Powerfully transcending his roots as a critically acclaimed veteran bluesman, Blind Lemon Pledge’s bold, freewheeling exploration of Americana and folk music is rapidly earning him accolades in genres fresh to his creative palette.
Recently, the multi-talented musician and songwriter (http://blindlemon-pledge.com/) won two Best Song Awards at the Indie Music Channel Awards in Los Angeles for key tracks on his just released album ‘Backwoods Glance’ – Best Americana Song for “The Hills of West Virginia” and Best Gospel Song for “Give My Poor Heart Ease.”
I am very proud to be honored among these fine artists. And I want to extend a special thanks to all the musicians who helped make this project come alive,” said Pledge, (aka James Byfield) as he accepted his awards.
In this interview spotlight, we chat with Blind Lemon Pledge about the latest and greatest since we last interviewed him as well as influences and stylistic directions taken on the new album, Backwoods Glance.
Full Q&A along with links and streams available below.
Welcome back Blind Lemon Pledge! How have things been since our last chat?
Hi and good to chat with you again. I have had a great year since we last chatted. My 2016 album “Pledge Drive” got over 50 reviews worldwide as well as international airplay. And I got into the top 10 and top 20 charts with several of the cuts on the respected Roots Music Report Contemporary Blues and Acoustic Blues charts. The album was listed in the top 100 Contemporary Blues charts for the year 2016 with Roots Music Report. And finally the single “Moon Madness” got in the Top 10 for several weeks on the Cashbox Americana Charts. It is still at number 24 after almost a year on those charts. Additionally I got three slots on the Grammy Ballot (sort of the semifinals of the Grammys): Best Contemporary Blues Song, Best Blues Song, and Best Vocal. So I am very proud of all that. I have gotten a lot of nice emails and Facebook responses to my music from friends and fans all over the globe.
Your new project, Backwoods Glance, is less focused on blues and more so on your Folk and Americana roots. What led you to explore this style and to create an entire album of songs in this style?
There were two paths that led me to this album. The first was that I had a batch of songs that would not fit comfortably on a blues album. After viewing a documentary on the Appalachian Coal Region and doing some research, I had started to write a “song cycle” about that subject. But, alas, I just don’t seem to be able to sustain my ideas for a whole cycle. (I have tried a couple of times before with other topics.) After finishing four songs in the cycle, I reached into my catalog of unrecorded material and realized I had a number of tunes that would complement the song cycle material very well. Additionally I ended up composing two new works specifically for the album.
Three of the songs, “Sweet Celine”, “Lynchburg Town” and “Give My Poor Heart Ease”, I had actually recorded on an earlier projects. But, I took a new look at those songs and rerecorded it with the style endemic to the new album. And I am glad I did. Muddy Waters, one of my musical heroes, often rerecorded older tunes and I like the idea. You see new things in the song and you bring your new experiences and maturity to the songs which changes their shape and meaning.
The second path had to do with the various musical jam sessions that I attend around the Bay Area. When the mood is good and the musicians are right, there can be a real magic that happens in these sessions. I decided I wanted to capture some of this energy and magic as a sort of homage to the great musicians we have in this area. So I assembled a band specifically for the project. I rehearsed a little bit with the drummer and bassist, as well as the harmony singer just to get the basic feeling I wanted nailed. But I let a lot of the creativity happen in the studio. I would sit in the recording booth with the various artists as they laid down their tracks and we would literally jam to the music, working out parts as we went. They were exciting and creative sessions. And they resulted in the relaxed swing of the album.
It was great fun to get into this very rootsy aspect of my music. As folks who have heard my previous albums are aware, I am known for my eclecticism. It was a natural leap to move from Blues to Folk/Americana for this album. I am sure I will be heading back to the Blues sometime soon, but the divergence has been rewarding and pleasing.
I hear a lot of history and culture packed into this album. How has Folk/Americana music, coal mining industry & culture, and other things traditionally Appalachian influenced you and your songwriting?
I am of the generation that went through (as Martin Mull called it) the “Great Folk Scare” of the 50’s and 60’s. So my roots are solidly in this kind of music as well as blues. And of course they thoroughly intermingle with cross influences. As I often do when I compose, I immersed myself in the history, music and emotions of the subjects of my songs to try to find the empathetic cord that would tie me to them. A couple of friends and fellow musicians, who are actually from Appalachia, assumed I had come from there and told me that my coal mining songs really captured the feel of the area. I felt very good to know I had gotten close to my goals.
When I was both writing and recording the coal mining songs, I tried to imagine Hazel Dickens or Jean Ritchie singing these songs and what they would do with them.
