Blues (noun): Melancholic music of black American folk origin, typically in a 12-bar sequence. It developed in the rural southern U.S. toward the end of the 19th Century, finding a wider audience in the 1940s as blacks migrated to the cities. This urban blues gave rise to rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
Blues is an omnipresent genre, but it’s rarely in the spotlight. While it’s always acknowledged this “melancholic music” birthed rock ‘n’ roll, modern mainstream rock listeners tend to shun traditional blues. That’s fine with Steve Strongman. As a purveyor and champion of a genre that boasts a legendary line of guitar-slingers – like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Otis Rush – the blues course through Strongman’s veins and flow from his fingers every time he picks up his Gibson electric guitar. The singer-songwriter believes it’s his role to help keep the genre alive, and to educate the masses of what blues really means in the 21st Century.
“We have to continue to push the parameters of what people think blues means, because everything sounds like the blues,” says Strongman, a 2013 JUNO Award winner in the Blues Recording of the Year category (for A Natural Fact). “Even heavy rock stuff is blues-based.”
Strongman’s earned three Maple Blues Awards, and has toured with the legendary likes of B.B. King, Johnny Winter, and Buddy Guy. While Colin James recently returned to his blues roots (Blue Highways), as did The Rolling Stones (Blue & Lonesome), Strongman has always stayed true to his roots – as with his next (and sixth) album, No Time Like Now, which dropped March 10, 2017. The songwriter spoke with us in January 2017 at the Gibson Guitar Showroom in Toronto’s Liberty Village the day the album’s first single, “No Time Like Now,” was released.
“I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan, like many people my age. Then I realized where they were getting everything.”
All Strongman needed to feed his muse, inspire him, and seize the day, was a sense of urgency. He recorded the 10 songs of No Time Like Now with longtime friend, former bandmate and frequent producer Rob Szabo, mostly at Beulah Sound Studio in Hamilton, where the singer-songwriter hangs his hat these days.
“We wanted it to be a very exciting, guitar-driven record,” he says. “It’s still steeped in the blues – because anything I do is steeped in the blues – but there are a lot of other elements to this record that previously we hadn’t really focused on.”
While James and The Stones each pay homage to the genre’s legends with 100-percent-covers albums, Strongman offers nine original songs steeped in the blues, but that also rock out, and boast layers of soul. The only cover is a swampy take on Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” – an intriguing choice for a blues album.
“Rob and I opened for Randy [Bachman] a long time ago, and later I ended up playing with Randy’s son Tal,” says Strongman. “We’ve always kept in touch. When I was rehearsing with Tal, one time I stayed at Randy’s house in White Rock. He’s always been a huge supporter of my music and often plays me on his CBC Radio show. When Rob and I decided we were going to do a cover on this album, Randy’s songs came to mind. ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ just leapt out at me. We didn’t want to do that cover the way Randy did it because to me it’s a fantastic, massive hit. I tried to put my own spin on it.”
When Strongman sent an MP3 demo of the classic-rock anthem to Bachman, asking for his opinion (and his blessing), the Canadian Music Hall of Famer loved it, and even agreed to lend his guitar work to the finished track.
While musicians like Bachman, James, and The Stones discovered the blues early – listening to, and learning licks from, the likes of Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, and Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin – Strongman’s attraction came via a more circuitous route.
“I arrived at the blues via classic-rock bands, because that was what I was into,” he explains. “I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan, like many people my age. Then I realized where they were getting everything. Growing up around Kitchener-Waterloo, having [blues club] Pop the Gator [that hosted the likes of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert Collins and Mel Brown] right there, you also got to see these amazing, world-class blues artists come through town, and that really resonated with me.
“I always think of myself as a guitar player first,” he adds. “Everything I do is steeped in the blues, but centered on guitar playing. I hear blues in everything, even in pop. Blues itself… people have an idea when they say the word. This record is just a continuation of what I’ve been working on.”
When it comes to crafting songs, does Strongman experience chills, like some other writers, when he knows he’s on to something good?
“That’s exactly the way it works,” he says. “I know when I hear something, and get a bit of a chill vibe, that it just feels right. You might spend eight hours one day and not get one word, and then the next day you get up and in 10 minutes you have two verses, and a chorus you love. You always try to strive for that ‘Aha!’ moment, where you say, ‘That’s it!’”
Gear Talk with Strongman