I got to meet and talk to John Nemeth at The Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in Davenport, Iowa. John was a very gracious host, as we talked in his (dressing room) trailer. The first part of the interview was done just before the band went on stage. John invited me to stick around and finish the interview after the show. Each time I entered the trailer John offered me something to drink and offered me a seat. Your mother would be proud of you John. I had a great time chatting with John Nemeth and listening to him perform. John has a great voice and is a very good harp player. The blues does indeed seem to have a bright future.
Billy Rose: Very nice to meet you John. How did the show in Dubuque go last night?
John Nemeth: It went great! Dubuque was wonderful, wonderful people in Dubuque. Wonderful people in Iowa!
We’ve played Des Moines, Davenport and Fort Dodge, we always have a good time in Iowa, ya know.
Billy Rose: Is that your first time to Dubuque?
John Nemeth: I was in Dubuque with Junior Watson about seven years ago. But I hadn’t been back since.
Billy Rose: You grew up in Idaho. Not really a hotbed of blues. How did you get hooked up with the blues?
John Nemeth: No it’s not. A fella in my high school class played me some Junior Wells and uh, that was it. I was hooked. Hook line and sinker. I was 14 years old and I heard Junior Wells and I started listening to Albert King, BB King, Little Walter, Sonny, Boy Williamson, Blind Blake and all these cats ya know I was just sold on the music.
Billy Rose: Junior Wells, so you picked up harp right away then huh?
John Nemeth: No actually I didn’t pick up the harp ‘til later. Well I guess I played harmonica as a kid, there’s pictures of me with a harmonica and I guess I was pretty decent at it. I blocked out to much of my childhood, I don’t remember that (laughter). But I picked up the harmonica when I was 17. We needed another solo instrument in the band. I played a little piano as a kid, so I went to get a piano and I couldn’t afford one. Then there was a harmonica there that was seven bucks (laughs). So I got into harmonica I guess purely based on economics (laughter). It turned out to be good for me.
Billy rose: Oh yeah I’d say so. I really like “Magic Touch” on Blind Pig Records. I didn’t know you had two albums out before that. Did you put those out on your own?
John Nemeth: Yeah.
Billy Rose: Do feel there is an advantage being on a label like Blind Pig, opposed to putting it out on your own?
John Nemeth: Well you know I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Blind Pig. In this business it’s just so tough to get started. I’ve gotten to know Elvin Bishop pretty well, and I recorded an album with him, and he mentioned to me that he felt sorry for anybody who has to get his career started these days. With the state of radio and the record busness and all that other stuff. Without Blind Pig I wouldn’t be with Intrepid Artist Agency, I wouldn’t be in stores nationwide in Europe and Canada. Yeah Blind Pig pretty much gave me a break. To be out there and be considered by major festivals and stuff. Heard by the masses, it’s just tough these days. I’m not one of these guys who has a day job and money to spend on publicists and to send out free CD’s all over the planet. It’s not a hobby for me, it’s a job. It’s a job I’ve been doing ever since I was 16 years old. I’m not qualified to do much of anything else. So I’m glad I can do this, boy (laughter)!
Billy Rose: Have you toured Europe?
John Nemeth: Oh yeah! Europe is great! Great people, great food. You know everywhere I go is really good. I always run into great people who like blues music. I mean you can be in Thailand or the Northwest Territory in Canada and its always good man.
Billy Rose: Have you been back to Idaho to play?
John Nemeth: Oh yeah. I go back to Idaho about once or twice a year. It’s always a lot of fun to go back. I wish I could go back more. But I’ve been touring my butt off these days.
Last year I did 170 days on the road, this year it’s gonna be somewhere near that. Right now we’re on a ten week tour. Ten week’s straight. It takes us around the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Italy and France. It’s a long one. A lot of places and lot of driving a lot of flying.
Billy Rose: So have you been driving this tour?
John Nemeth: Oh yeah! We’ve been driving a lot. The only flying we’re doing is over to Europe. Then we’ll drive all around there.
Billy Rose: Who does the driving?
John Nemeth: We all do, take turns. Fortunately we’re all good drivers. One of the great things about coming out here is the drives are short. Chicago to Rockford. Rockford to Dubuque. Dubuque to Davenport those are all an hour or two.
Billy Rose: The worst problem with driving is repairs.
John Nemeth: Oh yeah. We had a blowout and the wheel guy tells us “gotta get your ball joints replaced or your tires are gonna fall off”. Great (laughs)!
Billy Rose: Hopefully you made enough the night before to pay for it. There goes this check.
John Nemeth: Yeah exactly (laughs)! You’re just one small disaster away from being broke out here on the road.
Billy Rose: Repairs and gas prices cutting into the profits?
John Nemeth: Oh, it’s wicked bad. A hundred fifty bucks to fill that thing up, and it’s only gonna git you four hundred miles. It cuts into the profits big time. I guess if big oil feel they need to get rich off us then they’re just gonna do it.
