Featured Interview – Andy Talamantez

Some nicknames arise from divine intervention, while some are drawn up as part of a Madison Avenue marketing scheme.

Others still, are earned from some sort of miraculous feat of sporting skill.

However, some are born out of the sheer need for simplicity and ease.

Nashville blues guitarist Andy Talamantez relates how he acquired the handle that he is now known worldwide by.

“When I first met Smokey Wilson and went over to rehearse for a gig I was going to be playing with him, he said, ‘OK, Andy, what’s your last name?’ I said, ‘Well, Smokey, you can just call me Andy T.’ And he says, ‘I can say your name … what is it?’ So I told him, ‘It’s Andy Talamantez.’ And he says, ‘Andy T sound good.’ So there you go.”

Unless a blues lover was deep under a rock last year, they should be more than familiar with the Andy T-Nick Nixon Band. Their Drink Drank Drunk (Delta Groove) album made quite a bit of noise on the blues scene in 2013 and landed on just about everyone’s ‘best of’ list for the year. It was nominated for Best Artist Debut at last October’s Blues Blast Music Awards.

According to Andy T, all the adulation the disc has received is just what the southern California born guitarist was hoping for – but not necessarily holding his breath waiting on – when the studio sessions wrapped up.

“Knowing the industry, the critics and all that, it was kind of a ‘fingers crossed’ situation, but we knew it was something special,” he said. “With Nick singing and with Anson’s production values, we figured we couldn’t have gone too wrong. So it was a pleasant surprise that it was received so well … I mean I try to never take anything for granted in life.”

Striking while the iron is certainly still smokin’ hot, work is well under way for round number two from the Andy T-Nick Nixon Band.

“We just finished mixing and it’s due out in June. It’s going to be a little different … I don’t want to say less traditional … I really haven’t got my head around how to describe it yet, but it is a little different than Drink Drank Drunk,” he said. “We’re using an electric bass instead of an acoustic bass and some of the arrangements are a little more R&B – still blues, but with a little more R&B feel. And we’re going to have more original tunes on this record than we had on the last one.”

While leaning heavily on original compositions, the follow-up to Drink Drank Drunk will have a few tasty cover tunes, but according to Andy T, the listener may have to spend a bit of time digging to find the source of the material.

“The cover songs are extremely obscure. For one of the songs, Delbert McClinton released an album (Nothing Personal) with a song on it called “Livin’ it Down,” and we decided to do that, but with a little different twist on it,” he said. “And the other couple of covers are really obscure, to the point I don’t know if people will have ever heard them before. I just explored and looked around until I found something that no one could say were worn-out songs that have been covered to death.”

Once again, helping to man the board, offer suggestions and slide in the occasional tasty guitar riff or two, is producer Anson Funderburgh.

“I think Anson would be the first person to tell you this, but his philosophy (in the studio) is to not hinder the musicians or change who they are. He really tries to put them in the best light possible and tries to help them be the best they can, but lets them still be who they are,” said Andy T. “He really believes in helping to guide you where you want to go, instead of shoving you in a particular direction.”

Funderburgh has managed to cast quite a wide shadow over the world of the blues for the past three decades – especially to fellow guitarists – and it may have taken Andy T a moment or two to settle in when they entered into the studio to start work on Drink Drank Drunk.

“Personally, I was a little intimidated when we began work on the first record. I was like, ‘I’m in the studio with Anson Funderburgh?’ I mean, I had been a fan of his for years and all of a sudden, I was playing guitar and he was listening to me record stuff. But I quickly got over that and he always made me feel real comfortable. He’s just an awesome guy and has become a really close friend … and we really do think a lot alike, musically.”

The same thing can be said of the relationship between Andy T and his cohort and new partner in the blues, Nick Nixon. Just a few short years ago, neither had heard of the other, but they’ve quickly become kindred spirits and are in possession of one of the hottest bands currently playing the blues.

