Steve James' Guitar Still Resonates American folk musician Steve James has performed with everyone from the legendary Furry Lewis and Bo Diddley to Maria Muldaur and Buddy Guy. Best known for playing slide and resonator guitar, James just released Short Blue Stories.
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Steve James' Guitar Still Resonates

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Steve James' Guitar Still Resonates

Steve James' Guitar Still Resonates

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Those who know slide guitar know the name Steve James.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: Mr. James is a wizard of the resonator guitar, which he's played for audiences around the world. He's performed with everyone from the legendary Furry Lewis and Bo Diddley to Maria Muldaur and Buddy Guy. Now Steve James has a new album of mainly original tunes, classic country blues and, according to the liner notes, retro-postmodern roots balladry. It's called "Short Blue Stories." And Steve James joins us now in the studio, accompanied by the prototype of the brand new Steve James model national guitar. Good to have you with us.

Mr. STEVE JAMES (Musician): It's great to be here, Lynn. Thank you.

NEARY: So, tell me about this guitar. Did you design the guitar or was the guitar designed for you?

Mr. JAMES: I told them what I wanted and basically they came up with the design. And so I'm doing a field test with it right now.

NEARY: All right. Can you describe it for us and the design?

Mr. JAMES: All right. Well, this is a resonator guitar. And it has the round metal plate on the front. The body is made of wood. A lot of people who are familiar with these guitars know that many of them are made, the bodies are actually made of metal. And it's fairly normal, except for the hubcap on the front. And…

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. JAMES: And what the resonator does, it's actually an acoustical speaker that's fit inside the guitar. And what it does is it gives these guitars their characteristic volume and very bright sound.

(Soundbite of guitar)

NEARY: And that's what you refer to as the hubcap, right? The hubcap is on…

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, it's actually called the cover plate is the name of it. But it looks kind of like a hubcap.

NEARY: Okay. So I need to know what exactly is retro postmodern roots balladry? What is that?

Mr. JAMES: That's what happens when you write your own press, things like that. Words…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: My creative point of departure as a musician, as a guitar player and as a songwriter is largely based on archaic or vernacular forms of American music that I've heard since I was a kid. And I was very influenced as a guitar player, for instance, by people like Mississippi John Hurt and Furry Lewis, who you mentioned.

And elements of their style found their way as I was making my own way and learning how to play. But instead of performing the old songs strictly, I write a lot of my own material and also play other songs by other contemporary artists. And when we compose lyrics we're thinking about modern issues, things that have to do with us.

NEARY: Can you play for us, give us an example of it?

Mr. JAMES: Sure. I'm going to play a song that I wrote called "Birmingham Steel."

(Soundbite of song, "Birmingham Steel")

Mr. JAMES: (Singing) Waiting up one night on the number 16 in a station so dark, where Willy used to sing. So dark and still, it could make you feel as blue as the night, cold as a radio made of Birmingham Steel.

By the seeds in the ground, and the fishes in the sea, and the cold black coal down below my feet and the faded sign above the station door, when the train leaves town, it ain't coming down this good road no more. And when it's gone, there'll be no tombstone, just miner's blood, and fishermen's bones, and farmer's sweat and an engineer's wheel. You can lower then down with a chain made of Birmingham steel.

NEARY: So, Steve James, tell me what it is about that instrument that attracted you in the first place. What's the sound you get from it that you can't get from any other instrument?

Mr. JAMES: I mean, it largely has to do with the volume and also there's a sound that comes from the resonator, it's kind of a full sound. There's a built-in echo, almost like the reverb effect that you would use. And, in fact, guitars of this type were originally designed back in the 1920s before the advent of the electric guitar, but after volume had become an issue for guitar players who used to like to play very softly and play really pretty music. But that all changed at one point or another.

NEARY: What made that change? Why did people want to get louder with the guitar?

Mr. JAMES: Well, I think the world just got louder, the whole world got louder.

NEARY: Now, I know that the great Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis was a big influence on you. We were talking about that earlier. What did you learn from him about guitar?

Mr. JAMES: Well, Furry, his recording career started in the 1920s, and I met him in the 1970s. He was quite an old fellow. But, among other things he was a great bottleneck slide guitar player. He was really one of the greats. He was also a very talented and prolific songwriter. But the main thing about Furry, Furry was a minimalist. And I remember I was talking one time to Dan Penn, the great R and B singer and songwriter, and he said, Furry, he doesn't play a lot of notes, but he owns every note he plays.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: That's great.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah. And so Furry was one of the people that taught me to leave some space in my music.