Billy Rose: Where do you come up with your ideas for songs?
John Nemeth: People I know. Friends, ex-friends (laughs). You know, be careful if you get to know me you might end up in a song (laughs).
Billy Rose: Who are your main influences. Since you’ve been playing what influences you.
John Nemeth: Everybody I meet, everybody I listen to. Something slips into my subconscious. I don’t necessarily seek out trying to learn something from somebody but I do get inspiration from different artists. It just gets in there and people come up and say you’ve got a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I’m sort of a sponge. I soak it all up and then put it out in my fashion with hints of different artists.
Billy Rose: As a harp player do you gather from just harp players or do you gather from everybody.
John Nemeth: I gather from everybody. There just a certain time when you gotta detach and just let it all in.
Billy Rose: One of things I like about seeing younger people like you doing blues is that blues has a future again. Did you ever play rock?
John Nemeth: I played a little bit of Rock ‘N’ Roll, but it was blues influenced. I played Rock when I was a Junior in High School. We got a house gig at The Grub Steak Saloon in Horseshoe Bend Idaho (laughs). I’ll tell ya that was a rough and tumble joint. We played blues influenced rock like ZZ Top, Chuck Berry that kind of stuff. We played outlaw country. But pretty much the next year I was into the blues thing full force. Then we were just playing straight blues. Right now I do way more soul music, I mean Oakland grease kinda stuff, and Chicago soul, than I ever did. That’s just because I happened to write some songs in that vein. When I lived in Idaho I played straight ahead blues. It was great I was playing in all the collage bars. If you can sell blues to collage kids, you gonna do alright (laughs). You gotta rock, you gotta entertain when you play for young collage kids, ‘cause that’s all they know. They don’t know the music right off the bat. So you gotta kick some ass.
Billy Rose: They might know a song, but they know it as a rock song.
John Nemeth: Exactly! So in answer to your question, one summer of rock and country. The rest has been blues my entire life.
Billy Rose: Is there anybody out there that you’d like to play with, that you haven’t had a chance to yet.
John Nemeth: Well, that’s a long list man. I’ve played with a lot of the guys I wanted to play with. Because it’s a small world in the blues community. I haven’t had the opportunity to hear a whole lot of cats out there who are doing the blues thing. I guess I’d like to do a gig with Lurrie Bell sometime. I’ve always liked his playing.
Billy Rose: I know you’ve done some work with Elvin Bishop. What do you get out of playing with someone like him.
John Nemeth: When he wants to sit down and just play some blues, he’s a real bad dude. And a wonderful influence of how the energy of the music should be handled. With Elvin, well before Paul Butterfield ever happened, he was recording with James Cotton and Junior Wells. Most people don’t even know that.
Billy Rose: I wasn’t aware of that.
John Nemeth: Yeah. He had been in Chicago since ’59, and that was 6-7 years before the Butterfield thing happened. The guys I like are the ones who convey energy of the music and the heart of the music. Anyone can sit down and learn something off the record, but that don’t mean shit. It’s a place you have to start. There are certain guys out there where the music sounds alive. And it’s free. So many players play within these certain lines that they think you need to. But the guys I like are free and funky and just live within the music. Guys like Junior Watson is a perfect example. The guitar player that’s playin’ with me, When Junior’s not, the new full time guitar player Bob Welsh. He’s one of the coolest guys on the planet, next to Junior. Nobody even really knows who he is. He plays such good piano that he always got hired to play piano. He’s on a lot of records coming out of the west coast. But he’s a great guitar player, really exciting man. The same with our rhythm section. There’s guys that play drums and play bass. But they don’t play blues, not the way I think it should be played. With that energy. It’s something that’s hard to pick out, but you know its right when you hear it.
Billy Rose: As a harp player who are your biggest influences?
John Nemeth: Well when I first got started, the guys that influenced me where Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Paul Butterfield and Junior Wells. I picked up Big Walter too. Little Walter is king ya know. Sonny Boy was the master of simplicity, Junior Wells was the master of funkiness and Paul Butterfield was the guy who developed a different style from what he heard from those guys. So those are the four guys who really did it for me. Later on a guy named Paul DeLay out of Portland. He really influenced me quite a bit. Also Rick Estrin from Little Charlie and The Nitecats. And William Clarke. Those where all the harp players that I really dug on and who influenced me.
Billy Rose: I guess that’s about it. Is there anything you want to say to the people out there who read or hear this interview.
John Nemeth: Just go out and buy some blues records. Go out and buy some blues, go out and listen to it, go find a friend who knows about the blues and can turn you on to the right spots. Go to my web site and send me an email and I’ll send you a list of great records. A list as long as my arm (laughs).
Billy Rose: John it was nice to meet you. Thanks for sitting and talking to me.
John Nemeth: Thank you!