An Interview with Tom Whisenhunt of Bad Moon Blues
by Janet Hansen - December, 2013
There is no shortage of diversity in a music town like Nashville, Memphis, Austin, Los Angeles, or any other cultural hearth in America. Nashville lives up to its name as Music City with variations within genres, and the blues is no different.
Based in Nashville, Bad Moon Blues Band stands out as a Chicago style blues outfit. They're contemporary, they're electric, and they're eclectic. Among their sets, you'll find tunes from some of their favorites like Delbert McClinton, Tony Joe White, Robben Ford, Son Seals, Robert Cray, Albert King, B. B. King, Freddie King, and the reigning queen of the blues, Bonnie Raitt.
The Boys of Bad Moon as they call themselves, come from various backgrounds bringing a variety of blues styles together in one big ole melting pot of smokin' hot good times, no matter where they're playing. Until just recently, this was a four-piece outfit with Vic Mastrianni on drums, Peter Burger on sax, Richard Sanders on bass, and Tom Whisenhunt on lead vocals and guitar. Peter just announced his retirement and has moved to Canada. So for the time being Bad Moon is a three-piece until democracy has its way and they decide which road to head down next.
Whisenhunt is the lead of Bad Moon and took some time to sit down and tell us where his band has been, where it's going, and what got him here in the first place.
Bad Moon Blues is a relatively young band on the Nashville scene. How long have you been together and what are some of the highlights in your performance history?
Our very first gig was the Tracy Nelson Benefit at B.B. King's back in October of 2010. It was totally cool, the house was packed. Delbert McClinton was on the bill, along with Kentucky Thunder, Leroy Parnell, Jimmy Hall. I remember it was like a blues reunion. I got to see so many old friends and see some really great acts up close that I had never seen live.
We had a table right to the side of the stage, great seats, and after our set I found myself sitting next to almost all the acts at one time or another as they were all looking for a great vantage spot, and hell, we had it. We got a great response that night, it was encouraging. I suspect not many knew this was our first gig as a band and it went about as well as it could have, a very memorable night.
One of the most fun gigs we've had was at the Art Museum in Knoxville. It is a beautiful event that is held on a regular basis every summer. I can't wait to go back and do it again. There is still a review of that show posted online somewhere. The museum folks are super nice and it's such a beautiful venue, it was memorable. Of course, all the small festivals we've done were fun.
Every show has its moments and every blues event has its own personality.It's hard to explain, but blues audiences are the coolest in the world, there's just not enough of them to go around. I love to carry the blues torch so to speak, because even as it evolves as a music form, the blues conveys a feeling and vibe that makes it fun music.
"Playin' da blues what don't get played" is Bad Moon's tag line. How did the band arrive at making this your specialty? How do you decide which tunes to put on your set lists?
I'm going to have to be careful to give the right impression here. We love blues standards "StormyMonday," "Tore Down," "Sweet Home Chicago," all great songs -- legendary even -- and have been covered by the best and worst, many, many times. And I'm sure they'll be covered again in a meaningful, relevant way. I love to hear a new approach to an overly covered tune. John Mayer's cover of "I Don't Need No Doctor" comes to mind as a super cover of an old tune. It's not an overly covered song as John is careful not to do that, but the cover is newly arranged with modernized harmony and he just nails it with nuance. Like, what's not to like ya know? It's a great song, old and familiar but not covered much. There's zillions of songs out there just like it. Songs that were a work of art when released and are good enough for a redux with a new set of duds.
But, what I am careful not to do is destroy the song in the process like so many have done to tunes like "Sweet Home Chicago," I've heard covers where the verse is never sung, just repeats of the chorus over and over that don't even resemble the original chorus. It changes the song totally, and in my opinion, at that point you should just write a new song.
What I look for is groove, maybe a little twist somewhere that makes it unique, but always looking for a way to make it ours and always a song that feels good. Richard, our bassist, likes to say that one slow song per set is almost too many. It's not a bad guide line. He likes tunes that bounce a little. Vic just loves the blues and has a particular fondness for anything rootsy and bluesey sounding.
But above that, if a song just sings all by itself, it's a winner. One of my favorite examples is "Undercover Agent for the Blues." It's a Tony Joe White song that Tina Turner turned into a real groover. I get into a mood every time I hear it. Hip bass line, solid back beat, and steamy lyrics. It's got it all. He's one of my favorite writers.
