If you wish to feel seen, acknowledged and befriended, get yourself to a room where Jontavious Willis is performing the blues. There are no strangers there. At a recent show at the Franklin Theatre opening for Keb' Mo', Willis engaged, cajoled and loved on the crowd as if we were family.
"I'm about making memories," he says in an interview for WMOT's The String, which will premiere Sunday Oct. 20. "When I'm on stage and the audience is quiet, I encourage them to talk back to me and feel like we're all together."
Listen to The String here. Jontavious Willis starts at 18:00.
We could speculate that his gift for making community comes from growing up in tiny Greenville, GA. But there's something deeper and more intuitive in this 22-year-old, this new face of the acoustic blues. He's one of the few African American musicians of his generation to immerse himself in these traditions and make them his own. And some of his forebears are ecstatic about his arrival.
"That's my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind," says Taj Mahal, who signed up as executive producer of Willis's new album Spectacular Class. In press material for the record, the blues icon says that Willis "has a wonderful and amazing future and he’s got a great sound, and we are all lucky to be at this point when this man is starting to launch is going to be an incredible and long career.” Keb' Mo' has also embraced the artist/songwriter, taking him on the road and producing the recording.
Spectacular Class is a rarity in modern Americana, with a spare front porch stomp that recalls albums in the 70s and 80s on labels like Flying Fish and Blind Pig. Yet while the arrangements are acoustic, rural and timeless, the songs are Willis originals.
"People been talking, and it makes me scratch my head/They've been saying over and over, that the blues is dead," Willis sings in a manifesto for his music, over twinkling piano and slide guitar. Obviously, he goes on to disagree. On "Take Me To The Country," we hear the string-snapping and loose-limbed dance of his solo acoustic guitar, colored by the influence of Robert Johnson and Blind Blake. The album closer, made into the video below, laments that the "World's In A Tangle," but affirms the power of music to stay cool in the face of foolishness.
Willis says Greenville, GA isn't just where he grew up; it's where he plans to live his life, even as he pursues the life of a touring artist. He says about half of its 800 person population is family. And even though he didn't have blues mentors per se close to home, he was surrounded by church music and great singers. It was YouTube that built a bridge from his world to the legacy of the blues.
"I seen it," Willis said of his digitally delivered, old-time epiphany. "I understood how they coincided with each other. The enthusiasm and the passion Muddy Waters was giving was the same enthusiasm and passion that the pastor would give. And the way the audience reacted was the same in the club he was in and the church I attended. The same voice, the same tempo. It filled me up, and that's how it went."
His father got him his first guitar on Christmas Eve, 2010. Willis tuned it by intuition, not instruction and played the guitar "wrong" for five years before he adopted standard tuning. That change was critical to learning the syncopated, ragtime style of blues guitar known as "Piedmont" for its origins in the rolling country that stretches from Georgia to Virginia. Willis found guidance from octogenarian North Carolina bluesman John Dee Holeman, who told him that he needed to "find his thumb."
"I didn't know what he meant by that," Willis says. "But I felt around with it and understood. I started playing ragtime and using more alternating bass." It's a technique one hears in Mississippi John Hurt, Merle Travis, Chet Atkins and other accomplished guitarists. It's a technique Jontavious Willis has command of only a few years into what should be a long journey. But among the blessings of Greenville, GA is time to practice. "When you're in a town as small like where I'm from," he says, "you'll find something real quick to be good at."