AN INTERVIEW WITH ALISSA HIRSH
Jimmy Wayne Garrett talks creative process, personal history, and his brand-new album, Town on the Mountain
By: Alissa Hirsh
Before our conversation, Arkansas musician Jimmy Wayne Garrett had never been on a Zoom call. He’s an independent spirit who enjoys defying musical boundaries, yet feels called to help preserve the blues tradition.
Since getting fired from guitar lessons as a teenager, the long-haired rocker has come a long way. He’s performed at major blues competitions, recorded two blues albums, and released an acoustic album just this month.
We sat down for Jimmy’s first virtual interview to talk about the making of his acoustic album, Town on the Mountain.
Jimmy opened up about his philosophy on life and music: What it means to be a great guitar player, the transcendence born out of live performances, and the hidden ways in which social media is stealing magic from our lives.
Note: The following are excerpts from a longer conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Let’s start where we’re at in life right now: What did you miss about performing live when venues were closed during quarantine? How has it felt getting back to live performances?
I disliked nearly everything about not being able to perform. The rules are obscene. When I have gotten to perform, it’s been good…but it’s been a little awkward, because people are awkward now.
Would you tell us about the roots of your love for the blues?
It started with Led Zeppelin. They played a show at Madison Square Garden and it was just so… alive, you know? They were really letting it hang loose.
So I thought OK, Led Zeppelin is rooted in the blues. And this “Traveling Riverside Blues” song is actually a Robert Johnson song. So I’m going back in time now to [learn about] Robert Johnson.
My love for the blues had to grow. It took me a while to soak it all in. Around 2015 I went to the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas and got to see a bunch of older guys play. And I just felt something sorta like…ghosts, that were needing this story to keep being told.
I was like: Man, they’re gonna be gone soon and then what’s gonna happen to these stories? And not only the stories, but the blues is more of a feeling, you know?
The blues is old school. But whenever you play it with a relevant, contemporary perspective, but keep the roots in there—it moves people.
It sounds like you really felt a sense of ownership toward what the older generation was doing. What made you want to be the one to carry the torch?
Oh man. I don’t wanna be the only one to carry the torch. I wanna be part of the team of people carrying the torch. I guess I feel gifted with the ability to play music and so the question is: Do I just keep that gift over here, or do I share it?
And with the blues, there’s not a more American kind of thing. The blues has changed culture in ways that nothing else has, ever since it became a thing in the ‘30s and ‘40s. It was born out of the Delta and sharecropping. People who weren't rich sing the blues. There’s all that emotion that comes with being a servant of people—not by choice.
And then there’s also the angle that many of these people were servants of God, by choice.
Blues is not a sermon of hope all the time. It’s just a sermon of whatever you got going on. There’s the obligation to tell the story. It’s rooted in religion in a way, but it’s also just rooted in passing on stories through oral tradition.
I know you went to Church growing up and that it influenced your music. Would you share a bit about that?
Going to Church was fun because it was with a bunch of other kids. Your family’s always there, and you’re learning about things that are mostly good morals to have.
When I got a little older, I began to think about the things that I didn’t like about Church. Like how it’s really hung up on being dead. That’s fuckin’ weird man. How all the glory’s gonna come when you’re dead. Cause it didn’t line up with what Jesus would teach, how we also gotta be enjoying the thing [this life] while we’re here.
With the music, I grew up Baptist. So there was always music in Church. It was almost country type. We had hymns that were real standard, but they liked to throw a little country swagger and call it Southern Gospel.
In your recent albums, your guitar playing stands out as a real strength. How did you get so good at the guitar?
When I was 13, my parents got me guitar lessons with a teacher named Larry Hight. So I was tinkering around on the guitar and I was proficient, but I wouldn’t have said I was like, good at it yet.
One day my teacher said, “What do you wanna learn next?” I said, “I wanna learn to read music.”
Well, it takes like two weeks, and I guess I wasn’t making any progress, because Larry goes, “Look, we're done here. Anything you wanna learn you can go learn it on your own.” I’m like: This is fucked up. I’ve gotten fired from guitar lessons.
