Featured Interview – Jim Suhler

Dallas native Jim Suhler has been making a big Texas-sized sound in and around his home state as well as all over the world for a lot of years with no signs of slowing down.

He’s of the generation who cut their teeth on the classic bands of the day like The Allman Brothers, The Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin and ZZ Top. Then they worked their way back to the origins of the Blues-based music they grew up listening to.

“I got my first guitar when I was about 14,” Jim recalls. “It was a little $50 Harmony which I still have. I’ve been playing nearly 40 years now. The early rock bands were the ones I heard that really turned my crank. Like a lot of guys my age who do what I do. They’re retroactive with the influences.

“I’d probably have to start with The Allman Brothers “Live at the Fillmore” because that was a big inspiration. A place to learn. You know, those licks. I can still play a lot of that stuff. There’s a lot to be learned there like dynamics and the way the band plays together. So many great ideas and songs there. Of course, the recording itself is fantastic. Duane Allman and Dickie Betts were two guys early on.

“When I first started playing I liked Lynyrd Skynyrd a lot. Their stuff was real simple and direct. It wasn’t that hard to learn. It was simple music but it was done really well. Freddie King, Rory Gallagher, Billy Gibbons, Johnny Winter, David Gilmore. I liked AC/DC a lot. Peter Green. There were just a lot of guys back then. I can’t even name them all. The Beatles were a band I listened to first. Those are like my entry period influences. I don’t think you’re going to hear a band like The Allman Brothers again because that was a different time. That was how people connected. Those guys lived together. They did everything together. I just don’t think you can get that kind of commitment these days. There are just too many variables in other places, technological, societal or whatever. I hope you’re following me but I think that was the real cause in its time. The perfect storm of people and places. Those two guys (Duane and Dickie) were great influences on me as far as soloing and stuff. The patterns and phrasing I use. That record (Fillmore) still inspires me. I still listen to it.”

Many artists claim they came by the Blues as a matter of course. Some say they choose it and some say it chose them.

“I guess it chooses you,” Jim says. “But I chose to listen to it and enjoy it. Once I was exposed to it. It’s something that’s familiar to me. I like arranged music a lot but I also like the most simple, direct thing. That gut thing. I don’t mean simple-minded simple but there’s a beauty in that. The simple, direct stuff.”

After spending his formative years in and out of various bands in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area Jim started his long-lasting group, Monkey Beat, in the early ‘90s and still fronts them today.

“We went through a couple of drummers before we made our first recording in the spring of ’92,” Jim said. “It came out in ’93. The bass player was Carlton Powell and the drummer was Paul Hollis. Paul was with the band up until about 2002 and Carlton, the bass player was with me until this year. He’d been with me for 23 years. Our new guy’s name is Chris Alexander from Austin. We’ve played just a few gigs with him. We have some more booked. We love Chris. His energy. His ability. His musicality. His personality is wonderful. He’s a real good addition to the band. His nice to have that new energy he brings. With all due respect to Carlton, we couldn’t have done it without him. But this is another chapter and I’m excited about what we’re gonna do.”

To add another dimension to Jim’s busy schedule, he’s also the lead/rhythm player in the seminal Blues rock band George Thorogood & The Destroyers, a job he’s held since 1999. George came on the scene in the early ‘70s and has stayed viable for more than 40 years.

“He (Thorogood) is part of the Monkey Beat story,” Jim said. “I first met him in a bar in Memphis. I was playing at Huey’s with an earlier band I had. This was in 1990 and he was recording his “Boogie People” album at Ardent Studios which is two blocks from the bar. He came in that night to eat and drink and he really dug what I was doing and what the band was doing. We talked and he told me his producer, Terry Manning, would love us. We all said our good byes and went our separate ways. About a year later I had somebody to do a CD. In the back of my mind I remembered what George said about his producer.

“I sent Terry Manning a demo. It was probably a cassette at that time and asked him if he would produce it. I was shocked when he said he would. This is the guy who engineered the classic ZZ Top albums line “Rio Grande Mud” and “Tres Hombres.” He had worked with Aretha Franklin and all the Stax records. We were just stunned when he said he would do it. We went up and did the record with Terry in Memphis and it came out. Then we went on tour opening for George in 1993. That was like the opening salvo.

