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The Magical Ascent of Blacktop Mojo

I can’t tell you how many times I have been in discussion of music with a ‘boomer’, (no offense, I am just under the line on that demographic myself) when they will unfailingly state something along the lines of “today’s music sucks”, or “rock is dead” or “nobody makes good music anymore”. I often immediately wonder to myself how out-of-touch this person must be, when a band like Blacktop Mojo not only exists, but puts out original music and tours annually, (both as headliner and supporting more well-known acts) with the level of musicianship, flat-out personality and self-deprecating wit that their fans have grown to love and appreciate. It’s hard not to hear them, or see their shows, without coming away wanting more, and counting yourself a lifelong fan.

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Matt James

With humble beginnings in Palestine, Texas, they have independently put out three albums to date, the latest one “Under The Sun” debuted at #19 on the Billboard Hard Rock albums Chart and its single, “Can’t Sleep”, landed in Billboard Mainstream Rock Top 40, rising to #27 on the chart.

Philip Mosley produced the album, and it was recorded at Rosewood Studios in Tyler TX. Austin Deptula mixed it, and has done all their mixes since day one. ‘Scott Campbell Design’ out of Alabama did the incredible artwork. Musically, it takes you on a journey of Rock N Roll living, break-ups and make-ups, sinister and spooky at times, (The Lashing-Ghost, Can’t Sleep) sorrowful Blues, (It Won’t Last, The Void) and head-banging, foot stomping, heavy-metal beats (Lay It On Me, Keep). Something for everybody, but cohesive enough to listen all the way through, without getting bored. So very listenable.

They’ve just officially wrapped their national tour in support of ‘Under The Sun’ for now, but have plenty of dates ahead, after they take a much-needed month’s break. They’ll be kicking things off again at Texas Music City Grill & Smokehouse in Lindale, TX on March 29th.

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Chuck Wepfer

I asked the guys what stood out for them, in the making of this album, and/or in touring to support it. Drummer, and co-founder Nathan Gillis had this to say. “As far as what stood out making the record – So many of the songs started out with guitar riffs, and I really loved what Kiefer and the guys were coming up with, so much. I wanted to make sure I didn’t get too busy on the drums, but accompany what I considered to be the best guitar riffs we’ve had on a record so far. I honestly felt like I didn’t hardly do anything on this record. It was so easy to just vibe out what they were coming up with. Definitely the least stressed I’ve ever been at doing my part in the writing process.”

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Nathan Gillis

They have indeed made Rock fans happy with this album, (and a few ‘boomers’ too) harking back to old classic-rock gems, relying heavily on their signature ‘blues-infused-southern-rock-but-yet-indie-grunge’ sound, that somehow fits together nicely, like whiskey with a chaser of kombucha.

Their shows are lively and loud, with each of the players giving it their all, complete with a lot of onstage antics and wry humor. If it’s your first time seeing them, watch the bass player. Catt Murtis takes ‘performance’ to a whole other level. His stage name came from the need to distinguish one of the two Matts from each other, thus…Matt Curtis became Catt Murtis. Brilliant! What a character, and in action, very ‘cat-like’ actually.

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Catt Murtis

Catt had this to say on writing and collaboration among the group: “I would say the biggest difference is just how we have grown together as a family, and a band. We all know how one another works, and we know how to work together, in everything we do. And we’ve all helped each other get better, at what each individual does. And writing together just comes much easier, because of that.”

Their VIDEOS are both moody (Can’t Sleep) and hysterical, and show just how good their sense of humor is, (Come Get Your Coat) while not taking themselves too seriously. They have every right to, considering their level of playing, and seriously good song-smithery going on. Each and every band member could be considered in the top category of their individual musical instrument’s mastery, and most of them have proficiency in more than one instrument.

