ZAC HARMON, FROM JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI, is the latest representative from the birthplace of the blues to make his mark on this most quintessential of American art forms. With his new Blind Pig Records release, Right Man Right Now, Zac delivers his own fresh take on the blues while not veering too far away from its roots and the legends who planted them. Red Hot Rock Magazine had the pleasure of speaking at length to Zac, a well-spoken, laid-back southern gentleman. What follows are the well-picked fruits of that conversation.
RED HOT ROCK MAGAZINE: Hey, Zac! How are you doing, man?
ZAC HARMON: I’m doing fine. How are you?
RHRM: OK. Your new album, Right Man Right Now, is a nice one. All different types of blues on there, but it all sounds like Zac Harmon.
ZH: Ha ha ha! Well, good. Good. Glad you like it.
RHRM: Do I understand your history correctly, that your first professional gig was touring with Sam Myers when you were only sixteen years old?
ZH: Oh, yeah.
RHRM: I remember first seeing Sam performing with Anson Funderburgh And The Rockets back in ’89 at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa, Florida opening up for John Lee Hooker. Great stuff! And there’s the Anson Funderburgh connection. He sits in on “Raising Hell” on your new record with some expectedly tasty guitar. Do you guys go way back?
ZH: Oh, yeah. Well, Anson and I have been friends since Sam started playing with him. He’s a good guy, you know. And I just developed a strong bond with him because Anson gave Sam a second time around in his career. ‘Cause Sam was one of the guys from the old school. In the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, his style of blues was pretty much kind of old school at that point. So, Anson kind of revived his career and I will always respect him for that. Sam played drums with Elmore James. He’s the drummer on “Dust My Blues”.
RHRM: What was it like as a sixteen year old going on the road with an established blues veteran like that? How were you treated and what kind of experience was it?
ZH: Well, he was a good friend of my dad’s. So, you know, my dad trusted him to take care of me. I couldn’t go in the clubs. I could only go from the stage to the dressing room. The stage back to the dressing room. So, Sam made sure that that’s what happened. Ha ha ha ha! So as a result, he spent a lot of time in the dressing room with me. We did a lot of talking. A lot of history, man. He put a lot of history on me and told me about the old days and the old guys. And really just kind of schooling me on the blues and those things about the blues that you can only get if you intern with somebody like that.
RHRM: You mentioned your dad. I understand that while you were growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, he was the city’s first black pharmacist. Among others, your dad took care of Muddy Waters, BB King, Ike and Tina Turner, Albert King and Little Milton. Amazing! Did you have the opportunity to meet these legends when you were very young?
ZH: My dad’s store was in the part of the Farish Street District. It was on Farish Street. 540 North Farish Street. And that was the black business district. You had the Jim Crow law in effect back then, so all black people did all their business on that street. And so, if you were an entertainer and came to Jackson to play, you’d get all of your toiletries and medicine that you needed and all of that stuff, you came to my dad for that. And he was known as Doc Harmon. So, I was a little kid. But I’d see all of these folks. I’d see them when they come into the store. They all called my dad Doc and they called me Little Doc. You know, back then they didn’t go to the doctor too much. They’d come to the pharmacist. They’d call him Doc. He pretty much knew what to give ‘em. And, you know, a pharmacy back then, in the south, was a little different than what you see today. Now, a pharmacy back then was… well, kind of like the pharmacies are today with CVS and all of that stuff. It had so much stuff. You could get anywhere from harmonicas to wigs to High John the Conqueror root, ha ha ha ha, to BC headache powder. Ha ha ha ha….. Oh, yeah. Back then, if you had a headache, you’d get BC headache powder and you’d drink a Coke. And that would take care of it. Back then, a Coke was a Coke. Ha ha ha ha…..
RHRM: Ha ha ha! Back then Coca-Cola had cocaine in it. I’m wondering what that BC stuff had in it.
ZH: Yeah. I don’t know. I think it’s still on the market today. You have to find one of those old pharmacies that carry the old stuff, you know. My dad had what was, in that day, modern remedies, but he also had the old, classic stuff, too. You could get certain roots and barks, ha ha, you know. And, of course, you also bought your prayer candles and your, as I said, High John the Conqueror Root oil and all of that stuff. You’d get all of that there, too.
RHRM: Your guitar tone is fantastic throughout Right Man Right Now. So warm.
ZH: Thank you.
RHRM: You’re welcome. You have your own thing going on, but I often hear echoes of Albert King in your playing. Was he a big guy for you while you were coming up?
