Featured Interview – Nick Schnebelen

Since moving out of the cotton fields a century ago, the blues world has had more than its share of royal families. Perhaps the first were the Mississippi Sheiks — brothers Bo Carter and Sam and Lonnie Chatmon, all stars in their own right – in the ‘30s. And the family trees of Raful Neal, R.L. Burnside, Carey Bell and others all bear fruit of seeds planted decades ago.

The connection to Kenny Neal and his huge family, Lurrie and Steve Bell and Cedric Burnside are easily apparent. But similar roots run deep in other, not so easily apparent families, too.

Kansas City-based guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Nick Schnebelen’s clan is a great example. Blues fans would have to have been living in a cave for the past decade not to have recognized the impact he and his siblings – sister Danielle and brother Kris – made with their family band, Trampled Under Foot (TUF), since exploding on the scene at the 2008 International Blues Challenge.

But few people are aware the trio carry on a family musical tradition that goes back into the 1800s, much like the blues itself.

TUF disbanded in 2016 except for special family reunions in 2016 after a 12-year run. Since going solo, both Danielle and Nick have become stars in their own right. The reigning Blues Music Association (BMA) bass player of the year, Danielle made the most immediate impression. Her latest CD, Cry No More, was a 2019 Grammy nominee for contemporary blues album of the year.

And Nick’s been winning over fans, too. A proven road warrior, his latest release, Crazy All By Myself – his third release on the VizzTone label – has been soaring near the top of the charts.

Blues Blast caught up with him in late May, when Schnebelen was relaxing oceanfront in Venice Beach, Calif. He was nearing the end of a three-week trip that took his band up and down the West Coast, a tour he launched after barely catching his breath after spending two weeks crisscrossing Europe with Sugaray Rayford, Albert Castiglia, Jimi Bott and Willie J. Campbell in an event billed as The Blues Giants tour.

Despite the grueling schedule, Nick insists: “It’s really fun — and really exciting — to play music and do what I love.”

It’s no wonder when you consider his heritage.

“It runs in the genes,” Schnebelen insists. “Music’s been in my blood for generations. I think it picks you rather than you pickin’ it.”

There wasn’t a time in his life when the thought of getting a job that would provide a regular income or going to college to pursue what most folks would consider a “normal” career ever crossed his mind.

“My great-grandfather and great-grandmother were in the same string band in K.C. in the 1920s, Silver String Sextet,” Nick says. “That’s on my dad’s side. He played guitar and mandolin, and she played guitar. They had a radio show, and I still have her guitar and his mandolin.

Nick Schnebelen photo 1“On my mom’s side, my grandmother, Evelyn Skinner – she passed away when my mom was a teenager — had her own big band and got to sing with Count Basie and be a part of the Kansas City music scene in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Before that, the family had several violinists who were popular in Eastern Europe.

“We feel it’s our job as a family. And like every other musical family, we have a dynasty that we want to nurture.

“It’s just cool to bring joy to people – makin’ people happy. I knew when I made that decision that it wasn’t ‘I want to do it’ and be lazy about it. I had to jump right in.”

Nick was born in the City Of Fountains on Sept. 30, 1978, and both his parents – Bob and Lisa — were professional musicians. Their band, Little Eva And The Works, played in blues clubs, honky tonks, jazz clubs and at festivals across the Midwest. Like their children, they competed in regional competition for the IBCs, but never made it all the way to Memphis for the finals.

A man who had a large record collection and whose tastes ran to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, Bob fell in love with the blues shortly before Nick did. “He took a real turn toward it when I was 10,” Nick recalls. “We started listenin’ to Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter records – anything he produced for Muddy. After that, he started diving in.

“Of course, this was all before the internet, so finding this music wasn’t easy. Now, you can pull up everything Son House ever did and see videos of him doing it. That was really hard footage to find in the ‘90s when you were growin’ up.”

Fortunately for all the Schnebelens, they were living in a city where the blues was woven into the musical fabric shortly after moving off the plantation. Kansas City was where both Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner perfected jump blues in the ‘40s. Before becoming a jazz innovator, Charlie Parker cut his teeth on the music. And the city also produced legendary vocalist Julia Lee and pianist/bandleader Jay McShann.

