Blues harmonica and singer James Montgomery is a blues legend. Growing up in Detroit, he learned the blues first-hands from blues harp virtuoso James Cotton, and has been a presence in blues music for decades with the James Montgomery Band. Valley Advocate Staff Writer Chris Goudreau interviewed Montgomery ahead of his Feb. 10 performance at the Iron Horse Music Hall, in which Montgomery talked about his passion for blues music, his friendship with Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers, and his love for the Pioneer Valley.
Chris: You’ve played at the Iron Horse in the past. What do you like about the venue and the area in general?
James: First of all, the Iron Horse is like a world class joint. It’s part of a circuit of places nationwide that bring in national acts and they’re commended for doing so because there’s a lot of smaller venues that don’t take a chance on national acts. Everyone who plays there loves it. Everybody who plays the Iron Horse says it’s one of their favorite places to play. The people in Northampton are lucky to have a place like that in town.
When we started this band when I was in college at Boston University, I had a teacher that went to B.U. to UMass Amherst and he booked us out here. The first gig I ever did as the James Montgomery Band was in Amherst. I was still in college … For me, whenever we play in that area it’s like a homecoming. The first friends that we made who were fans, we made out in that area. Of course, we played with FAT a lot and with Clean Living a lot. It’s a great area for us and to this day I really feel like fans out there are like family members.
Chris: What are you planning for your set at the Iron Horse?
James: We’ll play some stuff from the very early days, and then again we’ll focus on a lot of stuff from the new record, which is dedicated to Paul Butterfield, and we’re going to try a couple new songs as well. In some respects, it’ll be a brand new set that our fans out there haven’t seen before.
Chris: Do you have any personal favorite songs that you’ve written or performed on?
James: Right now, because we have the new record and we have changed the set around, we’re doing the Paul Butterfield song that we’ve changed into a James Brown groove – “One More Heartache.” I love that song to start with. Probably one of our most popular songs ever is a song called, “Train.” It’s our version of “Mystery Train.” We hadn’t played that song for 20 or so years and then one day I just threw it in the set and told the guys, ‘I know you guys don’t know this song, but follow me.’ [laughs]
Chris: I’d like to ask you a little bit more about your new album, which is a tribute to Paul Butterfield. Was he a friend of yours or a big influence on your music?
James: He became a friend. I was playing in a jug band when I was a kid and for some reason I was really drawn to the blues harmonica. When I went to see them play, I was expecting an acoustic act. They had the electric stuff onstage, but this was a coffeehouse. When the headliner would leave, they’d turn the house and there’d be teenagers in there drinking Coca-Colas to rock dances. So, this band comes on and they’re kind of ragged looking and an interracial band, which you never saw in those days … They launch into Paul Butterfield’s version of “Mellow Down Easy,” and I was pinned to the back of my chair. It was like a revelation: ‘So that’s what you can do with an electric harmonica?’
Chris: Are there any blues harp players that influenced when you were starting out on harmonica?
James: James Cotton to a large degree. He was one of my boyhood idols growing up. I’ve known him since I was 16. By the time he passed away [in 2017], he called me son and I called him Dad. And we were very close. He was just a tremendously great guy and a huge influence on me. He mentored me on what it was like to be a bluesman and what it was like to run a blues band. He really mentored me in terms of how to structure a set and all that stuff.
Chris: You’ve played with Gregg Allman in the past as well. Do you have any stories that you might be able to share about performing alongside him?
James: One of my favorite bands to tour with was always the Allman Brothers. They were so gracious. At one point, there used to be this unconscious competition between the headliner and the opening band. The headliner didn’t want the opening band to go over big. Some groups would unplug your instruments or wouldn’t let you use certain lights and all this stuff. The Allman Brothers was always like, ‘Welcome to our dressing room. What we have is yours.’ They were such a great band to tour with and Gregg was such a friendly and outgoing guy … Before the encore he’d look at me and say, ‘You’ve got your G harp?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah,’ and he’d say, ‘Well, come on up and play Statesboro [Blues].’ Nine times out of 10 I’d end up playing with them even if I wasn’t on the bill.
Chris: It must have been devastating to hear the news of Gregg Allman’s passing last year.
James: Last year, with James Cotton and Gregg Allman passing it was really bad. I felt saddened by those guys passing because they were such great musicians, but also because they were genuinely nice people with very little ego.
Chris: Do you think blues music is really timeless? Why are you passionate about the blues and what attracts you personally to that style of music?
James: With blues people, almost all of them have a moment when they were touched by blues on a deep level. They all remember that particular moment. For Bonnie Raitt it was at a campfire. For me, it was a listening to a harmonica player when I was 15. For James Cotton, it was when he was seven years old and he peeked through a crack in a plantation shack and saw Sonny Boy Williamson playing. So, there will always be musicians who have that moment. Blues will definitely always be there. It will never go away. It’s a niche market, but blues has a special effect on people that will reel them in.