“When I first moved to Nashville, someone told me I needed to look up Nick Nixon and I had no idea who he was or how to find him. Well, my wife and I, along with some good friends, started the Nashville Blues Society and put together a host band (some of the members are part of the current Andy T-Nick Nixon Band) and started doing some jams. And about six months or so after we started those jams – around late 2009 or early 2010 – Nick showed up to one of them. He got up and did some of the songs that he regularly does at a jam and I remember sitting with a buddy in the back of the room and our jaws dropped to the table. We were like, ‘Wow! This guy can sing! Oh, my!’”

The Drink Drank Drunk project was already underway at that point with another singer poised to do the bulk of the vocal work. But after hearing Nixon, Andy T decided that things were about to change.

“We just had some basic tracks recorded at that point and Anson grabbed me at the 2010 King Biscuit (Festival) and said, ‘Andy, we’re got some great stuff we’re working on and I know you know someone in Nashville who can sing and pull this off and we can make a great album.’ And of course the first and only person that came to mind was Nick,” he said. “So I asked him if he would come with me to Dallas and work on the CD and he said, ‘Sure.’ But I was really non-committal at that point in time, as was he. I said, ‘Let’s just do this and see where it takes us.’ And he was OK with that.”

Right off the bat Andy T and Nick Nixon realized they were about to catch lighting in a bottle.

“After one trip into the studio, Nick said, ‘This is going to be great. Whatever you want to do with this, I’m in.’ So that’s how it all came about. First, I asked him (to go into the studio) and he said ‘Yes.’ And then we recorded the CD, hit the road and toured and now we’re working on a follow-up. It went down really simple, just like that,” said Andy T. “I was just looking for the best guy for the job to help me finish up what I had started and I don’t know anyone else – period – that I would have wanted to do it with, other than Nick.”

The psychedelic sound of the late 1960s was Andy T’s gateway into the down-and-dirty blues, just as it was for so many others during those fabulous days.

“At about 12 years old, I was watching The Ed Sullivan Show and they had Cream – witch Eric Clapton – on there and I thought that was just the most amazing thing. I went out and bought a 45 with “White Room” and “Sunshine of your Love” on it and just played the heck out of it. And from there, I fell into the whole British blues thing. I had a friend that was into early Fleetwood Mac and Rory Gallagher and that kind of stuff. And from there, I found Johnny Winter and guys like that. Then at about 17, after having read about B.B. King for awhile, but not having really heard him, I went out and bought Live at the Regal on cassette. And I remember having to buy a few copies of that because I played it so much that it ended up getting eaten up by the player.”

Then after getting up to speed with the music of the great B.B. King, Andy T dug deeper and fell under the same influences that inspired the Beale Street Blues Boy to first play the blues.

“Well, I really loved B.B. and when I read about him, I found out he loved T-Bone Walker and that kind of thing and when I heard T-Bone, It kind of all came together for me. I could hear elements of B.B. King, Chuck Berry and all the British blues stuff in T-Bone’s playing. It was like, ‘Wow.’ It all came from T-Bone, which is really not surprising, since he was one of the first real prominent electric players to begin with.”

It was on the West Coast with (Robert Lee) Smokey Wilson that Andy T got his first real taste of what it was like to play the blues for a living, although his initial meeting with Wilson could just as easily never have happened.

“I would go down to the Blue Café in Long Beach and there was a friend of mine named Max Bangor that played every Sunday afternoon and I would go down and sit in with him. And Johnny Mastro (Johnny Mastro and the Mamas Boys) used to come down there and play all the time, too, so I’d be on stage with him,” Andy T said. “Apparently, Johnny got a call from Smokey Wilson one day and Smoky was wanting to borrow Johnny’s guitar player – Earl – for a day for an upcoming weekend gig in Fresno. But even though Earl was around, Johnny told Smokey that he was out of town, but that he knew someone else. So he gave Smokey my phone number.”

Mastro then phoned Andy T to give him a heads-up and let him know to expect a phone call from Wilson.

