When I told Erin Harpe that I love the way she colors outside the lines, she responded by saying, “I don’t even know what the lines are.”
On their 2017 VizzTone CD Big Road Erin Harpe’s Delta Swingers jump from Slim Harpo’s Louisiana swamp rock classic “Shake Your Hips to California songwriter Randy Newman’s “Guilty.” There are four originals, Mississippi John Hurt’s Delta chestnut “Frankie,” and the 10-cut album opens with Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Kokomo.” I thought most of the air had been taken out of that old crowd pleaser when it was re-tinkered as “Sweet Home Chicago.” But she almost convinces me she has just written the song. Fifteen seconds into the cut which opens the album, I’m ready to throw off my shoes and let her take me anywhere for the next 10 songs. And she does!
This guitarist/singer/songwriter and band leader has released solo blues albums, won a Boston Music Award in the category of world music, and fronts Lovewhip, an Afro-pop band her fans refused to let her abandon when she formed The Delta Swingers. She credits her husband Jim Countryman who is manager and bass player in her band with channeling her muse. “He’s very interested in music,” she says. “He’s read every music book out there. I’m not a genius, but I’m like a creative genius type off in the clouds. Like, ‘Oh, what day is this?’ You know? But I found out after being married to him for 10 years that I have ADD. It’s like, ‘Oh, ok, now we understand why I’m just so good at focusing on anything musical is that it comes to how are we going to get that UK tour going? He’s a lot better at that than me.”
Wikipedia says she switched from flute to guitar when a “love interest” in high school inspired her to learn how to play “Alice’s Restaurant” for a school event. And you know how reliable Wikipedia is. Turns out they were right.
“In 12th grade the boy I liked was an actor, and I tried acting, and I couldn’t do anything because I was way too shy and actually a teacher had said to me, ‘Take the flute. You’re not really that great of a singer.’ I was trying to be in the musical, and I was like ‘I’ll show you.’ (My would-be boyfriend) knew all the lyrics to “Alice’s Restaurant,” and I was, ‘Oh, my dad knows that song,’ thinking I can impress him if I go and learn that guitar part, and then we can perform it together. We were gonna perform it at lunch time or something.
“So, I went home and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to teach me the “Alice’s Restaurant” song,’ and he was like, ‘Gee, you haven’t really been playing a lot of guitar, so it could be difficult. I don’t know if you know the finger picking guitar parts in depth. It’s an intermediate song.’
“He started showing it to me, and I just picked it up right away. So, we did the performance and after that it was the guitar for me.”
Dad was in a band called Franklin Harpe and Usilton that was a big influence on her blues guitar playing. “Somewhere I have a list of all the songs that he knows. He is fantastic.”
Erin grew up in Washington D.C. and met Archie Edwards, John Jackson, Eleanor Ellis and Cephas & Wiggins who played with her father via the Archie’s Barbershop collective. In 2008, she released Delta Blues Duet, her second solo LP including duets recorded with her dad.
Her Afro-pop influences stem from a year in Kenya when she was a student at the Quaker run Earlham College. She graduated with a degree in anthropology. “I had wanted to go to Oberlin (in Oberlin Ohio). Every artistic person that I knew wanted to go to Oberlin. I did not make it into Oberlin, and I had friends who were a year ahead of me who said, ‘Oh, you should try Earlham, really cool.’ I grew up Unitarian. So, that (Quaker religion) was not that much different. It’s not a religious school, but I did go to some of the meetings. I thought they were fantastic. You just stood there and annunciated with a group of people, and if you felt like standing up, you stood up and said something. It’s kinda neat.
“I also loved they’re also big on peace, peace studies. One of their big things is you can go abroad easily at that school. So, I went to Kenya and did my studies abroad in Kenya. And it was really fantastic. That is why I ended up starting Lovewhip because Lovewhip is originally based around Afro-pop which I learned of when I went to Kenya.”
It was small leap from studies in Kenya to winning the 2004 Boston Music Award for World Music Act of the Year with her band Lovewhip especially for a woman with ADD. “I wanted to do a rock band with a lot of influences, but I think what happened was there was a certain authenticity about us. We would always have African guys joining our band. We had a talking drum player for a while. We had a guy who wanted us to change our band’s name to the Love Stars, and he was going to market us in West Africa somewhere.
