Featured Interview – Lionel Young

Lionel Young is a violin-playing bluesman from Colorado, and as such, his understanding of inter-planetary travel is probably somewhat limited.

However, he understands plenty about the wondrous – and propulsive – powers that music possesses, even though he doesn’t work for NASA and has yet to set foot aboard a spacecraft.

Better than a galactic tour guide ever could, he explains:

“Well, you know if (Jimi) Hendrix would have lived five years longer, we’d probably be on the planet Saturn by now. I hope to be able to take people to other worlds,” he recently said, while enjoying a brief respite from the rigors of the road. “I would love to be like Hendrix and give people the feeling that if I keep going, maybe we’ll get to see Saturn some day. You know if he (Hendrix) were still alive, I really believe we would have contacted aliens by now and the world would be a peaceful place. But for me, Hendrix made it possible to dream about playing the blues on the violin.”

Lionel Young did more than just dream about playing the blues on the violin. He practically changed the game and set the template for playing blues on the fiddle. In addition to that, Lionel Young has the rare distinction of being the only double-winner in the history of the International Blues Challenge (IBC). He took first place in the solo/duo category in 2008 and then followed that up with an impressive top finish in the band division back in 2011. And as one might guess, things are different these days than there were back in the pre-IBC days for Mr. Young.

“It’s totally changed …changed more than I expected it would. And some of the changes are negative. A lot of the things that I used to enjoy doing, I can’t do anymore. I really enjoyed teaching and I had a lot of students. I found that was part of my calling,” he said. “And I haven’t been able to be in one place enough to be able to teach. But somewhere down the line, I want to be able to do that at a high level. I think I’ve got something to offer to today’s modern musicians.”

But, as Young goes on to explain, there have also been plenty of positives garnered from capturing the IBC.

“The good side of it is I’ve had lots of opportunities come my way that probably wouldn’t have had I not been successful (at the IBC),” he said. “But in the end, the more valuable thing I’ve gotten hasn’t had anything to do with winning or losing; it’s had more to do with the people I’ve met and the friends that I’ve made. That’s way, way, way more important than winning or losing.”

If you stop to think about it, it was a fairly risky proposition – career-wise – for Young to take a stab at winning the band division after taking first place in the solo-duo category. He actually could have lost more ground than he had already gained, especially in his own eyes, had he not come home with a top-flight finish.

“I did have a lot to lose. If I had gone and didn’t happen to win, it would have been like, ‘Wow! Who’s this guy who’s already won once?’ And I wouldn’t have been satisfied with that,” he said. “The main reason I went back and did it again, was the first time I did it, I wanted to do it with a band. But my band that I had at the time didn’t want to go. I paid them well and told them this was a situation where we don’t get paid and they didn’t understand that.”

So Young entered the solo/duo competition and won, even though a few around his local stomping grounds may not have been totally impressed with the victory.

“There were also a couple of people in Colorado that were complaining, saying, ‘Well, the only reason he won was because he played a novelty instrument.’ And that got back to me.”

Perceptions aside, Young knew that he would have to be more than just on top of his game for round number-two.

“Going in the second time, I told myself it was going to be even harder, because if people see somebody coming back that already won it, they’re going to want give somebody else a shot. That’s just a natural inclination. I thought that you have to be so good that you can overcome that, too,” Young said. “I thought that might be an imaginary thing on my part, but I found through some of the judge’s scoring that was a real thing, especially locally. I almost … almost approached the second IBC like a sporting event.”

To say that Young was thoroughly prepared when he got to Memphis with his band would probably be an understatement. Not only was his group running like a finely-tuned Ferrari – musically – their mere presence on stage had to catch plenty of eyes, as well. Looking sharper than a serpent’s tooth in their pressed suits, Young and company even switched instruments in mid-song and busted out into full acappella mode, something that’s certainly rare in the blues these days.

“I didn’t do a whole lot of acappella tunes before the IBC, but that kind of grew out of where we did a couple of things where we were singing background vocals for each other, so then we thought ‘Why don’t we just do one whole song that is nothing but vocals?’ Everybody knows we’re instrumentalists – we know we’re primarily instrumentalists – but why don’t we put our instruments down and take a chance, take a risk?” Young asked. “It was fun for us and we all learned a lot and it’s became kind of a standard. People still ask us to do the acappella number that we did at the IBC.”

