John-Alex Mason
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John-Alex Mason

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I’D LIKE TO BELIEVE John-Alex Mason’s Town and Country is reflective of a fundamental shift happening right now in an American society that is breaking away from the kind of prejudices that cause people to judge others’ abilities to lead – or in this case offer a musical message – based on their color, gender and age. Specifically, Mason’s fifth full-length recording is a 15-cut CD that is one of the most effective examples I’ve heard recently to offer proof against some of the most persistent prejudices that have dogged the blues genre for most of the last millennium.
Prejudice no. 1: A white man can’t sing and play the blues. Mason comes out of the same school as R. L. Burnside and Hound Dog Taylor on an album that features a “town” portion and a “country” portion. With 15 cuts total, the “town” numbers are performed with electric guitar, lowebow and foot drums, and he fits comfortably into the Skip James framework with “country” songs done on a National Style O guitar. John Hammond has spent 45 years countering complaints from some critics that he’s imitating a black voice. Mason sounds more down-home than Hammond, and if Watermelon Slim can get away with it, so can Mason.
Prejudice no. 2: A young person has to pay his dues to play and sing the blues. Mason puts enough spaces between the notes to be mistaken for an 85-year-old rural Mississippi blues guitarist in a blindfold test, and his lyrics have not only the wisdom of a much older man, but the simple imagery of an avuncular uncle.
Prejudice no. 3: White blues artists are stealing and cleaning up the black heritage and cleaning up in general with a mass audience. This album will never compete with Kenny Wayne Shepherd for mass appeal. Crossing over is obviously not his intent. While Mason has a rocker’s heart, his delivery is straight-ahead; he give us realdeal blues which demonstrate he has learned more from his elders than how to execute guitar chords.
Prejudice no.4: Blues is not pretty. Mason is blond, blueeyed and he looks like he bathes regularly.
Prejudice no. 5: Blues must … or must not … change to survive. (Pick your prejudice.) Blues will survive because the best blues reflects the passion of the artist from within. The idea that change, in and of itself, regardless of what that change is, determines longevity, is as hollow in music as it is in politics. Show me the meat. John-Alex does just that. He is both creates original songs and changes traditional songs to communicate his view of the world, but he’s doing it from a framework that is traditional in sound and tone with original lyrics that deserve the same decoding as 19thcentury field hollers and spirituals with their metaphors and hidden meanings. Mason’s lyrics touch the same heart strings and fundamental, unvarnished truisms as Willie Dixon’s. He may not have slept under a hollow log, but his godmother Viola Marigna got enough of that old Baptist religion into his head and heart that he’s been able to infuse into his lyrics the same kind of “code” that the lyrics of old spirituals carried for slaves seeking escape. Much of the music over the last 100 years is in code. Rockers sing in code for youngsters seeking the forbidden fruit under the watchful eyes of parents. Hip-hop artists are more straight-forward in their sexual braggadocio, but the words themselves take on a code often with ironic meanings, e.g. where “bad” means “good.” And jazz and funk artists speak in their own hipster funk lingo, but few white artists outside of Dr. John have met the black blues fundamentalists in code on their own ground with the depth of understanding that Mason does.
On “Rabbit Song” Mason can sum up the problems of the world where everyone sees others only as they relate to their own perspective and how that myopia causes misunderstanding. The coyote may eat the rabbit, but he’s also dead meat in the sights of a rancher’s 30.06 rifle.
In the press release accompanying the album, Mason comments on “Cypress Grove” by Skip James. His comments on the song are in themselves a rationale for not persecuting the musician who delivers the song if he doesn’t match the stereotype of what’s expected. “Skip (James) sang it in the winter of his life,” says Mason, “and the meaning changes significantly when sung by a young man. That is one of the reasons that I love revisiting some of these old tunes; often the double entendres shift meaning with a change in time and place or artist.”
On “Chef Menteur,” he integrates the horror of Hurricane Katrina into a fundamental view of New Orleans that is neither horrific nor glorifying, but instead enlightening in its vision of a culture that is disparate and unique in America: “Sachmo and Kermit / Dr. Professor and Fats / The Swede with the need / Strutting moccasin spats.”
Two of the “town” songs, “Shake ’Em On Down” and “Locomotive,” offer the kind of primal mantras that I’d expect from a guy who’s been hangin’ out on Beale with Richard Johnston. “Shake - Don Wilcox, Audiophile Voice