The album explores coal country, unemployment, homelessness and a number of other topics that we see in the news every day. Coal mining was a hot button topic during the last election cycle. However, I tried to bring a sense of hope and redemption to many of the songs…that there was a way to rise above bad situations and find a better future. The song “Silver Wings” is an anthem to hopes and dreams.
Do you have a favorite track on this album? If so, why is it your fave?
People often ask this question and it’s a little like asking a parent who the favorite child is. But of course there actually is often a favorite child. I have three favorites, and they are my favorites because they represent different aspects of the music that I was trying to achieve. “Moon Over Memphis” which was written for the album is a lovely romantic ballad that captures the backwoods feel while demonstrating some sophisticated chord and melodic changes. Nice lyrics too. “Fayetteville” is really the heart of the album with a song that combines the themes of coal mining, unemployment and homelessness all in one song story. I think I really create a living character in this song. And although he is down on his luck, the chorus brings in the ray of hope. “Gonna reach that far horizon, where my dreams can be fulfilled.” And my last favorite is “Ma Belle Cherie”. It is a very silly Zydeco song about young love and lust. Catchy and fun. I really wanted to capture the mood, sound and feel of Cajun music and I think I got close. One of my good friends told me it was my best song ever. Don’t know if I agree, but I sure liked the compliment.
You recorded this album with a full band. Here’s a chance to give credits where any credits are due… who helped you bring this project to life?
As I have discussed in previous chats with you, my usual modus operandi has been to perform on all the instruments myself with a few guest musicians. I have been happy with the past results, but it makes them very much “studio albums”. This one really called out for a live band and so, as I mentioned, I called on several of my top musician friends to help me out. And I definitely want to give credit where it is due.
First mention, of course, goes to the wonderful Marisa Malvino whose beautiful alto vocals grace every tune on the album. Not only does she have a natural ear for harmonies, she really anticipates where my voice is going to go and mirrors and supports it as we record. Because her voice is low and mine is sort of high, we are in a very similar range and, I believe, complement each other very well. And her crowning moment on the album is the third track “Sisters of the Coal Mine”, where she sings the lead vocal. It was the first song I ever wrote specifically for a woman and was so glad she agreed to sing it on the album. Her performance on the recording literally brought a tear to my eye in the studio.
Bassist Peter Grenell is the regular bassist for my acoustic Blues band, also called Blind Lemon Pledge. We met by accident at a street gig a few years ago and have been playing music together ever since, often appearing as a duo. Peter is a much better bassist than he even knows. His phrasing and touch are both inventive and rhythmically solid which, to me, is the basis of good bass playing.
Cal Keaoola holds down the violin/fiddle work on the album. There’s a lot of it and it’s all great. Grammy certified Cal is a true musician’s musician and can literally play almost any kind of music from the most demanding Classical to Cajun to Blues to Country to…you name it! Cal also is a regular member of my acoustic Blues band. We met about 5 years ago and I am honored that he has continued to show such enthusiasm for my music and songs.
The dobro passages are rendered by the wonderful Tom Cline. Another musician’s musician Tom has one of the best musical ears I have ever encountered. He intuits where songs are going to go and adds such wonderful fills and leads along the way. I have known him for several years now and he is a regular part of the jam sessions I attend. And the idea of getting him on one of my records was a big part of the country direction my album took.
And last, but definitely not least, is cajon, djembe and percussionist John Pearson. John is originally from England and is a fascinating raconteur with wonderful music business stories. He has played with many great musicians including Joe Cocker and others. He plays both regular trap sets as well as hand drums. I decided I wanted the soft cajon sound for this album to help support the folky sound I was trying to achieve.
And of course I should mention Jimi Edwards on keyboards. Oddly enough his first and last name are variations of my first and middle name. Hard to say what’s going on there!
I also want to put in a plug for Pajama Studios in Oakland where I recorded, mixed and mastered the album. James Gardiner and Paula Telander really got into the project with enthusiasm. And in this kind of labor of love, enthusiasm is vital.
Where is the best place for us to connect with you online and grab the album?
The album is being distributed by CDBaby which means it is also available on all the major outlets…Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, etc. You can either go directly to CDBaby or any of those other locations to purchase. And please do!
Anything else before we sign off?
This has been a fun and rewarding project and I am glad I followed it through. Recently two of the songs won Best Song Awards at the Indie Music Channel Awards. “The Hills of West Virginia” for Best Americana Song and “Give My Poor Heart Ease” for Best Gospel. So I have great hopes for the album and sincerely hope it brings the backwoods to the whole world.