Black Joe Lewis on Chasing, Living and Playing the Blues
NPR/Mira Kaplan Photo: Connor Beital
Like so many musicians during the pandemic, bluesman Black Joe Lewis asked himself, “What now?” Growing weary of the industry, and having faced the challenges of touring during the beginning of the pandemic, Lewis and his band, The Honeybears, returned to his hometown of Austin amidst a slew of cancellation calls.
When a buddy called him up to offer a gig in construction work, he didn’t hesitate. After releasing four albums of soul-stepping, hip-swinging tunes and building a dedicated fan base in Austin, he traded in his cowboy hat for a hard hat. This was a new type of gig, with early rising and power saws instead of late nights and electric guitars, something Lewis says “many wimpy musicians would never do.”
“They think they’re above that work,” he says.
You can hear the pride and his belief in the dignity of labor. It’s what the blues are all about, working through the grind. Through those 12-bar songs, hard work is tied to humanity. With guttural growls, Lewis’ music proves that he’s always lived a life of hard work.
Calling from his back porch in Austin, comfortable in a fuzzy, navy bathrobe, Lewis pieces together the way his consciousness and life experiences have untethered his identity from the expected image of a Black man — what he should sound like, listen to and be. The bluesman reflects on his early musical moments as a Black youth in 1990s Austin. He remembers when a friend found Soundgarden in his Walkman and told him to “turn that white boy s*** off.” He also heard the voice of his father, “an old schooler” warning him: “Don’t listen to that rap s***.” A fan of Prince and Rick James — “the brothers who played instruments” — his old man claimed that rap was a talentless prison pipeline, and a “conspiracy to get Black boys to kill each other.” …Read full story