I remember the first time I ever heard John Hammond Jr. and how impressed I was with the way his voice and the sound of his slide guitar playing worked together. It was especially noticeable when he played his resonator guitar with its built in cones to amplify sound; he could growl out his lyrics in just the right tonal quality, able to cut through the sound of his guitar without shouting over it.

It was a long time until I found another player who could do the same thing. Bob Brozman had his own unique vocal style that enabled him to work with all the resonator instruments he used and created. I say instruments because he played more than one resonator guitar, and he had also created a resonator mandolin. Aside from those two there hasn't been anyone I've heard that's been able to find that perfect balance where voice and resonator guitar work together instead of the voice trying to overcome the guitar. That doesn't mean they aren't out there; I just haven't heard them yet.

That is until now, hearing John-Alex Mason for the first time. Looking at his picture on the cover of his newest release, Town And Country on Naked Jaybird Records you wouldn't believe that face had the life experience to sing with the authority needed for a church choir let alone the down-and-dirty Blues required to work with a resonator.

This just goes to show you that you really shouldn't judge anything or anybody by appearances. From the first syllable that eases out of John-Alex's mouth you know that this guy can sing the Blues with the best of them. It's not just that he's got the right voice for it, lots of folks out there can growl pretty convincingly without being able to sing the Blues. No, what you realize about this guy is that he feels every sound that he plays on his guitar and it reverberates up through his body and shapes the sound that comes out of his throat.

The next thing you notice about him is something that distinguishes him from the majority of folk who playing these days; similar to both Brozman and Hammond, John-Alex has released a completely solo album. You look at the credits for the songs and you see there is only his name listed; but then you wonder whose playing the drums? Well he is but not on a separate take; while his hands are dealing with the guitar and his mouth is doing the singing he's taking care of the drumming with his feet.

As a guy who on occasion still has trouble walking and talking at the same time, I can't help but be in awe of folk who can control their bodies sufficiently to do two things at once. To be able to do three things at once is beyond my wildest imaginings. Yet here's this guy, who is not only able to play some pretty hot guitar, leads and rhythm, but keep a steady beat going on the drum, and sing on top of that. Now that might not sound too difficult to some of you, but you try keeping three separate beats going at once and see how well you do. On top of that throw in an occasional lead on your guitar, and never once lose your place in the measure.

Oh and if all that isn't enough, he also writes some great tunes. Eight of the 15 tracks (there are only 14 songs but he does a "Town" (electric) and a "Country" (acoustic) version of "Shake 'Em On Down" a traditional piece that he's arranged and added additional lyrics to) are original compositions, and the only way to describe them is to say that they were written by an old soul. These aren't the standard Blues numbers you hear from most of the new young guys out there about some girl treating them bad, or they're not getting what they want from life; what I call the selfish Blues.

The Blues he sings are either about universal things to which all of us can relate and a couple that sound as if they were created just out of the sheer joy of writing and singing a song. "Rabbit Song" and "Steel Pony Blues" fall into the latter category as they are sort of nonsense tunes, but then they catch you by surprise in the end as he puts a little twist in their tails that makes you think twice about what they might be about.

It makes sense to me that almost every Blues artist putting out an album these days is including a song about New Orleans. The miracle, as far as I'm concerned, is how many of them have been so good; John-Alex Mason's "Chef Menteur" is no exception. Some accounts say that Chef Menteur was the name the Choctaw Indians of the area gave to the Mississippi river, and listening to the lyrics of John-Alex's song you'd have to believe that he's used that interpretation of the phrase.

