One thing is certain: Dallas has got the blues.
To determine their depth, we walked down a radio station hallway plastered with blues festival and chili cook-off posters to talk with David Pippin, a DJ who began subbing at KNON-FM 89.3 a decade ago. Pippin now hosts his own Wednesday morning show. He talked with the Dallas Observer about local blues artists such as Miss Marcy, Lucky Peterson and Cookie McGee.
“[Cookie] was raised down the street from Freddie King … basically grew up sitting in the dude’s living room,” he says. “Freddie was the kingpin of the place. He would roll up and down [State Highway] 75 with his big Cadillac with his top down.”
Compared to other blues-infused cities like Chicago and Memphis, Pippin says Dallas’ blues have more of a big, guitar-rock sound. It’s a Texas thing.
“There are so many world-class, talented blues musicians rooted here in Dallas,” he says. “Blues in Dallas will never go away. There’s just too much history here. There’s a loyal Dallas blues audience.”
Pippin says while the traditional blues crowd is growing long in the tooth and the scene has had its ups and downs, the blues scene overall is strong and fertile. No matter the musicians’ style of blues, Pippin says the core sound is polished, which makes his other job, booking nearly all the acts for Bedford’s annual blues festival, easy.
He says there are more than 100 blues musicians whom he could put onstage and they would “really show out.”
“It’s impressive,” he says.
Here’s our list of 10 of those musicians.
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Mike Morgan and The Crawl
Dallas native Mike Morgan grew up listening to Sam and Dave, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett from his parents' record collection. But the guitarist says it wasn’t until the mid-’80s that he became serious about the blues.
“I tell you, Dallas had a rocking scene from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s on the blues front,” he says. “From Stevie [Ray Vaughan], I started learning, you know, the more traditional guys that he had listened to. I really got enamored with the old-school Chicago stuff and just kind of fell in love with it. I’m a little more traditional than Stevie was.”
Morgan says Jimmie Vaughan has been a big influence as well, but he doesn’t try to emulate anyone.
“I was influenced by Texas, Louisiana and Chicago styles and just sort of mixed, meshed those styles into what I do,” he says. “I’ve stuck with … at least a semitraditional format with my music, my writing and my shows.”
Morgan spent 25 years touring as a full-time musician. He says he left the road about 10 years ago but still plays venues around Dallas.
“I’ve written a whole lot of songs,” he says. “I have a few that I’m proud of. I really enjoyed writing songs. Working a full-time job has kind of cramped my style a little bit on that.”
Pippin says Morgan regularly steals the show at the Bedford Blues Fest.
Gregg A. Smith
Gregg Smith’s latest single, “Don’t Cry No More,” recently debuted at No. 7 on the Blues Critic national chart.
The traditional bluesman moved to Dallas in 1983. He’s made 18 albums and also hosts a Friday blues show on KNON.
Smith, who has worked with musicians such as BB King, Johnny Watson and Bobby Bland, says he got his start in Bug Tussle, Texas, where his single mother owned a café.
“She sold catfish,” he says. “I’d get up in front of the jukebox and dance. Customers would throw quarters and 50 cents. That let me know I could get paid for something.”
Smith was just 3 or 4 years old at the time. He started singing at age 6, and by age 12, he had his own band. He says his mother had to go to the clubs with him because of his age. He’d sometimes see his schoolteachers in the club at night and then again the next morning in class.
“I was singing soul and blues,” he says.
Smith moved to Chicago after high school, where he met artists such as Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Koko Taylor.
“I’ve been in show business over 50 years as an artist,” he says.
When Jason Elmore was 12, he idolized Stevie Ray Vaughan. His dad would take him around to hear bands like Jim Suhler and Monkey Beat, Bugs Henderson, and Mike Morgan and The Crawl. That was during the 1990s, when Dallas’ blues scene was a whole different animal, Elmore says.
He couldn’t wait to grow up and play the blues, but being musician was tough at first. He says he had to sell weed for a few years to pay the bills before getting a handle on the Dallas blues scene. Pippin describes Elmore as a virtuoso with an instrument.
In 2016, Elmore released his latest album, Champagne Velvet, and he's working on material for a new Hoodoo Witch album, as well as a solo acoustic album that he plans to start work on next year. He’ll be shooting a live video Dec. 15 at The Sanctuary in McKinney.
“We want to get a live DVD in while we still have some semblance of youth left,” he says.
Elmore says Jim Suhler, his mentor, validated him as an artist by taking him and his band along on a tour to Belgium. The two will reunite for an acoustic show Dec. 2 at Poor David’s Pub.