All of them had joined the big band in the sky by the time Nick was old enough to go out to listen and eventually play. “But what was really cool about the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he says, “was that we had some other old cats who could really play. Little Hatch (who led the house band at the Grand Emporium Saloon) was a fabulous harp player, and he embodied that old stuff. Lawrence Wright was another one. And King Alex.

“These guys weren’t famous people, but they were the real thing. To get up there and perform with those guys was something very special. Kansas City’s got so much music goin’ on that there’s a jam goin’ on every night of the week somewhere. Growin’ up, I was at jams three or four nights a week, just tryin’ to get better.”

Schnebelen picked up the guitar at a young age, but it proved to be a challenge.

“I knew I was gonna be a musician when I was still in school,” he says. “My dad was a guitarist, and, once in a while, he’d come home from a gig and the guitar would be layin’ around and I’d start playin’ on it. He was right handed, so I learned how to play upside down.

“He always wanted me to learn how to play right-handed because he said I’d have a lot easier time finding guitars. But I just couldn’t do it.

“It wasn’t because I didn’t want to. He’d just put it in my hands and I’d go: ‘Nah,’ flip it over and say: ‘There it is!’”

Young Schnebelen blossomed when he was accepted to Kansas City’s Paseo Academy Of Performing Arts high school, where he studied classical in the mornings and jazz in the afternoons before going out at night to play blues with his dad.

He received what he terms “basically a college education about how all music works.” But before he enrolled, admissions officers insisted: “You’re going to have to learn how to play the guitar strung correctly.”

“I said to myself: ‘Okay, now it’s time to make the switch,’” Nick recalls. “I spent the whole summer playing with the guitar strung correctly for a lefty.”

Fortunately, he says, “it came right into place.”

Today, he notes, he can still play a guitar tuned for a righty upside down, but now he strings his axes properly for a lefty because, as a fingerpicker, “it’s all shapes, and it’s just too difficult to do it the other way.”

As a youngster, Schnebelen’s early influences came from Winter, Jimi Hendrix, Robin Trower, Steve Miller, George Thorogood and James Brown.

“I still liked Johnny’s style,” Nick says. “He kinda messed around with the guitar, but you can tell he took it seriously enough that he had these excellent chops. He was very witty.

“Sometimes I wonder: ‘Why did you play that?’ Now, I realize it’s because he’s havin’ fun. After spending years building my own style, I know that from experience. You get to a point where you start taking things away and stripping things down, making it more basic. It makes everything else sound better.

“Today, I like to hear four notes. Three notes, that’s cool. It just levels everybody. You can pull a lot more out of that than crammin’ a whole lot of notes together. It’s a tension-and-release thing.

“You play all these notes, a real crazy thing. You set it up – and then you play…four notes. Bam!”

Another personal favorite guitarist is Albert Collins.

“I got that from my dad,” Nick says. “Sometimes guitar players will get into a total box, staying in the same certain area on the neck, and it kinda gets old. But Albert Collins was high and outside.

Nick Schnebelen photo 2“I try to stay high and outside, too. I’m getting better at it, but it takes a long time. When you bend really sharp, high notes like he did, you gotta do it just right.”

Immediately after graduation in 1997 – two years before losing his father, Nick moved to Philadelphia and started playing professionally. He formed K-Floor, a blues-based jam band – the name derived from Howlin’ Wolf’s tune, “Killin’ Floor.”

“We started out with songs that were deeply rooted in blues and funk – you could hear it. But then we’d take a left turn, go somewhere else and then come back to it,” he says. “Within a year, we were playin’ all the big clubs in New York and festivals in Philly. We became part of that scene really quick because they didn’t have a lot of blues there.”

While other bands might have set up a base in Memphis, he says, the decision to relocate to the Keystone State was a definite advantage. K-Floor to stand out faster because of less competition.

One of Nick’s biggest blessings during that period was the chance to open for Winter, the news of which brought joy to his father a short time before he passed.