NEARY: That's interesting.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah.

NEARY: I wanted to ask you about one song on your new CD, "Folk Radio." 'Cause it's kind of fun and you seem to be poking a little fun at yourself but also at the people who play folk music and listen to folk music on the radio. So, let's listen to a little bit of that.

Mr. JAMES: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "Folk Radio")

Mr. JAMES: (Singing) Now, these folk singers come to my town. They drive tiny fuel-efficient cars. These folk singers come to my town driving tiny fuel-efficient cars. They got stickers on their bumpers, peak limiters on their guitars…

NEARY: Stickers on their bumpers, peak limiters on their guitar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Are you biting the hand that feeds you at that point?

Mr. JAMES: I thought I was skating on thin ice when I wrote that one, which is, yeah, I'm poking fun at myself and at other folk singers.

NEARY: Yeah, I mean, you have a lot in common with traditional folk singers, don't you?

Mr. JAMES: Oh yeah. I actually am a folk singer in a way. The first music that I remember hearing on records was Lead Belly records. My mom had Lead Belly records, and on that particular track I was playing on acoustic, not resophonic, but acoustic 12-string guitar, which I had built to be like Lead Belly's guitar, to sound like Lead Belly's instrument. His affect on contemporary folk music, I don't think, can be calculated.

NEARY: You're also an ambassador for the blues. I understand you're going to Bulgaria for the State Department?

Mr. JAMES: Yes, I am. I'm going as a cultural envoy to Bulgaria very soon.

NEARY: What are you going to be doing there?

Mr. JAMES: I'm going to be doing some workshop presentations in schools and colleges. Then I'm going to wind up doing a pretty big concert in Sophia with a woman I know, who's the queen of Bulgarian country music. Her name is Lily and she has a band called Lily of the West. She's a great singer and great guitar player in the bluegrass and country genre.

NEARY: On this album, aside from the slide guitar music, there's also 12-string and mandolin. When do you think a song calls for one of these other instruments?

Mr. JAMES: Actually, when I'm composing, the instrument often calls for the song, rather than the song calling for the instrument. You know, the old players, if they get a new guitar, then when it plays, there's often the phenomenon. They say I got a song out of that guitar; that guitar showed me a song. So, quite often the instrument engenders the composition rather than vice versa.

NEARY: Well, one song that uses slide mandolin is called "Slide Mandolin." Let's listen to it now.

(Soundbite of song, "Slide Mandolin")

NEARY: It's a great sound.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, I kind of like it. It is a really great sound, unless you're a cat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Now, you also have some covers on "Short Blue Stories" and one of them is a Rolling Stones song, "Factory Girl."

Mr. JAMES: That's right.

NEARY: Are you a big Stones fan?

Mr. JAMES: Yes, I am. I mean, all guitar players are Keith Richards fans, and that isn't the same as being a Stones fan. But also the Stones are great retro-postmodernists. And that particular song comes from an album they did in 1969. And the Rolling Stones made this record that really had, they really showed their colors as British traditionalists out of the old post-war British folk song movement - a lot of acoustic guitar on there and a lot of very folky themes.

NEARY: And the album was the "Beggar's Banquet" album.

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

NEARY: Okay. Well, we're going to listen to "Factory Girl" right now.

(Soundbite of song, "Factory Girl")

Mr. JAMES: (Singing) Waiting for a girl, she got stains down her dress. Waiting for a girl and my feet are getting wet. She ain't come out yet. I'm waiting for my factory girl.

NEARY: So, why didn't you go into rock and roll?

Mr. JAMES: Oh, I've played a lot of rock and roll.

NEARY: Oh, you have?

Mr. JAMES: Believe me. Yeah. I've backed up Bo Diddley. If that ain't rock and roll, I don't know what is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Okay. Well, I'd like you to play something to take us out on. But first, I just want to say thanks so much for coming in today. It was really fun talking with you.

Mr. JAMES: It was my pleasure, Lynn. Thank you.

NEARY: Steve James's new album on Hobemian Records is called "Short Blue Stories." What are you going to take us out on?

Mr. JAMES: I'd like to play a medley of 19th century American songs that I arranged for slide guitar. I'm going to start with a chorus of the "Spanish Fandango." And I'm going to segue into an old Texas fiddle tune called "The Bear Creek Hop."

NEARY: That sounds great.

(Soundbite of songs)

NEARY: You can hear a couple of more songs Steve James recorded for us in the studio. Just go to

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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