Guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer and session-musician, Jack Pearson shared some unique perspective about his musical journey with a room full of Berklee alumni and others from the Nashville music community last Tuesday. The Nashville Berklee Jam, held monthly at the Fillin’ Station in Kingston Springs, saw some new faces and old friends on this special night, and Jack’s decades of experience as a world-class musician provided a rare peek behind the curtain for all those in attendance.
Jack’s musical career began in the mid 1970’s, when he played in multiple bands and logged his first recording session at age 16. In 1993 the Nashville native began his relationship with The Allman Brothers Band as a sub for Dickey Betts, eventually becoming a member of the ABB from 1997-1999 and also touring with Gregg Allman & Friends. Over the years he’s also worked with Vince Gill, Delbert McClinton, Jimmy Buffett, Earl Scruggs, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Gov’t Mule, Buddy DeFranco, and countless others.
Jack began his part of this night by playing some beautiful sketches of “I Can’t Get Started”, and for those who have never heard him play, his ability to transport an audience through time and space with nothing other than an unaccompanied electric guitar became quickly apparent. Following the spontaneous applause, Jack cut straight to some Q & A. One of the first questions asked was about his guitar, and I found it interesting that the deep, rich tone coming out of our backline Fender Deluxe originated from a Fender “Squire” Stratocaster, which he had recently bought for $100 at a pawn shop. Plugged into nothing other than a lone tube screamer, this drove home the point that great tone comes from within.
Learning from his oldest brother, Jack was exposed to rockabilly and blues as a teenager and explored the music of Chuck Berry, The Ventures, and Carl Perkins at a young age before eventually discovering jazz greats like, Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, and Charlie Christian. Learning from friends, other musicians, and records, he slowly pieced together his musical vocabulary. He shared some thoughts on how to approach a II-V turnaround, demonstrating some different voicings and melodic approaches, underscoring the importance of putting song and melody above the technical understanding of modes and scales.
“It takes a lot of experimenting… a lot of guys come to me that get out of school and they say, “when I hear this chord I’m supposed to play this mode and scale”, and it locks them up. They can’t make any melodies because they’re told to play a mode or a scale.”
This simple, but prophetic thought resonated, and I had flashes to a time in my life when I over analyzed the music I played. Jack drove this point home with “…it comes down to the chord and the melody and where it’s going to…”
He went on to talk about the blending of styles and how he went through different periods of his life where he would be deeply immersed in a singular style for a few years – Delta blues, jazz, etc., and that after a while, all these different styles started coming together. Not afraid to take some chances musically, he demonstrated how he might go from a Howlin’ Wolf lick to a Charlie Parker lick within the same phrase, and that while some players will say this is wrong, he believes that “the main thing is to get the music out, and play with feeling.”
In response to a question about some of his best and worst gigs, Jack said that some of the worst gigs are when people don’t listen, and the music that you play with somebody is more important than the venue, or how famous somebody is.
He explained how learning all of the Allman Brothers songs as a kid helped put him in the position to sub for Dickey Betts on an early 90s Allman Brothers tour, which led to some recording with Gregg Allman and eventually to a phone call from Greg in which he was asked if he wanted to join the Allman Brothers band.
He candidly shared how this landmark gig damaged his hearing, causing an already existing case of Tinnitus to worsen, ultimately forcing him to leave the gig, perhaps sooner than he otherwise would have.
“There’s really no way to describe how loud it was on stage…Dickey Betts wasn’t in the PA…he was 135 dB side stage…”
As a fellow tinnitus sufferer I completely related to this portion of his talk and gained some new perspective as he explained that, despite wearing earplugs, extreme SPL’s (sound pressure levels) can still do damage, as the sound can affect your inner ear by entering your nose, mouth, and through your bones.
In response to a question about life lessons learned through music he answered, “Try not to take music for granted, it’s so special, and you can reach so many people…lyrics can encourage you, relate to your pain, but you can also do it with notes.” He demonstrated this by showing how the same group of notes can sound happy, or sad depending on where the emphasis is placed. He talked about the endless possibilities of how you can play even a single note, demonstrating this concept by playing a huge range of variances on a high “G” note.
After Jack’s talk concluded he played a short set with our Alumni House Band, the air becoming filled with the sounds of spontaneous applause after each inspired performance. Jack left shortly after his set, and the other alums in attendance continued jamming into the night. I, and everyone else in attendance would like to extend our appreciation and gratitude to Jack for sharing his music and journey on this special night!
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my dad playing records and, dare I say, reel to reel tapes of the music of Paul Butterfield, John Lee Hooker, Santana, and Derek and the Dominoes. I guess this music made an impression, because by my early teens in the early 1980’s I was buying my own records, not of the pop-based FM radio music of my generation, but of the previous generations more blues-based artists. While everyone else was listening to E.L.O. and Michael Jackson, I was discovering Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, BB King and Bobby Bland. Sure, I liked some of the 80’s guitar rock of the day, but always kept digging back to a more rootsy sound. Then right smack in the middle of 80’s hair band mania came Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I immediately related to his music.
