Every day we hear the old-time hard-core Blues enthusiasts lamenting the decline in interest in the music or the lack of quality players to keep the genre alive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Down in Florida there is a group of guys who are really shaking things up all over the country and making people listen.
The torch was lit way back in the last century by the legendary Allman brothers and today, the young guns like Damon Fowler, JP Soars, Albert Castiglia, Derek Trucks and a host of world-class supporting musicians are making South Florida a hot bed for Blues seven nights a week.
“That’s because Blues in Florida is real big right now,” Florida native Damon Fowler says. “We have active Blues societies, a slew of working musicians, good weather and venues that support us. We can play every night of the week if we want to.”
Damon hails from a musical family whose members spent their time during family gatherings sitting around pickin’ and grinnin’.
“When I was a kid my mom and I lived with my grandparents who owned a septic tank company,” Damon explains. “My uncles all used to work for them and after work they’d gather and get out their guitars and play. One day I was with my grandma at the music store where she’d gone to buy one of my uncles a guitar. I was about 10 and told her I really wanted a guitar of my own. She bought me my first guitar. It was a cheap little acoustic. My uncle showed me some things he knew and I was set.
“Growing up, I’m 35 now, it was Guns ‘N’ Roses,” Damon says. “Then I got to sit in with some of the local bands early on. The first Blues song that I really liked is James Taylor’s “Steamroller Blues.” I love the simplicity of the first 12 bars. It’s a great song. From there it was on to BB, King, John Lee Hooker. I just kind of grew with it. If you’re going to play any kind of music, all American music has elements of the Blues in it. Country, rock and roll, gospel, all have roots in the Blues.”
After playing in and around his home area near Tampa during his high school years, Damon’s fortunes changed for the better when he met legendary Blues rock guitarist Rick Derringer, author of the rock staple, “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo.”
“I first met him (Derringer) when I was 15 or 16 at a gig,” Damon recalls. “He lives not too far away from my hometown. Later we opened for him and then when he was done (with his set) he called me back out to do an encore with him. It turned out to be a jam. I was thrilled to be asked to sit in with him. Next thing you know, he offered to produce my first record. It was totally unplanned. After working with Rick I had some credibility and exposure.”
Having established himself firmly with his peers on a national level, Damon has joined many luminaries in the Blues and rock and roll genre to show them what he can do. Guys like Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Robin Trower, Gregg Allman, Jimmy Vaughn, Junior Brown, Rick Derringer, Little Feat, The Radiators, Chris Duarte, Delbert McClinton, and numerous others have asked Damon to add to projects and appear with them on stage. To add more ammunition to his fiery arsenal, Damon has become proficient playing slide guitar as well as lap steel and Dobro. His guitar work is reminiscent of a young Johnny Winter. You can also hear the late Duane Allman in his slide playing.
“C’mon man, I live in Florida,” Damon says. “Duane Allman is everywhere. Duane was a great player but so is (former ABB guitarist) Dickie Betts. Ninety percent of the sounds of the Allman Brothers came from Betts. He’s still a great player today.”
After releasing his 1999 Derringer-produced record “Riverview Drive,” Damon started garnering attention and enjoyed loads of regional success and accolades. Electric Blues called the new CD “an all-around solid effort,” with “plenty of strong guitar jams.” Life was good for the young guitar hot shot and getting better. As fate would have it, a single life-changing incident cast Damon’s life in a whole new perspective.
In December 2005, Damon, his uncle/manager Bobby Fowler and Damon’s drummer were headed to play a private party. Bassist Chuck Riley was to meet the guys at the gig.
A car started to get off the highway at an exit and then at the last minute swerved back onto the road in front of Damon’s van. Two cars in front of the van slammed on their brakes and Damon still had the van under control until a pickup slammed into them from behind. The van flipped onto its driver’s side causing Damon’s head and left shoulder to skid along the pavement until the vehicle stopped. He ended up losing part of a deltoid on his left arm and needed skin grafts on his arm and head.
