Big Road Blues: Colin James Tackles the Classics on Blue Highways

Image courtesy of the artist.

Nicholas Friesen @Nicholastronaut  February 15, 2017

Regina-born guitarist and singer Colin James has been bringing his infectious and upbeat blues rock to the people since he was a teenager in the early ‘80s, and he’s not stopping anytime soon. His newest record, Blue Highways, is a love letter to the blues greats who have shaken his world. Recorded in two long days at Vancouver’s Warehouse Studios with his solid touring band (including Craig Northey of Odds), the record has been out since October, and he’s finally hitting the Canadian road with it, after spending the winter in Europe sharing a tour with Beth Hart.

“We’ve been having a riot and it’s nice to see the reaction the record’s been getting,” he says over the phone on his way to the airport. “A lot of these were songs I’d played in bands as I grew up. Some of them, ‘Hoodoo Man Blues’ I’ve been playing since I was 15 years old. ‘Riding In The Moonlight’ is something I’ve been playing since I was 15. ‘Going Down’ is something that happened more organically, we started playing it at soundchecks, that was one that was carved out of the road. ‘Boogie Funk’, the one that opens up the record, which is a Freddie King song, that one just came from YouTubing Freddie King and I just went, Oh my god that song kills! Freddie King played that one a lot, it was one of his signature opening three, but he didn’t record it a lot, I had to track it down on record. Only one record had the recorded version of that song.”

With only two days in the studio, James and his band cranked out 18 tracks, 10 of which made it onto Blue Highways.

“There’s advantages and disadvantages between that many songs in a row, you get a little dizzy by the end, you don’t even know what you’re doing anymore,” he says with a laugh. “I think all in all we’ve done well that way.”

The record brings to mind one James released in 1997, National Steel, on which he and Colin Linden (Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, TV’s Nashville) recorded acoustic blues renditions – tackling Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke and more.

“There’s similar things to this record and that record, mostly in that we had to kind of produce them independently,” James says. “When I was with Warner Brothers they had no interest in National Steel, and I had to make the record, and then it came out later. Same thing with this one. We really went ahead and made the record without asking anyone’s permission.

“We took this record to True North, and they’ve just been doing a great job. So it’s amazing to me that it’s been 20 years (since National Steel), but (the first) Little Big Band (record) was a similar thing, no one really wanted that first big band jump swing record from me either, we just went ahead and did it. Those records always have a nice way of surprising you. You keep it simple, you keep the idea very pure. It was very tempting on this record to put some originals on it, and we had to really slap our hands and go, No! The rules here are they’re old classic songs you’ve known all your life, and it’s nice when you can narrow that down.”

James has mastered a lot of different musical styles in his 30+ year career, but he’s still looking to spread his wings as far as influences go.

“You can’t help but be influenced by what’s around you,” he says. “I’ve been on a bit of a Beck rampage lately. I’ve listened to a fair amount of Ryan Adams, he’s got so much material out there, he’s such a great songwriter.”

As far as tackling styles, he figures he’s maybe got a soul record in him.

“I could explore that, in the Stax (Records) frame of mind,” James says. “I’ve never done a rockabilly record, that could be interesting. Kinda like a scaled down Little Big Band, you never know. You gotta keep writing songs, too, keeping that going.”

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