“Honestly, I had heard some horror stories about the way Wilson treated his musicians on stage and that kind of stuff, but he called me up and asked me to come over and rehearse for that one gig. He made it clear he was not hiring me permanently, that it was just for the one gig in Fresno. So I went and rehearsed, did the gig in Fresno with him and then I was in the band for two years, pretty much up until the time he stopped touring.”

Serious medical issues – including a stroke in 1999 – basically ended Wilson’s days on the blues highway.

“He kept complaining that he had been having headaches for a couple of weeks and I said, ‘Smokey, you need to go to the doctor, that’s not right.’ We were in the studio in Culver City working on a recording of mine at that time and then nine days later, he had a massive stroke,” Andy T said. “I went down to the hospital and he was in really bad shape. I ended up going down there just about every day to visit him. From where I lived in north Los Angeles County to Martin Luther King Hospital in the middle of Watts in L.A. was about a 40-mile drive, but I went down there every day to check on him and make sure he was OK and getting proper care.”

It turns out those ‘horror stories’ that Andy T had heard about Wilson on the bandstand were mostly fictional ones, as he found out first-hand.

“He was great and we got along great. He’d look over the top of his glasses at you on stage and the first couple of times he did that, it about scared me to death, wondering what I’d done wrong. One night we were in Hawaii and he did that and I basically just gave him a funny look and looked over the top of my glasses right back at him … and he about fell off the stage, he was laughing so hard. Later, his wife Linda says, ‘You finally figured out Smokey. You’re the first one.’ In other words, he was just messing with people.”

Another legendary bluesman that loves to have a good time, while also messing with people, is the one-and-only Guitar Shorty. Andy T was enlisted in Shorty’s army for a spell, too.

“I loved playing with Shorty. We talk all the time and are great friends. Shorty’s just an interesting character,” Andy T said. “Our (guitar) styles are so different, but my rhythm playing sure as heck got a lot better from me playing with him … I hardly ever got a solo, but that wasn’t what it was about. It was about backing up Shorty. I just love him to death.”

While it has become more than evident that Guitar Shorty knows his way around a fretboard – over, under, slide-ways down – over the years, Andy T says Shorty was a Jack of all Trades and was just as at home under the hood of a car as he was under the bright lights of the concert stage.

“I remember driving back from a gig in the middle of the night in Shorty’s Dodge van in Denver or someplace and it was really cold outside – I was driving and Shorty was sleeping – and all of the sudden, the lights get dim. So I wake Shorty up and he says, ‘Quick, pull it over, pull it over.’ For some reason, on those Dodge vans, when the alternator would go bad, it would drain the battery instantly, like within two or three minutes and you’d just be stuck. So Shorty gets back into the trailer and starts digging through the tons of stuff he’d bring on the road – his tools, wiring, spare car parts … just boxes of stuff. He starts splicing wires, un-wiring things and taping stuff up and then we’re back on the road again. He always was dead-set on fixing things and doing all the repairs to everything himself. That may not have always been the best thing to happen, but that’s just how it was going to be.”

There’s no doubt that Andy T really enjoyed his time with Smokey and Shorty. But now, the time is here for him to make his own mark on the blues scene, and it looks like with Nick Nixon by his side, that’s just what’s happening.

“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse here, but we’re starting to get some calls for some higher placements at some of the festivals, which I’m happy about,” he said. “I’d like to see us become a major force – a major act – out on the circuit. We’ve been extremely well-received everywhere we’ve gone and have been lucky enough to have very good audiences. You know, we’ve been working on this project for a few years now and it’s really nice to see that it’s really starting to happen. But the bottom line is, I’m just happy that everyone is healthy and can still be out there doin’ it.”

Visit Andy’s website at: www.andytband.com/

You can check out a video of the Andy T Nick Nixon Band HERE

To see a video of the Andy T Nick Nixon Band and Janiva Magness at Yolie’s, CLICK HERE.

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2014 Blues Blast Magazine

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