Reinventing the Blues

Critics agree: watch this musician.

November/December 2004

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Reinventing the Blues

Dragan Tasic

At age 8, David Jacobs-Strain asked his parents for a banjo, figuring the instrument was only a step away from an electric guitar, and that was undeniably cool. Instead, his mother came home with a steel-string guitar she bought at a garage sale for $12—an investment that marked the start of her son’s whirlwind career as an acoustic blues guitarist.

Since then, the Stanford sophomore has cut five full-length albums, toured cross-country and played at some of the nation’s largest music festivals with the hottest names in contemporary blues. Critics have hailed him as a young Bob Dylan and the future of the blues. Pretty good for a 21-year-old who doesn’t read music.

Strain, who grew up in Eugene, Ore., did take guitar lessons for a year and a half and learned traditional American songs by Fred McDowell and Woody Guthrie. Captivated by the music of generations past, he left his lessons to teach himself how to achieve just the right sound.

“I got into playing prewar 1930s country blues—real warm and earthy—not this new slick and modern kind of blues,” Jacobs-Strain says. “You play the guitar with your right hand, with your fingers and not a pick, which allows you to create a bigger sound even though you’re only one person.”

He began performing when he was 12 at what he describes as “just a few small gigs I was invited to play.” But by age 15, when he became the Port Townsend (Wash.) Country Blues Workshop’s youngest-ever faculty member and had offers rolling in, music began to be less of a hobby and more a way of life. He took a year off to tour before enrolling at Stanford, played 60 shows through the East Coast, Canada and Europe, and stopped out for winter quarter this past academic year to put together a new album in New Mexico. Jacobs-Strain averages 20 performances during the school year and 45 during the summer, making for an often-bewildering schedule.

“Sometimes I feel like I get paid to sit on a plane or ride in a car, and music’s what I get to at the end of the day,” he says. Yet his laid-back demeanor shows no signs of stress. He enjoys the connections he’s made with colorful people on the road, at workshops and festivals. On his CD, Ocean or a Teardrop (NorthernBlues, September 2004), the habitual soloist plays with a band of friends he has found along the way.

Despite the challenges of combining work and school, the rising star hasn’t considered abandoning his studies: he is deciding between history and anthropology as a major. “I wanted to go to school if for no other reason than that music can be such a narrow way of life. School lets me socialize in a very different way and in different arenas,” he says. Devoting full time to music might put his career on a faster track, “but I really doubt I would be making better music. I think what I learn in school can honestly add to the sound and the feeling I put into the music.”

Critics seem to appreciate that. Writing about Jacobs-Strain’s 2002 album, Stuck on the Way Back, Dave Rubin in Guitar One magazine said it “reveals chilling original tunes that the solo acoustic blues artist takes to the edge with virtuosic slide and fingerpicking. Besides his fret-busting chops and barrelhouse vocals, Jacobs-Strain’s deep knowledge of the past informs his music with an authenticity that is startling for his age.”

Jacobs-Strain’s past albums reflect a shift from traditional blues toward more innovative material. He wrote several songs on the new CD, including some that set Native American creation myths to spiritual melodies. Many of the complex scales and riffs are improvised on the spot.

“I rarely sit down and compose a song,” the artist says. “One little musical phrase turns into something, and it builds and adds on to something else until I have all these little snippets and one big idea comes along that pulls them all into a song.”

Jacobs-Strain’s original pieces are often a mixture of blues, jazz and bluegrass that seem to flow into one another, keeping the tunes fresh. He says it isn’t unusual for him to hear something he likes in a song, and for that same sound to come out in his music six months later. Listening to other musicians’ creations feeds his own writing.

While some of Jacobs-Strain’s songs attack political issues, he tries to add a depth and spirituality that are often missing from other songs in the genre. “I want to draw on many, many different ideas from different places so I don’t fall into saying ‘this song is about a relationship,’ or ‘this song is about a political problem,’” he says. “I want to maintain a balance between clarity and bluntness. So many people try to write songs about politics, but there’s no poetry to it.”

The songwriter admits that his youth can raise eyebrows. What could a kid his age—a college kid—possibly have to be blue about? In rebuttal, he throws out the name Robert Johnson, the anointed “king of Delta blues” who died at age 26.

Critics seem convinced. “Seldom do you hear someone this young who sounds this experienced and soulful,” wrote Michael Allison in the e-journal Music Dish. “He displays a maturity that is far beyond his years, belting out the blues like someone who’s been in the trenches for decades,” declared a Canadian critic. “What can you say about a teenager who sings like a soulful 45-year-old and plays lights-out acoustic blues?” marveled the Acoustic Guitar reviewer.

“Even people who are really into this kind of music have the strange perception that it can only be about lousy relationships falling apart in smoky bars,” Jacobs-Strain says. “But that’s a very narrow vision of the blues. It’s also about looking into other cultures, looking at the world from different social perspectives. I sing about things that are personal and special to me.”

Despite talk of deals with big record companies, Jacobs-Strain still runs his career somewhat informally. As he taught himself to play the guitar, his father, Michael Strain, learned how to be a booking agent, scheduling tours and performances for his son. His last albums were brought out with independent labels. Recently, he has been shopping for a professional agent but says, “I haven’t been sitting around waiting for a man with a big cigar to come around and sign me. We’re out there right now making things happen ourselves. I don’t want to give up my publishing or sell the rights to my music. I’m still really in charge of what I want to do.”

And that is to make music. “What can I say? I’m hooked,” Strain says, smiling. “It gets to the point where you really don’t have a choice anymore. You see a guitar somewhere, you pick it up and start playing.”

CAMILLE RICKETTS, '06, is a history major from Fremont, Calif.

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