“We just loved this old ’60s, ’70s Afropop, and we loved it so much that I guess we came out sounding kind of authentic even though it was always our own take, but I felt bad because we wanted to be like the Talking Heads as Afro-pop. Or you have the Police with reggae, but they were not a reggae band.
“That’s what I was trying to do, but I think at times we were just too authentic without meaning to be, but also Boston didn’t know where to put us. When they started doing the Boston Music Awards, we were up for punk one year. We were up for World Music one year. We were not making it easy for them to put us in a box. The thing I loved about Afro-pop, by the way, was guitar playing, the hybrid picking. When you pick you get a pick in your thumb and forefinger and then you use your other two fingers to pick.”
Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers would go on to win the Boston Blues Challenge in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016. They were the 2012 Boston Music Awards Blues Act of The Year in 2012 and were semi-finalists in the Blue Foundation’s International Blues Challenge in 2011, 2013 and 2017. (Lovewhip won a Boston Music Award in 2004)
To me Erin is the latest in a long line of Boston-based roots musicians who have in the 50-some years since the Harvard Square folk scare produced great music that mixes the best in traditional influences with strong originals. The home of Berklee College and a hotbed for collegiate players, the town has long percolated with acts stimulated by the environment. But to the rest of the world, the city is much better known for its rock acts like Aerosmith, The Cars, Geils, and the band Boston.
“Boston was an influence, but not really on my blues because I lived in D. C. I graduated college and basically I moved to Boston because A. I couldn’t find a job. And B. there just weren’t a lot of venues around that I could find where I could get a gig. When I came to Boston there were open mikes and lots of gigs you could get, but they were just somebody who was just starting out like me. There were more other musicians who were just starting out. I did get some gigs with people in D.C. I just thought it was a fun place and was music friendly.”
Johnny D’s in Somerville, Massachusetts a stone’s throw from Rounder Records’ early headquarters was one Boston area club that did make a difference in Erin’s development as an artist. “They closed last year and knocked the old building down. That’s where I saw Susan Tedeschi. She did the blues jam once. I could never play the blues jam because just old-style blues I couldn’t tell you when the changes would be or what they were, so the band could never follow me.
“So, the guy that was running it happened to be dating Susan Tedeschi at the time said, ‘Oh, why don’t you just play a couple of songs solo and that’ll be it. ‘Oh, great. Thank you so much,’ because I had no idea how to lead a band or play with a band at that time. After my set, Susan Tedeschi said, ‘Oh, you’re great. Would you like to open for me sometime? Here’s my number.’ And I did not call because I was too shy. (Laugh) I’m like a people person. I love talking to people. Talking to a group of people is a totally different thing.”
Erin credits her husband Jim Countryman with developing her into a professional touring musician. He’s the bass player in both Lovewhip and The Delta Swingers. “I met him in his living room. His roommates were friends of mine, and one night after one of his rehearsals I was there with a friend of one of his roommates, and he asked me for my phone number. I wrote it down on a matchbook, and that was it. We have not really spent any time apart since then.
“It was almost love at first sight. Jim has really encouraged me to get out there and be in the public eye, starting a band, being a band leader. He’s like my rock. I don’t think I’d be doing this. I might be doing some promo gigs here and there like I was back in the day, but he’s my partner (as an artist) and my manager. I’m the artistic director, visual and musical.”
Big Road is Erin’s first self-produced album, and it did not come about without bumps and bruises. “I was going for a live feel. The name Big Road has a lot to do with what I’ve been doing the last few years, just traveling, touring. Our last album (Lovewhip Blues, 2014) was produced by Dave Gross, and I love that album. It’s great, but I feel it didn’t quite capture what we sound like live. So, I wanted to do that, and I also decided I would just do all the guitars myself. So, that was really fun, too.
Several songs have the second slide part: “Big Road” and “Stop and Listen.” So, those are the main ones (that were overdubbed). Mostly when I play finger picking style that I do love, I can’t really ever stop. I just thought it would be cool to have another layer.”
Her harmonica player Matt “Charles” Prozialeck is her secret weapon on the album and on tour. He has a unique delivery that adds to the energy of the mix. And he saved her butt last year on tour. “We had a slide guitar player (“Sonny Jim Clifford) who was with us. He was amazing, but he just wouldn’t listen to me. Like don’t play here, do play there. Then, this particular guy quit the band when we were on our first seven-week tour in Utah.