After touring regularly and appearing at South By Southwest in Austin three times, others in the group wanted to go in other directions. “We were all buddies, but there were a couple of members who decided they wanted to do something different,” Schnebelen says. For one, keyboard player Justin DiFebbo wanted to settle down, raise a family and get a day job.

“He’s done it – and crushed it,” Nick says. “Now, he’s back to playing again. But that’s okay because that’s life.”

Looking back, however, the timing for Nick – and TUF – probably couldn’t have been better. After talking about it for years, the siblings finally decided to bring their family band into fruition in 2004.

“I said: ‘Okay. But if we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it!” Nick recalls. “But I’m not movin’ to Kansas City. You move out here to Philly or New York, and I’ll get you into all these clubs I’ve been playing. Then we’ll move home.’”

When Danielle and Kris joined him in the City Of Brotherly Love, Nick was playing indie rock in a unit called Buddahead. Not to be confused with the Los Angeles-based blues band fronted by BB Chung King, this group was formed by Iranian-born Raman Kia in England, where he’d first emigrated before coming to America and after leaving his war-torn homeland.

“It was Brit pop,” Nick says now. “He was a totally different singer/songwriter…kinda sad. But it was cool…people loved it.”

Signed to Sanctuary Records and booked by the William Morris Agency, Buddahead toured frequently for the two years he was with them. The legendary Clive Davis produced one of their albums, and Nick gained experience about recording by spending so much time with them in the studio – something that’s come in handy in his later work as a blues artist.

Schnebelen left the group after a tour in 2005, and TUF quickly started making an impression throughout the Northeast, building a loyal fan base as they played by clubs, festivals and events for various radio stations. “Things went well,” he says, “but we were a new band, and any new band will have their time period of growth.”

The siblings’ self-titled debut album was released in 2006, followed by The Philadelphia Sessions in 2007 and May I Be Excused a year later. Their popularity exploded after they returned to Kansas City.

“But it wasn’t like one period ended and the other began,” Schnebelen notes. “What I created in Philly was a spot for us to keep coming back to. I made a trail, and we went back and forth all the time.”

Nick knew good things were just over the horizon when they opened a show for Tommy Castro at the Blues Station in in Columbus, Ohio. Back in Missouri, they quickly developed a following across the entire Midwest, something that worked to their advantage at the IBCs in 2008.

“We had a lot of people who went to Memphis to see us be a part of this experience,” Schnebelen recalls. “So we had a nice groundswell of support. I’m really thankful for that. I don’t think we realized what we were getting ourselves into.

“Maybe we did — but not how far it was going to go — and we’re really grateful.”

Not only did they take home top honors, but Nick captured the Albert King Award in the process, which recognized him as the best guitarist in the competition – an amazing feat considering the quality of the hundreds of musicians who take the stage there annually.

“Only 20 or 30 of us have ever won that prize,” Schnebelen notes. “Sean Carney and Jonn Del Toro Richardson passed the award off to me, and I passed it off to J.P. Soars. We’re all a band of brothers.”

TUF released three more albums — Live At Notodden Blues Festival in 2010, Wrong Side Of The Blues in 2011 and Badlands in 2013. TUF won Band Of The Year in both the 2011 and 2012 Blues Blast Music Awards.

They went out on top as Badlands soared to the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s blues charts, earned the trio 2014 BMA contemporary album of the year honors and a nomination as band of the year. And Danielle also was nabbed the organization’s bass player of the year.

After 12 years together, the siblings went their separate ways in 2016, reuniting occasionally for a few special reunions. As Nick and Danielle launched solo careers, Kris joined Sean Chambers and others on the road. More recently he’s settled down in Kansas City, working locally and currently awaiting the birth of his first child, a daughter who’s due in July.

Looking back today, Nick says, it was simply time for TUF to make the break. Early in their careers together, he notes, someone had suggested that he and his sister form their own bands on the side as a way of protecting their individual images while working in the family band.

If they’d gone in that direction back then, he realizes now, the transition to what they’re doing now might have been easier.

“But the horse was already runnin’, and we kept runnin’ it until it was tired,” he says. “We probably could have put it in the stable for a while, done a couple of things and then come back for it.”