“It was in the afternoon, and we were all totally sober,” Damon says. “I had my seat belt on and we were headed to play a private party. I flipped the van and got tore up pretty good. I’m much better now, but it was pretty shitty for a while. I lost my girlfriend. I had to move back home with my parents. There’s definitely a Blues song in there somewhere.”
The time spent recuperating at his parents’ gave Damon time to reflect on what the future might hold. How in the world would he ever be able to play at the level he was before the accident?
“When I had the wreck I was 25 and I didn’t appreciate some of the smaller things I had been blessed with,” he says. “I wasn’t necessarily taking things for granted. I was just unaware. It was time to miss what I did (for a living). It was a time to regroup. I started singing more. Playing more slide. Just trying to get better and getting back to work.”
It took about a year but Damon’s persistence and dedication to his craft left him a better player and vocalist than he was before the accident. He feels his playing and singing improved during his hiatus.
As his fortunes have improved with his own power trio, Damon has been involved for the past couple of years with a highly acclaimed super group calling itself Southern Hospitality. Alongside Damon are former IBC winner JP Soars on guitar and Blues Music Award winner Victor Wainwright on keys. The SH rhythm section consists of bassist Chuck Riley and drummer Chris Peet and together their debut album “Easy Livin” has garnered tremendous acclaim from all corners of the Blues community. The disc was produced by none other than Tab Benoit, a man who knows a few things about the south and its musical heritage. The results are a concoction of all manner of Southern music including roots rock, Delta blues, and Wainwright-driven boogie-woogie. You have to hear it to appreciate it.
“I love playing with those guys,” Damon says. “I’m the only one who is without a medal. I’m medal less. JP has a sound of his own. He traveled with some extreme death metal bands before he started playing Blues. Those guys are into shredding. He was young and that was his thing. I think he heard the Blues and it grew on him, just like it does everyone else. Victor is phenomenal. He can sing and is just a great (piano) player.”
Damon has received recognition of his own, maybe more on a regional level, but nonetheless it shoots down his “medal less” statement. In last year’s “Best of Tampa” poll, Creative Loafing magazine named him “Best Guitarist, Best Slide Guitarist, Best Lap Steel Player, and Best Dobro Player.”
“If you’re going to hang around Tab you need a much bigger battery,” Damon says (with a laugh). “You can’t out drink him. He tells the best stories. He’s the last man standing after everyone else has faded at the end of the day. He was a lot of fun to work with.
“I was lucky enough to be invited to play with Tab’s project, Voice of the Wetland All Stars alongside Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles, who is a Louisiana legend,” Damon said. “It was a thrill. I just got back from Jamaica where I went with my manager Rueben Williams and Big Chief. It’s definitely a third-world country. The steering wheel is on the wrong side and they drive on the wrong side. It’s crazy. We went to Kingston which is extremely poor. There were only three white dudes including me but the people were super friendly and we were well received.”
“Sounds of Home” is Damon’s third solo offering on Blind Pig records. The disc features Big Chief Boudreaux and is also produced by Tab. It’s a mixture of the various roots music influences in the young guitarist’s life. There literally is something for everyone on the disc.
“I like gospel music,” he says. “It comes from the Blues. My grandparents listened to a lot of gospel and bluegrass. I’m a huge fan of Mississippi John Hurt and that’s where some of my gospel comes from. The rest is just stuff I like. We recorded it at Tab’s studio in Houma (LA). I’m real proud of it.”
Damon has mixed feelings on the state of the Blues today.
“I think the future of the Blues is up in the air,” he says. “Record companies need to figure out a way to market it to younger people. Some of the younger players like The Black Keys and Jack White are playing the Blues for younger audiences and we need to continue to encourage that. I feel real good about the future of the music. We just need to continue to support it.
“I really like playing the festivals,” Damon said. “There are more people and we are able to reach a broader audience. Some of the clubs have lost their character and the audiences tend to be stuck up. They want to drink martinis instead of beer. The general idea is making a real connection with the people you play to. People seem to really enjoy the festivals and we enjoy being a part of them. The bottom line for me is I love playing shows, playing gigs in small clubs, making records. I love it all.”
Visit Damon’s website at: www.damonfowler.com
Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2014 Blues Blast Magazine