And as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery …

“Well, after that, there were a lot of people dressed in red and black and white … I saw a lot of bands looking like that,” he laughed. “And a lot of them started walking into the audience singing and grabbing other instruments, but I had no idea this would turn into an off-shoot.”

The visual effect that his show has long delivered is just the icing on the cake. The full-meal deal that Young and his band serves up is all about the music, a splendid blending of the blues with New Orleans jazz, bee-bop, funk and even hints of country at times.

“I’ve got a lot of influences and I don’t mean to betray any of them. I want to include all of them, but I can’t. But with the blues Nazis that are out there, if you branch out into funk, or make it too jazzy, some people will get upset,” Young said. “But you can’t worry about that. You just have to do what you do.”

Young’s reach on the blues world extends way beyond the borders of Colorado, or the city limits of Memphis. He has rapidly developed a worldwide following and this really seemed to hit home on a trip to China last year for an event that the University of Shang-Hi and Beijing collaborated on.

“They (the audiences in China) knew more about my music than most Americans do. Some of the songs I’ve written are politically-based; there’s a song that’s not on any of my CDs about the big oil spill that we had in the Gulf. They asked me about that. I think the song was on an album that Bob Margolin put out and had an involvement with the Wetlands (Foundation). So in China, they had that song … they had it and I’ve barely got it; it’s on my computer,” he said. “Then I wrote a song that’s basically about George Bush before the 2008 election called “There’s a Devil in the White House.” But you know, when I think about it now, he’s (Bush) just a person, but at the time I was upset about being in a war that I thought we had no business being in. And they (the audiences in China) asked me a lot of questions about that. They asked me if I heard from the government over that song. I told them that nobody came after me about it. I played it over there, but also told them that it really doesn’t apply anymore.”

Young has a couple of irons currently in the fire, recording-wise.

“One is pretty done – it’s with my old band – and should come out this summer if I get the finances to finish it. And I’ve been recording some stuff that I’m doing with my new band,” he said. “That stuff is a lot more personal, it really needs to come out. It’s about healing sounds and healing light and healing water. It just seems like the world really needs to be healed and maybe that will help. That’s my intent.”

With the way things are going in this topsy-turvy world currently, Young has not had to scratch very hard or to dig very deep to come up with the inspiration for fresh material. All he’s really had to do is just to look outside his own front door, or even at his TV screen.

“It’s just a complex world right now. I mean, you don’t always have to be a commentator on the world, but the stuff I’ve been writing is a little heavier and a little more … I don’t know, just very personal to me,” he said. “I’m just trying to be really conscious of what’s going on in the world right now. I’m trying to speak to that. It’s (song-writing) my only real vehicle to have a voice on these issues. It’s my way of being able to put out how I feel on a lot of this stuff.”

One of Young’s main influences is the extremely under-rated and immensely-talented Homesick James (who was a cousin to Elmore James). Young had the opportunity to forge a friendship – and play with – James, before his passing in 2006. Another bluesman who is also a bit below the radar, but one who also deserves to be heralded on a much larger level, John Long, is responsible for hooking up Young with James.

“He (Long) was called by Muddy Waters ‘the greatest country bluesman alive,’ after he had opened for Muddy back in the ‘70s. He opened for John Lee Hooker and Bonnie Raitt and sat in with Howlin’ Wolf in Chicago during his ‘60s hey-day,” he said. “He played a lot with Homesick James and he ended up introducing me to Homesick and then we ended up playing with Homesick when he came to Denver back in the ‘90s. Homesick, like Johnny (Long) was a big influence of mine. I listened to Blues on the Southside until I wore the record out. I didn’t understand it, I mean the bass player wasn’t with them and the drummer was kind of on the wrong beat … it was just so free. When he (Homesick) changed, if they (the rhythm section) followed him, great, and if they didn’t, they picked him up a little further down. It’s just really beautiful music … just great. I was just so impressed with how free the music sounded, even though it was deeply steeped in the blues tradition.”

Long has also been a huge ally – and friend – of Young’s, helping him out at a point in his life when such help was truly essential.