The members of Bad Moon have a diverse background. What can you tell us about the band mates and what they bring to the table distinguishing you from other blues outfits in this region?
Other than the fact that between us we've been playing for about a thousand years? Okay, that might be a little much. Right now we're a trio since our sax player, Peter Burger retired. This just happened, so for the time being we have a basic blues trio and we hold it down. We're an honest act, three guys playin' the blues with everything we can bring and that's a good bit.
Starting with the backbone, Vic is a real blues drummer; solid, soulful, tasteful -- but that's just the beginning of the story. He actually came to Nashville to play the blues and he was playing with incredible acts: Ted Nugent, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Reba, Crystal Gayle, the list goes on and on. Vic is a true music lover who plays everything else to pay the bills and plays the blues because he loves it. Richard, wow what can you say? He's got the best bass tone in town, and this is Nashville! He'd been playing the power trio thing with fire brand guitarist Scott Holt for a decade at least, and that's enough. But what really makes him funky is that he's from funk bands. He's so fun to play with and just nails it with Vic. Richard's also a great songwriter. He's a native of Texas and started his career there working with Christopher Cross.
It's quite a joy to play with them both and they're not afraid of new and different material and hopefully that makes us better than the average bear. We'll miss Peter. He is a great guy, awesome player, and just plain funny. But who knows, one door closes and another opens they say. Music is a journey and making the trip is all the fun. I'm really lucky to be playing with these guys and always try to have fun with them.
You are originally from Memphis. How did growing up there color your approach to playing the blues?
My earliest memories of music are from church services and we sang gospel music every week. By the time I was old enough, my mother insisted I take piano lessons. That lasted until I got to the boogie woogie lesson and kinda stopped progressing. When I heard that it was like catnip to a cat, I felt like getting up and dancing like Steve Martin. I mean I was a little guy, and that was like a hundred years ago, but I can still remember that moment, the day the groove got me. My poor piano teacher had no idea that she had just lost me, my brain was moving past "Little Brown Jug." That bass line moved and the whole thing just really put a spell on me. So I finished the lessons but wanted a guitar and finally got one, which pretty much finished the piano for me.
Meanwhile, my dad was a newspaper reporter covering the Memphis music scene and stringer for Billboard Magazine, so he exposed me to early rock and roll which was booming in the late 50s and 60s. But he also taught Sunday school so I had to sing in the choir. I hated it and got out of it by lettering posters instead. I was artistic at a young age and the church was always needing posters for classes and whatever so since my dad was in with the preacher, and I was whining about the choir, he must have figured it was a holy trade.
Most Memphis radio at the time had a huge R&B and blues audience so there was that ever present R&B and Motown feeling. But everybody I liked was playing guitar. Elvis sure was, so was just about everyone else. So I got a guitar and started teaching myself. By the time I was in high school I was lucky enough to find B.B. King playing down at Club Paradise and wow. That made a real impression, not to mention that B.B. would just burn the place down. I guess being on the blues circuit helped to make the experience so earthy and unpolished, but the realness of it spoke to me. Plus, he had that "hot" sound, that driven bluesey guitar sound that was so seductive to a young guy like me. Club Paradise was a major stop on the chittlin' circuit. It had the real vibe. No liquor, only set-ups with a liquor store right next door, downtown not too far from the river.
Ultimately that became one of the reasons I stopped listening to pop music. I guess my thinking was, why listen to the fake stuff when the real thing is so readily available.
Your dad had an interesting influence on you growing up in the cultural explosion of the 1960s. Are there any stories from those years you can share?
Like I mentioned, my dad was a stringer for Billboard while we lived in Memphis. He later went to work full time for Billboard in Nashville so we moved there when I was about 12. And as we did in Memphis, he would take me along to interviews, recording sessions, concerts, etc. because I had this interest in music. So, one afternoon he took me to a Johnny Cash recording session which was a pretty big deal for me.
The most interesting stories are also the hardest to tell and I guess Johnny Cash's drug use is no secret. If you saw "Walk the Line" then you have an idea. Anyway, he is a legend in American music and I mean no disrespect to him in any way by telling the story but, it's a really great story.
We were supposed to get there about four hours into the session at which point Dad would interview Johnny during a break.
When we got there, guess who wasn't? The man running things was hopping mad about it. Johnny was four hours late. Dad talked to the man for a while and we were just about to leave when the door literally flew open and bam, there was Johnny Cash. I say he was there, physically -- otherwise he was pretty gone. He tried to walk down the hall to where the session musicians were fighting extreme boredom, but he couldn't make it. He was hitting both sides of the hall.
