John Németh has been singing and playing the blues for most of his life. Starting at a young age with bands in Boise, Idaho, he has become an international blues star and recipient of several Blues Music Awards including 2014’s Soul Blues Male Artist Award. Between his gritty vocals and his superb harmonica playing, John Németh has been singing and playing the blues for most of his life. Between his gritty vocals and his superb harmonica playing, John Németh has cultivated a strong fan base who enjoy his original music. Not one to just adhere to a strict formula, John adds elements of rock, soul and even hip-hop to create his own unique style. John Németh returns to the Ventura County Blues Festival on Saturday, April 28 as part of his Feelin’ Freaky world tour. John recently talked with me about his life, the blues and his music.
Q: John, when did you know the blues was for you?
A: I was fourteen years old, I was in high school at the time and I was sharing music with a friend. He’s the guy who actually gave me my first taste of blues music. Right from the get-go, I thought it was the coolest thing ever invented and it was the connection to everything for me. I guess it’s probably like when a paleontologist thinks he’s found the missing link, but I actually found the missing link.
Q: Who were your musical influences?
A: I guess early on it would have been my parents and teachers, church, my brother and sister. My father loved Hungarian and Gypsy music, Hungarian folk music and classical music. My mother loved all the great crooners, from Doris Day to Frank Sinatra. My brother and sister liked all the really great 70’s rock and outlaw country. Then I had a 3rd grade teacher who taught us how to sing harmony and made us sing all the patriotic tunes and songs like that. It was great; I really got a huge does of culture, I was lucky to get that growing up.
Moving on, it would have been that kid in high school, Tom Horn, who set me up with all those other styles of music that I didn’t know anything about; you just didn’t really hear it on the radio in Boise.
Q: With Feelin’ Freaky you’re breaking down some musical barriers. What were your thoughts behind its conception?
A: I don’t know if there were any thoughts behind the conception. I think it was just what everybody thought it was after the concept was made and recorded. People decided that it was a little different from the familiar that they knew. For me, it was just another John Németh record. It doesn’t really feel that different from what I’ve done so much in the past. Maybe it has less of the quintessential blues familiarity that everybody knows. That’s maybe the commercial side of what every body knows about the blues. But its got harmonica, and its got guitar, bass, drums and organ and harmony vocals; and it’s deeply rooted in blues and R&B, funk and soul; and all that kind of stuff that I’m into.
What made it kind of different was that I have a band of younger cats and they’re privy to all other sorts of information—they’re not necessarily just blues guys. They’re also very conscientious to how I want to sing a song and that is really cool. They’re young and they’ve got a lot of respect for me and what I do. So I think by doing that, we were able to lock into something unique that was different than what I had done in the past. But as far as songwriting stuff goes, it’s fairly similar; it just has a different feel about it.
Q: You’ve been nominated for and won several Blues Music Awards. How’s that feel?
A: It feels pretty amazing. I never knew that this music would take me any where outside of Idaho; and I sure never thought it would take me all the way to Memphis Tennessee and to be considered by critics as the best stuff out there. It’s amazing and I guess I’m fairly humble about it. You can tell me it was something good, it was something I made, but I would see all the flaws all over it.
A: I think it’s just something that comes natural to me. I don’t have to think about those two things. I feel like I’ve always understood the harmonica as an instrument—it made a lot of sense to me the way it was put together; and singing was something I’ve always done. I think that quite possibly one of the connections that the two have together is that they’re both coming out of the mouth; and breathing is everything to the vocal instrument and the harmonica instrument. I think a musician’s personality has no choice but to come out in a harmonica, so I think that might be why they work together so well.
Q: How’s it feel to return to Ventura for the 2018 Ventura Blues Festival?
A: Well I had such an awesome time the first time [in 2015]. It was fantastic, the lineup the first time was phenomenal and I really appreciate the Southern California blues thing. I was removed from Boise, Idaho by a cat named Junior Watson who is a guitar player that is kind of a ‘Godfather’ of the California blues scene. He worked with Canned Heat back in the day and cut many records with them, he was with Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers which was a very popular young blues group in the 70’s and 80’s. He’s so in tune with the makings of that sound; and I’ve always appreciated and always loved it and I’ve always been able to jump right into it. I loved the vibe, the character and the personality of the musicians that play it. Then there’s the California thing—the first time I played it I had a ball; and the floral arrangements on the stage were amazing! Now I’m going back and it’s great; and I can’t wait to see all the beautiful flowers onstage. You can’t get that, you never see a stage lines with beautiful pots and vases. It’s California! I always have a ball going out to California, it’s a beautiful place.
A: It’s amazing that musicians can all get into a vehicle together and drive 50-80,000 miles a year around the country performing these shows. I think the blues scene is a really great bunch of people. I think they understand and respect music on so many different levels, which is great. It’s not just a one-dimensional kind of music. There are ways of communicating in the songs without having to alienate folks. But people will pick up on different things in the songs and the songs will mean different things to them. The blues scene is pretty special.
