John Nemeth brings his ‘Memphis Grease’ — and the Bo-Keys – to the Grammy Museum Monday
By Bliss Bowen 03/12/2014
When last this column conversed with Idaho-raised soul-bluesman John Nemeth, he was barnstorming the country promoting his 2009 album “Love Me Tonight.” Flash forward five years and five Blues Music Award nominations, and Nemeth’s a family man freshly rooted in Memphis. Serendipitously, he was introduced to the ideal person to help him make his new album, “Memphis Grease”: “Hustle & Flow” composer Scott Bomar, who brought in renowned Memphis ensemble the Bo-Keys.
“A mutual friend of Scott and mine [introduced us],” Nemeth recalls. “Scott was looking for people to come to his studio for him to produce, and I was looking for someone to produce the record. Funny thing was, I’d never heard the Bo-Keys but a week before I got a hold of their album and I loved it and thought, ‘I’d love to make a record like that someday.’ … The drummer’s got a real way with groove and a real special feel. He’s the same guy on Al Green records and Ann Peebles. Just performing with him, right away, the first four measures of the first song we cut, I was like, ‘Cool, I like the way you done that, I’m going into your world now.’ The phrasing just came real natural and real easy, it was fantastic, and a lot of fun.”
Original tracks like “If It Ain’t Broke” and “Bad Luck is My Name” are lush with memorable hooks and the kind of earthy grooves that evoke Beale Street in its midcentury heyday, and Nemeth more than holds his own interpreting Otis Rush’s “Three Times a Fool.” He’s been honing the songs live with his band over the past few years.
“All the songs had been written since 2010,” he explains. “They were sitting there maturing, waiting to be cut. I’m one of those guys that I experiment with everything in the show, to see if people like it and will remember the song.”
Whether listeners identify the songs — or him — with soul or blues is immaterial, he says, as long as they feel the emotion.
“Musicians have been mixing up all those genres for quite some time,” he notes. “It’s turned into more of a pure songwriting style than just trying to write something over a blues change. Blues accepts everything, and soul. It’s an easy pot to put everything into.
“It’s really difficult to write a great blues song. I think that’s why so many people get hooked on blues; musicians always have a part in their musical lives that’s blues. It’s a challenge, a template that involves a whole lot of thought and creativity. People love to dance to it, and the emotional connection when blues is delivered well is dynamite.”
John Nemeth performs with the Bo-Keys and Memphis soul diva Susan Marshall at the Grammy Museum, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., downtown LA, 8 p.m. Monday; $20. Info: (213) 765-6800. Johnnemeth.com, grammymuseum.org