“Then Terry moved to Nassau in the Bahamas and took over Compass Point Studios,” Jim said. “That’s a studio where AC/DC, Bob Marley and The Rolling Stones did a lot of recording. So we got to go down there and do our second album. We used Jim Gaines to produce our third record. It’s my favorite. It’s called “Bad JuJu.” I’ve done a lot of stuff with Monkey Beat and done collaborations with Alan Haynes and Mike Morgan.”

Most guys just starting out never dream they will end up on stage with their heroes at any time during their careers. Many of them “get a haircut and get a real job” before any of that happens.

“Initially when you’re just getting out and playing in public it’s a good thing to play with people who have influenced you and inspired you locally,” Jim said. “In Dallas, where I grew up, Bugs Henderson was here. There was a guy named Rocky Athus, who’s now playing with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Those guys. Then getting to hang out with them and learn from them and then hopefully get a positive word from them. Just the opportunity to be there and be a part of it, that’s the really cool thing about this whole job. Everybody inspires everybody. It’s all connected. Bugs Henderson was the first guy I got into locally on his guitar level. Then there’s Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan. You can’t escape that influence here. Stevie was great time and is a legend now and deservedly so, but there were a lot of great players around here then.

“I’ve definitely had a classic rock influence with a Blues sensibility,” Jim says. “I don’t profess to be a great Blues guitarist or even call my band a Blues band but my style is probably more a rock sound. I want to bring something fresh from Blues and do it without desecrating it. (Laughs)”

Playing in two acclaimed bands might seem to be a daunting undertaking for some. Jim takes it in stride and says playing with Thorogood is nothing like his band and he is able to keep the two separate with little stress.

“George probably has a more narrow range musically,” Jim said. “It’s a rock show and it’s entertainment. I have a lot more flexibility with respect to my band. George has a set of hit songs that he’s expected to play. I don’t have any hit songs so I can play whatever I want with Monkey Beat. George only does 12-13 songs in a set. You try to approach it professionally. Maybe you’re tired or not feeling well you put on a good show no matter how I feel. Sometimes you just gotta dig in play. You just got some bad news or somebody just passed away or you’ve got a stomach virus. You’ve got to go out and play and not let it show. I come out and open shows for George. That might be the biggest challenge with only a 30 minute break between my set and then playing with him. But you’re definitely warmed up when you start the George show.”

Jim is now reached a status where he can name some of the good young players coming up in the business. You might guess that the Texas boys are high on the list.

“I love Johnny Moeller (Fabulous Thunderbirds),” Jim says. “Paul Size (Red Devils). There’s also a young band from Irving called The Peterson Brothers who are really great. I love Gary Clark Jr. I played with him one time in Austin. He’s a very nice, soft-spoken gentleman. I got involved with some guys who opened a club in Dallas called Deep Ellum Blues and I booked the place for one hot minute. Gary’s mother was doing all of his booking at the time and he played there. I don’t remember what we paid him. Booking for a club is not a job I want.”

The Dallas Metroplex has had its share of great musicians and Jim has rubbed shoulders with many of them. Some have passed way before their time should be up.

“I know I was real sad when Bugs (Henderson) died,” Jim said. “He worked hard and always did things his way. I was arguing with a friend and we weren’t speaking. When I heard Bugs had passed I thought ‘I’ve got to call the guy and make it right. I’ve got to patch it up.’ Another one who passed way before his time was Doyle Bramhall. I’m still sad about Doyle.”

Along the way in this diverse musician’s odyssey, Jim Suhler spent 3 1/2 years doing a weekly show playing Blues as a volunteer DJ on a Dallas community radio station, KNON.

“I didn’t get paid,” he says. “Nobody down there did. It’s still on the air 24/7. It offers all different styles of programming. There’s a reggae show. A Blues show. Spanish music. You name it. The first stint I had was from 1-4 a.m. I did that for probably a year, year and a half then I got an 11 p.m. – 1 a.m. spot. I enjoyed it. We did a lot of music on the air. I had Denny Freeman, Sam Myers, Mike Morgan, Hook Herrera, a bunch of people. We’d all go down there and play live on the air. I got to interview Roy Buchanan.”

It appears Jim Suhler has a handle on his life and his musical path. He’s been mentioned by this magazine as one of the up-and-comers on the scene and he’s steadily gaining momentum wherever he plays!

Visit Jim’s website at www.jimsuhler.com

Photos by Arnie Goodman © 2014

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