What I like about this song is that it's an acknowledgement of what New Orleans is and what it gave to us. "Don't forget what we got from the original Melting Pot" sums up nicely how New Orleans was where four different cultures; French, Spanish, African, and Native American, all came together, and how important it is to remember what that means. Think of all the different music that comes from there, everything from zydeco - Richard Marcus - Blog Critics


This album begs the question: What if God gave us Robert Johnson, and nobody cared? We already know the answer to the reciprocal solipsism: What if we made a beautiful city, and our leaders let it wash away.

Because, as I keep saying, a Pete Seeger CD has the same carbon footprint as a Flo Rida record. Your music can be used as a torture device <http://www.thenation.com/doc/20051226/bayoumi> , regardless of whether you are Bruce Springsteen or Metallica. But the Blues fights back, don't it? There has always been an undercurrent in American Popular music that sustains the spirit and makes all the negative passions simmer instead of explode. No matter what horror gnashes at the soul along the dark road, our heritage always causes us to whistle at it.

One day, when all the oil runs out, when electricity is rationed and only soldiers can afford media devices, there will still be voices like John-Alex Mason. He is one of those artists who will, like Picasso once said, paint in the dust with his tongue. And he is as desperately welcome today as Robert Johnson and his compatriots were back when it all started.

Mason was a finalist in the Solo/Duo category of the 2008 International Blues Challenge. He may not have won, but I believe he earned huge recognition for potentially infusing new energy into American Roots music. His eerie voice and haunting guitar resurrect that spooky, swampy sound of drunken juke joints. He reinterprets (and thus repossesses) traditional delta blues songs, while his original songs sound like they came from the exact same place. And where do those songs lead us? Ahh... there is the real question, isn't it? That is the question that all masterpieces should make us ask - Mad Man Creations


Upon first hearing the latest effort from John-Alex Mason, "Town and Country", I was stunned to realize the voice I was hearing was coming from such a young man. Even though Mason hails from Colorado, he sounds as if he was born and raised on the Stovall Plantation sprung full grown from the soul of Charley Patton. The vocals on "Town and Country" ring true on each selection, as if Mason has lived the life about which he sings. His original material is well written, and again sounds like it could have been written 75 years ago, the feel is that authentic. I particularly like "Locomotive", which conjures up images of the late R. L. Burnside and his hill country boogie, "Strange Things", and his heartfelt lament to New Orleans, "Chef Menteur". When he chooses to do a cover such as "Terraplane Blues", or Skip James' "Cypress Grove" he puts his own mark on the song without ever losing the mood of the original, and makes you feel as though you are being hurled back in time to a Mississippi cotton field. His acoustic guitar work on the "Country" songs has a wonderfully sparse sound to it and seems to come from some deep place inside. Then on the "Town" section he adds the percussion and goes electric, and we're in for a sweet ride as the music carries you along. All in all, a great effort from John-Alex Mason, and a disc that deserves repeated spins. - Brett Fleming, “Soul Stew,” WEVL Memphis


Mason’s scrubbed John-Boy looks give no hint that this young man from Colorado is a singer of power and authority, with remarkable access to the brooding intensity of north Mississippi blues. Pieces like Milk Cow Blues, Shake ’Em On Down and Jitterbug Swing are reshaped as highly individual adaptations, powered by foot-stomping acoustic or electric guitar and percussion.

Tony Russell - MOJO Magazine


4.5 Stars

An important new voice in the blues, John-Alex Mason has a powerful and eerie voice and a quiet but emotional guitar style that is a throwback to the country blues greats of the 1930s. Early on, he was greatly affected by seeing concerts by Johnny Winter and James Cotton and, although he earned a degree in conservation biology, he found playing the blues to be much more creative. He won the Telluride Acoustic Blues Competition in 2001, developed into a teacher of the blues, worked one summer as a street musician on Memphis' Beale Street, and since then has worked with many of the who's who of blues musicians. Based in Denver, Mason is in brilliant form throughout Town and Country. While he performs revived classics by Skip James, Elmore James, and Robert Johnson ("Terraplane Blues") and a few traditional numbers, more than half the selections on Town and Country are his originals, so he is building on the legacy of the blues rather than just repeating the past. Lovers of the country blues will certainly love this impressive effort.
by Scott Yanow All Music Guide - All Music Guide


