Q&A with WXPN’s Jonny “Blues” Meister

Jonny Meister sits down with MLT to talk Blues

Ardmore’s Jonny Meister recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of his Blues Show, which airs 7 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturdays on 88.5 WXPN-FM. The town of Media even went so far as to proclaim June 14 Jonny Meister Day at its 2008 State Street Blues Stroll. Meister’s “real gig” as XPN’s IT project leader is an evolution of his original job as production manager, “back when they edited tape by splicing it with a razor blade.”

MLT: Where are the blues hubs these days?
JM: Chicago would be the main one. The state of Mississippi is developing a lot of festivals, clubs and activities like the statewide initiative called “The Blues Trail.” Warmdaddy’s is really the only room to listen locally, but the Pocono and Riverfront (Delaware) blues festivals are ideal ways to hear the blues. XM’s Channel 74 plays great tracks.

MLT: Where are you from originally?
JM: I grew up in Boston, lived in New York for a couple of years, but have lived here so long that this is home.

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MLT: Are you musical?
JM: I play guitar and piano, but not well enough at this point to do it for audiences.

MLT: What is your background that led you to eventually becoming THE Jonny Meister?
JM: I don’t know what THE Jonny Meister is. I am a super-fan of blues and some other genres, and I collect, listen, read, absorb, reflect, and then have the good fortune to present some of it to others.

Most would assume blues is your favorite music. But is that what you really listen to when you’re at home?
JM: Blues is my favorite, but I listen to a lot of country—George Jones, Merle Haggard—jazz—I worship Coltrane—and English and Irish folk. I used to host folk shows.

MLT: Is the blues healthy right now?
JM: Blues probably isn’t hurting as much as jazz, but it’s hard for blues and jazz artists—and classical musicians are also having financial hard times. Pop and rap dominate. Festivals are the best hope for blues artists, along with small record labels or releasing self-produced work. This isn’t chart-busting music—but then, it’s always been slightly to the side of the mainstream.

MLT: Is the infusion of rap, hip-hop and other newer musical forms impacting how the blues is played and produced today?
JM: Some blues artists—like Ronnie Baker Brooks and Chris Thomas King—have introduced hip-hop elements to good advantage, though some fans are turned off. Most of what I’ve heard is good, though only a few players really do it. Some experiments with orchestral and classical settings have been interesting, from Corky Siegel to Jubilant Sykes.

MLT: Who is the most influential blues artist of all time?
JM: To other blues artists: Blind Lemon Jefferson. All of the early artists were influenced by him; he was B.B. King’s first major influence. To the world at large: B.B. King.

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MLT: Who’s the most underrated blues artist of all time?
JM: J.B. Lenoir. He’s a wonderful songwriter and an inventive player.

MLT: And the most entertaining, fun-to-listen-to blues artist making music today?
JM: Hard to say. Bobby Rush is a lot of fun, but some folks think he’s in bad taste. There are lots of engaging players, and generally, the one I heard most recently is the best.

MLT: What is your take on Robert Johnson and his impact/contribution to the blues?
JM: R.J.’s contribution was more to rock. He had negligible sales in his own lifetime, so his effect on blues players is filtered through the folk-blues revival, where he was rediscovered and then reinterpreted by blues players. To that extent, he had an effect, and now has a place, and a body of work well known and covered. However, he wasn’t even close, as an influence, to Blind Lemon Jefferson on early blues musicians (or any of the female singers of the early 20s: Bessie Smith, Clara Smith, Mamie Smith, Ida Cox) or Leroy Carr, Big Bill Broonzy and tons of others. In fact, the memorable image of “the train with the red and blue light behind” in Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain” comes right from Blind Lemon Jefferson.

MLT: I’ve heard many funny stories, believe it or not, associated with blues artists. What’s the best or funniest story you’ve ever heard?
JM: I have to think about that one. I know many more tragic stories.

MLT: Do you remember where you were when Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed?
JM: I don’t. To be honest, he isn’t one of my favorites. I play him some, and I know a lot of people revere him, but I don’t get it myself. He was good, but not soul affecting—to me, anyway. Of course, he met a tragic ending, which also affects the way people feel.

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MLT: Stevie Ray Vaughan certainly borrowed from those blues axe-men that came before him, but was he possibly the most technically proficient blues guitarist to date? If not, who?
JM: No way. Blind Lemon, Lonnie Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Magic Sam, Albert Collins, Otis Rush—I regard Vaughan as good, not great.

MLT: What’s next for you?
JM: Same stuff. I am hoping my Blues and Beyond show, which features blues, jazz, folk, international music and some ambient sounds will grow.

MLT: What is your blues mission?
JM: I want to play the real blues—not blues-pop and blues-rock—and give the deserving artists a chance to be heard. With blues, so many copyists—often white—get credit and recognition for music done first by blacks, often with much more power.

To learn more, visit wxpn.org.

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