Stevie’s music influenced a generation of guitarists and, at a moment where rock and pop music was winding itself up, almost single-handedly brought blues music back into the light. You couldn’t go see a club band during the late 80’s and early 90’s without hearing his music. I found myself covering his renditions of blues classics like “The Sky Is Cryin’”, “Empty Arms”, as well as originals like “Cold Shot” and “Walkin’ the Tightrope”, as did many others at that time. Stevie’s instrumental “Riviera Paradise” from the album ‘In Step’ is a beautiful piece of American roots music, and I always loved the spooky vibe created by his magical band on that song in particular.
I’ll never forget the day I heard of his tragic passing, how sad it was that we had to lose such a wonderful artist at such a young age. But his music, and the influence of his music, lives on, and I, like many others, will always appreciate everything Stevie did for music, and everything his music has done for the world.
So that’s why when I began hosting the Nashville Berklee Jam I felt compelled to have Reese Wynans, the keyboardist who played with Stevie for the last five years of the great guitarist’s life, as a special guest speaker/performer. Reese was kind enough to share his story with me and a room full of alums at our monthly Nashville Berklee Jam last Tuesday at The Fillin’ Station.
Almost 20 years before he began working with SRV he was playing in cover bands in his home state of Florida, and he recounted one of his first bands playing five sets a night, six nights a week. Two of the other members were Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley and on their one day off they would play a weekly free jam, adding Duane Allman and Butch Trucks to the mix. Eventually Duane decided to start his own band and stole these key members to form The Allman Brothers.
After spending a few years in San Francisco and working with a still-unknown artist at this time, Boz Scaggs, he returned to Florida for a brief period and then worked the East Coast in a show band for a few years. Reese then migrated to Austin, Texas, a booming town full of blues-infused music by this point of the mid-70s. Of this time, Reese spoke passionately.
“It was really great for me living in Austin…everything was so rootsy…they had a great music scene back there in the 70’s. They had a great blues scene, and a great blues club called ‘Antone’s’…and I would go and sit in at Antone’s anytime I had a chance. I was ending up really lovin’ the blues during this time.”
By 1980 he found himself working for Delbert McClinton, playing on four of his records and touring extensively for the next five years. By 1985, Reese was ready to get off the road, and would have if not for a fateful encounter at the end of his final gig with Delbert. Apparently, Delbert’s sax player had been invited to play on one song of a Stevie Ray Vaughan recording session after Delbert’s concert, and at the last minute Reese was asked to join in as the other keyboardist did not show up. Things went very well at this particular recording session, one which produced the hit, “Look at Little Sister” and Reese was asked to come back and record the following day. By the end of that recording session he was asked if he wanted to join the band. Reese summed up a life lesson from this critical moment,
“When a door opens for you, you’ve got to be willing to walk through it, and then be able to deliver once you get through there.”
The next five years would yield three Grammys, several world tours, and a reintroduction of the blues to the masses –
“We were spokesman for Texas blues…as much as Stevie didn’t want to, BB King had to open for us, because we were just more popular than him. He said “no we can never, BB’s always closing the show”… but finally, we had to headline…I loved playing in that band…we were all totally immersed in the blues, and we felt like were the vanguard of the blues. We were dragging Buddy Guy and Otis Rush into the light and presenting them out on our shows to people who were just hungry for that music…the stuff that we played I thought was shining a light on all the huge blues guitar players that had come before us, and that was a wonderful thing to do, I felt like it was really worthwhile.”
After Stevie’s tragic passing, Reese wound up in Nashville, TN, a place where he has continued to record and perform on a national level. During the talk, Reese passed around his All Music Discography, which reveals a staggering body of work, including Brooks and Dunn’s 2006 single of the year “Believe”. He offered us some thoughts about the differences between studio and live performance –
“I like being in the studio, I like playing gigs, I like playing clubs…all you people who do studio work know it’s two different things. Playing a club is really a chance to experiment…a chance to reach out in different directions and really find yourself. The studio isn’t really a place for that. The studio is where you don’t have to play it safe, but you’ve got to do something that’s exactly right for the song…it’s a place for finding something that works, finding something unique that works.”
After his talk was finished, Reese was gracious enough to perform a set with our house band – a performance that was nothing short of inspired. I’ve heard his playing on many records, but there’s something intangible that you can feel in the heat of live performance that goes beyond a recording, and that was evident on this night. One of the songs we played together was “Little Wing”, a song that he had played on tour with Stevie, back in the day. On this song, Reese seemed to really stretch out in one of those magical musical moments in which time seems to stand still (see video below).
Eventually, this special night had to end, and we said goodbye after a quick photo op. Thanks, Reese, for sharing your wisdom, and for continuing to shine some light on that crown jewel of American music we call the blues.