Alabama Blues Project Celebrates 20 Years

Aug 3, 2016

Say “the blues,” and Mississippi might come to mind. But Alabama has just as much heritage when it comes to this musical form, and for the past 20 years, the Tuscaloosa-based Alabama Blues Project has been working to preserve that heritage for future generations. Tomorrow, the nonprofit will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a concert in Tuscaloosa. APR’s Alex AuBuchon reports some of the musicians are only as big as their guitars.

St. Louis Blues was written by Alabama native W.C. Handy in 1914. It was one of the first blues songs to make money, and Alabama Blues Project founder Debbie Bond says it’s lesson number one for their students.

“W.C. Handy is considered the father of the blues and comes from Florence, Alabama. We try to explain the history in terms of the blues being the roots of American music. A perfect example is Big Mama Thornton, who had a hit with ‘Hound Dog’ four years before Elvis Presley. That’s a direct connection with the birth of rock and roll. She was from Arrington, Alabama.”

Debbie Bond adopted Alabama as her home in 1979 and immersed herself in the state’s blues culture.

“I founded the blues project kind of informally back in 1995, just out of a recognition that here in Alabama there was a phenomenal blues scene currently, as well as historically.”

At first, the effort to preserve Alabama blues was through recording albums. But fairly quickly the focus shifted.

“We founded the Alabama Blues Project and soon realized its mission was educational, and then basically spearheaded it into becoming a nonprofit. The primary activity is and was doing educational programs with children.”

Rick Asherson shares the teaching load with Bond.

“It’s been amazing to me how kids with perhaps little or no musical background, they get the blues. Kids here, they hit it. They get the rhythms, they get the timings, the syncopated timings that you need to make it sound good.”

Asherson moved from London to Alabama nearly 20 years ago. He dove into the Alabama Blues Project when he married Debbie Bond.

“We’ve just had a fabulous time working with these kids, and found a few really outstanding musicians and a lot of kids who just had a wonderful opportunity to learn something and express themselves emotionally and in movement in a way that’s not always easy.”

The Blues Project has after-school classes, summer camps, and a touring program introduces kids at rural schools to the blues. But if you ask Rick and Debbie what makes them the most proud? It’s the advanced band.

The musicians are all in their very early teens. But you’d be forgiven for thinking they were all pros. Vocalist Dani Pierce is just fifteen years old.

“Oh, we’re just like family. We look after each other, we fit together very well. All our personalities are very compatible.”

Each of the eight advanced band members has learned a lot of music in a very short time frame. Here’s 15-year-old guitarist Noah Wilson.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into and I had to learn pretty much everything back to back, because I didn’t know anything. I’m surprised at how fast I caught on.”

One of the most unique aspects of the advanced band education? Learning how to improvise. 12-year-old bassist Josh Schwartz explains.

“Like, each time you do a solo? It’s kind of what you feel like. You can practice it over and over again, but maybe you’ll hear somebody else, or you’ll hear something, and you’re like ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ so you’ll add that in.”

Schwartz says they’re learning history, too.

“Like, I didn’t know a lot of people and their hard times back then. I’ve learned a lot of the history and how blues got started, and how they made instruments from scratch.”

21-year-old saxophonist, bandleader and Alabama Blues Project intern Jimmy Hill says that framework is important.

“I just think we have so much to learn from all those guys. They did it for the sheer love of music, not the fame, and I think that’s such an important aspect. I think that’s the biggest aspect of playing good music is loving what you’re doing.”

Noah Wilson says that love of music is motivating.

“It makes me want to practice more, it makes me want to play more. I enjoy the music and enjoy the atmosphere.”

Everyone had something to say about how much they enjoyed being in the group. Here’s Jimmy Hill again.

“I mean, I just… I love this place. It’s fantastic. I’ve never had a year where I’ve not enjoyed every second of being here.”

The advanced band will be performing along with their instructors and many more musicians tomorrow night at 7 PM as the Alabama Blues Project celebrates its 20th anniversary. Tickets will be available at the door at Band of Brothers Brewing Company in downtown Tuscaloosa.

As Debbie Bond puts it, “Blues and brews, what more could you ask for?”