I first heard John-Alex Mason in the distance when he played at the King Biscuit festival in Helena, Arkansas a few years ago. His Delta Blues sounded so right and appropriate in the land where that music was born, mixed with the echoes of the Blues from the past, by the Mississippi River. John-Alex was whuppin' it with the fire, passion, and understanding of the language of Blues Music. I had to find out who was playing, and I met him and thanked him when he came off the stage. I've gotten to see more of him and we played together the next year in Colorado. I'm moved by John-Alex's talent and fidelity to the spirit of the deep Blues we love. - Bob Margolin - Muddy Waters' guitarist


Going to the 'crossroads' and trading one's soul to Old Scratch for musical prowess is a myth, but if it was true, young John Alex-Mason could claim bragging rights. With real roots in gospel and classic rock, Mason channels Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Skip James, Elmore James and others along with his own originals that eerily resonate with the spirit and soul of the traditional country blues. - Dave Rubin, Guitar Edge Magazine


Don’t let those boyish looks fool you. John-Alex Mason’s voice sounds like comes from another time and place; its mature, smoky curl jumps from the speakers with a density many singers spend years trying to achieve. Mason’s songs take his listeners on a journey through long, back-breaking days and hot juke-joint nights. One listen and you’ll hear pure Delta blues truth reincarnated in this young soul. But Mason is no novice to the blues scenc; in 2001 he won the Telluride Acoustic Blues Competition, and in 2004 he copped the Arkansas Blues & Heritage Festival’s prestigious Most Promising Emerging Artist award.
Town and Country, Mason’s fifth solo release, offers faithfully rendered country blues chestnuts alongside original tunes crafted by an artist who deeply loves everything Delta and Piedmont. The disc’s title refers to the two styles on display here; Eight tunes feature Mason digging into his National steel, while seven “town songs” spotlight earthy dance grooves. The disc opens with a droning one-man-band of Mississippi’s Fred McDowell’s “Shake ‘em On Down” before turning down a country lane for “Steel Pony Blues,” Mason’s modern derivation of every pony song since Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues.” On “Bury My Boots,” Mason borrows floating verses from Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil,” and on “Chef Menteur,” he sings of the hard rain that fell on New Orleans in 2005. (The literal translation of “chef menteur” is “chief liar,” and Mason uses the French phrase to address government-sponsored lies that haunt that national disaster.)
“Locomotive” and “What Are You Hungry For?” are raw Hill Country howls, and “Rabbit Song” rewrites a rural folk tale.
A penetrating look into Skip James’ “Cypress Grove” might be the finest work here, with Mason’s moans and trance-like guitar echoes totally dialing into the world of Bentonia. He covers Elmore James’ “Shake Your Money Maker” and Bukka White’s “Jitterbug Swing” with unbridled enthusiasm, and the disc ends as it began, with “Shake ‘em On Down,” this time in a drumless version. Mason is one to watch.

- Art Tipaldi, Senior Writer Blues Revue and Blues Wax


John-Alex Mason never ceases to amaze me. His latest release Town and Country reflects great prowess in musicianship, a true respect for Blues tradition and an ability to write and perform original songs that fit into the traditional Blues genre. Performing solo with an acoustic steel body on the Country tracks and solo with electric guitar and foot drums on the Town tracks provide fifteen great recordings of both original material and covers of old circa 1930's Blues gems making this a great listen for Blues lovers everywhere. The only thing better is John-Alex Mason performing live. - Brian A. Elliott, "True Blues," KCUV Denver & "All Blues," KBAC Santa Fe, & President, Colorado Blue


Discography

Town & Country /2008 - #1 on Roots Music Report Blues Chart. #9 on Living Blues Chart.
Hand Cut Soundtrack/2008
Barefoot EP / 2006
Live Fire / 2005
Time Will Come / 2004 #24 Living Blues Radio Chart.
National's Artists in Resonance/ 2003
Mason & Hundt / 2002
Walking Tracks / 2000

Photos

Bio

John-Alex Mason is currently finalizing work on a new album that includes guest appearances by Cedric Burnside and Lightnin Malcolm, Cody Burnside, Gerry Hundt, Lionel Young, Andy Irvine and Master Djembe drummer Fara Tolno and his brothers Alia Sylla and Fasinet Bangoura. The album was tracked live in the studio and is the realization of the artists' shared dream to bring people together over music. It was a blast to make, please have a listen on this EPK to a few of the tracks.

