Recently, I had an opportunity to speak to an elder statesman of the Americana realm, someone who’d seen the rise and fall of decades worth of pop movements, recorded with an index of luminaries from country, blues, and rock n’ roll, and when I asked this icon which artists were out there in the world currently giving him hope, his emphatic reply was, “Nobody.” Well, friends, my business is seeking out and documenting the singers, songwriters, and performers that are making this ball of pressure and ore a better place, and business, to comfortably rest on a cliche, is good.
Jontavious Willis is a beautiful juxtaposition of historian and progenitor, a dynamic creator and fret general intimately aware of the blues, its lineage, and the possibilities still inherent in not just a style or genre but a core fundamental of American culture.
Willis, a native of Greenville, Georgia, currently residing in Newnan, fell hard for the blues after discovering Muddy Waters through YouTube– a 21st Century rabbit hole, but significant– when he was fourteen. Jontavious had grown up singing in church with his family, and “Hoochie Coochie Man” seemed to radiate the same, if obviously more prurient, spiritual electricity as the jubilant rows of filled pews every Sunday morning. He was hooked, and even as he studied and graduated with a degree in sociology from Columbus State University, so did Willis pore over the labels and liner notes of blues history, divining what he could from those that lived to remember while woodshedding his guitar skills and performing where he was welcome.
In 2016, Jontavious released Blue Metamorphosis, a pastiche of styles that reached back and drove forward, showcasing a preternatural talent, fluid skill, and savvy narrative control. The following year, Willis enjoyed an extended run of dates with Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. Both legends would be involved with Willis’s sophomore outing, 2019’s Spectacular Class, another kaleidoscope that raised the bar on contemporary acoustic blues. He’s also continued to be a relentless investigator into the lore and actualities of the blues, and that combined with an ever-evolving instrumental style has allowed the 26-year-old to become a key voice in the conversation as an educator and Artistic Director for multiple festivals and workshops throughout the country.
Truly, when I hear supposed fans of any music– no matter their position at the table– ridiculously state there’s “nobody” excelling in 2022, I get angry. Some even claim the blues is dead. I believe that displays a flawed understanding of just what and where the blues comes from and why it remains so vitally important to those keeping the faith and the fight alive for this and future generations.
In conclusion, and in regards to the icon mentioned earlier, I still admire his music, but I wish I’d had the courage to say, “You should listen to Jontavious Willis.” Who knows? Maybe he would have.
AI- I was just watchin’ a video you posted on YouTube of you doin’ a Lightnin’ Hopkins-style song, “Oogie Boogie Woogie”. When it comes to acoustic blues, Lightnin’ was just on a whole other planet by himself. You are a student of all of that, diggin’ into the old records, the old artists– what sparked you to go so deep? ‘Cause some artists, they would just, “Well, this is what I like, this what I do,” and that would be where it starts and ends.
JW- I always liked history and I always loved Black history and I always loved my family history. I found, in a lot o’ ways, a lot o’ that stuff is tied together. I spent a lot o’ time on Ancestry.com when I was in grade school just lookin’ at the years and folks that lived. My great-grandmother, who’ll be 99 next month, her mother lived to be 98, but she was born in 1887. They told me some o’ the songs that she used to sing– most of ’em were religious [songs] ’cause I got a lot o’ religious family– but some o’ the songs she’d sing, like “Uncle Bud”, that’s a Tampa Red song…
Yeah, man, I love that song!
Which is an old song! Tampa Red just recorded it first! I figure I just got to it like that and seein’ so many similarities in the stories– people goin’ from the field to music. Now, folks’ll tell you, “Do it ’cause you love it,” but the reality was, those folks were doin’ it just to make money ’cause it was the easiest way to make money if you were a good musician. I love the stories. I love how everything intertwines, how all these Southern states lead to the Great Migration, and they lead to so many other social issues that were happenin’. I always had the best grade in history and the worst grade in math all the way to college! I can add and subtract and divide and multiply, but when it starts to get into trigonometry, yeah you can count me out! But that was mostly it! I’ve been a history buff, and I love listenin’ to the recordings.
As I advance as a musician, I love to listen to ’em more ’cause I can actually visualize what the folks are doin’. It also enables me ’cause these were guys that didn’t have YouTube, they didn’t have tutorial videos. Some of ’em were blind, and thinkin’ that they could make up their own stuff– at least when they recorded. We don’t know who they got the stuff from, but I would assume that a lot of the stuff they had was their own, and it’s in a time where they would never hear those songs again! A lot o’ those folks couldn’t find those records that they had put out– and to think that a hundred-odd years later that we’d still be listenin’ to ’em and folks doin’ stuff on guitar that still hasn’t been replicated or touched? It’s all an amazin’ rabbit hole!