I used to play when I was sixteen years old a house gig in this town called Horseshoe Bend, Idaho. I mean, you can just think about the name of the city, Horseshoe Bend. Try to envision what that is. There wasn’t much, a mill, old cabin-style homes—I don’t even know how many people lived in the town itself, they lived in the hills. A lot of the folks looked like Hank Williams Jr.and most of them worked for the mill; they were loggers. I played this place called the Grubstake Saloon and we were the hot band in town—actually, we were the only band that really played in town.
It was kind of a dangerous, ratty joint; and they hired us to play the Logger’s Day Festival and there was a fire that day, a huge fire so the loggers couldn’t participate in the festivities like Who’s the fastest chopper in the land? They had to go fight this fire, so they showed up in the evening all tired and wore out and everyone started drinking and people were getting rowdy. We’d had a lot of experience with rowdy people from working in Horseshoe Bend. Someone was giving our drummer a hard time and I think he was fifteen years old at the time. The kid had a mouth on him and he started chewing out folks that were heckling him. The next thing I know, we have people going to their trucks for their hatchets, their axes and their guns. The town wanted to kill us—they wanted to attack a bunch of kids—that’s amazing! I remember a bunch of folks surrounding the stage. We probably had 25-30 people surround the stage and surround the band to keep them from getting us; and I remember there was a man in a wheelchair who was using his wheelchair to go after these folks to keep people away from us. They all helped us get our stuff loaded up and we were run out of town!
I really had a Blues Brothers introduction to my career. We were playing a bar that didn’t have, but should have had chicken wire. The reason why they hired a band of sixteen year olds was because they couldn’t get anyone else to do it.
Q: Keep Your Elbows On The Wheel is an awesome song. What’s the story behind it?
A: I think with a lot of my songs that there’s a personal experience that is in every one of the tunes. I had a friend who I went to high school with and he was a big fan of the band and he used to come watch the band all the time. He had mentioned that he was going to work for a freight company and my girlfriend at the time was out of school; she was done with school.I was making so much more money than she was and I had all this free time. Anyways, she was giving me a hard time about not having anything to do all day, not realizing of course that hey, I’m smart and I’ve earned this.
Anyways, she was really hot, she was a beautiful woman. I wanted to make her happy and she wanted me to get a day job. I think she wanted to get me out of the music business. I guess with that kind of beauty, maybe intelligence is gone. So I started working with this driving job because that was really the only other thing I was cut out to do besides playing music. I can drive, so I started driving for this freight company and it worked out great—I had nothing to do all day except to keep my elbows on the wheel and play the harmonica. It worked out pretty good, but then I started getting really tired because I was working this morning job and then I was working the night job. Then the blues kicks in….well, little Miss Beautiful had all this time to meet people at work and carry on as she was, so there goes the relationship and I wound up with a good song—actually, I wound up with a lot of good songs from that one! I would say that she probably had more to do indirectly with getting my career started than anybody at the time!
A: They’re the Blue Dreamers and two of the guys are on the Feelin’ Freaky record. The bass player [Matthew Wilson] on the Feelin’ Freaky record is now the guitar player in the band. I still have the same drummer, Danny Banks. We have a great bass player from Memphis, Blake Rhea; and they play these parts and it’s killer, you know what I mean? I don’t think I could find a better band to do this material and I definitely couldn’t find a better drummer; I think Danny Banks is one of the best drummers anywhere. WOW, this kid is just on fire and he possesses all the special things that all the great drummers have. He’s got great time, doesn’t even have to think about it; he’s a great musician, doesn’t even have to think about it; and nerves of steel, doesn’t even have to think about it! He was on David Letterman when he was like ten or eleven years old performing for like ten million people and two interview segments with David Letterman. That’s how bad this kid is!
The guy who plays guitar comes from a long line of Chicago-area blues guys, in fact his uncle was the drummer for Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets out of Austin Texas for a long time. Blake Rhea, the bass player, plays in all sorts of great rap and hip hop groups, blues, heavy metal—-he’s a quintessential bass player like Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn. He doesn’t even know why he is that way, he’s just a Memphis guy. So that’s the band, they all sing harmonies and we’ve got a great show worked up. It’s just a four-piece band and we’ve got a phenomenal show, it’s very exciting with lots of great dynamics and a lot of great peaks in the tunes. It’s different from the album, how we segue from song to song and the great jams that happen in them, all the great improvisations. I’m having so much fun, I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in my life with music; and I think that it’s great that it just keeps on going that way.
Q: Thanks, John, we’ll see you at the Ventura County Blues Festival!
John Németh has brought true originality and style to the blues. His return to the Ventura County Blues Festival will be a treat for any one who appreciates a true performer.
Ventura County Blues Festival
April 28, 2018
Studio Channel Islands
2222 E. Ventura Blvd.
Camarillo, CA 93010
John Németh Website
John Németh Facebook Page