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BWW Interview: Joanna Connor Returns with 'Six String Stories'

The first thing I'm struck by is how you can take a person out of New England, but you don't take the New England out of them...and I damned well know that. Worcester, Massachusetts native Joanna Connor has lived in Chicago since her sojourn there in 1984, but still speaks with a rough and ready manner that says to anyone from any part of there, that you know where you stand, and you're one of us.

Connor has also lived the blues. Years of touring have given way to changes in the business, where which Connor outlined in my recent talk with her. The impetus was Six String Stories, Connor's first album in fourteen years.

The album does not pull any punches. From the slide guitar opening "It's a Woman's Way," prepare for a ride through Chicago-style blues, with a fair number of detours, including the power ballad "We Stayed Together" and the Zeppelin-influenced "Halsted Street."

While Connor has produced a long string of recordings that date back to the 90's, Six String Stories is her first since 2002. Why the long layoff? "I was really busy raising my daughter and being a full-time player in the city," Connor admits. "The gig I have (at the famous Kingston Mines) is like super long; it like starts at like 7:30 and it ends at like 2:30 or 4:30 in the morning. And my daughter was a basketball player, and every week I'd be up for two days straight without sleep (on the weekends) it was pretty exhausting for a lot of years."

The changes in music, and the business were other reasons for Connor to avoid the studio. "I was just kind of in a weird place in a lot of ways," she says, "and I felt like 'Ah, I don't know if I have anything new to say, and blah-blah, so I just focused on being a live musician.'"

What you see (and hear) is what you get...Joanna Connor

Connor's longtime drummer (now bassist Lance Lewis) coaxed her back to the studio, and they took their time on the album. "It took about seven months," Connor says, "because I would go one week, a couple weeks later take another day. Thanks to (Lewis') patience and perseverance it got done. I would have to squeeze it in between doing stuff, but it's here and I'm happy about it."

In terms of working with Lewis, that too was a change. "I'd never written with anyone before," Connor explains. "He knows me musically so well, and a lot of things we put down we've been playing onstage for a while. I think it made it really comfortable, kinda nice, not a lot of pressure. I'm not a prolific writer, per se, but it's kind of nice to have someone throw ideas at me, and I threw ideas back, so it was good. I think it's a better process for me. He also expanded the arrangements, he came up with ideas I wouldn't have thought of."

The sound of the album also captures Connor, the way you get her onstage. "I think as I've gotten older," she says, "all those years of playing so many hours, I think it made me a better player. It also wore down my voice a little, it's a little more throaty and a little bit more gravelly...the older I get the more I know who I am and more comfortable with myself. I think this time it finally caught more of what I'm about. I think I went in and kinda kicked a little butt, you know?" she finishes with a laugh.

Connor's upbringing in Worcester was musically rich, thanks in large part to her mother. "She always loved music," Connor recalls. "She loved jazz, blues, rock, reggae, I heard all of that stuff. I heard blues when I was a child, I credit that to my mom, and she took me to see blues shows at Clark University, where she worked. I saw Buddy Guy when I was ten years old, and Son Seals, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee when I was like eleven."

Her first guitar, a classical one, was not something Connor asked for or sought: "I didn't really want to do it at first," she says, "my Mom got me a guitar. I was seven years old, and I remember I walked into the living room and I'm like, 'What's this?' 'You're gonna take guitar lessons.' "And I'm like, "Really, ah alright, whatever. So I did for like two or three years, and at the time I was really into sports, I wanted to go out and play. I did that till I was like 14, I played every sports, and I kept breaking my fingers."

Connor became interested in guitar again after a friend got one, and once more, Joanna's mom helped out. "(She) hooked me up with a guy from work that taught blues guitar and slide. I was really into the Rolling Stones at the time and Led Zep; he was really into Ry Cooder and all the Delta guys. So (at) fourteen, fifteen, started studding with him for a few years, finger picking, Ragtime, Delta and the slide."

Connor also picked up the saxophone and played in school bands; her first group was a folk-rock band in her senior year of high school.

That exposure to diverse music also reflects in Connor's hometown. "Worcester's kind of a weird town," she explains, "a really hardcore blue-collar factory town, and it's got like ten colleges there, it doesn't have the feeling of a college town."

Just to the east, Boston was about to launch itself into the blues scene. "The scene at that time, when I started playing in '79, didn't start into the blues until '81," Connor says. "It was very much geared toward Austin, Texas, there was a definite connection between Providence, Boston and Austin, the Roomful of Blues, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Although I liked that stuff, it wasn't my favorite. I was more into the Chicago-style bands that came through. I used to go to a club in Cambridge called Jonathan Swift's, and I just decided I loved the Chicago thing more. Commercially, (Austin) was more influential; I just decided to go to Chicago."

Working Out (photo credit Joseph Rosen)

Connor remembered her first trip to the Windy City, a cross-country affair: "One of those hippie band trips," she recalls, "(we) went from Worcester To California, so let's stop in Chicago on the way in. I ended up in the Kingston Mines of all places: two stages, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks. Oh, that's it, Blues Nirvana, here I am! I was 19, and I said I'm coming back here."

