Featured Interview – Chris O’Leary

‘Play the song.’

A rather simple and innocuous little comment, isn’t it?

Could be something as innocent as a request directed at a disc jockey or a plea from an impatient club owner to a beleaguered band.

But no, this time those three words are a nugget of advice from one of the most legendary and well-respected musicians in the annals of modern music – Mr. Levon Helm.

“That’s one of the greatest pieces of advice he gave me. Play the song, don’t use the song for whatever it is you’re trying to do … like getting up there and showing off or showing everybody what you know. I remember him telling a guitar player, ‘There’s a lot of notes, did you really have to play all of them?'” said singer, song-writer, harpist and bandleader Chris O’Leary. “He would say, ‘Play the song. Go up there and if you’re soloing, if you’re singing or if you’re playing rhythm, forward the song. Whatever the song may be, support it. That’s a lesson that has carried me – among a zillion others that he taught me.”

As any good student should, O’Leary not only absorbed the lessons he learned while fronting Levon Helm &The Barnburners for six years, he put that tutelage to good use. He won the 2011 Blues Blast Music Award for Best New Artist Debut (For his album, Mr. Used To Be) and was also nominated in the same category at that year’s Blues Music Awards (BMAs) in Memphis.

The early returns for his latest album – Gonna Die Tryin’ – looks to have O’Leary positioned for similar success at next year’s awards ceremonies.

“The new label that we’re on – American Showplace – has really pushed the record, and it’s been really good on the roots music report (http://www.rootsmusicreport.com) radio charts. We were as high as number three and I think we’re still in the top 15 right now, three or four months in,” he said. “We’re doing really well that way and also, the critics really love it. I think it’s my best record to date.”

Gonna Die Tryin’ was not the only big news for O’Leary in 2015. His son, Jackson Ronald Thomas O’Leary, was born in late July of this year.

It can sometimes be a difficult thing for an artist to truly evaluate the work they have just created after being cooped up in a studio for months on end. But with Gonna Die Tryin’ having been on the streets for a few months now, and with O’Leary able to look at the album in the bright light of day, he really does feel like it is the best record he has created thus far in his career.

“I really do. I think my songwriting has gotten better and the band over the years has gotten tighter,” he said. “And we worked with a producer, Ben Elliot, and he was great. He was really good in the studio and I’m really happy with the way it came out.”

The album features 11 tunes penned by O’Leary, eschewing cover songs and standards for fresh, original material.

“I love Muddy Waters and I love Howlin’ Wolf and live we do those songs, along with some B.B. King and some of Levon’s songs. I mean, that’s the music I grew up on. But if I do a Muddy song, I don’t care how good the band is and how good I sing it or how much I can play like Little Walter, I’m never going to do it as good as Muddy Waters. Nobody is, I don’t care who you are. Muddy is Muddy,” he said. “So why not just be you? I read an interview with James Harman and that was basically his sentiment. That’s why he’s such a fantastic song-writer and has his own sound. I have something to say, so why not put it to music?”

O’Leary does indeed have plenty to say and he also has the experiences of a stint in the Marine Corps and a few trips around the world to draw from. He says that’s where the bulk of his song-writing stems from.

“Yeah, it’s mostly from life experience. I’ve lived a pretty-crazy life, so I’ve got some pretty-varied experiences and I mainly draw upon those,” he said. “Whether it’s from my time in the Marine Corps or going off to war or from relationships, or what have you. It’s mostly from life experience.”

His sound can easily be defined as traditional blues, and knowing who his earliest musical influences were, that’s hardly shocking news. But there’s more to O’Leary’s tunes than strictly Chess-era blues. There’s something more eclectic and more modern contained within the body of his songs that make them uniquely their own thing, giving them their very own legs to stand on.

