When you picture someone playing the blues, you imagine someone who's been through the school of hard knocks. The lead singer for the Homemade Jamz Blues Band has been to school, all right — high school.
Frontman Ryan Perry is 16 years old. He sings like a man and manhandles his guitar, but when he and his bandmates break into giggles, it's clear they're all kids.
The three Perry siblings are 9, 14, and 16 years old; together, they're the Homemade Jamz Blues Band. Ryan took up the guitar at age 7. His brother, Kyle, followed with an electric bass, and their baby sister, Taya, rounded out the trio when she picked up drumsticks. The three are now regulars on the blues-festival circuit.
Home for them is Tupelo, Miss. It's where they recorded their new CD, Pay Me No Mind. It's where they make their instruments by hand. And it's where they caught an early case of the blues listening to their father's collection of B.B. King recordings.
The band sat down with Michele Norris in NPR's Studio 4A to perform a few tunes on their unique guitars, each made from an automobile muffler. In between, they explained how they got their start making music.
Learning The Blues
"I was put in guitar lessons, and I was doing pretty well in it," Ryan says. "I was learning notes, though, and the material that he was teaching me wasn't what I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn blues; I wanted to learn B.B. King, Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, all those artists."
Ryan says he went through several instructors before a little friendly coercion from his dad landed him a mentor seasoned in the blues. Dad Renaud Perry was working as a police officer when he approached a local bluesman known as Jabbo.
"I know that if I go to this guy's house as just a regular person, he was going to say no," he says. "That is what I kept running into all the time. ... So, you know, I said, well, 'I'm on duty, I'll swing by there in my police car and my uniform.' And he was out cutting grass. We laugh about it today, but when he saw me pulled up, he said his mind got to racing, 'Man, what have I done?' "
Jabbo reluctantly allowed Ryan, then 12, to swing by and jam that weekend.
"They rocked that porch. I mean, they had that porch going in no time," Renaud Perry says. "And at the end of the session, that man looked at me and said, 'You know, this kid: I want to teach him everything I know.' "
Living The Blues
One thing that Jabbo didn't teach the Perrys was how to make their own instruments. Their homemade muffler guitars — literally, the guitar bodies are made from car mufflers — are slung around their waists with seatbelt straps.
"Basically, what we did was bolted on a neck, took the electronics from a regular guitar, and just shoved them in the body of this muffler," Ryan says. "On the back of it is a license plate, covering the giant hole that we cut in it. And then we have exhaust tips that we put at the end of the guitars."
His father contributes a little harmonica to the outfit, and also wrote most of the band's repertoire. Many of the songs tackle life experiences that the young siblings couldn't have had yet. Or could they?
"No, not yet," Ryan says. "But it's just putting yourself in the frame of mind. When he hands me a sheet of music and I get the subject, he shows me how to sing it. So in my mind, I'm thinking ... 'Say OK, I'm a guy, I just lost my woman. How am I going to sing this, how am I going to play this, you know, how's the mood of the song going to be?'"
So how does the band sing the blues about experiences it hasn't necessarily had yet?
"To this day, I still don't know," Ryan says. "I think it's just a talent, a natural talent we all have. A God-given talent. And I think we're all grateful to have that talent. And, hopefully, none of those experiences will hit us too hard if we have them. But if they do, they'll do nothing but help us in our career."
Album art for The Homemade Jamz Blues Band's Pay Me No Mind.hide caption
Sometimes I think mail carriers must hate coming to NPR. We get a massive amount of mail. Stacks and stacks of mail. Boxes and bundles filled with books and CDs and all manner of press releases.
When it comes to all that music, I try to sample a broad range of the offerings, but I can't possibly listen to everything that arrives. Not even close.
So I often take CDs home and take a listen in my car or in my kitchen when I cook. Recently, I threw a CD in my bag that I thought my kids might enjoy. Sometimes I road-test music meant for a pint-sized audience on the little people in my own household. From the packaging, I assumed the CD for the Homemade Jamz Blues Band fell in that category.
After all, it pictured three kids on the cover: Two boys wearing cowboy hats and serious expressions, and a little girl standing in the center, staring off into the distance. She was the one who caught my eye. She's wearing a baby-blue smocked shirt and a ponytail, and she looked to be about 9 years old — the same age as my daughter.
I popped in the CD while making rigatoni at the stove, thinking the kids could bop along as they worked on an art project at the kitchen table.
From the first chord on the electric guitar, everyone in the kitchen bolted up to pay attention. This was blues music. Real blues music. The kind of stuff that B.B. King and Muddy Waters belt out in juke joints down in the Delta. The kids bopped at the kitchen table, all right. And so did the grandparents in the den. Frankly, I did a few two-steps myself while cooking at the stove.
I decided I had to meet the three kids who make up the Homemade Jamz Blues Band, so we invited Ryan, Kyle and Taya Perry to visit our studios. I had the pleasure of watching the adults in the room go through the same jaw-dropping experience. Faces twisted. Eyebrows raised. Are these kids really playing this music? It was rich.
Who knows if these kids will get rich playing their music? I got the sense it's not what drives them. They're not even old enough to vote, and they've already found their talent and their passion. And anybody who listens — well, they're made richer by the experience.
VIDEO: The homemade muffler guitars of the Homemade Jamz Blues Band, in performance in NPR's Studio 4A.
Credit: Video by Steve Proffitt & Art Silverman, NPR