It took me probably nine months to pick the guitar back up and start writing songs. At this point, I knew all these scales, but it didn't all click. Until one day I was jamming with my band and I just had this epiphany like: Oh, we’re in this key and that’s the root note of the key, and I can go tell this big long story as long as I bring it back around to that root note. I’d been playing guitar for eight or nine years before that happened!
Then I go off to the King Biscuit Blues festival to see these older guys play. And they’re doing very little with the guitar as far as notes and strumming is concerned. But it is so powerful.
On that same trip, I heard a guitar player say, “I saw B.B. King do more with one note than I’ve done with my whole music career.” At that moment my guitar playing took this turn like: You don't have to play the fastest and you don't have to play the best. You just have to tell your story.
It’s tricky because you don’t wanna force your ego onto the music. You wanna just let it be the conduit for what's happening. And when you’re in that little pocket, that's where the magic is at, and that's what people need to see.
For those who are just getting to know your music, would you summarize the last few years of your career. What kind of path have you been on?
Well. So in 2014 I got…arrested for selling pot. It was a transformative experience because—
How much pot were you selling?
Not as much as you would think for the trouble that I was being offered. It was a moment when I almost went to prison for six years. And I thought: Oh my god, I can either let the system change my life or I can take control of this fuckin’ thing.
It got relaxed to this program called drug court where you might have to piss in a cup every day. It put me in touch with my addictions. And when people weren’t coming by every hour to get pot, I had a lot of time to think about who were really my friends and more importantly—why I was selling pot. I had lost my direction. I wasn't doing jack shit.
And so I joined up with this band, the West Street Blues Band. I told my boss at this restaurant that I quit. And he said: “What are you gonna do man? How are you gonna pay your bills?” I told him I couldn’t pay my bills working for him, so if I’m gonna be broke, I’d rather be broke playing music.
We went to a blues competition locally and won. And we went to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge and the King Biscuit Blues Festival to perform on the street. That all happened within four months. I wasn't making money. I was figuring it out.
Things went south with that band. So I said: Fuck it, I’m gonna make my own band. Fall of 2016 is when we [Jimmy Wayne Garrett and the Liberty Bell] recorded Confession Blues live at the city auditorium here in Eureka.
Then the politics of keeping a band together got really complicated and people’s egos got up in the mix. So I thought: I have all these acoustic songs that I’ve just been carrying around. And Tyler Childers was a big influence on deciding that an acoustic album was the next thing I was gonna do. So I thought about my friends here in Eureka—the Buffalo Gals—who play the fiddle and bass. And I thought: They're the backup band! I’m gonna holler at them.
What was it like working with the Buffalo Gals?
It's a very visceral experience to get together as musicians. We did a one-hour rehearsal together and then the next day we recorded 15 songs, seven of ‘em before lunch. That’s so unheard of.
We played the first song once, and I guess everyone was expecting me to drag us through four or five more takes, but I said, “Alright, that’s good, let’s move on.” And they were like, “What?” And I was like, “Look—my vocals aren’t gonna get that much more impressive. I’m not embarrassed about how I played the guitar. Is anybody embarrassed about how they played their instrument?” And they were like, “No.” And that set the vibe to let the music happen. We all have talent, we just have to let it happen.
*Jimmy pauses, his head shooting out of the Zoom square. Something else has caught his attention.*
Let me yell at my son real quick. There’s screaming coming from inside our house.
*Jimmy returns a few moments later, his son’s screaming now subsided.*
You must have some good Dad stories at this point.
So the first song on Town of the Mountain is called “Down This Road.” The chorus is:
I’m going down a road I said I was never gonna go down again
Which had a deep meaning eventually. But what it started as, is I have this stool that I would take to gigs at the [supposedly haunted] Crescent Hotel in town. My son was trying to climb on [the stool] but somehow it kept falling on him. I'm just playing the guitar trying to be funny, and something comes out how he’s: “Going down this road that he doesn't wanna go down.” Because he keeps dropping the thing on his head.
And I told my lady: There’s something in that line.
Then I wrote a verse reflecting her perspective on living in Eureka, because she's from here, coupled with the feeling that I have about the town. It's kinda fun in the summertime, you know, there’s always stuff to do. And then I hunt here in the winter, but outside of that, you get these doldrums where it’s like: What the fuck are we doing in this town? There’s nothing happening here.
