Featured Interview – Jason Ricci

Don’t let him fool you, even for a second.

Jason Ricci may call himself ‘the Richard Sherman of the blues,’ but he’s really not.

Sherman has gained a fair amount of notoriety by being an arrogant trash-talker who seeks out the spotlight around every corner.

Ricci is not arrogant, does not talk trash and is not the least bit interested in having the bright lights of fame follow him 24 hours a day.

Having said that, there are certain similarities between the two gentlemen, including being among the very best in the world at what they do.

Sherman, an All-Pro cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks is one of the best players in the National Football League.

Ricci, at 41-years-old, is now a seasoned veteran of the blues scene and is rightfully heralded as one of the most innovative and creative harp blowers around.

Another common denominator between the two; both Sherman and Ricci have never been afraid to speak their minds, nor do they mind tough questions being aimed in their direction.

Things definitely appear to be on the upswing these days for Ricci. Not only does he seem truly happy, he’s also clean and sober and looks to have his life firmly – and finally – back on track. Then, there’s also the little matter of a recent Grammy Award.

“It’s been pretty amazing … you know, Johnny (Winter) winning the Grammy (Best Blues Album for Step Back) and therefore, me getting a Grammy for being on that record. That was huge. And I got to play at the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, with the Paul Shaffer Orchestra, to play the part of Paul Butterfield for his induction (into the Hall of Fame) at the ceremony,” Ricci said. “That was like a dream come true, because I grew up listening to that guy. I mean, there’s a few other harp players that I can think of that would have been pretty good calls for that gig, so I’m pretty grateful that I got the call on that one.”

While being bestowed with a Grammy and getting to step into the shoes of the mighty Paul Butterfield have to be unbelievable coups for any musician, and while Ricci is extremely touched and humbled by both honors, that’s merely just the tip of the iceberg as to why he’s so upbeat and positive in early 2015.

“Well, having a second – or really a third – chance at this occupation is fantastic. But what’s been even better than that (awards and honors) is this is not even why I’m so glad to be alive. This stuff here is all just butter on the biscuit, man,” he said. “All that stuff is fantastic and I’m very fortunate to have it back in my life, but it’s not my reason for living. It’s just amazing how much stuff comes when you’re not trying to force it. I’m blessed … really blessed.”

Another reason for Ricci’s optimistic view of things these days owes quite a bit to his newest group, Bad Kind.

“When I was living in New Orleans, I was in a band with John Lisi, called John Lisi and Delta Funk. He’s a guitarist in Bad Kind now, and the bass player from Delta Funk – ‘Evil’ Andy Kurz – is also in my band. You know, as typical New Orleans guys, they’re going to have a few irons in the fire (playing with a number of different bands). But that’s cool, man, because I’m not trying to do 300 dates a year like I was with New Blood (Ricci’s former band). I do want to get out there and work a lot, something like 150 tour dates a year would be cool,” he said. “My drummer is a young man named Adam Baumol and he’s absolutely phenomenal and does a super job. He’s got all those great New Orleans’ beats and I’m thrilled with him. And that’s what I’m really looking for this time. New Blood was so much about chops and these days, I’m not into shredding as much. I want a band with swagger. When I was down in New Orleans, I really fell in love with drums and bass and the way New Orleans’ rhythm sections sound and the way all those street beats are so prominent in the music. This group plays blues and plays funk, really, really well.”

Another departure for Ricci is the inclusion of two guitarists in Bad Kind.

“That’s the biggest, most obvious difference (between the two groups). New Blood, like most harmonica bands, was essentially a three-piece group with a harp player. Now I have a full band with me, so when one guitar player is playing, there’s always a rhythm,” he said. “I can’t take credit for this (two guitarists), it was really John’s move and it was incredibly intelligent. John’s like me, in that he really likes to play and likes his effect pedals and likes to play flashy. I let John pick out the other guitarist and he picked Sammy Hotchkiss who was the guitar player and one of the founding members of the legendary, underground predecessor to Galactic – Smilin’ Myron. So what we’ve got with him is a guy that plays a Gibson 335 straight into a Super Reverb with no pedals. He can do all the straight-ahead blues stuff and is all about less-is-more. He’s kind of like the guy who is keeping the band honest, right now. I wanted two guys that were so different and that’s what I got and I couldn’t be happier. Their tones are so different and it’s a nice contrast and the guys aren’t competing for solo time or any of that. It’s really making the traditional blues stuff come alive better than ever.”

