The blues is a powerful drug. No matter who you are or where you are, when it fills your ears and touches your soul for the first time, you’re hooked for life. It’s true in a country juke and big-city bars. It’s true anywhere across America or anywhere else in the world, too.
Just ask Jose Ramirez.
A singer/guitarist who delivers contemporary tunes steeped with old-school sensibilities, Jose’s one of the fastest rising artists on the scene today despite having been born and raised in San Jose, Costa Rica, where the blues has yet to take root in its rich, volcanic soil.
It’s a true-blue miracle that Ramirez plays the music at all. But man, he does it well – so much so that he was up for debut album of the year in the Blues Music Awards as this article was being written. Although he lost out to King Solomon Hicks, he’s still a major winner no matter the result.
As he announced on Facebook: “In only one year, I got second place in the International Blues Challenge and got my first nomination for a BMA with my debut album. So I can’t complain! Awards come once a year, but touring, recording and working hard happen every day.”
And as he told Blues Blast: “Because I come from Costa Rica, I’m supposed to be a salsa or reggae musician” – both of which are extremely popular in his homeland along with soca, merengue, reggaeton and a local version of calypso. Rock and punk rock are in the mix, too.
But blues? Fuhgeddaboutit!
“You can find blues-rock down there, but it’s mostly just plain rock,” says Ramirez, a polite, confident young man who speaks with only the slightest hint of an accent after attending a bilingual high school and studying to be either an English teacher or hotel administrator at the Universidad Internacional de las Americas.
“When I used to tell people where I’m from and I’m a blues guitar player, they used to think that I — (like many other musicians from his homeland) – was a Stevie Ray Vaughan fan who emulated his music,” Jose says. But I was never that type of player. I was always trying to play the older, older stuff…music that Stevie used to listen…and I came up with my own style along the way.”
The son of parents who love American oldies music, Jose grew up in a country of five million people situated between Nicaragua and Panama in Central America. While the official language is Spanish, a large segment of the population are fluent in English, too, because the nation is a major tourist destination.
“When I was a kid,” he says, “the family business was a bar. They opened it in 1990, two years after I was born, and their specialty was American oldies music. I remember going to help them out at age five or six, and all they’d play all night long was Ray Charles, good old Stax records and Motown. I used to listen to it all the time.
“When I grew older and showed an interest in picking up a guitar and learning to play, my dad said: ‘You know what? If you’re really serious about playing that instrument, the type of music you should study and listen to — before you even pick it up – is blues.”
Johnny Ramirez was a bar owner in a foreign land, but knew inherently that, like most music scholars will tell you, blues provided the life blood of all of the Western music we listen to today.
“It was weird for me,” Jose remembers. “I said: ‘Dad, how am I going to learn the music if I can’t practice on the instrument? I need to play along with what I hear on the records.’
“He was like: ‘No! Not before you listen to it and it kinda gets in your DNA…’”
Ramirez’s first guitar – an acoustic – was a gift from his grandfather at Christmas in 1999. An obedient, only child whose love for his parents is boundless, he followed his father’s instructions, listening to B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, before finally picking up and attempting to play the instrument himself.
“Their sound was so strong, so powerful and so complete that I started listening to every blues record I could find,” he says, “beginning to learn the guitar parts by ear” the old-fashioned way it’s been done in the Delta for more than 100 years – and, quite simply, necessary because there was no one anywhere nearby to give lessons.
Jose’s first visits to the U.S. came as a teen, fulfilling every child’s dream by going to Disney World and also staying with relatives in Tampa and Texas. Despite the allure of Mickey and Donald and all that Orlando had to offer, his most memorable moments came during a three-week stay with a cousin in Dallas at age 16.
“He took me to the blues jams downtown and also in Fort Worth,” he remembers. “I was in love! We went to The Bone in Dallas, a club that no longer exists, where all the blues jams happened back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I remember walkin’ in…and just the vibe in that place, the musicians and the music, the people dancing and just an overall good time…I remember thinking to myself: ‘This is it! This is what I want to do. I don’t know when, but…’
“That was it, man!”