That trip to Chicago in 1984 has not ended, and Connor had at least some of a plan in mind for making it in the business. "My goal was to learn to play from someone I liked, try to get in their band, and that's actually what happened."

Kingston Mines remains one of the stalwart surviving clubs on the Chicago scene, and it stood out for years above others. "There was a lot of clubs in Chicago, there still is," Connor remembers. "I was literally going out seven nights a week, but the Mines was always open the latest. I was just literally watching people play and once in a while jamming...I could never play lead guitar at all, so I just started watching people, playing a little pentatonic scale. A few guys showed me stuff, and then the world got around.

'I was sitting in with Magic Slim and all these guys, but there was one guitar player I liked named Dion Payton. He was playing with Lonnie Brooks at the time. He was starting his own band, and I kept bothering him. I call him the Snoop Dogg of the blues, he was too cool you know," she remembers, "tall lanky guy just real low key but a ferocious player. We were in the house band at the Checkerboard Lounge, on 43rd St. that was Buddy Guy's club at the time. We eventually got a Thursday at the Mines, we went down Thursday, Friday, Saturdays at the Mines from like '85 to '88, and the owner of the club gave me my own night, which was a Tuesday. Then I went on the road forever, 90's to 2005, and I started playing there again one night a week, and then Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Been doing that 11 years now."

What was it like being a New Englander, and a woman, playing the blues in Chicago? "It was a mixed bag," Connor says. "It was 50-50, 'Oh ,what the hell is she doing here?', or 'This is really cool'. "It was pretty hardcore, you sink or swim; I went into the deep end of the pool, but I was determined and I was just thrilled to be jamming with these guys. Meeting Otis Rush; playing with Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Junior Wells. I can't believe I'm actually doing all this! I was 22, 23 years old."

Connor noted the good times for touring musicians had their ups and downs, with emphasis on the latter. "I spent a good part of the 90's in Europe and South American and Japan, traveled like every state," Connor recalls. "You could go down to Florida and have one night off a week. After 9/11, the economy started to go further and further south, and the blues crowd was not getting any younger. Clubs started to close left and was really no longer feasible, only for a select handful of musicians at the top of the pile. I would say (between) the 9/11 era and 2010, 60% of the clubs closed."

Touring became a weekend deal for many artists, but Connor says the Millennial and "Hipster" crowd may play a hand in the upswing. "When you have a clientele over forty," Connor says, " they cannot go out seven nights a week supporting music, they just don't. Fortunately, at the Mines, (the owner) made a policy a long time ago if you were a college student with an ID, you get in free during the week. And it's near a college too. It was a smart move, because the college kids started to come there, and it's such a late bar. And he reached out to all those service industry people and gave them free admission all year round, so the Mines starts kind of like an older crowd in the beginning, and by midnight everyone's under thirty, which is very unusual for the blues."

And how about those this new generation of fans? "What I really love about the Millennials," Connor says, "their values and tastes are a lot deeper than other generations. People make fun of them, they're lazy, they're this, they're that. There's a certain element that are probably superficial and plastic, but want good lasting coffee or beer, they don't adhere to any style of fashion, they have tattoos they have beards, and tattoos.

'Guess it makes me sound old, but the music from the past had so much depth to it, and that impresses me. They want it a lot of them aren't so concerned, you know the tiny house movement, all this stuff that's going on. I'm like wow, I call 'em the new hippies. To me it's wonderful, I love it; the thing that always attracted me to the blues it was real and pretty unfiltered and it wasn't commercial."

Shredding it...Joanna Connor

Connor also has words for some of her more polished peers, or rather those who contrive to sell the blues: "Record companies in my opinion," she says, "some of them make the mistake of, 'Let's package this nice product, does this person look a certain way...' "It's kind of the sanitized blues, and some of it's okay, but I think they're missing the point. I'm not saying you have to be totally all grungy and whatever. That's not a qualification, but you don't want to have a glossy package unless you happen to be that way naturally.

'I also think music right now is getting a little more blurred, you can hear the influences of blues and folks, hip-hop, it's nice, it's not one lane."

Now in her fifties, and with plenty of road ahead, Connor answered the question of whether she is keeping the blues tradition alive, in the steps of her idols, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Guy and the rest? "I would never put myself in that category," she says. "I feel like they were real innovators, they started things. I feel like I put on my own spin; I had to be who I am. Maybe I'm like in the next generations or a couple generations down, maybe, time will tell."

The world remains hungry for blues, and Connor echoes a common statement from artists who go abroad. "I was just in Finland and Sweden," she said, "playing in this (one) place outside, and it was pouring rain, and people stood there the whole time and gave us a standing ovation. They'd never heard me before. They appreciate music and culture and what America does in that sense. One of the things we're really good at, we make music in all genres, and they're really hungry for it."

Connor has a full book of regular gigs at Kingston Mines until January 2017, but there will be select dates in the Eastern and Midwestern states, and possibly a west coast tour, "as the record gets out there, more people hear it. Europe, I'm going to Denmark and Germany. I'm not gonna say no, you know? I think we'll just do more smart touring, and we have a base to come home to, so it's a nice situation."

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