All the wild musical excursions that New Blood helped write the book on are – at least temporarily – mothballed in the set-lists that Ricci and Bad Kind are currently prepping.

“What you’re not getting with Bad Kind is some of the more outrageous jazz and jazz-fusion stuff. That’s really not part of the set-list right now,” said Ricci. “There’s a small group of people that are probably unhappy with that, but my life is moving away from 30-minute instrumental montages. I’m trying to play more songs. It’s not that I’m trying to move away from more notes and more volume, as much as I’m trying to move more towards an emphasis on rhythm and feel.”

Ricci’s new collective has certainly energized him, and his enthusiasm for Bad Kind and their abilities is more than palpable. That’s a far cry from where Ricci found himself physically, emotionally and spiritually, just a couple of short years ago, when his outlook on the future may not have been nearly so positive.

“Well, I fell off the wagon (in 2010) after 12 years of sobriety … and I didn’t just fall off the wagon, I took the wheels with me, you know. There was a point there where I really needed to get loaded again and I’m truly sorry that people were hurt and let-down and disappointed and worried in that process,” he said. “But I’m an alcoholic and an addict and the solution to my problem for 12 years was music … and success and a good-looking body and a hot boyfriend and awards and records and agents and lots of tour dates. But my problem was, as soon as I got all that stuff, I was like, ‘Wow. This isn’t what I thought it would be.’ And that’s when I went back to my old standby, which was dope and booze. And I’ll be honest – it was great. For the couple of years I did it, it was a lot of relief, again.”

That initial sense of relief soon enough turned into a case of Ricci determining that he’d had enough (“I didn’t get all I wanted, I never will. But I got all I could stand,” he said) – once again. And once again, instead of giving up and throwing in the towel, Ricci picked himself back up, dusted himself off and decided to move forward. So just where does the inner strength and conviction to give sobriety another go-round come from?

“I don’t have an answer to say to that, other than it’s been the grace of God. There’s a little bit of survivor guilt around that subject, too, because there have been so many friends of mine that are just as strong, but have passed away. For me to sit here and say that there’s something in me that they didn’t have … I don’t see that as even being remotely true,” he said. “That’s not me putting on a mask of false humility or anything. It’s just that I’ve simply been lucky in terms of … I mean, there’s been interventions in my life in the form of ambulances and police officers that may have seemed like a really rotten thing at the time … but looking back at that, some of those things were blessings, man. Do I believe that God intervened in my life? You know, man, I don’t know. What I can say is that there has been a grace. But I’d like to think that the most important piece of information I’ve gathered along the way – that I can take credit for – is that it’s not me. I don’t know what’s always best for me and that’s where I try to operate from now. Not just in terms of faith, but as a place to live life in a more relaxed position. I finally decided that I have to do this (sobriety) somebody else’s way. This can’t be Jason’s way anymore; it can’t be about what I think is good for me. Making that decision has led me to living my life based upon spiritual principles. When I do that – which isn’t all the time – I’m much happier and everything goes better.”

Another area of his personal life that he’s never shied away from is his sexuality. Ricci is openly gay and has never tried to hide that from the rest of the blues community. But while he doesn’t hesitate to discuss it, his intentions on coming out were never really to blaze any trails or to become some sort of a martyr.