In addition to B.B., Ramirez’s other big influence at the time was Robert Cray. While King set the bar high in the blues world, Robert attracted him because of his ability to blend soul into the mix. His musical foundation expanded gradually through the music of Coco Montoya, Duke Robillard, Eric Clapton, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Jimmie Vaughan, among others.
A true student of the blues, Jose says: “Since I moved here, I’ve learned that Robert Johnson is a very popular character in the blues story and blues history. But I’ve come to learn that there are many other Robert Johnsons out there from back in his time…guys that set the path before him.”
Ramirez’s inner right forearm is graced by a tattoo of Johnson along with words from two of his tunes, “Traveling Riverside Blues” and “Cross Road Blues” – something that intrigues fans the first time they see him. “But it was never meant to be a promotional tool.”
Although his play doesn’t necessarily reflect it, Jose’s now a student of first-generation country blues, too. His current favorites are Son House, Leadbelly, Peetie Wheatstraw and Blind Lemon Jefferson. “The more you listen to one, you start diggin’ for their influences,” he says, “and that dig never ends. It’s like going down a rabbit hole.
“But it helps me to understand the music more today.”
Despite delivering stinging, contemporary music, Ramirez is a traditionalist at heart. “I respect everybody’s job, and we’re all in this together to make a buck,” he insists. “But to be honest, there are a lot of rock musicians out there today who say they’re playing blues.
“It’s music. It’s art, and there are different genres and people can like what they like. And I’m sure that some experts might ask: ‘Do you think that (a first-generation star) would have respected Muddy Waters in the ‘70s?’ Maybe. Maybe not. But if you play blues from the ‘20s or ‘30s and if you play it now, when you play it right, it has the same structure…the same sound, the same root, the same passion.
“You can still mix it with other stuff like soul and R&B and it’ll still sound like straight blues. But when you mix it with rock and hard rock, I don’t know what the word is…it just changes a lot” – and becomes something else entirely.
“I can’t tell you how many times I get in my car and play an old B.B. or Anson Funderburgh record and say ‘this is it!’” Jose adds. “I often wonder why other guys out there claiming to be blues artists are shredding their butts off.”
Ramirez founded the JR Blues Band in his homeland while still in school and toiled trying to make a name for himself. But it was a daunting, impossible task. The few other folks who claimed to “play the blues” didn’t have a clue about the true nature of the music. When he approached club owners for gigs, they wouldn’t give him the time of day. And even when he did get to play, audience response was marginal at best.
Jose’s greatest accomplishment during in the decade he kept at it was a small festival he booked at a club in San Jose. He scraped together enough money to bring Debbie Davies – a lady who cut her teeth working with Albert Collins before launching her own career — down from the U.S. to serve as the headliner with Ramirez’s group backing her up. And although it didn’t make a ripple in the water of the local music scene, it was a real life-changer for him.
“My band had already played a set,” he remembers. “Just before bringing her up, I was sitting in the green room with her and she says: ‘Jose, you’re doing great in your own country, but why don’t you consider moving to the States? The States is all about having a story to tell, and I think you have a great one. If you don’t try, you’ll never know.’
“For me,” Ramirez says, “that’s how it all started.”
Fortunately, his godmother lived in Tampa and agreed to put him up when he entered the country as an adult for the first time five years ago at age 28. “I asked her if I could come and visit for a couple of months. ‘If things work out,’ I told her, ‘fine. If they don’t, I’ll just go back to Costa Rica,’” Jose recalls. “She said: ‘Yeah. I’ve always supported you and your dreams.’
“But I think she didn’t expect for me to be successful (laughs). She thought I was only gonna be there for a month or two.”
It was a great spot to land because of its well-established blues community and a relatively large number of clubs at which to play. And his timing couldn’t have been better.
Three days after he landed, Ramirez crossed paths with singer Lauren Mitchell. A two-time Blues Blast Music Awards nominee with a large following across the Southeast because of her powerful stage presence and a voice that’s reminiscent of Etta James, “her guitar player had quit the night before and offered me a chance to try out for her band,” Jose says.