What have you been currently diggin’ into and trying to figure out or discern?
The thing I try to do is [study] the essence of an artist. Lightnin’ Hopkins did a song called “Sky Hop”– that’s the song Stevie Ray Vaughan turned into “Rude Mood”, and that’s what I based “The Oogie Boogie Woogie” on– but I think the thing is gettin’ the essence of the song ’cause I don’t see blues music bein’ like classical music, where you’re doin’ it note for note. At the time, those guys are playin’ what they feel at that moment, and if they go back and play those songs again? Especially Lightnin’ Hopkins! He never played a song the same way! Ever! He might hit some o’ the same licks, say some o’ the same words, but he hardly ever played his stuff similar! Really, what I’m gettin’ into is writin’ more songs and listenin’ to artists, tryin’ to figure out some folks I haven’t dived deep into. J. B.Lenoir, I love him, but I hadn’t listened to too much o’ his stuff, so I just started gettin’ into that. Some of the early electric stuff from the late ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, that’s the stuff I been gettin’ into here recently.
Your age versus the maturity of your writing and playing is a huge subject, but I think that also glosses over or ignores the fact that the same troubles that Muddy Waters or whoever else decades and decades ago sang about are all still present. That’s something that I had an opportunity to speak to your friend, the “Kingfish”, Christone Ingram about. Times haven’t changed, so why should the blues? You really attack that particular notion with Blue Metamorphosis.
Yeah, that was my baby! That’s my first! One thing I can say is that I write all my songs, but I think, in particular, the “Ancestor Blues”, you know, we live in a different world– we don’t have to sharecrop, Muddy Waters didn’t have to be a slave, but it’s the same system that we’re workin’ against. My grandfather was denied an education by the government– so what’s that mean? His kids are a little less, I ain’t sayin’ intelligent, but he had to learn ’em different because he didn’t know as well. Me and my cousin graduated from college, and my mom and dad went to secondary school, but it’s a different chain. The social aspect of it is definitely the same. It’s the same forces. It gets a little bit better every generation, as far as overall picture, but it’s still deeply embedded. I heard a lot o’ those same stories where somebody was workin’ on somebody’s plantation, this person was beatin’ this person, this person would hit ’em and say, “Dare ya’ not to say nothin’ about it!’
The Murder In Coweta County— the county that I’m livin’ at now– got Johnny Cash starring in it. There was a guy down in Greenville where I’m from, he was killin’ Black folks’ and throwin’ ’em off into the water– my grandaddy used to tell me this story and I can’t remember the whole thing, I just know pieces– but you hear these things, and these things help you tell a story from another perspective. And the lingo too, the way we talk is still the same. And just livin’– that’s one thing I been tryin’ to do too ’cause one o’ the interestin’ things about the blues, the crowd that enjoys blues is not necessarily the crowd that wanna hear what you got to say (laughs)!
Isn’t that unfortunate and anathema, I think, to the very nature of the blues?
Yep! That’s it, man! I was actually talkin’ to somebody about the British Invasion. The British Invasion was good for the artist but what ended up happenin’ with the crowd was that a lot o’ the folks that were comin’, they sang blues just as a bedrock– they never take the social issues with it. They never even listen to it. As soon as you start talkin’ about anything that’s contrary to somebody’s beliefs that might be a little more radical or if it’s talkin’ ’bout blacks and whites? Awww, man! You wanna get somebody mad, do that! You can point to a thousand songs that other blues musicians did, but they say, “You’re an entertainer. That’s all you should do is entertain.”
I don’t think people understand, with music, it goes a little deeper than that ’cause you’re givin’ somebody the most vulnerability that you can. I don’t really say too much, myself, because I do a lot of stuff on the other end, teachin’ other young folks– young Black folks, in particular– about blues ’cause it’s their heritage. They should learn about it. I’m the Artistic Director of the biggest acoustic blues workshop, and we try to make stuff so people can see it and become knowledgeable about their culture. I think that’s the best way to teach. ‘Cause we been arguin’ ever since the Civil War, so ain’t no need to keep arguin’ about the same thing and tryin’ to change somebody’s mind and heart if they ain’t ready. This camp is in Elkins, out in West Virginia…
Yeah! That’s where I’m from! I was born in Elkins, West Virginia!
Yeah! The Augusta Festival!