TOWN AND COUNTRY BIO 2008
John-Alex Mason attributes his love of music to two central people from his childhood in Colorado. First, his older brother, Stephen, who rocked out to music of the 60’s and 70’s - Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers Band. And second, his godmother, Viola Marigna, who introduced him to Baptist moans and gospel through her own voice, mass choir concerts and church performances. “I remember the exact moment Stephen played Led Zeppelin II for me and how powerful the smell of heavy perfume and anticipation was at Viola’s church,” says Mason. It was not long before Mason discovered blues music and the bridge between praising and rocking.

As a quiet teen, Mason spent his free time listening to blues records – one of the first was Muddy Waters’ “Hard Again.” That same year the album’s producer Johnny Winter and harp contributor James Cotton came through to play separate shows at Colorado College. “I was pretty well floored by those two shows. I finally came to when Cotton’s guitar player asked me if everything was alright and I realized that I was the only person left in the theater, still staring up at the stage.” Columbia’s release of the “Complete Robert Johnson” when Mason was 15 led to a particular fascination and relationship with solo country blues artists that suited his then shy style.

Holding his burgeoning musical talent close to his chest, Mason headed to Vermont to pursue a degree in conservation biology. It was in college where Mason met fellow blues devotee and gifted multi-instrumentalist Gerry Hundt, now a member of Nick Moss and the Flip Tops, and began playing live shows. But it was his first job working for a military contractor in Germany that led Mason to consider music as a full-time pursuit. “The job was rough and boring, but the nights were a blast, busking for people far away from the Army life.” The streets of Dutch, French and German cities were the perfect places to develop his distinctive style and stage presence.

The street also played a critical role in the development of his one-man band show. After winning the Telluride Acoustic Blues Competition in 2001, Mason was hired back to teach slide guitar at the festival’s guitar camp. It was through the Telluride Blues and Brews festival that Mason developed his passion for teaching and met and came under the influence of contemporary luminaries Taj Mahal, John Cephas, Phil Wiggins, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Anders Osborne and Richard Johnston.

“At Telluride, Richard invited me out to play with him in Memphis on Beale Street and I took him up on the offer. It was a steamy Thursday night in June and Rick gathered a crowd, something he’s really good at, then introduced me and promptly left the drum stool. My acoustic instrument was still de-tuned from the trip so the only option was Richard’s drum rig and Lowebow. So I hopped on.” Mason made enough that weekend trading sets with Johnston to pay for his hotel, meals and airfare, but more importantly found a vehicle to express the electrified, deep country blues sound he heard in his head.

Since then Mason has performed with BB King, James Cotton, John Mayall, Jimmie Vaughan, The Yardbirds, John Hammond, Robben Ford, Bob Margolin, Kelly Joe Phelps, Joan Osborne, Otis Taylor, Carolyn Wonderland, Will Hoge, Rose Hill Drive, The White Buffalo, Shemekia Copeland, Johnny A., Bugs Henderson, and the man Mason calls “the King,” Robert Belfour.

Town and Country caps off what was an important and clarifying year for Mason. He began 2007 by organizing and leading a two-week trip for 18 High School students to visit the Mississippi Delta, Memphis and New Orleans and interact with musicians and historians there. He then returned home to prepare for the birth of his daughter and stuck close to family through the summer while playing steady gigs in Colorado and working out tunes for the new album. Recording, mixing and mastering the album were finished in September. Then in October he traveled to Helena, AR to make his third appearance at the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival where in 2004 he had won the title of “Most Promising Emerging Artist.”

Town and Country debuted at #1 on the Roots Music Report Blues Chart after the Janurary release, hit #16 on the Living Blues Chart for January and then climbed to #9 for February. Also in Feburary of 2008, Mason made the Finals of the International Blues Challenge in the Solo/Duo category and was an