“It was never something I’ve wanted to do … I’m a rebel, man, and it’s not like I’ve ever tried to lay in the cut here … I’m pretty much the Richard Sherman of the blues, you know what I mean?” he laughed. “But I never wanted to be the only one doing it. The part that was the hardest on me was not the clubs or the festivals or the ‘boys club’ of certain guys that I look up to that were talking behind my back. The hard part for me, man, was the other musicians that were gay, but wouldn’t join suit. I paved the way, man, so come on. Now you’re not the only one, so come on. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘It’s not the words of our enemies, it’s the silence of our friends.’ That’s what really rubbed me the wrong way. That’s what upsets me, these cats that are living double lives. It’s not that I don’t understand it, because I do. But if a few of us jumped on board, maybe we could put together a tour, or do an album or some shit like that.”

While silence may be golden for the members of the male blues community that are not straight, that’s hardly been the case when the females are concerned.

“Yeah, the female side of the homosexual community in blues music has always been very outspoken … even way back in the day. People like Gaye Adegbalola from Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women has always been there, out front. Even members of the straight community, like Bob Margolin, were tremendously supportive. But I’m just blown away at the lack of support from other gay members of the blues community. And I’ve really, really been hurt by the lack of support from the gay community (in general). Because here’s a bunch of guys that are always angry about being represented as wearing dresses or leather or having sex in porta-potties or doing drugs … and here they had a sober harmonica player. But who made the cover of all their magazines every month? Guys in dresses and leather … and sometimes Doogie Howser (Neil Patrick Harris). It’s like, jeez, come on. I mean we’ve only played two or three (gay) festivals, ever. As soon as the gay community saw the drum set being loaded on the stage, they headed for the hills, man. It was like they couldn’t wait for the drag queens to come on.”

Still …

“Well, the other part of it is now I’m dating a woman and have been for a few years. We’re engaged. But now, the gay community looks at me like I’m a traitor. So now I’m like, ‘Where were you guys when I had a boyfriend, or boyfriends, for the last 15 years?’ I just happened to fall in love with someone from the opposite sex; that’s what happened. She’s fantastic and everyone that’s been around us thinks she’s so good for me,” Ricci said. “I was as surprised as anybody else. But you know – when pressed – I’ve always identified as being bi-sexual – when pressed. But when people asked, I was gay, because it was easier and that meant there were less women on the road that would try things. It made monogamy that much easier for me. So the whole re-coming out thing has been crazy, too … I don’t like that, either. The gay community thinks I’m going through a phase.”

Born in Portland, Maine, Ricci’s first real taste at being in a performing band came filtered through a puck rock influence, while he was still a teenager. Although he may not play a ton of that kind of music on the bandstand these days, Ricci says that punk rock and the blues are kindred spirits.

“I definitely see a correlation between punk rock and the early blues. I also see a correlation between modern-day rap and early blues. This (blues) is a voice of the disenfranchised or the angry, just like punk and rap were. In the early days of the blues, the emphasis was not so much on instrumental prowess. It was delivering a message – they needed to get something out,” he said. “When we listen to guys like John Lee Hooker … I mean, you can’t know how to play guitar and play like John Lee Hooker. There’s a certain abandon that’s a part of that. I’m not disregarding the technical elements of melody, rhythm and harmony that exists in blues, but behind that, there’s sincerity there. It’s like, ‘This is what I’m singing about; it’s real and it happened to me and I’m pissed off and I’m trying not to be pissed off.’ That kind of message is very common in blues music and in punk music, although I don’t see that as much in blues music today. A lot of blues music today has become a vehicle for the solo.”

Ricci is trying his hardest to maintain a level of that all-important sincerity in the music that he crafts, and as such, he has certain rules that he follows.

“You will never, ever hear me sing the words, ‘I bought my baby a brand-new choo-choo toy.’ I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to ‘reckon’ and I’m not ‘fixin’ to do anything and I’ve never seen anything ‘over yonder’s wall,’” he said. “My songs are about being angry and feeling like I don’t fit in and are about things like dope and alcohol, real things that happened to me; not stories about things that happened in other countries or other states to other people.”

Ricci cites a couple of pivotal events when he was a young man as ones that helped to send him down the path to playing the blues for a living.

