The long road home… - Interview with Lionel Young

Lionel Young is preparing for his return to the 'burg for his performance at the Pittsburgh Blues Festival on July 23. Lionel was the 2008 International Blues Challenge winner of the solo/duo competition. What differed him from the rest? His blues set was done on an electric fiddle with a bow...decidedly an orchestra instrument. An orchestra performance ... no! It was a pure interpretation of Delta Blues ....done with four strings.

Most recently, Lionel Young took Memphis by storm when the Lionel Young Band was chosen as the winning band at the 2011 International Blues Challenge. His winning both the Solo/Duo and the Band Competitions is a first.... in the many years of the competition.

Pittsburgh, what you do not know...Lionel studied music at Carnegie Mellon and was a part of the Pittsburgh Symphony...impressive on that alone. The following conversation is to introduce to you to Lionel Young and his musical journey that is bringing him home to the 'burg.

Jonnye: What were your thoughts when you went to Memphis as part of a band in 2011 after winning the solo division in 2008.

Lionel: (A light chuckle, then a hesitant pause...and then an earnest answer) Dave McIntire, the president of the Colorado Blues Society, asked that I enter their band challenge to try for a spot in the 2008 International Blues Challenge. Frankly, my band was not pay and a lot of expenses to get to Memphis. I had promised that I would get into the competition. I really did not want to do it...but he said ...why not try it as a solo. I went "kicking and screaming" but I was honoring a promise that I had made. I didn't think that I could do as a solo. It was shocking that I could do it and do it well. ( a soft chuckle)

J: How difficult was the transition from working as part of a band to performing as a solo artist? Did your solo stint in 2008 help you to prepare for 2011?

L: (Seriously) Well, I was used to working with the band. The competition opened a "lot of doors" on my first circuit. True, it seemed to be a lot of work both as a band and as a solo. There were a lot of promises. BUT...what you realize is that you are at the bottom of the pile. The next rung up on the pile is the pros. Mixing with the pros on bills like Buddy Guy, Ana Popovic, Ronnie Baker Brooks (many more were mentioned) a different ball game! (quite earnestly and with a soft laugh)..You get one opportunity to make the most of what comes your way...that is the hardest part since winning... doing your best to maximize the opportunity. In some ways, we "foster" and teach the next generation with help from the IBC. (Intently and with a heartfelt passion) In preparation, I have learned to work backwards from the criteria required for the IBC. You have to work at scoring heavily in blues content and then the vocals. The rest of it, you work on it day by day. We chose songs ...making choices that were not about what we liked but picked songs that would score high. We used our experience as a band to offset ourselves from the other bands. I had to personally focus on doing better with the circle of people that I worked with. I even was coached on how to dress for the audience. What I noticed in 2008 was that some bands played too hard-the pressure of the situation and their reaction to that test (competing) made them nervous and they played faster and louder. People don't process at times that they need to settle their nerves as they play....knowing when they need to pull back and not play as loud and as fast. At the local level for competition in Denver, we knew we only had "one shot." Slowing down (seriously), nothing is too slow in the blues. Trampled Under Foot is not afraid to take their time to work a song. It may seem like forever when you are playing it but it is only a brief time...and the audience digests what you are trying to get across.

J: Having crafted a "smoking" type of blues on an electric violin that is unique and unusual, do you get the desired response that you are seeking from the audience or is it a delayed reaction. I noticed that when you play something, you turn and look at the audience...waiting for them to digest what they have heard. What are your secrets to winning over the audience.

L: Their reaction to my playing the violin is one of shock....the audience usually says...'Whoa...he is playing something different.' After their initial shock and you have gotten everyone's attention, you have to keep it and maintain it. If not, they tune you out and walk away after the first minute. You have to feel the connection. You may not get another chance...and (chuckling) that is why we play music. It is a learning process. Believe it or not, I am a SHY person, an introvert. A friend, Rachel, who has a Blues dance class helped me with my stage presence issues. She said that I was good ... (hesitating) something was missing. Rachel insisted..."Make me want to listen to you!" She said that I needed to pay attention to her, not myself. She said that I, the performer, had to appeal to her in a sexual, deep way and to relate to her with my music. (Sighing, answering slowly) I thought about it and worked very hard in that area. (Quickly adding) It is a scary thing when you are in front of people. Most people don't experience it every day and all day like performers. It makes people nervous and then you get an adrenalin rush. You learn to try different things. My thing...go within yourself to find refuge. It is not how good your vocals's how you connect with people. People are very encouraging.

J: I have heard that you have researched music by listening to records. Do you have a collection of your own. What are your most valued records or which artists influenced you and why.

L: I have a lot of different kinds of records and different types of music. Sometimes I listen to everything that a person has put out. When I was young, I rode my bike to the Pittsburgh Public Library and listened to very old stuff...stuff that I found interesting and listened to very old stuff from far out and off the beaten path...violin music, gypsy recordings, Charlie Patten...stuff from the 20's and 30's. I listened to the complete recordings of Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon. I went on tangents and studied Albert and Freddie King. I would listen and listen until my ears were too tired to listen any more. I felt like a sponge listening to the music from the past. I draw on that to do what I do now.

J: Having studied and played music in Pittsburgh, would you share some of your 'burg experiences. What is on your to-do list while in the 'burg? Were there any Pittsburgh musicians that influenced or shaped your interpretation or style of music..

L: I studied music with the assistant concert master of music with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony. I attended Central Catholic and Carnegie Mellon. Fritz Seigal was the student's concert master. I was around musicians every day. There is a strong blues community in Pittsburgh. They play it with real conviction. It is a neat city (excited and laughing). It is a cool place. I am always polarized by the warmth of the people and the yinzer accent! Pittsburgh's people are a 'unique' treasure! I AM a Steelers fan, always have been. Funny thing (laughing), I had just won the 2011 IBC and that was a GREAT experience. However, the next day the Steelers lost! I was devastated. I "flipped out." Football and music bring people together in Pittsburgh. I am looking forward to coming "home." I worked for awhile with Duane "Stackhouse" Johnson in the Midtown Playboys. I followed Mike Sallows on guitar and Lucy Van Sickle on harp. Lucy's father was a bass player in the symphony. I watched Chuck Watts teach guitar in Squirrel Hill. He knew everyone in town and I got to play.

J: Any special thoughts that you would like to tell the Pittsburgh Blues Fans about your blues. What should they expect.

L: Expect anything! It is my homecoming! I will lay a dozen roses on Heinz Field. Yes, (in a quiet, serious manner) I would like to add that I am writing music in preparation for unique challenges on December 2012. I strongly believe that no matter what happens, that if we stick together as people we will get through it. It is apocalyptic, it is factual... stay positive. See you in Pittsburgh.

~ Jonnye Weber