Elmore, who likes to blend blues and rock, says his bandmates, Mike Talbot (drums) and Brandon Katona (bass), can play anything, and his wife, Lauren, is his biggest fan.
Lance Lopez (pictured at top)
While Lance Lopez’s music invokes ZZ Topp and Jimi Hendrix, his scratchy voice also gives a nod toward AC/DC.
“The rasp and the voice is just years on the road,” he says. “Time just kind of creates that sound. AC/DC was one of my childhood influences. I am really mourning the loss of Malcolm Young.”
Lopez says he is fortunate to have been mentored by a line of great Texas guitarists.
“One, in part, is Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Topp and Johnny Winter, who passed away three years ago,” he says. “If Stevie Ray Vaughan would have been around, I’m sure he and I would have been great friends.”
Lopez’s main guitar is a rare 1959 Gibson Les Paul that he says Gibson gave him while he was staying at the Omni Barton Creek Resort during SXSW. “We call it the Barton Creek Burst,” he says. “I played it all night.”
While Lopez is all about carrying on the tradition that Texas blues rockers have taught him, he says his vocal chops stem more from soul, rhythm and blues, and Southern black gospel music. Lopez will perform Jan. 5 at the Oasis in Midlothian.
EJ Mathews' Southern-style music and videos proudly reflect his upbringing in Texas near the Louisiana border. “He has this East Texas blues kind of thing about him,” Pippin says.
Living Blues magazine voted Mathews, who now lives in Dallas, its Break Out Artist 2017. His swampy sound is part country, part blues and a little bit of boogie. He sings about stuff like the backwoods, pickup trucks and liquor stores.
Song titles like "Let the Rooster Crow" and "Sippin’ White Lightnin'" let listeners know where the lyrics might lead before they’re hit with a bolt of surprisingly unique Texas blues.
Stevie James Trio
Guitarist and singer Stephen Ketner, drummer Merik Gillett and bass guitarist Uriah Stake make up the Stevie James Trio.
The group, which formed in 2014, has an electric blues sound. It's been playing around Dallas at places such as the Prophet Bar and have a steady gig at Free Man Cajun Café in Deep Ellum. In addition to performing its own songs, the band covers various artists, including Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix.
“Finally catching a Stevie James Trio show,” Corey Breedlove posted on Facebook. ”Tight band.”
Andrew "Jr. Boy" Jones
Andrew Jones got his start performing in Freddie King's band, the Thunderbirds, as a teenager. He went on to perform with legendary bluesmen such as Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Patterson and R.L. Griffin, and 50 years later, the Dallas native is still performing at events such as the recent Venice Blues Festival with his wife, Kerry Lepai.
“Keep on keeping on Jr. Boy Jones,” wrote Facebook user Doug Henry.
The Dylan Bishop Band
Dylan Bishop, first inspired by Elmore James, graduated from high school early to play his twangy mix of blues and rock professionally. His sound also draws from people like Johnnie Watson, Frankie Lee Sims and Mercy Baby, as well as local mentors including Mike Morgan.
Bishop is in the process of writing a new album, he says. His debut album can be found on iTunes, Spotify or bluebeatmusic.com. As we reported in March, Jimmie Vaughan plays two tracks on The Exciting Sounds of the Dylan Bishop Band.
“Things are going good for me,” Bishop says. “I feel like we’re converting ’em with every show.”
Jim Suhler and Monkey Beat
Suhler, who draws from a broad range of genres, describes himself as “sort of a rock ’n’ roller who loves and plays the blues.”
“I don’t consider myself as a blues artist in the sense as I would a T-Bone Walker or a Buddy Guy or something like that,” he says. "It’s my own take on it. I can do [traditional]. And, hopefully, I can do it in authentic manner when it’s called for.”
A lead guitarist for George Thorogood since 1999, Suhler is also a songwriter. “Generally, it’s a solo effort,” he says. “As far as my own songs go, it’s often related to real life experiences.”
Suhler was also a DJ on KNON for several years in the ’90s. While there, he was exposed to lots of musical styles from the station’s vast library. Suhler says it was a great learning experience.
“There’s so much great music in town,” he says. “I’d love to see people from different genres cultivating friendships, musical or otherwise.”
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Charley Crockett clings to his Creole heritage. As a youngster, he split his time between Dallas and Louisiana. The musician has also spent a bit of time troubadouring around New York City’s streetcars.
“Charley has blues roots,” Pippin says. “His thing has evolved.”
At times, Crockett seems to channel Hank Williams Sr. with lovesick lyrics about as blue as the lonesome whippoorwill that Williams crooned about. But while Crockett's lean physique and hat cocked sideways might conjure recollections of the honky-tonk hero, his drawl is all his own.