“Years ago, when my time with Levon started, he offered us to be the house band at his club in New Orleans on Decatur Street. Before I went down there, I was tunnel-visioned completely with Chicago blues. I lived, breathed, ate and slept Muddy, Walter, Wolf, Sonny Boy, Junior Wells … 24-7. That’s what I did,” O’Leary said. “And sometimes to get good at something, I think you have to do that. I learned the masters and that’s all I listened to. When I went down to New Orleans, it blew my mind … completely blew my mind. It was like someone kicked the door in. It was all roots music … all blues … but it was completely different. Any night of the week, you could go out to a club, or even on a street corner, and see people that will just blow your doors in. It’s truly amazing and New Orleans is my favorite place in the world, musically and culturally. And then you have the food and the people, I just love that place. I don’t know if it breaks down the tradition a little bit, but between New Orleans and Memphis and Chicago and the influences with Levon and that whole thing, it think it does add more of an eclectic feel to my music. It’s still a blues record, but it does have other elements to it, as well.”

But as O’Leary quickly acknowledges, at the end of the day, if the listener can’t feel the music, then all might just be lost.

“If you’re listening to someone really digging in and playing New Orleans-infused blues, or someone’s up on stage just killin’ it, and you don’t feel it, I really don’t know what to say,” he said. “That’s what’s so special about this music. A song might only have three chords, but if someone’s up there just pouring their heart into those three chords, and you don’t feel it, I don’t know what to tell you. Blues music is just so viable and hard-hitting and so alive, it just has to break through to people.”

As a youngster, O’Leary was more in tune with popular bands of the day like Kiss, instead of with older blues artists like James Cotton and Buddy Guy. But that soon changed and when it did, it was like a revelation for young Chris.

“As far as that (getting into the blues), I attribute that to my dad. I grew up in a musical household; my dad was a singer and my uncles were all players. Everything from Mantovani to Bruce Springsteen could be heard at my house on any given day. I was pretty young and was listening to Kiss or someone and my dad threw a record on the bed. It was Muddy Waters’ Hard Again. He said, ‘Chris, check this out.’ I looked at it and there was a picture of this old man on the front. I said, ‘Dad, what is this?’ He said, ‘Just check it out.’ So I did and I was like, ‘Dad! What is this?!! He said, ‘Give it some time,’ so I did. Eventually, James Cotton’s playing grabbed me. And then shortly thereafter, my dad got me an old (Hohner) Marine Band (harp) and said, ‘Here.’ So that was pretty cool … and it still is. But that was the record, for sure, and it was Cotton’s playing that really got to me and grabbed me. I was hooked.”

His brush with the blues as a youngster didn’t stop with discovering Hard Again. When he was just 10-years-old, O’Leary attended his first concert. While it’s really no big deal for a pre-teen to be in attendance at a concert, in O’Leary’s case, this one certain concert proved to be a bit of divine intervention, perhaps.

“My dad and my uncle Mike took me to my first concert when I was 10 and it was a show by The Band at the Palace Theater in Albany (New York). It was after The Last Waltz and was the re-united Band when Richard Manuel was still alive. It was Levon, Garth (Hudson), Rick (Danko), Richard and The Cate Brothers, who were playing with them at the time,” he said. “It was great.”

It has to be almost surreal for O’Leary to think back about looking at The Band up on stage as a kid and then going on to later look out on the crowd with Helm behind him in the Barnburners. Helm also helped to calm some troubled waters between O’Leary and his family, as well.

“When I finally hooked up with Levon, that’s when all was forgiven. I dropped out of Marist College after I got out of the Marine Corps and nobody in my family was all too happy about that,” he laughed. “It was like, ‘Yeah, I’m playing in a band.’ Well, that didn’t go over too great. But when Levon took me on, all was forgiven (with his family) then. Finally, I had legitimacy with them.”

In addition to Muddy’s cats like Little Walter and James Cotton, as well as James Harman, O’Leary was really influenced by the great Kim Wilson.

“Definitely, both vocally and on the harp. He was a big influence. I’m also a (Paul) Butterfield guy, too. I love him,” he said. “And some of the newer guys are great, too. Whenever I get to play with or listen to Dennis Gruenling, I’m amazed. He’s amazing … and Steve Guyger, too. There’s just a ton of them. But playing with Levon, I got to play with a lot of my heroes, like Kim and Cotton. Both of them were very open and very forthcoming with advice and knowledge and it was greatly appreciated. Sometimes musicians can be guarded, especially with a younger musician coming up. But the two of them were not.”