20200212_blacktop_mojo_0235-2They have indeed made Rock fans happy with this album, (and a few ‘boomers’ too) harking back to old classic-rock gems, relying heavily on their signature ‘blues-infused-southern-rock-but-yet-indie-grunge’ sound, that somehow fits together nicely, like Texas whiskey with a chaser of kombucha.

Picking up new fans are a piece of cake for these guys, as I was witness to, when I caught their show at ‘Encore Tucson’ early in February, 2020. This was the first time the band had been to Tucson AZ, but the crowd was huge, and VERY appreciative. The same scenario has played out all over the country, at many other venues, not surprisingly.

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That Voodoo That You Do

…”the growth of the shows has also stood out. We’ve had much bigger turnouts in the last year than we ever have, and it’s amazing to see that happen. Especially some places where, when we played before, we had a handful of people, to now 3 or 4 times as many. It’s amazing to see, and we are so thankful!” – Catt

Co-founder Matt James, lead singer, lyricist and sometime guitar-man said, “This album was the first record we got to make as full time musicians. We got off the road and locked ourselves in our house for 6 months, and worked on it 24/7 until we were ready to track it. We nearly drove ourselves and each other crazy while making it, but we got to make something that we’re very proud to call our own.”

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Matt James on Acoustic

Ryan Kiefer, lead guitarist and vocal harmonies guy, had this to say about collaboration with Chuck Wepfer, their newest member. “One thing that stood out to me was how well we all collaborated on this record, compared to the last two. Being that Chuck is the newest to the lineup, it was great having Chuck’s input on different ideas, along with everyone else.” In my own opinion, the guitar licks are getting better with each album, and while ‘Burn The Ships’ had great riffs, this one matches or surpasses it, which isn’t an easy feat.  This is the guitar band you’ve been yearning for. So listenable, without hitting you over the head with endless solos. They show their stuff, and then you are back on the road to the melody. So tasteful, and such capable guitarists, and this band has FOUR. Catt and Matt both play as well. I think that must be the magic to the songwriting. They ALL get it. You don’t have instruments fighting against each other. Everything blends, and blends so darn well, you get to just feel the story and the playing, the way it should be.

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Ryan Kiefer

The other pretty consistent thing I hear from fans, old and new, is just what nice guys the band members are. I got that from the first time I met them, and it continues to be a big part of their appeal. Ask some of the folks on their official fan-club page on Facebook – Mojo Nation. In fact, give it a like and follow along on their adventures, if you want.

Article Copyright 2020 – Abby Owen

Photography Copyright 2020 – Katarzyna Cepek Photograpy

Other Media Copyright 2020 – Blacktop Mojo

Featured post

Billy Gibbons – Perfectamundo…

Blues Magazine’s article on Billy Gibbons – Perfectamundo, debut solo album from ZZ Top guitarist/vocalist. <—(Click to read on their site.)

Gibbons

Kern Pratt ~ Broken Chains ~ Review & Interview by Abby Owen

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Broken Chains, Kern Pratt’s new album has been getting some great reviews. No wonder. It’s solid. A real look into the past from the first note on a resonator guitar which becomes an interlude (that you didn’t realize you needed) between the fast pace of life and putting on this CD, setting you up for a step back in time and setting the tone of the project. Tradition. Blues. Soul. Nothing too flashy here. It’s old school right down to the rumba beat on ‘Don’t Leave Me Baby’, one of Kern’s own, by the way, to Albert Collins’ slow blues favorite ‘Lights Are On’, which gives my old Texas heart a twangy twitter. Reminds me a bit of Mark May’s style, but Pratt has a more earthy rumble vocally and has a nice sleepy guitar lead. Not ‘too many notes’, you might say. You can tell Pratt appreciates the nostalgic lure of the old greats, and identifies with them, growing up in the rough and tumble world of the South with its hot Summer nights and dingy Ice-houses. The world of the neon moon, as it were. The Texas blues-rock greats of the past like Albert Collins, Freddie King, Guitar Shorty were all influences of Hendrix and the Stones. If you’ve never listened to them much, do yourself a favor. They will never leave your collection again, I’m certain.

