East coast bluesman John Carleton, (AKA Johnny Never) has a mission to deliver pure, unadulterated vintage Blues to those who already love the Blues as well as those who have never heard it. From Australia to Austin, Canada to Congo, Johnny’s music has been heard on Blues radio and internet broadcasts all over the world. Whether solo or with accompaniment, Johnny’s live performances energize audiences in Northern Maryland, Southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Canada from small bars and restaurants to music halls such as the MAC Concert Series, The Mainstay, the Kennett Flash, and Jamie’s House of Music.
Johnny has performed in dozens of Music Festivals. He can rivet an audience to their seats as a solo performer, and his two and three-piece acts with stellar harmonica and upright bass can bring audiences to their feet. Johnny pays homage to, but does not mimic, the vast array of original Bluesmen that gave birth to “the Blues” a century ago.
Called “the spiritual son” of Blues greats for his covers of artists like Son House, Robert Johnson, and Charlie Patton, his original compositions possess the qualities of the genuine article, delivered through deft finger-style guitar work and a voice that reeks of authenticity. These qualities have earned him recognition by Blues and folk music societies from Memphis to Philadelphia. In 2014 Johnny was a quarter-finalist in the International Blues Challenge, in Memphis TN.
ABS: Can you talk about your most recent release, Blue Delta?
‘Blue Delta’ is my second album, and was the culmination of 5 years of on and off again writing, expansion of ideas, exploratory recording, listening and studying, and more writing and technique development all squeezed into what empty little spaces I could carve into my life. Such is the life of an artist. I wanted to create a personal ode to the music that has had so much impact on my life: the early Delta and Piedmont Blues recordings from the 20’s – 30s – the roots of modern Blues.
I wanted to retain the spirit of that music, writing from my heart in an organic way much as I imagine the first recorded artists, such as Blind Boy Fuller, Charlie Patton, Son House, and others did. I first was taken by the old Blues as a teen when I heard 78RPM recordings of Son House and Blind Boy Fuller. It was as if these old Blues were planted like a seed in my soul – and “Blue Delta’ is really just another step in a life-long journey exploring that form of musical expression. I also wanted to make something new – from the old – create a new sound that echoed the spirit of the original old Blues, honored it, but didn’t mimic it.
I am no judge if I have done it successfully; it’s a hard line to walk and a very personal one. That said, there are original tunes on the album that I love that expand beyond a strict “Delta or Piedmont” feel such as Witherin’ Heat Blues, which has a more California swing Blues feel and Falls Off The Bone (The Blues in 7/8) which really pushed the creative approach of the genre, but still, I think, was very true to the original organic feel of the first Blues. I had a fun time playing around the creative approach to the covers as well.
I recorded some tracks at home, some at Widget Studios, and some at Buckeye Studios. I learned a lot while I recorded and I’m so thankful to Peter Richan at Buckeye Studios, Dave Young at Widget Studios, and all the great musicians that helped. As it often can be in life, timing is everything. The last track, (Blues in 7/8) was mastered in March, 2020 – just in time for the Pandemic. I waited until November to distribute it and I was really pleased with the response the album got. It received a fair amount of radio and Internet Blues show play around the world (including in Congo) and I received some really nice reviews.
What’s your favorite song from the record and why?
I think my personality prohibits me from picking any single and proclaiming it the favorite. Hell, I don’t even have a favorite color. I like the bounce and energy of the title track “Blue Delta Blues.” I love John Colgan-Davis’ and my take on “Death Letter.” Dave Young laid down a positively soulful bass line and Peter Richan did a great job with the “swamp” rhythm and the mixing of everything.
For “Blues in 7/8,” I love the lyrics and the organized chaos of it. The drum rhythm in 7/8 was tough and even questionable if it was really 7/8. I’m not a trained musician and I counted 7/8 while others counted it differently. Whatever the case, I really think it has a cool texture and a very organic feel. My good friend, the late Paul Patchel, did a great job creating an almost toxically organic and primal feel on the drums, as if the world was driven a little off balance, just like the character in the song whose own primal urges have set him off balance.
Paul passed away in January of this year. I miss him. “Whiskey Glass” is a great song, and I think in general is as close to being a favorite of my original songs when I perform it. Honestly, I think I should have tried one more take. None the less it gets a lot of comments. So – in a nutshell, I think most of the songs have strengths and, like any artist, I wish I could make them all better.
If you had to pick the top three Delta players that inspired you, who would you choose and why?
Here we go again with favorites, but this is moderately easier. Of the originals Son House is definitely an inspiration. His soul reveals itself with every strike of the guitar and every gut-wrenching cry of his voice. Hearing his old 78-RPM recordings in the basement at a friend’s house when I was maybe 15 or so propelled my slow, methodical exploration of this kind of music. It is such an organic sound.
Muddy Waters’ early recordings reek of the Delta. Even though he recorded mostly in Chicago, in his early recordings one feels like there’s a direct connection to the man’s soul. The music feels very organic and free. It is honest. And like so much of the original Blues it is not about having 12 bars. The count is irrelevant and often very fluid. Blind Blake (a Piedmont player) was also a big inspiration because of the incredible fingering complexity of his “Piano Guitar.” The surviving recordings are in such poor condition. It was modern artists covering his songs such as Ry Cooder, David Bromberg, and Ari Eisenenger that made Blake so important to me.