Some people just aren’t up for touring the way I am. He was really a pain, but some musicians just don’t know what it’s like to tour until they’re out there and then they’re like, ‘This doesn’t work for me.’ So, I’m trying not to have hard feelings about it, but what came out of it was so good.
“It was like wait a minute. The three of us that were left on the tour said, ‘Hey, you just be the guitar player.’ I’ve always been very shy, so I shied away from that, but finally in our seventh year of being a band, I’m like, ‘Ok,’ and now finally people are noticing that I’m playing guitar ’cause when there was another guitarist, people were, ‘Oh, look at that soloist. Let’s talk about them.’
“What happened was Sonny quit. We had a couple of days where we were just a trio, and then I was like racking myself. There’s five weeks left on this tour. Who’s going to go on the tour with us and just be the fourth member? We asked all our friends. ‘Oh, I can do two dates.’ ‘Oh, I can do one date.’ Oh, my gosh, we were in trouble.
“So, Matt had sat in with us once, and I called him up, and he said, ‘Yes, I am there.’ We’re getting the band together. Caution to the wind. He only knew like 10 of our songs ’cause he just had the one album we did, but yeah, while he was on the tour, he decided to move to Boston, and after he moved here we just worked together.
“At first, he was trying to sound like Rosy (Rosenblatt, CEO of Vizztone and former harp player with the band). He’s on my first album. It took us a while to figure out, ok, Matt’s more Chicago style, and he’s got a different thing with his tone. He’s a very young player, but he’s got a lot of knowledge about the blues.
“I can’t believe that at his age he knows so much about blues from almost any era. So, basically my favorite thing about him is that he was willing to work with me to make the pieces fit tougher. He wasn’t just going to come in and play over everything like almost every soloist I’ve got. What I was going for is a group sound. I’m not looking to like highlight even myself. This all has to come together as on the early Bonnie Raitt album I love so much, the first two albums.”
Check out the cover of Big Road. Erin may be a shy graduate of a Quaker College but she’s got some Bessie Smith in her, too. “The first time we went to South by Southwest I was playing solo acoustic blues and getting a lot of attention. People were there from Europe and started playing my first blues album Blues Roots on the blues shows in Europe.
“So, we went back every year, and then one of those years I said, ‘I want to start a band. I was thinking about the feeling I get from my dad’s band. And that’s what I wanted, a Delta blues band and Piedmont blues-based country blues band. And that’s how we started out the band in 2010. So, a lot of our material was from what my dad taught me. In fact everything almost except a few songs that were taught to me by other people like Eleanor Ellis who was another collaborator with my dad, an excellent guitar player and singer who was brought up in Louisiana.
“(African American women singers in the 20s) were kinda under the radar, and I guess Bessie Smith was playing to black audiences. Whose gonna say anything if you’re playing at the juke joint? ‘Hey, that’s too risqué!’
“When I did South By Southwest I did this festival called Not Festival South by Southwest. It was at the same time as Southwest, but it was all Americana, and I had taken this Lovewhip song “Virtual Booty Machine” which was kinda crazy. It’s a song written about this thing we did where we set up this screen, and behind it was a light and me and the other girl in the band went back there and stripped down naked and had a light behind us and you could only see our silhouettes, and it was real cool, and that was called the “Virtual Booty Machine.””
Perhaps Erin’s most prestigious credential is the DVD she did for Stefan Grossman’s instructional series on playing blues guitar. “He was looking for somebody to do a Women of the Blues Country Blues DVD, and he was on some on-line forum and he said, ‘Who out here plays Memphis Minnie,’ and I think somebody might have suggested somebody that was a lot more well known than I am and then somebody said, ‘Oh, how about Erin Harpe’ because I’m a huge Memphis Minnie nut. When I first got started, I first (was into) Memphis Minnie.
“I’ve listened to Bonnie Raitt for a long time. I don’t know if you can guess that by the (sound of my albums), but I’ve been a big fan of hers since I was a kid so, yeah, she’s one of the people who did it early on and (another woman) I look up to are also Rory Block and Memphis Minnie. I think people are not used to seeing women play the lead. We’ve gotta change that.”
Check out Erin’s website at: www.erinharpe.com