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Pratt is from Jackson, MS which gives him a whole other take on the blues. Delta boogie and juke-joint roadhouses come to mind. Pratt’s ‘Greenville Mississippi Blues’ is a prime example of that rockin’ good-time music with keys pounding out the boogey-woogey. ‘Cotton Pickin’ is a fun-vibe instrumental with cool horns and tasty lead guitar. My favorite cover is his version of ‘Handcuffed To The Blues’. Funky groove!

11865348_1047928548560417_5159619702916849887_oKern Pratt has the look of a saddle-worn cowboy, with a voice that matches; a fitting image of a genre of music that’s a voice for the down-trodden and a cry for relief. But the blues can be a ‘juke-joint-jumpin’ rowdy good-time too. Kern Pratt has the fluidity to flow from one to the other with ease. When you add in his lovely lady Denise Owen, (we are not related, promise) it gets even more interesting. Their co-written ‘Soulshake’ is climbing the blues charts and has a fun, dance-able beat with a catchy tune & lyrics. Soft and sultry on ‘Smokin’ Gun’ Owen shows she is a talented songwriter as well as possessing a fluid soulful voice. Pratt has placed three times in the IBC’s in Memphis TN and has played with too many headliners to count. You can find out more about him on his website KernPratt.com 

I asked Kern a few questions to add to this review, so here’s a little more about the man…

Q. I want to ask you about your parents. I see that you lost your mother early, age seven and your father in 2007. Would you like to tell your fans a little more about them, and their influence in your life?

A. Well, my mother’s death had a very profound effect on me, I can say it was and has been extremely difficult. That being said, it was at that time or not long after, I first started playing guitar. My dad owned a western auto store in Greenville, MS and right down the street was a music store. I would walk by and see the guitars, so I asked my dad to get me a guitar and lessons. This kind of gave me an outlet for the way I dealt with losing my mother. My dad always encouraged my music, in fact it was at his store that I met many great blues artists. For example, Calep Emphrey, “B.B. Kings” Drummer, Eugene Powel, AKA “Sonny Boy Nelson” Eddie Shaw “Howlin’ Wolf’s” sax player and band leader, just to name a few. There is so many other’s. Growing up around these great Blues artists definitely shaped the direction my music would go in. As I got older, my dad had the biggest influence on me; he was my biggest fan until the day he died, and I really miss him…

Q. What was what you consider to be your first ‘break’? Weather by luck or by hard work, that moment you feel you broke through to a larger audience.

A. I’ve been playing music for a really long time. I worked as a sideman for some really famous artists. I played with all the Great Greenville, MS bluesman and women. So its been a long road, I guess I would say I feel that I moved to another level about 8 weeks ago on Sunday. When I heard my songs on Live at the Midnight Circus with Richard L’ Hommedieu. After that, things just started rolling like crazy. In just five days we were number 1 in Mississippi. Number 22 nationwide and came in the Top 100 Picks at number 79 and we’ve moved to Number 57 as of this week.

Q. What happens when you are songwriting? What is the process you go through.Your method?

A. It’s funny, sometimes I just hear a riff in my head, or someone says something, and I think man that’s a good idea for a song. Sometimes something I read or something I dream about can make me think that as well. I woke up last night with an idea, but didn’t go to my voice recorder. Sometimes I’m not disciplined enough, but I try…

Q. We can all agree that the ‘music biz’ has changed drastically. What’s your take on it? (The good and/or the bad.)

A. Absolutely! The Indie Music Movement has begun to really take off, giving independent artists- like myself a worldwide form. Streaming, self distribution, i.e. CD Baby, ITunes, Amazon, Reverbnation, etc. has given artists control over things. In my opinion, it is the future of the music industry. Traditional stations are still very important because it does keep it personal, but podcasts and internet stations do that as well. I don’t see a down side.

