Blues music is the exquisite exhalation of struggle and pain paired with the harmonious howl of survival and redemption. Singer, songwriter and guitarist James Armstrong is the living embodiment of that balance.
When he first found his stride in the blues world, Armstrong knew he was fulfilling his destiny. Playing the blues was his birthright and nothing was going to keep him from that.
James Armstrong will perform Sunday on the main stage at the Springing the Blues Festival held April 7-9 in Jacksonville Beach. During a recent European tour stop in Belgium, Armstrong spoke to EU Jacksonville about overcoming a tragic past and fighting back to become a triple threat in the blues world.
Following in the footsteps of his father, Armstrong knew he was destined to carry on the blues tradition that started in his very own home. Growing up, his father played jazz guitar and Armstrong formed his first band in the seventh grade.
“I was raised by my father from six months old. My first musical memory was playing drums with my father as a duet at the age of six years old. My father was always involved in music. His musician friends were in our household constantly and as a little boy, my father would take me to hear different artists perform,” says Armstrong.
“I grew up on the beach in Santa Monica California so my musical background was rock when I was in my teens. We used to sit on the beach and play rock and folk songs,” Armstrong says. “The first tour I ever had was with a country band I was 17 years old. But when I was a little boy, all I heard in the house with my father was jazz and blues. So in my head, when I’m writing music I don’t always like to keep music in a particular genre. I like to mix it up.”
By the age of 17, he was touring the country and in his 20’s, Armstrong played in Smokey Wilson’s legendary band and went on to learn a few tricks from his musical influences, including Albert Collins. Armstrong signed a record deal on HighTone Records. Things were coming together and the future looked bright. Until, in an instant, it went dark.
Armstrong was prepping for a tour in support of his first album Sleeping With A Stranger when he was the victim of a home invasion that left him with permanent nerve damage in his left arm and hand. The injury threatened to end his career but Armstrong fought back with the support of friends, fans and the blues community.
“I’m not really a religious man but I feel I am a spiritual man. I believe the reason I was able to continue playing music after my injury is because I have Guitar Angels that helped me get through my many struggles,” says Armstrong.
“My style of guitar playing changed immensely after my injury. Now I only have two fingers that I can really use. I also have nerve damage in my left hand and arm so I am not able to play fast and do the cording that other guitar players can do. I had to learn another way to play guitar and be satisfied with that.”
Two years after he sustained his tragic injury, he celebrated his triumphant return with his sophomore release, Dark Night. Armstrong says he gained “a whole new respect for the music itself, the power in slow blues, how the silences between the notes are as important as the notes.” He also honed his songwriting, vocal and slide guitar skills.
“Before my injury, I always considered myself a pretty good guitar player. After the injury, I believe my singing and songwriting became stronger,” says Armstrong. “When I write a song, I try to come up with the story before I hear the music. Once in a while, it’s the other way around but not often.”
The result was his third album, Got It Goin’ On which garnered two WC Handy award nominations for best blues guitarist and best song of the year for “Pennies and Picks.” Got It Goin’ On was praised by critics for helping redefine the blues.
Over the years, Armstrong has performed throughout North America, Europe, Scandinavia, Asia and the Middle East. He has worked beside Collins, Keb Mo, Chaka Khan, Coco Montoya, Walter Trout, Tommy Castro, Roy Brown, Shemekia Copeland, Charlie Musselwhite, Ricky Lee Jones, Joe Louis Walker, Mitch Michell, Peter Tork and Jan & Dean.
“When I recorded the album Got It Goin On, I truly felt that I had it going on again. At the time that album was recorded, I felt I had a major breakthrough from my injury and that helped me feel more confident,” says Armstrong.
Armstrong’s most recent album, Blues at the Border, honors the sound of traditional blues while giving it an authentic, contemporary grit. Drawing on his rock, country and folk influences as well as his deep blues roots, Armstrong continues to play outside the box.
“Being around many major blues artists when I was young helped me understand that it is not just about being a really good musician. You should also be able to entertain the crowd,” says Armstrong. “I truly like engaging my audiences. I am told when people leave my show they feel good, inspired and happy. My goal is to help people forget about their problems for a little while.”