They gave the session up and told dad he could talk to Johnny if he wanted to. Dad went for it and after going into a side office he asked Johnny what he was on. Cash reached into his pocket and produced a couple handfuls of yellow and red capsules and said, "these." That just confirms something Waylon said later. In those days the music scene in Nashville was fueled by drugs.
So, I had an inside view of the dark side of the music scene in Nashville. I was pretty wide-eyed at the time, and I'm not sure what I felt about all that. But I noticed that drinking and drugs were everywhere, and if you wanted to be a musician you had to smoke.
Your career draws a lot of influence from world class guitarists. Which guitar players have had the most impact on your playing and your approach to the blues?
All of them, really. I was an insatiable music sponge. I heard it all. Albert King, Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Ry Cooder, B.B. King, Freddie King, Jimmy Page, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed. If I thought they were a hot player, I listened to them no matter the kind of music. I mean you mix that and you have country, rock, acid, metal novelty. But seriously there is a fiber that runs through these guys and through all great players that speaks to those who love to play.
Looking back now at the players that I've loved the most, I can't help but attach preferences to each. Albert King had the tone. It's so crazy that he got it from a solid state amp, but he made it work. Jimi Hendrix had the direct connection from his soul to his fingers, and was in a totally unique class all by himself. Wes Montgomery had the subtle harmonies and Chet and Jerry just played the ever lovin' crap out of a guitar and then invented new ways to play it.
And then there's Johnny Winter. I heard that Progressive Blues Experiment album and that was it. That was major for me, I was hooked by that sound. That lonesome guitar in a cellar sound. Not to mention all that he was doing. I was totally inspired and had a blues mindset right there. If that wasn't enough, when I saw B.B, King at Club Paradise, I totally understood the blues.
Then, I knew this cat in Memphis, a guitar player I met at a music store. He had this incredible collection of 78s I think, of Robert Johnson. We drank and smoked into the night, listening to those scratchy old records. It was super spooky sounding, haunting. We loved it.
You've been heavily involved in the Nashville blues scene for about a decade. What are some of the highlights from the past 10 years?
Lots of great players coming and going. I've so enjoyed the company of all these blues folks. I've been fortunate to be involved in the old Music City Blues Society, and a little involvement with the Marion James organization. My favorite event was representing Yesterday and Today's Blues Society at the International Blues Competition in Memphis twice as a guitar sideman, and once for Music City Blues Society.
Making the finals one year was a real experience. I was playing for Debbie Ritter the first year that Joey Gilmore won. He was great and right after his set I said to myself 'well, he just won that' and he did; but they took it away later because of an old record contract that disqualified him.
Interesting story, he was only one year from being able to compete so he came back the next year and won again, and got to keep it that time. He's a cool guy and I was just in hog heaven the whole time.
Beale Street was a deserted, dusty, half vacant, ghost town of a street when I was growing up in Memphis and to see it like it is today makes me smile.
What's on the horizon for Bad Moon in the next year or two?
We're working on a CD and, of course, I'm gunned up on that. I want to spend way more time recording than is possible right now. You gotta roll with it or get torn down by it, so I'm rolling. I know we're going to do straight up blues covering tunes we love and play 'em they way we do. I continue looking for new stuff to do and have some new sounds in my head that I would like to chase a little.
Now that we're a solid trio we've got plenty of options. We've talked about adding another player but haven't decided anything yet. My first instinct is to add a piano, but there's no hurry. I'm going to be doing more slide playing and acoustic blues so I'll be working on new stuff for that.
I love playing with Richard and Vic, they're just so good; and the trio sound is actually what I've always wanted to try, so from a blues guitar guy's perspective I'm pretty happy right now. Other than that, I just hope we get to be bluesin' for a long, long time.
Feel free to be in touch with Bad Moon on their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/BadMoonBluesBand?ref=hl
Email Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org
2013 marks the 29th year of Janet Hansen's career as a music marketing specialist. With three Grammy award-winning campaigns to her credit, Hansen has also contributed to the legacy of two of history's most popular songs. "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams is the most-broadcast instrumental tune in history; and "Louie, Louie" by The Fabulous Wailers is the most-recorded rock song in history. In 2009 Hansen launched the global music platform https://scout66com.wordpress.com/ to encourage reviews of live shows from the ticket-buying public.
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