“I’m surprised by (my success),” says 24-year-old blues phenom D. K. Harrell who plays the main stage at King Biscuit Blues Festival Friday, October 6th in Helena, Arkansas. “It took all of my idols 15, 20, 30, 40 years before they got recognition. So, they were well into their 40s, 50s, or 60s before they ever got recognition.”
It’s almost as if D. K. has lived 40 years in his first 20 before signing with Little Village, the label that’s fast-tracked him into the limelight.
“I was like a nerd. Everyone that was there in my life, some girlfriends, family, and friends I just applied to this music. And I keep it raw and real. I don’t want (to sing) corny cliches. I just try to keep it as real and true as possible.
“There was one review where somebody said that my lyrics are not common blues stories or the blues deliveries that everybody is used to. They said it was very different. It’s very natural. And sometimes I don’t know how to respond to it because I’m saying, ‘I’m just saying how I feel. I’m just showing you what happens.’ It is just kind of hard to explain. I can’t put it into words. I just say what’s going on.”
It hasn’t been a straight trajectory for the young artist whose guitar work on The Right Man seems to channel B. B. King.“I gave up guitar from late sophomore year all the way to my senior year. What I was doing then was focusing on choir in high school and focusing on getting my voice strong. I could have done both at the same time, but I really wanted to concentrate on singing more, plus my father had a lot of stuff going on. So, I had to study music and get lyrics down and stuff of that nature. It was not because of the bullying. No, and don’t get me wrong. (People bullying) does not make me want to give up something that I love to do.”
D. K. took flak in school for being overweight, dressing like a gentleman, and wearing his hair in a conk like B. B. King circa 1955. “I actually graduated high school (chuckle). My graduation picture was nasty because my hair was so big, they had to pin the cap to my hair and my head so it could stay on.”
In part one of this interview D. K. talked about his struggles with the church over his secular music, but he gets signs from God all the time that he’s on the right path. “I have these signs that show up. This happens all the time. I was in the Guitar Center yesterday, and they started playing B. B. King and Van Morrison ‘If You Love Me’ over the intercom. It’s like everywhere I go it never fails. Almost every show that I play after IBC, festivals, clubs, I always hear some B. B. King song everywhere I go. Everywhere I go!
“I do get physical signs. This is the first time I’m actually talking about this. My mother doesn’t know this. For about the last year when I’ve been at a gas station or a store on the road, I always end up seeing a man that looks just like my grandfather. And it’s very scary. It scares me.
“One time I was in New Orleans. This was at Jazz Fest actually, a few months ago, and I went to Wal-Mart, and I saw a guy who looked just like my grandfather from a distance. This is maybe the fifth time I saw my grandfather, and I said ‘I’m gonna see this man, and tell him he looks like my grandfather.’
“I can’t make this up.
“I quickly walked over there to that aisle, and when I turned the corner that he was on, he was gone. I ran to the other end of the aisle, and that man was gone.
There are other signs.
“Why did I go to the International Blues Challenge last year? I did not want to do it. They reached out to me. First, the Society that reached out to me was the Indianola Mississippi Delta Blues Society, and that’s B. B. King’s hometown. Second, when I went to the IBC and started competing, two of the four performances were at the B. B. King’s Blues Club in Memphis. Then, third, when I as leaving Memphis from the IBC, we went to an island, and when our food was given to us over the intercom, they were playing ‘Sweet 16.’”
So, how does a 24-year-old write songs that sound like they come from a man who’s lived a long and full life? He often writes just before he goes to sleep. “I’ll just be laying there trying to force myself to go to sleep. Something just hits me, and I have to grab my phone and write this down. I probably don’t even have a full song in my head, but it’s something saying some phrase I want to talk about, and it just hits my mind, and I go ‘Ok, let me write this down right now.’
“I’ll come back to it the next day or the next morning, and it’ll be completely gone. Like what was I writing? Then, I can come back to it three days later, and it hits me. ‘Oh, yeah, this is what I was writing about. This is what this is.’ And this happened so much it’s not even funny. And a lot of times, a lot of songs I’ve written I put the information from just having a conversation. I go, ‘Oh, I’m going to write a song about that and take my phone out and put this information from part of having a conversation.
“It’s a beautiful gift. I just try to keep it as real and true as possible. The blues fills some holes my mother can’t fill. It’s just been my best friend ever since.”