Can a relatively privileged young man play the blues as well as an impoverished old man? That is a debate that is held repeatedly in blues circles and it cropped up again this morning. Let’s look at the two sides of the debate and put it to a vote.
My father, who prefers to be called “Pops,” has a passion for music and is a regular commenter on this blog. I consider his comments to be blogs themselves. They are always well-written and maybe one day he’ll agree to be a guest blogger here. But for now, take a look at an excerpt of his comment on my Track of the Week featuring “Quarryman’s Lament,” by Joe Bonamassa.
….I really think that [Kenny Wayne Shepherd] is a player who loves the blues from the bottom of his heart, even though he’ll never be an authentic blues player. That music is unique, in that it’s underpinnings are rooted in pain, longing and a bit of suffering. I don’t think that Kenny will ever experience that sort of despair, hence, his playing of the blues will always be from the outside, looking in…. -Pops
Pops believes like so many others that true blues can only be played by people who have truly suffered. I respectfully disagree and this is where the debate begins. Let me state my case:
It is not a musician’s level of suffering that makes him an authentic blues musician but rather his expert ability to transform that suffering into music.
First, I’ll attempt to refute a common misstep. Everyone suffers, it is a requisite for being human. I believe that everyone experiences emotional pain, the kind that inspires blues songs. From an outsider’s perspective, we incorrectly feel like we can judge people’s suffering and rank one person’s pain against another’s. Pain is a very personal experience and therefore any such comparison would be unfair.
Since Kenny Wayne Shepherd is human I have to believe that he has suffered. That suffering is the source of the blues. What separates the blues greats from the wannabes is their ability to channel that raw emotion into a compelling musical performance. Although an old man may have more time to practice the art of converting pain into music, that doesn’t mean the old man will actually practice that art. As with most things, practice and talent make the difference.
So I’ll wrap up my side of the debate by saying that Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his youthful contemporaries are very good at transforming their suffering into music. And they didn’t get that way because they’re old or poor. They got they because they are extremely talented and because they practice that art everyday of their young lives.
So now that I’ve made my case, take a listen to three young, blonde bluesmen.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd broke onto the blues scene just 5 months after turning 18 when he released his first album Trouble Is… in 1995.
Joe Bonamassa, born just over a month before Shepherd, released his first album A New Day Yesterday in 2000 at the age 23.
And Jonny Lang released his breakout effort Lie to Me one day before turning 17 in 1997.
For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit www.ewguitar.com.