Delivering a blend of styles that range from Delta to modern blues, rock and more, Schnebelen has been on the roster of the VizzTone label since 2016, beginning his stay with two CDs captured before live audiences in Kansas City. But his first studio album – Crazy All By Myself, which debuted last March – has taken his career to new heights altogether as it became a fixture on the blues-rock charts.

Nick Schnebelen photo 3Produced by percussionist Tony Braunagel, it features major contributions from keyboard player Mike Finnigan and guitarist Johnny Lee Schell — members of Tony’s bandmates in Phantom Blues Band, the unit that does double duty as the Taj Mahal Band – and guest appearances from UK guitar wizard Davy Knowles and harmonica giant Jason Ricci.

“I just hired the best people, the best team I could,” Schnebelen says. “It took us a while to get it done…to write it and plan it. There’s a lot of heartache and pain there, but I also wanted to get a funny edge to it, too, for an upbeat, positive side to kinda balance that out.”

Nick went solo when it came to songwriting for his first two CDs, an approach he changed for this one. “It used to be that, once I had the core of the song, I wanted to see the whole thing through,” he says. “Then you work with a producer, and he says: ‘You’ve got a good song, but you just need to make this or that better.’

“On this last record, I decided to work with different songwriters to get different points of view. I’ve been working with (Grammy winner) Gary Nicholson, Jeff Paris and Dave Duncan, and all of them can take my good ideas and make them great.

“That’s what’s important to me. It’s been really neat to collaborate. I’m enjoying seeing the personalities of the songwriters.

“Dave Duncan and I write upbeat, positive, fun, rockin’ blues songs. Gary Nicholson and I write some lowdown blues. And Jeff Paris and I write emotional, soul-driven songs.”

The combination was so satisfying, Schnebelen says, he’s well underway for a follow-up, which will include much of the same roster in the creative process and studio.

“My goal is to continue to write and create new styles for the blues,” Nick insists. “I want to stand out as an original artist. I’m playin’ for myself, and I’m playin’ for my two daughters – and, of course, all my fans and friends. It’s just somethin’ I gotta do.”

Is there another generation of Schnebelen musicians on the horizon?

“My oldest daughter, she’s 12, is playing violin and piano,” he says, “but I don’t cram it down her throat. She just does what she wants to do.

“She’s been playing violin for three or four years and has got great tone. And instead of making her take piano lessons, I have one in my living room. There’s two rules: No toys on the piano, which is primarily for the four-year-old, and no piano when people are sleeping. Other than that, she can play whatever she wants.

“I was in Des Moines, Iowa, and had got up to leave from a nice hotel, and there was a piano in the lobby. She Facetimed me and started teaching me how to play ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’…’It’s like this, dad…it’s like this!’

“But I got her a guitar, and she’s like ‘…No!’

“Maybe one of these days, though, I’ll come home and she’ll be strummin’ on the acoustic. One way or the other, it’s hanging there on the wall. I think that’s the way to get ‘em to play it!”

Meanwhile, Schnebelen’s touring relentlessly with his regular band. Drummer Adam Hagerman and bassist Cliff Moore have been holding down the bottom for the past three years. The band also included Heather Newman for a while prior to her capturing both the Sean Costello Rising Star Award and Best New Artist Debut at the 2018 Blues Blast Music Awards and now features newcomer Jay Davidson who doubles on sax and keys.

“I love bringing quality musicians with me and bring the best I can for everybody,” Nick insists. “I just want everybody to know how much I care about ‘em and appreciate their loyalty, and I will always strive for the best.

“I’m just thankful to have such a great band. They’re kickin’ butt, and I’m really proud of ‘em.”

They’ll be accompanying him throughout the summer as they crisscross the country. Nick will also be serving as resident guitarist at the Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas in September. But they’ll be back at his side for another European tour in the fall and on board Holland America’s Ms. Nieuw Statendam when he sails on his 14th Legendary Rhythm And Blues Cruise in January.

Check out Nick’s music and find out where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.nickschnebelenkc.com.

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