Paying the Blues Dues

When I close my eyes and think of Michael Jackson (who, by the way, is my age), I prefer to remember the 6-year-old of the Jackson 5, singing "ABC" or "I Want You Back." And Stevie Wonder, who has grown into his musical ambassadorship nicely, was once not only "little," but also talented and sweet.

These child-musicians, and others like them, oozed innocence even as they sang about the emotions of adults.

That’s not the case any more. The music biz promotes the "worldliness" and adulthood of its teen-age prodigies. Gone are the sugar-sweet lyrics by "teen-agers in love," now replaced by adolescents whose recordings require a lyric warning. The refrains of rebellion, sexual expression, and angst in the face of self-discovery are anything but subtle.

Country music phenom LeAnn Rimes draws on all of her 14 years of life to inform us that her man "makes me feel like a natural woman/I know he’s the only one who can rock my world." Teen-age band Silverchair covers much the same ground in the rock music scene, and R & B has its own in Immature.

The blues offer a little something else. Three popular bluesmen spent the spring finishing up high school projects. They are paying their dues in the blues industry, filling in the space cleared by pioneers B.B. King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Highly hyped 19-year-old sensation Kenny Wayne Shepherd of Shreveport, Louisiana, kicked off this run with his accomplished release Ledbetter Heights (Giant Records, 1995). With a father who’s a major radio promotions personality, Kenny grew up in the recording world—sitting at the feet of greats Vaughan and King.

Although Shepherd does not offer vocals on Heights, he does collaborate on the lyrics. "Deja Voodoo," the best known of the singles on his debut, is faithful to the blues tradition but in his own words: "Here it comes again/I don’t stand a chance/soul possession/Got me in a trance/Pullin’ me back to you—/Deja voodoo."

Shepherd’s guitar work shines on the instrumentals "While We Cry" and the title track, featuring a burning rock riff that, as the last tune on the recording, compels you to hit the restart button. While his solos often start flat, Shepherd eventually builds wonderful three-dimensional, emotion-filled expressions. And opening track "Born With a Broken Heart" offers a memorable hook for blues aficionados.

Monster Mike Welch of Boston recently released his second major CD, Axe to Grind (Tone-Cool Records/ Rounder Records Group, 1997), a follow-up to his debut, These Blues are Mine. Songs like "Palm of Her Hand" and "Every Time You Lie" are reminiscent of that period when the influence of the blues on rock was most evident. With this solid recording, Welch is a talent to keep your eyes on.

Out of this small pack of young greats emerges my vote as the heir apparent to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s blues legacy. Originally hailing from Fargo, North Dakota, Jonny Lang now calls the Twin Cities of Minnesota his home.

His first major-label release, Lie to Me (A & M Records, 1996), showcases what Lang can be. When this 16-year-old is on, he is really on. Having followed him for a couple of years now, I can say he is on with increasing frequency.

Starting with the opening track, "Lie to Me," Lang exudes passion for the music, whether covering Sonny Boy Williamson ("Good Morning Little School Girl") or offering his own ("Missing Your Love"). Although obviously immersed in "the tradition," nothing explains the yearning he conveys, in both his stern-jaw vocals and his economical guitar work.

THIS SUDDEN TURN toward younger musicians is really no surprise. The entertainment industries are in great flux, and the world of popular culture does not do well with uncertainty.

Technology is advancing at such a pace that entertainment execs’ heads are spinning. And some, with no desire to revisit the VHS vs. Beta conflict, are opting out of the Hardware Wars. Willing to wait until the smoke clears over the variety of delivery systems (cable, satellite dishes, laser disks, CD-ROM), some industry reps are putting their money into the software—the living, breathing human beings whose creativity and acumen drive the show biz deal.

Many of these young people are being signed to multirecord deals, even before they release a single disc. (Lang signed a four-recording deal with A & M Records at his debut, and A & M execs are already expressing a desire to extend the relationship.) These folks may become established talents, developing the maturity to survive whatever changes come their way.

"Synergy" is the talk of the town and, seemingly, the wave of the future, not to mix metaphors. The desire for vertical integration of hardware and software has created huge entertainment monopolies. But even though the Big Boys can stack the system so that their delivery systems have the best chance of winning out, if their material is vapid, they have no future.

Hence, the search for that winning star, the next Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, or Stevie Ray Vaughan—and the younger, the better. Sign them to an extended deal now, and keep your head low. With these experiences behind them, young musicians really will have paid their dues.

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"Paying the Blues Dues"
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