“The first was hearing the song “Trouble in Mind” as covered by Big Walter Horton on the album Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell. That particular piece of music got me interested in the blues, beyond just harmonica. It meant something to me. It touched me,” he said. “And the other thing was when my mother took me to see James Cotton in 1988 when I was 14. Cotton did the whole show and then at the end, he did an encore of the Charles Brown tune “Black Night” which was a slow, minor-key blues and he played and sang without the microphone to a room full of people in Maine. That was it. I said, ‘I don’t know how, but somehow I want to do that.’ That was the moment.”

Not only did his mother take him to see James Cotton, but she also had a few blues albums in her collection that caught young Ricci’s rapt attention.

“I just happened to go through my mother’s record collection at the time and started digging out some Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf albums that had some great harp playing on it,” he said. “My mother had a Best of Muddy Waters and also the Live at Newport Jazz Festival album. On the Best of, you had Little Walter and Junior Wells and on the Newport album, you had Cotton, so I was lucky to have a small catalog of music to go through. She also had some B.B. King and Janis Joplin and Cream and Jimi Hendrix.”

The reason that Ricci picked up a harp in the first place was to keep a spot in the punk band that he was singing with at the time.

“One of the guitar players in the band was starting to sing and I was the singer, so it was like I was getting benched. So I needed to find something so I didn’t have to get off stage. The band chose harmonica (for him to play) because it was cheap and I guess those guys figured I couldn’t ruin a song (by playing harp),” he laughed. “As long as I picked up the right key, all I could be was bad; I couldn’t trash the whole song. I think that’s why the instrument was chosen for me … you know, low expectations on the part of Jason, which were probably warranted.”

When it became evident that his band was not going to let him play guitar with the group, Ricci quickly switched gears and started taking some harmonica instruction from the gentleman that was also teaching him the six-string.

“Dave Daniels. He’s the one that introduced me to guys like Rick Estrin, Kim Wilson and (Charlie) Musselwhite and Mark Hummel and Sugar Blue and Howard Levy, even. I knew who Howard Levy was when I was 14 and that’s before the internet,” he said. “I was really blessed with tons of information, right from the get-go … just blessed. It also didn’t hurt that I grew up with Per Hanson, who was Ronnie Earl’s drummer. We had a guy in our town named DW Gill, who is a monster harmonica player. Nicky Curran used to stay over at my house when I was a kid – we grew up together. That didn’t hurt, either. By the time I was 17, I was driving to Boston to see Duke Robillard and Jerry Portnoy and Barbecue Bob and Ronnie Earl. I was just privileged, man.”

By the time he was 20 years old, Ricci was calling Memphis home. That’s where his blues DNA received another jolt, in and around the juke joints of Holly Springs, Mississippi, where he played, partied and lived with members of the Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside families. It was there that Ricci learned the only way forward was to just simply be himself.

“When I was Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, I put on the suit and put my hair up and tried to be like Junior’s and R.L.’s kids. I tried to be tough and southern and black and I wasn’t,” he said. “The funny thing was, as soon as I stopped trying to do that, is when those guys started to like me. That’s when I started to come across to audiences better, too.”

His time playing with the Kimbroughs and the Burnsides took place in the mid-90s, before either Junior or R.L. were household names in the blues realm.

“Nobody knew who Junior was; he hadn’t died yet, so he wasn’t famous and R.L. hadn’t done the punk record with Jon Spencer (Ass Pocket of Whiskey) that got him into the Julia Roberts movie, so he wasn’t cool, either,” Ricci said. “These were gigs that basically paid in corn liquor and reefer. I think the most I ever got was $100 and that was rare. Most of the time I got $10 or $15 and a couple of grams of weed and as much corn liquor as I could drink without throwing up.”

Though he lived with David Malone Kimbrough in Potts Camp for over a year, Ricci readily acknowledges that for a large part of the time down there, he felt like a ‘tourist.’

“This music that we’re talking about was part of their (Kimbrough’s and Burnside’s) daily routine. It was something they did whether or not they profited from it. It was part of their culture. They were born into it and that is part of who they were,” he said. “I was a tourist in that world. But I was treated as graciously and as respectably as can be imagined, by a group of people whose entire lives – and the lives of their families before them – had suffered at the hands of people that looked like me.”

