(Translated from German.)
Vienna Blues Festival Spring Revisited
“A voice, a groove and two slide guitars.” So Delta Moon characterizes their sound. And this is undoubtedly unusual in today’s Blues scene. One slide guitar, yes. But two? Even more so when one of the guitarists, Tom Gray, prefers to play lap steel? When Tom Gray and Mark Johnson decided to make a common musical project, both already had solid experience in the business. Johnson’s uncle owned a record store, and Mark started playing guitar in high school. The early nineties he came to Atlanta and focused increasingly on the bottleneck style. It was he who made Tom Gray familiar with the many shades of blues. The latter had already made a name not only with his rock band but also as a songwriter — a parallel to Earl Thomas. Among others, he wrote for Manfred Mann, Carlene Carter, Bonnie Bramlett and for Cyndi Lauper, whose hit “Money Changes Everything” he wrote. In 2003 eventually came the professional launch of Delta Moon. The band — then still with a female singer — entered the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis and won the prestigious competition.
“Songwriting Is My Livelihood.” – Tom Gray
When did Delta Moon form?
It was in the nineties. There is no fixed date. It was a gradual process. Mark and I jammed together now and then, and at some point he suggested we play at a coffee house on the corner. We started as a trio with a singer, then we added percussion, drums and bass, and we started to play in clubs. It was great fun, but we didn’t take it all too seriously, until about the beginning of the 2000s. After we won the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2003, the tours really got going. In 2004 the singer left us. We hired a new vocalist, but she left a year later. So I decided to take over the vocals myself.
How did you meet Mark?
At a music store of an acquaintance. I wanted to sell an old Dobro from the 1930s. The owner said he could not pay me much for the guitar, but I should try a guy who was also there in the store. And he pointed to Mark (laughs) who at first was interested, but then not. (laughs)
Before that you were working a long time as a musician. How did you start?
I started as a teenager in high school, playing in bands at parties of friends, in the church, in dance bands, and then I started earning money with it. In the late seventies I had a rock band, The Brains, for which I wrote all the material. We made some albums for Mercury Records.
Then why did you switch to the Blues?
This is hard to explain. I love the slide guitar, the lap steel. This instrument is often associated with Hawaii, but there is much of it in Blues. Mark comes from the classic bottleneck style. We got together, jamming, swapping licks, and that was actually the starting point of the band. At one time I was working in Nashville in the country scene. I rummaged in a shop for vintage guitars, and they had a back room full of lap steel guitars. I needed such an instrument for the project I was working on. So I slept on it overnight, went back the next morning and bought an exquisite lap steel, which, incidentally, I still own today, and began to learn to play. In the Blues I was inspired by Elmore James, Muddy Waters and especially Blind Willie Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Mark introduced me to countless other influences, since he was already deep into the Blues at home. He came from Ohio to Georgia. In the American South people from the North have the reputation of being somewhat rude. And in fact, Mark had at that time a band called “The Rude Northerners”! (laughs)
Did the IBC influence your career?
Certainly! It made our name known. The reputation of having won the IBC is a big deal. That year we got an invitation to the Montreal Jazz Festival and performed in England for the first time. Then we played at a festival in Italy, and it turned out that the founding meeting of the European Blues Union was held at the same hotel we stayed in. This led to appearances in Scandinavia, etc.
And what about with the club scene in the States?
Earlier you could work in the clubs for the whole week. Today it is reduced mainly to Friday and Saturday. So you try to work in the area near where you live, because the money does not allow you to sit around the rest of the week in a hotel room. You usually must drive home again after the gigs. In Europe, it’s a little easier to put together tours for several weeks. The times when you could travel for four or five weeks playing clubs in the States are over. This band has never experienced these times.
How would you define your style?
Our style reflects great respect for the traditional blues. At the same time we have found a lot of influences from our personal experiences, our life. Blues must be truthful. Merely copying other musicians, even great historical models, is not enough. Otherwise you will never come to your own sound. The fact that we use two slide guitars naturally contributes to our originality.
What does the Blues mean to you personally?
Blues for me is the foundation of the American music of the past 100 years, rock-and-roll, jazz, etc. A beautiful aspect of this is that we all go to the source and make it our own. The music can stay fresh.
You’ve written a lot of songs for other artists. How important is songwriting to you?
Without songwriting I would not be here, I would not be able to be on stage. Songwriting is my livelihood! It is something like my “day job”, but I love it, too. The inspiration for a song is a wonderful thing, even if it is not always there. I think it was the writer Somerset Maugham who, when asked whether he wrote by set schedule or waited for inspiration, said: “I wait for inspiration, and fortunately it strikes every morning at nine clock.” (Laughs) That’s how I feel about songwriting. It is work.
How does the new album differ from the previous?
Low Down is rockier. Before the penultimate album I had cancer, spent a long time in hospital, then for a while had to sit onstage, and so the songs I wrote were rather introspective. But now I’m back on my feet, and we wanted to rock again.
Can one still make money with records?
I’m still trying to figure that out! (Laughs)