Decades after he first broke into the music business, the blues continue to be good to James Armstrong.
Armstrong, 60, formed his first band in the 7th grade, and by age 17 he was touring around the country. On his latest release, "Blues Been Good to Me," the Springfield resident works with legendary producer Jim Gaines.
Gaines, who serves as associate producer on the album, helped Armstrong rediscover himself after he was stabbed in a home invasion in 1995 that resulted in permanent nerve damage to his left hand.
Music blogger and reporter Eric Schelkopf had the chance to talk to him about his new CD and his upcoming shows.
SCHELKOPF – I imagine that you will be playing a lot off the new CD at your upcoming show.
Armstrong – Right. The new CD is called "Blues Been Good to Me." Right now, I think it's #6 on the Living Blues radio charts.
SCHELKOPF – Are you surprised that it's doing so well?
Armstrong –I really am. You always hope that they do well, but this one is doing well and better than we all expected, so we are really happy with that.
SCHELKOPF – Of course, the CD is called "Blues Been Good to Me." Is there a story behind the album's name?
Armstrong – Yeah, there really is. A friend of mine named Andrew Blaze Thomas, who is an incredible drummer and is playing drums on this CD, was asked one day about playing the blues.
He and I, like many other players, have traveled the world, we make money, and life is really good. So it's not all about having a bad life playing the blues. A lot of people think the blues is depressing and not any fun.
But for us, it's been pretty successful. The blues have been really good to us.
SCHELKOPF – So the album title kind of sums up your career?
Armstrong – Exactly.
SCHELKOPF – And I know that Jim Gaines was associate producer on the album. And I guess he really pushed you, huh?
Armstrong – Yeah, Jim is just great. I had another CD called "Guitar Angels" that he co-produced. After my injury, there were a lot of things that I literally thought I could never do again. And I just stopped trying.
He had me start to try them again, and we were able to pull some of them off. He inspired me very much to just try new things.
SCHELKOPF – I noticed on the song "Second Time Around" you start out with a riff from "Secret Agent Man." Is there a story behind that?
Armstrong – When we recording, just in between songs, the rhythm guitar player, Johnny McGhee, he did that lick and I don't know, a couple of hours later, the drummer said, "I've always wanted to put that lick in a song." And so we kind of picked the song and a place to put it. We just decided to throw it in right there.
SCHELKOPF – I understand that in making the CD, you were much ‘looser’ than you usually are.
Armstrong –When it comes to recording, I like to have everything in order.
But at the beginning of the year, we were in Europe a lot and we were extremely busy. So I didn't have time to prepare with demos as much I usually do.
I didn't have things in mind head like I wanted them and I was really nervous. I wasn't sure how it was going to come out.
We just went in and played it by ear, in a way. It was like, "Let's try this, let's try that." And I had never done that before.
SCHELKOPF – You are quoted as saying that this was the most exciting album you have done in years. Do you think that approach was the reason why?
Armstrong –That's one of the main reasons. Like I said, I kind of always have an idea how it's going to turn out in my head. On this album, I had sort of an idea, but not much.
So when we were recording, it was so much freer. When we sat down to listen to everything afterwards, it just turned out to be so much looser.
We were all kind of having fun with it, compared to some of my other projects, where it's a little more serious.
SCHELKOPF – You have a very soulful voice.
Armstrong – I think the reason I get called soul-blues is because of the voice. I'm not a screamer, and I think a lot of blues guys yell and scream, and I never did that.
I didn't start off playing blues. I started off playing country. And then I went to rock. I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix when I was young. I didn't want to be B.B. King or Albert King.
But over the years, I realized how important the blues was to me, and so I just kind of wanted to bring it back to the table.
I hear all different types of genres in my music, but everything I do; I think it sounds bluesy to me.
Even if it's a country song, I try to make it bluesy.
SCHELKOPF – On the album, you cover Robert Palmer's song, "Addicted to Love." Was it just the right time to do the song?
Armstrong – Yeah, because I had been doing it live for a little bit. I wasn't totally sure we were going to put it on the CD, but it's been coming off really well live. It was perfect timing to have that one on the CD.
SCHELKOPF – And of course, you also cover the song "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You."
Armstrong – Yeah, and it's interesting. Marvin Gaye made a hit out of it, and so did James Taylor. But I remember James Taylor's version more than I remembered Marvin's. It was just really nice for me to put a swing on it. It was a lot of fun.
SCHELKOPF – And you also do a new version of your song "Sleeping with a Stranger." What made you want to do a new version of the song?
Armstrong – "Sleeping with a Stranger" was my debut song when I got hired by HighTone Records. I've been asked to do that song probably a few thousand times, and I just never did. I wanted to re-track and see how it turned out. I wasn't sure if we were going to use it.
SCHELKOPF – How do you think this version stands up to the original version?
Armstrong – It's cool. The other version has more of a pop-rock feel, and this one, it swings a little bit more. It has a little bit more of a blues feel to it. The lyrics were always really strong, and I think I wrote a really good groove back in the day, so it still works today.
SCHELKOPF – Of course, several blues legends have unfortunately passed away in the last several years. What do you think the future of the blues is?
Armstrong –It seems like the face of the blues is changing. That's evolution. Everything does change. Rock is not the way it used to be, country's not the way it used to be. Blues is a guitar-based music, as we all know. And it seems like a lot of the guitar is changing to rock style, and it's more speed than feeling. That kind of bothers me. It's not that I can't play like that anymore, but it's the point that the whole feeling of the music is changing.