Yeah, Augusta! Yeah, man, that’s where I started out at! I started that one in 2016 with Phil Wiggins and Joan Fenton, and then Mary Hilts is the coordinator over there, so she asked me to come in 2018. I came in 2018 and became the Artistic Director in 2019– or I was told I was gonna be the Artistic Director in 2019. We haven’t done a real boots-on-the-ground since COVID hit. We did one last year, kinda mock trial with just a few faculty that could get there and myself and my homeboy– but that’s how we did it, man! That’s how I got in with ’em!
Let’s talk about Taj Mahal for a second, a fella that’s still very much active, and I think also, as an artist, has never allowed himself to be limited by a style or a genre. Tell me about workin’ with him and sittin’ under the learnin’ tree.
It was a pleasure to be around Mr. Taj– I call him Mr. Taj ’cause I respect him as an artist and as himself. I met him in 2015. I had recorded a song for the Music Maker Relief Foundation to put on their website, which was “Lucy Mae Blues”, a song by a dude named Frankie Lee Sims. Taj had seen it later and he’d seen that I was playin’ it in open tunin’, and he loved the way I played it. He invited me to Piedmont Park, him and John Hiatt were playin’. He had his trio with him– Kester [Smith] and Bill [Rich]– and he asked me to come and do two songs. That was the biggest crowd I’d ever been in front of at the time! I was playin’ in church some– I was tearin’ church up playin’ old school gospel– really, it was spirituals. I was playin’ slide and stuff. A lot of the people I had contacted before in Atlanta that didn’t return my messages, all of a sudden, they were interested now (laughs)! So then I started gettin’ some local stuff, and I still don’t play much in Atlanta, but that’s how we started our friendship. We started talkin’ and talkin’ and talkin’, and we exchanged quite a bit of information ’cause Taj had a lot of first-hand knowledge. I’d just sit and read and listen to stuff and connect the stuff in my mind. All of us are lucky to have so much music, but it was like they released the flood gates and I was just learnin’ how to play, so it was a good time to get all this digital stuff and have it all in one place. That wasn’t the luck for Taj’s generation, but he did get the luck of sittin’ there with the folks, so it’s a good exchange. He’ll tell me a lot of stories, we’ll talk about a lot of music, I’ll send some songs to him, he’ll send some songs to me… I just talked to him yesterday! It’s always good to have an elder there– a notable elder as he is– to be there and cosign and talk to ya. It’s a pleasure and a privilege for sure to know the man.
It’s wild that you are working with the Augusta Festival in the town where I was born in West Virginia, and then related to that, I saw your post on social media about the Blind Willie Blues Festival in Thomson, Georgia– I actually was raised in Thomson! I went to high school there, and I remember when they started that festival back in the early-mid ’90s, I think it was a pop-up tent and Sugar Blue was the headliner! But your post– second year in a row, Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival and no Black artists on the bill? I’m not sure how that came about, but I certainly see why you would wanna bring notice to that.
Last year, I didn’t say nothin’. Well, actually, I went on their post, and I was like, “You got Blind Willie’s Black face up here, you called it the Blind Willie Festival…” Ain’t nothin’ wrong with gettin’ who you wanna get to play, but I just think, personally, especially in blues, we’re too far in to deny that blues is Black music. You can listen to people like Riley Puckett or Jimmie Rodgers, and these guys will let you know where this music came from. Riley Puckett’s got one called the “The Darkey’s Wail” , and Jimmie Rodger’s got the stuff he’s sayin’ in it– and Uncle Dave Macon! All these folks are pioneers of country, and you can’t deny that the blues were born out o’ Black music and also Black culture. I’m not sayin’ that everybody can enjoy it, I’m just sayin’ that has to be identified and you have to keep that up regardless.
They coulda gotten anybody! One Black person! But none? For the Blind Willie McTell Festival? What’s the point of even sayin’ his name? Just ’cause he was born in the town? To me, it’s not productive ’cause I always think about the legacy work, like what I’m talkin’ about with Taj and Keb’ Mo’. Man, you can get somebody! Like I said, I don’t care about playin’ it– I played it before, it was cool– but they can get somebody. That was the only reason I mentioned that, and I posted it on my personal page not my fan page. I mostly keep my fan page just strictly music. But my personal page, I put on there personal thoughts.
It’s been a minute since Spectacular Class, pre-COVID. I can only imagine what you’ve been writing, what you’ve been working on– what have you been up to, studio-wise, and what’s comin’?
I went to the studio March of 2019 the first time and I went back the end of 2020, then I went and did somethin’ at the end o’ 2021, and I just recorded somethin’ last month. Now, I’m always recordin’! I might got sixty usable songs– but I wanna make sure I get all the stuff I want, everything I want, and what I really feel like embodies my sound and also showcases the growth I’ve had since the Spectacular Class release.