You sound so free when you play. How do you do this?
I had never really thought about it in those terms, but I thank you, Brant; that is a great compliment. It is a great way to define one of the aspects of the original Blues that I have loved for so long. I always think of Blues as organic and honest. One of the aspects of some of the old Blues artists is that they had no hard set, pre-conceived notion of what the song had to be.
They didn’t study theory at Julliard, and in that way, I think they were unencumbered. They simply knew their instrument and used it, sometimes quite spontaneously to create a song. Big Bill Broonzy, Sony Terry, and many others were well known for just making up a “Blues” on the spot. When Robert Johnson was recorded, we were blessed with multiple takes of the same title, and he never played a song the same way twice. Each take was different and perhaps that lends a feeling of spontaneity to it. He felt free to do what he felt at the time.
Part of the tradition of Blues, back then, was quite literally, to take something you heard someone else do and use it as much or as little as you wanted to make up your own song. It is why the old recordings are so fascinating. You hear similar or even the same musical phrasings and lyrical bits in so many different artists songs. It is kind of like one long, continuously morphing strand of singular music from the late 1800s to the early 1940s, that is them captured in bits and pieces that we think of as individual songs.
I’m not sure I really know the “hows” of why my music seems so free and fluid. I am very glad it does! There are of course years of listening to the original stuff. Perhaps it rubs off. I’d feel lucky if it did. I try to play from the heart, much as I feel the original recorded Blues artists did. I work at not getting too bogged down with theory or exactitude – keeping it organic as much as possible. I want it to flow from my soul and out through the sound hole. I practice a lot. Music is like a language, and to be fluid one has to be articulate, and to be articulate it takes a lot of practice. It is important to “own” the guitar and vocals.
How is your Blues received in the northeast?
As far as radio play – we had a modicum of radio play in college stations here in the Northeast: Philly, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and believe it or not, Newfoundland. Performance wise, I think people like it which is amazing given that most folks in the restaurants and bars where I play have never heard anything like it. Many times, after a gig people will come up to me, asking about the music and wanting to hear more. It’s always such a great feeling when that happens because I truly feel that I am helping to keep the old Blues alive.
Pre-pandemic, I did about 60-65 gigs a year in bars and restaurants from Maryland to New York and the occasional festival or music house, both solo and duo, and occasionally trio. I am amazed – given that the music is not “popular hits of the seventies and eighties” that pretty much 90% of venues ask me back to play again at least a few times and many venues become regular gigs for years and years.
Can you talk about playing with John Colgan Davis? What does he bring to the table?
Aside from being a genuinely warm and decent human being and a great pleasure to play with, John has a unique voice with the harp. John captures the soul of a song in a way that few harp players do. He can get these great, guttural, sustained tones and accent them with flurries of notes reminiscent, at times, of Phil Wiggins (of Cephas and Wiggins). When he lands a note, it can be so very sweet.
He can be very flexible in his approach to different songs, which is a great quality, and he listens on stage well. Given the spontaneous nature of the music, that is so very important. It makes the interplay on stage at times really magical. The sound of his own soul was so very exposed in the recording of Death Letter on the Album. He is also just a very reassuring presence to play with as he so obviously loves playing.
Do you have any upcoming shows?
Post-pandemic in July of this year, things were gang busters. I am now booking for the winter and spring. Though not much is actually on the books yet. I have two gigs in December: one at 1675 distillery in Bensalem and one at Crooked Eye Brewing in Hatboro. Crooked Eye is a great space with a nice stage and sound and the owner, Paul Hogan, is a big Blues fan who is dedicated to supporting the Blues. I’ve got regular gigs at the fabulous 1920’s speakeasy in Wilmington called Hummingbird to Mars on January 29 and February 26.
Also, I have an unspecified series of dates at St. Georges Country Store in St, Georges, DE for 2022. The Country Store was the last gig I did before the Pandemic shut down and we sold it out. That was back on March 11, 2020. I’ll be performing with John at the Royale Theater, a new 100 seat theater in Glenside, PA on March 26. There will be more of course. Pre-pandemic I was doing six to eight gigs a month. I am hoping we can work back to that. All performance dates get are listed on my schedule on my site.
What’s next for you?
I am writing and recording and studying for the next album. I’ve got half a dozen original songs in the works. Some are further along than others. This album will have more slide and resonator than the last and I am hoping that I can produce this one in a more cost-effective manner than Blue Delta. I am very excited about it.
I also want to encourage your readers, if I may, to NOT stream music from the likes of Spotify and Apple. They take advantage of a loophole in legal statutes to rip artists off. Dan Ek, for example, who co-owns Spotify, is a billionaire many times over, who seriously exploits musical artists to make his billions. What he does is illegal in all other businesses, but because streaming is new, there are no specific laws against it. He takes 99.997 cents of every dollar he makes selling other people’s music, and the actual artist effectively gets nothing. If your readers love music, please, I encourage them to BUY music from their favorite artists.
*Feature image: Johnny Never and John Colgan Davis (Credit: John Dorchester)