Featured Interview – RJ Mischo

He may be a man without a band, but that sure doesn’t mean that he’s a man without a plan.

Quite the contrary, actually.

RJ Mischo’s plan is a well-crafted and quite ingenious one.

The Fayetteville, Arkansas-based harmonica master explains:

“For years now, man, I’ve been the guy without a band. I literally tour all over many countries and all over the United States and I play with different bands. I pick up bands locally and regionally with local players everywhere I go,” he said. “I jump in a car and drive by myself, or hop on a plane and go to Europe by myself, and I play with pickup guys all over the world.”

Mischo’s plan of attack may at first seem a bit odd – or at the very least, off the beaten-path – but when you stop and think about it for a minute, it’s really brilliant and creates a win-win situation for both the musicians and the audiences that hear them.

“People really love to see and hear the interaction between musicians playing together for the first time. You can’t manufacture that and you’re not going to hear anything done the same way twice. It’s really improvisation at its best form,” he said. “Typically, everybody is on their game. They really come to play and are really on their toes. They’re not just sitting there, playing with a guy that they’ve been on the road with for three years and know the songs so well that they’re bored, because they could play those songs in their sleep. They’re on their toes and there’s such an energy that you get a real, live musical conversation going on, instead of just going in and doing the standard routine you’ve done for years.”

Mischo’s revolutionary new way of traveling the blues highway all by his lonesome, picking up new band members as he hits different towns, didn’t come to him in a dream or was not hatched in some sort of laboratory setting. No, its birth was much less complex and less of a grand design than that.

“Well, fans that had a band over in Europe contacted me and asked if I would be interested in going over there and playing some dates with them. They organized the dates and I just went over there and played with their band,” Mischo said. “So I’ve just kind of carried that concept for going on 15 or 20 years now. It’s been that long since I’ve had a regular lineup. What has developed out of that is I have played with the best guys in the world, man. To me, that’s just much more blues, in a way. I will advance them (the guys he plays with) a few songs that will have something to them that you just can’t pull off on the fly and then other stuff that we play will be spontaneous stuff. Usually, the spontaneous stuff ends up being more musical.”

Mischo’s resume includes over a dozen albums issued in his own name – the latest one being Everything I Need. It features Jeremy Johnson and Frank Krakowski on guitar, along with Bruce McCabe on piano and the rhythm section of Billy Black and Victor Span. His 2012 release, Make It Good, was issued on Delta Groove, but for Everything I Need, Mischo chose a different route.

“Well, it’s a self-release and frankly, I have done very little as far as promotion on that record,” he said. “But so far it’s done great; I just found out it’s a big seller in Finland. It’s just such a good-sounding record.”

Mischo is endorsed by Hohner harmonicas and he’s quick to point out his essential go-to harp that pretty much works for any and all occasions.

“A Hohner Marina Band harmonica, key of A. That’s a good harp to play in the key of E, or in the key of A, with. There’s pretty much always an A harp in my pocket no matter where I’m at,” he said.

When he’s not busy traveling the globe and favoring his audiences with a big-sized dose of swampy shuffles and dancehall boogie, Mischo can be found several times a year in the friendly confines of Clarksdale, Mississippi at Jon Gindick’s Harmonica Jam Camp, where he is a featured instructor.

“Jon had me in originally as a guest coach a couple of times and then a couple of years ago, he invited me to be a core coach. So that’s what happened and now we’re doing four a year and it’s a nice diversion to doing bar gigs and what-not,” he said. “It’s almost a week-long thing that starts on Tuesday and goes through Saturday. This brings in anywhere from 18 to 30 campers – people that either want to advance their techniques or even just learn how to play – from all over the world. They come from New Zealand, Australia, Europe, Canada, South America … just all over.”

For more years than be counted, a ton of aspiring musicians have turned to the Mel Bay series of instructional books as a way to either get started on their instrument, or to help hone their craft. Count Mischo among those that have lent their talents to those iconic teaching aids.

“That was through David Barrett (a harmonica educator who has a harmonica masterclass out of San Jose, California), who has published stuff for Mel Bay. He’s sampled my playing on a CD that comes with one of the beginner’s instructional Mel Bay books. He uses an exercise for people to play along with and then he samples several of us going at it … (Gary) Primich is on there … it’s like a 12-bar groove and it gives students different views of how pros would approach a groove,” Mischo said. “Then there’s the Mel Bay Encyclopedia of the Harmonica that I’m entered in.”

Not unlike many other music fans that eventually fell in love with the blues, Mischo’s first tastes of the genre that would soon consume most of his adult life came via blues-based rock-n-roll back when he was a youngster growing up in Minnesota.

“Yeah, I had started to get into blues music through the recordings of the Allman Brothers and different stuff like that and I would look at the writer’s credits and see names like Willie Dixon and T-Bone Walker and those kinds of guys. Stuff on those bigger labels was so much more accessible to us than finding the more obscure artists (own records) back then,” he said. “And when I was either 16 or 17, I saw a Muddy Waters’ performance live and that was the thing that really sent me into becoming a real blues freak … you know, seeing a real blues show like that live.”

His nudge towards picking up a harmonica for the very first time came thanks to some of his older siblings.