ZH: Yeah. It’s kind of a… I mean, there’s no doubt that you would hear a little Albert because I loved him so much. See, in my generation of blues, Albert King was considered cool. We related to him. My generation related to Albert King and Albert Collins and Luther Allison. We related to those guys more than we related to BB King and the other guys. And the reason being is because they were just… They were more contemporary. You know, they were funky. And Albert, man. Albert and Bobby Rush. Those guys were… We loved those guys down in Mississippi.
RHRM: I was fortunate enough to have met Albert Collins many years ago after one of his shows and he just came across to me as being one of the most sincere, warm people that I have ever met. And that meant so much to me as a young kid.
ZH: Yeah. Most of those guys were like that. Out of all of those guys, I knew Little Milton and Bobby Rush probably better because they spent more time down in Jackson. So I saw them on a regular basis. And they were bigger friends with my dad. But they were all like that. I mean, even to this day, if you see Bobby Rush, he’s gonna joke with you. Because that’s just time to… That’s just the blues style. You know, blues is like chicken soup for the soul. And it’s reflected in the blues artists.
RHRM: I have interviewed Bobby Rush a few times. That guy has found the Fountain of Youth. He doesn’t seem to age.
ZH: Ha ha. No. He look the same to me that he looked back in 1959. Ha ha ha!
RHRM: Back to Zac Harmon music. The song “Long Live The Blues” on your new album has that Albert King vibe to it that I mentioned earlier. But what are you actually getting at lyrically on this one? It can be interpreted a few different ways. You talk about others trying to take your blues away and there is also the reference to it being stolen and renamed rock’n’roll. Is the song tongue-in-cheek or are you really having a go at certain types of people?
ZH: Well, this is what I’m talkin’ about. I’m just tired of the blues being like the court jester of music. Blues is American classical music, man. You know, I’m not just saying that shit. It is. I mean, if you leave this country, if you go around the world, the first thing that people will ask you when they meet you, they’ll ask you about the blues. They’ll ask you about blues people and so forth. Because the music is so loved all over the world. And, you know, the blues is the root and everything else is the fruit. All of the music in this country is born of the blues. Rock’n’roll is born of the blues. R’n’B is born of the blues. Even hip-hop is born of the blues. And of all of this music, the blues never gets the respect that it deserves in its place in American society. We barely can get on the radio. Promoters don’t want to book us because they think we don’t have enough pulling power. But yet, everybody wants to steal the moniker of the blues. Everybody wants to name their club the blues this or the blues that. Or their festival the blues this or the blues that and they don’t have one blues artist on the bill. You know, I just kinda got tired of it and so that song came out. I just wanted that to be kind of like a rallying cry to all of us, all of the blues musicians, just to say, “Hey. We’re here. We’re here to stay. We’re gonna keep talking about it.”
RHRM: Even with rock’n’roll. I love all kinds of music, but when I speak to people sometimes that are into classical music or jazz, they can be so snobbish. To them, blues and rock’n’roll is lowbrow music. And I say to them, “This is real American culture. Who are you to decide what is culture and what is not?”
ZH: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. Because music is medicine. And if all the medicine was the same, we’d never get cured of anything.
RHRM: Yeah. Ha ha. I agree with you. It works that way for me.
ZH: Yeah. And listen. Don’t get me wrong now. That song is not aimed at the musicians. That song is not aimed at the rock’n’roll musicians or any of those guys because, you know, those guys will be the first to tell you where the music comes from. And, you know, who they like and so forth. They would be the first. As a matter of fact, ha ha, most rock acts, when they get to a point in their career where they can do what they want to do, go back and do a blues record. Look at what John Mayer did.
RHRM: You have spoken at length also about your dislike for the blues purists out there that don’t want to accept the evolution of the blues and want to stick to only the older stuff from the forefathers. I never really understood that kind of person. Good music is good music. And I know that you enjoy the older music as well as the more contemporary stuff. But even though it is a very fresh-sounding record, Right Man Right Now is pretty straight-up blues. No complaints from me. Ha ha.
ZH: Yeah. Everybody has something to say. And if you look at the history of the blues, it was born out of folks needing to say something and not really having a platform to say it. And all of this stuff was just what I wanted to say right now. And my thing about the blues purists, you know… Listen. I appreciate folks that love the blues, but you really do the blues a disservice, man, when you force it into a museum. And you force everything that comes out… You know, “if I don’t mirror this museum artifact, then obviously I’m not playing the blues.” And you stymie the growth of the blues. The one thing that I really love about American country music is how country folks have allowed country to grow and flourish. I mean, Hank Williams, the father, the original Hank Williams, don’t sound nothing like Garth Brooks. And Garth Brooks don’t sound nothing like Hank. But not one country fan would look at either one of them and say, “You ain’t country.” And that’s what I’m talkin’ about.
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