“I had a band called the Last Fair Deal and we broke up in like ’91. Johnny took me in and I did gigs with him for like two years. I didn’t really do a whole lot under my own name for awhile. So for a couple of years, I just played with Johnny and I learned so much. It freed me up. He did it Homesick’s way and never used a set-list,” Young said. “You just started a song and if you could hang, great. It was really a rich experience. I look back and say that even though it was a tough time for me, that path was really a good way to go. If I could choose a different way, I don’t think I would. And I’d take the hardship with it, because you learn from it; it’s not like hardship doesn’t teach you anything.”

Young also spent some valuable time with another legend, one that could at times be a bit temperamental and sometimes downright crotchety when he wanted to be – Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown. Young had the good fortune to hang out with Gatemouth on his home turf down in Louisiana on a few occasions, and even brought some instruments along for use in a seminar.

“He was really cool with me. I found out that not only could he play guitar and violin, but he could play harmonica, he could play bass and the squeezebox. He could play the squeezebox really, really well,” said Young. “People didn’t realize that, but he was an all-around musician. Not only did he play blues, he played Cajun music, really well. He had a deep understanding of a lot of musical principles.”

The late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan was the one responsible for really setting the wheels in motion for Young’s friendship with Gatemouth.

“I met Stevie in a couple of different situations and was able to talk with him for awhile. I first met him at a record store in Boulder and told him that I did a lot of his tunes on the fiddle. He took me aside in the record store and started talking to me about Gatemouth,” he said. “Stevie said, ‘You’ve got to seek out Gatemouth’ … and he told me about his brother, Widemouth. The next thing you know, I’m meeting Gatemouth and going to New Orleans and hanging with him really heavily. I always wanted to tell Stevie that I sought out Gatemouth and it was really cool – it was like I was fulfilling what he told me to do. The last time I saw him (SRV) was in Denver when he was on a tour with Joe Cocker in 1990. They allowed me to go backstage and Stevie remembered me. I thought, ‘Whoa, this is a really cool guy.’ As far as his playing goes, he just played so furious. It was like he was playing for his life.”

New Orleans is where Young’s family roots are firmly planted, and as he tells it, music of all kinds is as important to the Crescent City as the very earth that the city is built on.

“You go around New Orleans and that’s one city in the United States that doesn’t feel like the United States, first of all. It feels different,” he said. “I’ve been enough places, and New Orleans – it’s a little like Paris with all the iron railings, but you hear music there and it’s in a different time/space continuum; you’re not on this planet anymore. Or, you’re in a place on the planet that doesn’t necessarily fit in with the rest.”

Young is a classically-trained musician and even though at first look that might seem to be in direct conflict with a lot of the forefathers of the blues, and the way that they learned how to play their instruments, Young says not so fast on that theory.

“Lonnie Johnson – a guy who influenced T-Bone (Walker) and B.B. King and Chuck Berry, along with a lot of others – he was a classically-trained violinist. And of course there’s Sugarcane Harris and Bo Diddley, he played the violin before he played the guitar,” Young said. “It’s been there. Then there’s Anne Harris who plays with Otis Taylor. She’s classically-trained. But you know, it don’t matter how you learned, because there are classically-trained people that can’t play classical music. There are plenty of those. They haven’t reached the level where they can make you feel something.”

Making people ‘feel something’ is a skill that Young has become quite adept at over the years. That skill may involve being able to play the notes scribbled on a piece of paper, but that’s hardly where that skills starts. Its origins are much deeper than that.

“It (the music) has to be in you to begin with. It has to be there. You’ve got to have love for it. If you could take it with you in your casket, you would. Your love for the music has to show,” he said. “With real love for the music, there’s nothing you can’t do, there’s just no limit. If you don’t have that love, no matter how hard you try and how close you get, it’s just not going to be satisfying enough. I do love classical music, but I’ve been in love with blues since I can remember.”

Who knows – maybe sometime in the near future, the International Blues Challenge might unveil a third category (not counting the ‘youth’ division) for competition, giving Young an opportunity to become the first three-time winner in the annals of the event. However, don’t expect him to be setting on his hands waiting for that moment to happen. His goals are much simpler – and much more important – than that.

“Yeah, I’m really not awards-centric, or anything like that. I mean, if a BMA or a Grammy were to come my way, that would be cool,” he said. “But I’m much more interested in being a good influence and making good music. That’s what’s important; that and helping to lift up those that influenced me. That’s the important things.”

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