He may have started out using Hohner Marine Band harps, but these days, O’Leary prefers Seydel harmonicas.

“I was an endorsee of Marine Band for a while, but Brandon Santini hipped me to these Seydel harps. They’re made like old Marine Bands. I bought an ‘A’ harp and I was blown away,” he said. “It played like butter. They’re made in Germany and are a company that’s as old, or older, than Hohner. They were on the other side of the wall in East Germany, so when the wall came down, they really started exporting their harps. They’re amazing instruments. I also saw that Cotton plays them now, so that was a big push, too. He’s rough on his harps and I blow hard on them, too; I’m not a finesse player, as you might say. I’ve got an endorsement deal with Seydel now and I’m really happy.”

Being the singer and harp player when you’re fronting someone else’s band is one thing, but as O’Leary has come to find out, when it’s your name up on the marque, there are a whole new set of flaming hoops to jump through.

“I never really appreciated what my bandleaders did over the years, until I had to do it myself. I’m like a plug-in and play guy, you know? I just want to plug my amp in, turn it on and play. But it can be rough. Thankfully, gas prices have went down (recently). We did a west coast tour and gas averaged like four dollars a gallon. That was brutal,” he said. “And I’m making the same in clubs now that I was making 10 years ago. It’s not like you get a cost of living allowance. So it can be tough, especially with a horn section. But I’ve gotten so used to having them. Not only with their horn playing, but with their (vocal) harmonies. When they’re not there, I feel like I’m missing a limb or something. I’ve written a lot of my original songs to incorporate horns … it opens up so many avenues for me, as far as getting a New Orleans or Stax kind of sound. But you’ve got to feed those guys, you know?”

O’Leary may have been raised many, many miles from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, where Levon Helm was reared, but if he ever needed any kind of insight as to just what the late, great Helm meant to the people of the Natural State, he found out a couple of years ago when his band played the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, not too far from Helm’s old stomping grounds.

“I was down on Cherry Street (in Helena) and there’s an old music store there. I went in and there was this old man in there – he must have been 85. I looked up on the wall and there was a picture and an article about The Barnburners (when they had played at the King Biscuit a couple of years earlier, with O’Leary in the band). I asked him if I could take it down and he said, ‘Why do you want to see that?’ I said, ‘That’s me in that picture.’ So we started talking about Levon and it turns out that guy sold Levon his first guitar,” O’Leary said. “Levon had bought his first guitar there when he was just a kid. I got choked up about that. The old man said, ‘I can’t say this about many people, but the world is a lesser place now that he’s (Levon) not in it.’ That was powerful stuff … just a great moment. Levon basically showed me the country. I mean, before that I’d been around the world with the Marine Corps, but I had never been to Chicago or New Orleans. He showed me all different parts of this country and how amazing it is. It was six years of my life that I thank God for. Even now, it breaks my heart that he’s gone … it just breaks my heart. He was an amazing artist.”

His time with Helm will understandably never be forgotten and it continues to have a major impact on the way that O’Leary creates music to this very day.

“Levon’s later-period stuff, like the Dirt Farmer record, led me to start getting into Appalachian music and more Americana-type stuff. That’s kind of led to a stylistic change on how I approach writing music. I’ve always been a big Steve Earle fan and fans of Townes Van Zant and Guy Clark,” he said. “I’ve started to listen to more singer/songwriters in that vein and have gone as far back as Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe and the bluegrass guys. So some of my songwriting is not blues, it’s more along those lines. I don’t know what I’m going to do with some of those things, but it’s fun to write. So who knows? Maybe at some point I’ll record them.”

Visit Chris O’Leary’s website at http://thechrisolearyband.net

Photos by Marilyn Stringer and Joe Rosen as marked © 2015

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