“I’m the youngest of four boys and my older brothers all dabbled in music – none of them became professionals – but they all dabbled in music and there was always a lot of instruments around. One of my older brothers had some Hohner Marine Band harmonicas lying around and I just kind of got interested in those,” he said. “My same older brother that bought me a harp knew that Muddy usually had harmonica in his band and said, ‘Man, if you get a chance, you should try to go see Muddy Waters play.’ He thought that would be something I liked and he was right.”

Knowing that it was Muddy Waters that really flipped Mischo’s blues-loving switch in the first place, it’s really no surprise who he cites as some of his essential influences.

“All the major guys from the post-war harmonica scene; Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, Junior Wells,” he said. “But also, contemporary guys like Lynwood Slim – may he rest in peace. I was living in the Twin Cities when I started getting into playing and we used to run together a lot. He was about five or six years older than me. I met him when I was about 17 and he was already performing pretty prolifically there in the Twin Cities area. We did crazy stuff together, stuff on the other side of the law that had nothing to do with music. But he also helped steer me musically in the direction of what to listen to and different things to do to work out tone … he gave me instruction without it ever being like sit-down instruction. He gave me tips and guidance. And in my early-20s, I used to run around a lot with Mojo Buford. We were friends through his entire life.”

The Minnesota Twin Cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul may not get a ton of love – from those outside the area – as a hotbed of the blues, but according to Mischo, people may be missing out on the region’s rich and lasting contributions to the music.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize it, but a lot of the Mississippi transplants that went north during the Great Migration to look for work ended up there, because it’s a mill city, a big factory town,” he said. “In addition to Lynwood and Mojo, you had guys like Sonny ‘Cat Daddy’ Rodgers, a guitar player that spent time in Muddy’s band. There was the great jazz player Jack McDuff and also Leonard ‘Baby Do’ Caston, who was in the Big Three Trio (with Willie Dixon and guitarist Ollie Crawford). Jojo Williams was there, S.P. Leary lived there for awhile. I used to see Lazy Bill Lucas play and let’s not forget Percy Strothers, who was originally from Vicksburg, Mississippi. He was there and I played and recorded with him on what turned out to be a pretty well-known underground record (RJ & The Kid) that really put me on the world map. In the ‘80s and ‘90s for quite awhile, demographics said that the Twin Cities bought more blues CDs and LPs per capita than any place in the world. The Twin Cities has always been a very supportive market for the blues.”

After departing Minnesota in the mid-90s, Mischo’s next stop was also a happening place for the blues – California.

“That was a great move. I really liked it out there. Bill Clarke was a big influence on me and then there’s Rod Piazza and of course, Kim Wilson. I also really liked Mark Hummel and Andy Just and those guys,” he said. “I was into that whole West Coast harmonica scene and buying their records when I was in my 20s back in the early 1980s.”

Although he’s overly-modest when the subject is broached, Mischo has turned into one heck of a blues singer. While his vocals may not quite match his world-class abilities on the harp, they’re certainly not very far off, either.

“I’ve never considered myself a singer. It was just always out of necessity because nobody wants just a harmonica player. It’s usually the harmonica player that ends up putting the band together,” he said. “I’m such a blues and R&B freak … really just a ‘good music’ freak. There’s so much stuff that I listen to that inspires me.”

Given that he first started blowing harp at age 10 and has been a professional musician since his late teens, it’s no stretch to say that Mischo has seen a lot of water pass under the bridge over the years. But at the end of the day, no matter where he’s playing – or who he’s playing with – Mischo acknowledges his journey basically boils down to just one thing.

“It seems strange, just turning 55 now and realizing I’ve been doing this for so long and I still feel like a kid,” he laughed. “But it’s all about the music now. It used to be more about getting recognition and trying to climb the ladder and whatever. It used to be about a lot more than just the music, but now, it’s all about the spiritualization of playing good music and giving the soul a satisfying feeling of knowing its good. It’s all about the groove; all about the feel. It took a long time for me to realize that, but hey, man – it’s all about how the instrument sounds and how the groove feels. When you’ve got those two things in combination together, that’s all you need, man.”

While it’s by no means fun and enjoyable to grow old, the experience that comes with the ageing process can be a good thing, especially when it concerns the tough task of trying to make a living playing the blues.

“Ah, man, it’s always just been hard (playing music for a living). At this point, I do keep a pretty darn full calendar that is unsolicited, or that I don’t have to work really hard at filling,” he said. “So maybe it is getting easier for me, because whereas you’re a kid just starting out, you’re on the phone constantly calling every place you can think that might let you play, because nobody’s calling you. But these days, people are actually finding me.”

Even though the world of the blues seems to be on the verve of standing-room only, with new bands and new artists jumping onto the bandwagon at an alarming rate, Mischo doesn’t really dwell on all that and he’s not at all concerned with whether a lot of those newer artists should even be classified as blues musicians in the first place.

“I just try to do what I do and really not worry that much about what all is out there and what all is seeping in … I mean, you just hear so much negatively out of people about this guy not deserving that, or what-not,” he said. “I just try to avoid that whole thing, even if you do feel that way sometimes. Like David Bernstein said, ‘Get better, not bitter.’ That was a great line that he said. Get better and don’t even worry about what other people are doing.”

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