The image of the old, grizzled blues player is such a vivid cultural trope that the layman might think a lifetime of hoppin’ tracks, livin’ hard, breakin’ hearts, and solemn introspectin’ would be a prerequisite. But for Canadian blues veteran Paul James, who is performing at Elmira’s Central Tavern on February 25, the music’s power is not limited to any one age or lifestyle.
“With anything, more experiences play into the colours of the palette,” said James. “But I think when you’re young, you can certainly have the blues in a different way. … Blues is a funny thing – you can have them when your baby leaves you, and you can have them when she comes back again.
“We’re struggling somehow through our whole lives,” he continued. “When you’re a baby, you’re struggling to be born, and walk, and talk. You’re struggling with love and emotion when you’re young, then you’re coping with relationships and life when you get older, and I guess you have to deal with death at some point. It’s just a never-ending thing, and the blues engulfs all of that.”
He knows from firsthand experience. James first picked up the guitar when he was 12 years old, after the death of his father. “Learning an instrument is a solitary thing – you’re alone with it, and you practice, and you get better. You have to spend a lot of time with that instrument, and the guitar, in a sense, became my best friend, my psychiatrist.”
James discovered music at the time of the British Invasion, and became drawn to “the sexuality and the primitiveness and the raw energy of the blues” through the Rolling Stones. Poring over the band’s liner notes, he discovered the long trail of American blues masters they covered – Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, and others. “It is the cornerstone of all popular music,” he discovered.
James is now 62, and to a small circle of Canadian blues fans, he is a national treasure. He won a Juno for Best Roots and Traditional Music, received the Maples Blues Lifetime Achievement Award for blues music in 2012, and has played with many of the blues greats – Bo Diddley, Mink De Ville, Spencer Davis, Lightin’ Hopkins, and Sunnyland Slim among them. And, through it all, he has spent his career just under the radar, being “almost famous” ever since he released his first album independently in 1973.
“Now, everyone is an indie artist, but back then, if you didn’t have a record deal, it was game over,” said James. “I played with Bo Diddley early on in my career, and he said, ‘Y’know Paul, if you can’t get a deal with a record company, do it yourself. You don’t have to get on your knees and all that.’
Though he has never received a strong publicity push, James has slowly accumulated admirers from decades of travelling across the country. Among his fans: a certain troubadour named Bob Dylan, who has shared the stage with him about ten times. “I don’t know how it happened, because I’ve had no agent, no manager, no record company, no publicist, so I don’t have someone pushing me. But somehow I cross paths with these people and play with them.”
He has also eluded the corporate culture of the music industry, and is motivated entirely by the work.
“There has to be some kind of need to express yourself. You have to go off on your own and practice, and then once you get it down, you have this need to go out and play and express yourself.
“I’m here to make a living at doing something that I love, and I’ve been doing it for 40 years at least,” he added. “I’m very fortunate to do that, and I don’t do anything else.”
An Intimate Acoustic Evening with Paul James begins at 8 p.m. on February 25 at the Central Tavern. Tickets are $15 at the door.