“It was a crazy coincidence. She auditioned me in front of a live audience a couple of weeks later, liked what she heard, said ‘let’s do it,’ and we worked together for the better part of a year.”
No longer a front man, he relished the chance to continue to learn more about the business and develop his skills as a lead and rhythm guitarist by playing behind someone else. A short while later, he began serving as Lauren’s musical director, and built up more confidence about his voice by singing backup and taking the lead, too. He also worked on his stage presence by studying Sugaray Rayford in action every chance he could.
Unquestionably a risk-taker, Ramirez managed to put together a European tour for himself in 2018 during breaks from Mitchell’s group. He researched places he wanted to play in advance across England, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands then recruited local bands to back him, practicing with them for a week in advance before hitting the road.
When he and Mitchell parted company on pleasant terms a year later, he relocated to Washington, D.C., where he formed his first U.S. band and began working on another overseas tour. His group represented the DC Blues Society in the 2020 International Blues Challenge in Memphis after winning the local competition and wound up in second place overall. Canada’s Horojo Trio – a group that included veteran recording artist JW-Jones – took home the top prize.
As spring approached, things were really looking up for Ramirez. Not only were bookings increasing because of his IBC showing, but he was on the verge of releasing his first CD, Here I Come, an album that was produced by Funderburgh, one of his heroes. They’d developed a strong friendship after first meeting in Bradenton about four years ago.
Funderburgh was in town to play the Bradenton Blues Festival as part of Mark Hummel’s Golden State Lone Star Blues Revue alongside another guitar master, Little Charlie Baty, and they booked a gig at Ace’s, a club that was a regular stop on the blues circuit until shuttering before COVID struck.
“I showed up just wanting to see two of my favorite guitar players ever together on the same stage,” Jose remembers. “For me, it was a dream come true. I introduced myself to Charlie, may he rest in peace. He said: ‘Oh, you’re that little kid from Costa Rica!’ I said: ‘Yeah! I’m no longer a little kid, but I guess I am.’ Immediately, he said: ‘Would you like to play tonight?’
“’Would I like to play? Sure!’ But I explained: ‘I didn’t even bring my guitar. I just came to watch you guys.’ He says: ‘Well, I heard a lot of great things about you. Do you wanna play my Strat?’
“’Are you kiddin’ me?’ I asked. He said: ‘No. It’ll be good for me. I can take a break and drink a beer, and you…you can play a couple of songs with Anson.’”
Baty introduced Ramirez to Funderburgh a few moments later, and before Jose knew what was happening, he was standing on stage with Little Charlie’s ax in hand and undergoing a baptism by fire as he traded riffs with Anson, one of the greatest instrumentalists Texas has ever produced, with Hummel providing harp accents in accompaniment.
“I don’t even think Anson realizes how good he is,” Jose insists today. “He’s such a modest, humble guy. And there’s a reason that Stevie Ray wore T-shirts with his name on ‘em!”
The young Costa Rican and veteran Texan have grown closer ever since, crossing paths on a few occasions and keeping in touch electronically. “A while later, I saw that Anson was producing an album for Italian guitarist Dany Franchi and that he’d started producing them for other younger guys,” Ramirez says. “I said to myself: ‘I’m gonna send Anson a message and say: Hey, I’m ready for my debut album, too.’
“I reached out, and immediately, he said: ‘Jose, I’ve been watching your every move on Facebook, and I’m very proud of you. I would love to produce your record.’
“The sessions took place at Wire Recording Studios in Austin in December 2018, and he put together an unbelievable group of musicians. I was so-o-o honored just to be in the same room with these guys: Jim Pugh (Cray and Etta James) on organ and piano, Wes Starr (Hummel, Gary Primich and Omar & the Howlers) on drums, Nate Rowe (Nouveaux Honkies) on bass and Kaz Kazanoff and the Texas Horns. And it was mixed by Grammy winner Stuart Sullivan (Jimmie Vaughan and Willie Nelson).”