Q. I know it’s a hard question, when music is obviously your passion, but if you HAD TO pick another profession, if there was no such thing as music, what would you like it to be?

A. It’s not a hard question, at all when my dad got ill I had to work as a EMT. I still played but I also worked shifts because I couldn’t travel and needed the security. So I’m feeling even more blessed and fortunate to be able to do what I love – playing the Blues!!

Q. What are some of the highlights from this album recording, or stories from the studio?

A. We had a wonderful experience in the studio, working with a Producer like David Hyde and an engineer like Nelson Blanchard and so many Great Musicians was exhilarating! But working with my singing partner and best friend, Denise Owen was by far the coolest thing!

Q. Do you have any ‘stories from the road’ or from gigging in your hometown that your fans might find amusing?

A. Yeah! We were on the road a few years ago and we got canceled on a gig, and were broke and hadn’t ate in a couple of days, so I said “Fella’s we’re going to Denny’s”. Then they said “we ain’t got no money” so I said “Y’all just trust me on this”.  So we walked on over and I told them “y’all get all the ketchup y’all can find and all the crackers”. I asked the waitress for 5 cups of hot water, and I told the guys to squeeze all the ketchup and crush the crackers in the cups and we had Redneck Tomato Soup!!! And it was real good at that point… That’s the Blues!

Q. Would you like to share with your fans something about your personal life, or your relationship? You have a lovely lady that is involved with your career, so I know many of us would like to know more. How you met? How you compliment one another? Funny stories to share? Future plans?

A. You know, I can’t get used to the word fan or fans. I consider these folk’s “Friends” that enjoy our music – normally I wouldn’t discuss my personal life but I’m going to make an exception this time because there are a lot of pictures on social media, etc. So here it goes, Denise Owen is my singing partner and is a professional with a life time in the music business. She has a solo track called “Smokin’ Gun” on the CD. We sing a duet – “Soulshake” on the CD as well. Incidentely, both are doing very well on the charts. So now, I’ll tell you about the other part. Yes, Denise is lovely and it’s great to be able to share the music with her. I saw Denise here in Jackson, MS 4-5 years ago; she was singing in a show band and I kinda thought, well she sure can sing and damn she’s pretty too! Well, I moved to Jackson, MS and started playing and we ended up working together as a duo, and I think y’all can figure out the rest. We sing great together, we laugh a lot and she’s my best friend. For the future? I’m gonna have to keep that underwraps, but you never know when you might hear some really cool news!

Q. Would you like to share something about the talented folks you surround yourself with as far as your ‘team’?

A. Absolutely! First, my executive producer, Kerry Brashear has been great. David Hyde has a history too long to go into! He did a great job producing this album and others; he is pure genius. Nelson Blanchard’s contribution was plain incredible. Engineered, mixed, background vocals – he is so talented. Denise Owen of course. Our special guest, Eden Brent… who I grew up with and has been a life long friend. The Blue’s Great Kenny Neal. Luc Borms, from Belgium who is also a great friend. Wes Lee, who played Resonater. My publicists Frank Roszak, who has done a remarkable job; I am proud he is on board, and even more proud to call him my friend. I have Johnny Palazzotto out of Baton Rouge, helping me also; he has been in this business a long time and I’m thankful for his help.

Q. What’s in store for Kern Pratt’s future? What do you have lined up? Also, what would you love to do musically if you could, and who with?

A. We are booked on some larger festivals, and are opening some shows for several major artists. We are hoping to sign with a booking agency soon and start touring. We are also looking at a tour in Belgium and possibly France next year. I’m already looking at doing another album, and Denise and I are also going to do another album together. That will be really cool.

To wrap this up I’d just like to say best of luck to you both, and keep on doing what you love! …looks like it’s working for you.

Copyright 2015 – Abby Owen, Photo Credits – JeffreLee Photography & Vicksburg Blues Society, Jim Steeby – Copyright 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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