And then the next winter rolls around and you're like…I told myself that we were gonna get out of here!
What is Town on the Mountain really about?
The album is a big collaboration of songs from 2009 up until last October, when I wrote “Down this Road.” There’s no big meaning that ties it together, but all the songs were written about home, while I was living in Fayetteville, Arkansas or Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
People call Fayetteville, “The Hill.” And over there I had this thought about how every city has its political issues. You know, the mayor’s not letting the bars do this, and the town gossip that goes on. Then in conversation people will say, “Fayetteville is really going downhill” or “Eureka’s going downhill.” And they talk about the town like it's the thing that’s fucking up. Like it's the thing that's making the mistakes. But it’s not. It’s not the town.
And so that’s the feeling with [the title track] “Town on the Mountain." I’m asking the town: How does it feel to be blamed?
What’s something you learned in the making of this album?
It reaffirmed that you should be working with people who are so talented that they make you feel like you aren't even worthy of working with them.
I don't know if it's just me, but I have to set myself up with really hard things to do. Things where it’s like: I don’t even know if I can do this. That pressure is what gets me elevated.
You have a song on the album called “Facebook is Dead,” a satire of our addiction to Facebook. Can you share an experience that has disillusioned you with social media?
That song came about because of a previous band. I was over at the lead singer’s house rehearsing, and when she updated her phone, the Facebook app disappeared. She thought that meant her whole alter ego had disappeared.
I watched her have a legitimate nervous breakdown. So I sat down with her guitar and I just sang to her dog, making up lyrics.
My thing with Facebook is that it’s taking away really important things in life and it’s not giving back.
There was this chick I used to sell pot to. Really tall, good-looking chick. We were good friends, but I hadn’t seen her in years. One day, me and the Missus are having dinner at this park in Fayetteville and I see that chick come outside. So we walk over there, and I’m wanting it to be like: "Look at my amazing thing I got going on here. Look at my lady, look at my son, and surprise, haven’t seen you in a long time.”
As I walk up, she goes, “This is your son, huh? I saw some pictures of him on Facebook!” And I’m like —Fuck! That ruined this moment of, “Wow that's your son? Wow, nice to meet you!” Because she felt like she had already met him. It stole some magic from the situation.
Do you have a favorite part of the writing process?
My favorite part is performing, because it’s a big release. The hard shit is to write the song. Because you gotta get out of your own way. You got this idea about what you wanna say, but you're thinking: I gotta change it in this way, and I don't wanna bare myself that much, and I gotta broaden the subject so more people can relate to it.
I enjoy letting it go. When I’m performing, I try to think back to the moment of inception. I have this song about being in love with an older woman. But that time [in our lives] has moved on. So there’s this moment that I think about, when I was standing in the doorway and she was out in the grass outside my apartment. And I just think about the feeling I had in that moment as I'm performing.
So, my favorite part of the writing process is when the writing is honest enough to re-live moments. I’ve definitely broken down and cried. I can’t say that it’s sadness, it’s just back to the “release” thing.
It happens with the guitar too. My guitar playing is like walking out on a plank. If the band’s not back there holding the other end of the plank down, I'm gonna fall off. But there are these moments when I'm walking out on the plank, and then all the sudden the band is walking out on the plank too. And I'm like: We’re all out here, who is holding it down back there?
There’s this feeling of: You're not alone. There's something greater that's holding that plank down for everybody to get out on the edge. That's a sweet feeling.
My last question is about the blues. What do you think the blues offers that no other genre of music can offer?
I don't think that I’ve chosen blues as consciously as that. Because Town on the Mountain is so different from the blues.
My guitar teacher cautioned me not to listen to shitty music. He said, “You’re gonna be doomed to your influences.” So I wanna help curate and preserve the blues.
I choose the blues because I don’t have to get out there and pretend that I’m something else.
You know, some people build things in a computerized way. And then there's the hammer and a chisel way of doing something. I enjoy that manual work part of music. The blues has that built into it.
There's a human spirit in the blues that's really naked and exposed. There's nowhere to hide in there. And I like that.