The album was released independently about two months after the IBCs, and Ramirez was set to tour the U.S. and Canada to promote it, but never got the chance. Unable to enjoy an in-person album-release party because of COVID-19, he had to settle for a virtual one thanks to the Can’t Stop the Blues organization on the Facebook platform. He also uprooted himself again to Tampa both to renew old friendships and to take advantage of the local scene as the world returned to normal.
“We had a U.S. tour booked for 30 shows and a European tour that was gonna last two months, and we were going to come back to play Canadian shows during the holidays,” Jose says wistfully. “But then corona said: ‘No, you’re not going anywhere!’”
Despite lack of promotion, the album had major legs of its own. It soared to the top of blues charts internationally and stayed there for pretty much all of the year, earning a nomination for best debut release in the 2020 Blues Blast Music Awards and again in the 2021 BMAs.
Fortunately, Florida never totally shut down during the epidemic, allowing him the opportunity to play infrequently locally. His new band included brothers Andre Reyes Jr. on drums and Antonio on keys – former member of the band Stranded in the City, which represented the Kansas City Blues Society at the IBCs. They relocated to Tampa to join him along with bassist Kenny Watson Jr.
“We all lost a lot last year,” Jose says, looking back. “And we couldn’t play live very often. But part of the prize I won at the IBCs was a six-song recording session at Purple Ridge Recording Studio near Asheville, N.C. We had the studio for ten days, and I decided to bring my band up and produce a new record myself.
“Anson had given me a lot of free will in the studio when we recorded because they were my songs. We kinda co-produced, and I learned a lot. I already had good material to record and thought this would be a good challenge to see if I could produce it on my own.”
The session took place last November, and the Reyes brothers were forced to return to Kansas City because of their uncertain financial situation. Ramirez, meanwhile, returned home and started pitching his new work to labels. “The first one that replied was Delmark,” he says happily. “They were interested in the songs I’d cut, but told me: ‘We want you to come to Chicago and sign a contract with us. We’re going to release a single first and then work on the rest of the album.
“Later this year, they want me to travel to Chicago to record the rest of the album with their musicians to put the Delmark stamp on it, and I’m very excited about that.”
But fans around the world already are enjoying a small piece of that effort.
Remastered by label owner Julia A. Miller in the Windy City, Delmark has already released the single “Whatever She Wants,” a soulful blues burner that might remind folks of material by Bobby “Blue” Bland or Johnnie Taylor. Its theme deals with a love for a woman so enticing that Ramirez will do anything to be with her.
“It’s a very personal song,” says Jose, who’s the label’s first-ever Latin-American blues artist in its 63-year history – surprising because of the strength and depth of the blues world in Brazil and Argentina. “There are composers out there who can write a song based on another person’s story. But when you write one based on your own personal experiences…that just digs deeper into peoples’ hearts.
“I wanted to cut a record that sounded like the music I used to listen to with my dad when I was growing up, and I think this one’s gonna have a lot of that.”
Issued on April 16, the song hit the No. 1 on Billboard’s blues chart 24 hours later.
Jose’s eager to get to Chicago to finish the CD. In the interim, he’s currently booking gigs in Florida with regional musicians and has launched a side project, too: an international blues review that includes a drummer friend from Costa Rica, a bass player from Peru and a keyboard player from Boston.
But big things are on the horizon, he insists. “I’ve been really excited in the last week or so. I’ve now got a booking agent in Germany, and he already has seven shows lined up for October, and we’re working on more. We’re just hoping things continue to improve and don’t close back down again.”
Through it all, Jose remains humbled by the groundswell of encouragement he’s received in the U.S. since his arrival. “I couldn’t be where I am today without the support of everyone – club and festival promoters, the fans who come to the shows, the small clubs, the big clubs,” he says. “I’m looking forward to giving them a great new album on Delmark for them in a few months.”
Learn more about Jose’s music and find out where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.joseramirezblues.com.