Living the Blues
By Kevin Wierzbicki | Photography courtesy of Lisa Mac
Like many other musicians, Memphis bluesman John Németh has lived the blues in recent months as performance schedules were disrupted by the pandemic.
My baby done left me, the bottle is empty, all I’ve got left is this cold jailhouse floor.
Misery is a common topic in blues music; more specifically, surviving hard times is a common theme. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, folks have experienced physical, mental, and economic pain like never before.
Like many others in 2020, the Memphis-based blues musician John Németh found himself suddenly out of a job. A professional musician his entire adult life, Németh has always lived the blues; now he’s living the blues in an entirely different way.
“This is the first time in 25 years that I’ve been without a performance schedule and the first time in 15 years that I’ve been off the road for a long amount of time,” Németh says. “Times are going to get very tough for me and so many others, and while I’m hoping for the best, I’m not sure what my future will bring.”
During the pandemic, Németh was live-streaming shows from his front yard with a virtual tip jar out for those who care to offer compensation. He also notes that along with help from government assistance programs, The Blues Foundation and The Memphis Arts Council have been helping musicians survive.
Németh is a native of Idaho but he long ago surrendered to the siren call of Memphis, America’s blues mecca. A singer, songwriter, and harmonica player, Németh honed his chops on the road as a sideman for the likes of Junior Watson (The Mighty Flyers, Canned Heat), Elvin Bishop, and Anson Funderburgh. He recalls that the city really rolled out the welcome mat for him in his early days as a Memphian.
“My first performance at the Levitt Shell (where a fellow named Elvis Presley played his first paid show) was a big moment for me,” Németh says. “I was backed-up by the Bo-Keys for that show and the audience interaction and connection made me feel so good. I became even more grateful to call Memphis home that night.”
The Memphis music scene has endured lots of changes since Németh came to town, some encouraging and some sorrowful.
“The passing of B.B. King, Ruby Wilson, Teenie Hodges, and Preston Shannon were the end of an era,” the bluesman explains. “Yet the comebacks of Don Bryant, Percy Wiggins, Verlinda Zeno, and Eric Gales has given a lift to the scene, and rising stars like Victor Wainwright and Tony Holiday are proof that the music is strong. I know quite a few musicians that have moved to Memphis in the past few years, and I’ve met several young blues players at my shows and around town. Blues is alive and well here.”
The blues is also alive and well in the Memphis-adjacent Mississippi Delta, a place revered by all blues musicians. Living in Memphis makes it easy to visit some of the Delta’s many blues-related attractions, like the B.B. King Museum, outside of which the star is buried, and the infamous “crossroads” in Clarksdale where the legendary guitarist Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in return for musical talent.
“I can feel the presence of Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, and Ike Turner still in the Delta,” says Németh. “And performing at Ground Zero in Clarksdale, the King Biscuit Festival in Helena, Ark., and the Delta Blues Festival in Greenville, Miss., have been career highlights for me. Having the support of the audiences in the home of the blues really feeds my soul.”
If you didn’t know what was going on with the pandemic, you’d never guess anything was wrong by watching Németh’s live stream shows. His music is buoyant, his voice exudes joy, and he generally has an ear-to-ear grin going. His between-song patter is upbeat and, like some of his song lyrics, oft times peppered with wit. It all has the quality of genuineness that makes it easy to get comfortable with his music quickly while also experiencing a sense of camaraderie with its creator. Amusingly, between songs during his outdoor homebound shows, he’s waving at friends and neighbors and greeting them by name as they pass by.
Németh may be stuck at home like the rest of us, but he’s putting that time to good use and enjoying being able to spend quality time with his wife and kids. He’s been writing new songs too.
“I’ve written a few new songs since the shutdown, and they’re influenced by the quarantine and ensuing poverty,” he says. “Right before the quarantine I recorded two new albums. One features 10 originals that I recorded with my band the Blue Dreamers. Many of the songs deal with our current struggles and age old ones as well.”
Both records were, of course, cut in Memphis and will add to Németh’s nine previous releases.
When he’s on tour Németh always speaks highly of Memphis and invites his fans to come for a visit. The sooner the better, but there’s no hurry on that, Németh philosophizes. “The music will never die in Memphis. It’s woven so tightly into the culture and tradition.