Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Silver Spring blues singer digs up inspiration from home - Examiner

Christina Lee | DC Live Music Examiner | April 7, 2009

The traditional blues sounds of Jonny Grave and his acoustic guitar evoke nothing but years of traveling with only the guidance of railways. But the truth is, as he played to a small crowd at McGinty's Thursday night, Grave was actually performing right at home.

As he proves through his music, this 20-something-year-old has not had to travel far from Silver Spring, Md., to find something to sing about. But the more he has learned over the years, the more he has gained a respectable appreciation for authenticity – and to mention, some mean finger-picking skills.

Q. How did your father introduce you to blues music, and what role does he play in your music career today?

A. My father has guitars all around the house, and there's always some kind of music playing. My little sister plays cello and bass, and she sings as well, my mother will more often than not sing while cooking, my three older sisters either sing or play... it's safe to say we're a musical family. My dad was a professional musician back in the day, playing folk music in D.C., and has since moved out of that profession to raise a family, but he kept all the gear. So half the guitars I play are hand-me-downs, some of my cables, and a few microphones as well. My family, not just my father, is a huge, positive influence on my music.

Q. On your YouTube page, you list off a bunch of your favorite musicians: R.L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Chris Smither, etc. Of all of those though, who have been your biggest influences and why?

A. As far as the blues go, I found most of what I play and what I listen to on my own. My dad's record collection is extensive, but it's mostly in the folk/bluegrass genre. He did however have a copy of an Oxford Magazine sampler CD, featuring the sounds of R.L. Burnside and Blind Willie Johnson. This was my introduction to the blues. I was stolen away by the language of these people, and my feet couldn't stop moving with the sounds the guitar stings made. Johnson's slide work was what made me want to start playing that kind of music. Burnside and McDowell came in a bit later, and they shaped a lot of my style – I like to say I'm stealing Burnside's right hand and McDowell's left. Smither had an impact on me, too. I always thought of him as a songwriter before anything else, and his work was what helped me learn how to write my own. They're all big influences on me, and it's too hard to say which is the biggest.

Q. Bonifant Street and Quarry House Tavern both serve as subject matters in your latest album. What exactly about these Silver Spring locations inspires you to write music?

A. Bonifant Street is probably my favorite part of Silver Spring. It's the only place I know what you can find a gun shop across the street from a bank. Fenton Village in general is this wonderful, little kitschy corner of Silver Spring that has avoided the “revitalization” that's graced the rest of the town with chain restaurants and corporate art. On this block, you'll find a church thrift store where I found my favorite pair of jeans, a old fortune teller lady who makes her own incense, a used bookstore, an Ethiopian coffee shop ... the best damned Thai restaurant I can think of … and at the very end, on the corner of Georgia [Avenue], you'll find the Quarry House Tavern, thirteen steps below the street. I cut my teeth playing blues there. I played the third Wednesday of every month, from 9 to midnight. This place is the definition of a dive bar – greasy food, cheap beer, and a lot of fun stories. I don't play there as much now, and when I do, I'm usually opening up for one of the rockabilly bands they have on Saturday nights. But when I do, I always publicize the event with "Silver Spring's Own Comes Back Home.” Your feet stick to the floor in that place, but they sure as hell take care of you.

Q. While I saw you at McGinty’s, you’ve performed in a bunch of different environments: coffeehouses, summer camps, classrooms and soon the Washington Folk Festival at the end of the month. Where has been your favorite place to perform and why?

A. I started playing professionally when I was 16. Since then, it's been everywhere from street corners and metro stops, to huge outdoor festivals and the University of Maryland. But my one favorite place to play, and this only happens once a year, is the Washington Folk Festival at Glen Echo Park. I've been going there since I was born. My dad plays that festival, all of my sisters have been onstage, our family friends perform there. It's a really nice, close-knit community. It feels like coming home whenever I get down there. There are people there who I’ve never met but know my family so well they'll call me by name. What makes it great is, the venue is all about the music and the community. It's not like a bar, where I have to compete with the basketball game on TV, or the cook shouting orders, or the bouncers trying to throw someone out. So I'll perform on stage for a slot, but the real fun is getting to kick around the festival all weekend, listening to all kinds of music, and jamming with different people.

Q. With a few albums out and a tour in the works now, where do you see yourself going with your music next?

A. Truth be told, I've always wanted to play with a full band. I feel like that might be the next step for my music. I love this traditional stuff so much, and it's a big part of who I am. But there is an electric side to the hill country genre, and I'm excited to try that side out for a spell. I'm headed down south next week to open up for some of my heroes [Kenny Brown and Cedric Burnside] in Alabama, and I'll be playing in a band that night. So I guess we'll see how it goes.


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