Ricci is currently serving probation for a felony offense that even though he pled guilty to, he says he didn’t even commit – assaulting a police officer. “What I was guilty of was falling asleep outside of a bus station,” he said. “That’s what I was guilty of, but I was charged with assaulting a police officer. That being said, man, if I’d gotten what I deserved (over the years), I’d be in prison for the rest of my life. So I’m lucky to be here; just incredibly fortunate.”

During his Indiana-based confinement the past three years, Ricci has made productive use of his time by teaching harmonica via Skype.

“Yeah, since I’ve been off the road, I’ve taught harmonica, mostly over Skype, and have been involved in several teaching conventions … we had Magic Dick at one,” he said. “Since I couldn’t leave Indiana, I just brought people in here and that was really cool. I found a way to maximize my income, while also getting to stay at home, which has been a blessing.”

Back in the day, a call from Big Al and the Heavyweights turned out to be Ricci’s first real taste of life traveling up-and-down the blues highway.

“That was probably the most important education that I got, especially in the business side of the music. Al didn’t have a booking agent or a record label, so he did all that himself. I was able to watch and see how all that was done and how he kept his books,” he said. “He was pretty cool, because I think he could tell I wasn’t going to be long for his band before I tried it on my own. And rather than trying to keep me down, he tried to help me.”

The reverence and respect that he still has for his one-time mentor – Al Lauro – is one reason that Ricci is planning a move back to his old stomping grounds of Louisiana in the near-future.

“That is one of the main reasons we’re thinking about moving there. Al’s been like a father to me. We’ve had our differences over the years, but who hasn’t had their differences with someone they really care about?” asked Ricci.

Looking back on it now, Ricci realizes that there was so much that he missed out on during his first go-round in the Crescent City. You can bet if he gets chance number-two to reside there, things will be a lot different.

“I’ve always loved New Orleans, ever since I took my first job in Mississippi when I was 20 years old. I was constantly going down there. Largely because of the gay community, but also because of the music and the food and the architecture and the support for the arts,” he said. “I’m a tremendous fan of Louisiana and New Orleans’ culture and people. I wanted to live in New Orleans my whole life and by the time I got there, I went crazy, shooting dope and smoking crack and drinking booze all day. Never once did I go to a Saints game, never once did I get a muffaletta. I missed out on that and I’d like to make up for it.”

Clear-headed and sober, now more than ever, the sense that he belongs to a community is something than Ricci really yearns for.

“It really is. I want to be part of a neighborhood where I know my neighbors and am a part of the community, and I would like that community to be somewhere in Louisiana – preferably New Orleans – which is not where I was born, but which I do consider my home.”

Ricci is also intent upon giving back to the community he lives in this time around.

“I’d like to get really involved in the education process of this. I’d like to get involved with free community service in the way of bringing music into the areas of the city where people might not have money,” he said. “I’d like to do free seminars and I’d like that area to be the city that I have chosen to call home, which is New Orleans. The three years I’ve been imprisoned in Indiana – although they’ve been beautiful and I’ve met some wonderful people – have more than anything taught me what I so easily tossed away. I’d like to give back to that city.”

At the end of the day, regardless of what he does for a living, or even where he lives, the fact that Jason Ricci has once again broken free of the shackles of addiction that have tormented him for so long is indeed remarkable. Hopefully, his continuing road to recovery can serve as an inspiration for others who need a helping hand in what may their darkest hour.

“I’m glad I’m here. What I want to do more than anything with my life – more than music or anything else – is be an example of positive living to other alcoholics and addicts or people that are struggling in any way,” he said. “Whether it be people struggling with terminal illness or sexuality or any of the things I have experience on, I would like to be able to turn some of that pain I’ve caused on other people into some experience that can be beneficial, so that at the very least, I can qualify with someone that thinks that nobody knows them. Maybe they can garner a mustard seed of hope that change is possible, and not only that, but that there is a life here that’s available to all of us that’s beyond our wildest dreams.”

Visit Jason’s website at www.mooncat.org.

Photos by Arnie Goodman © 2015

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