical noise because I was not familiar with the scales and melodic patterns that were being played on what sounded to me like a banjo. I'm sure that it was an instrument specific to the region that the music came from and not a banjo, and I didn't understand the language that the songs were being sung.

But by the third listen, I had discovered that the music was fantastic! The passion and intensity of the singer's delivery was amazing, and I found myself listening to it all the time. I ended up writing one of my most popular songs, "Reconsider Baby," (on his 2005 Black and Tan Records release Tha' Bluez) based on what I learned from that experience. Some music critics and scholars theorized that I had crafted the song by combining blues with hip-hop and Latin music. I don't suppose that they have ever heard much Iranian sheep herding music. I still have that album—it's one of my most treasured possessions.

AAJ: How did you come to refer to your music as "Bluez"? Is this to differentiate your music from the music created by the record industry?

BJ: Yes, it is. I have studied many types of music, including jazz, country, rock, funk, R&B, punk, new wave or whatever, and I wanted to incorporate some of the elements from all of these styles into my original music.

I didn't want to use the standard term "blues" because I realized to the youth audience blues equals old. I didn't want to align myself with the "old blues guy" stereotype because this music is anything but that.

There is no mention of the mule or the cotton or the tractor on this project. Those are issues of today's audience's grandparents. While most blues music is focused on the past, this is music for the 21st century. And while most blues music is written by men for men, many of my songs are directed to the female listener. They address some of the social concerns and romantic intricacies of modern-day urban existence. This music is something new and different and delivers social commentaries and messages that the urban audience can relate to.

Also, by creating my own musical terminology it causes the search engines of the Internet to "learn" that word and associate it with me. So essentially I taught the search engines my name, so that if you type Billy Jones Bluez into your computer, the search engines will bring up lots of information about my music.

Try it.

AAJ: How long have you worked to infuse an urban element into your music? How has it been received by your audience?

BJ: I never intentionally set out to "urbanize" my music. I just wanted to learn everything that I could about my craft and how to please the audience that was in front of me that day. It was just natural evolution. The reception has been overwhelmingly positive from the general public ... not so much by the blues purists.

Billy JonesAAJ: Can we hear more of this influence on this latest CD of yours, than on your previous?

BJ: Definitely, on the my Hometown CD, on previous releases, you can hear hints of the influence, but I had to "dumb it down" a little in order to appease the label owners and record songs that were a little more predictable in order to get them to release the recordings.

However, when I met Jan Mittendorp and signed with Black and Tan records, part of our agreement was that I would have complete artistic freedom; I would write the music the way that I thought it should be ... If it wasn't too "artistic" to release, then Black and Tan would release it. This has been my most popular recording ever! Although my Prime Suspect for the Blues (Cyborg-Blue, 2001) CD did well, there's no comparison to the response that my Hometown is receiving.



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