Bluesman Damon Fowler's latest album, "Sounds of Home," will be released by Blind Pig Records on Jan. 21 and is expected to elevate the Florida-based guitarist to the next musical level. (Special photo)
LAKELAND, Fla. — An unindoctrinated listener, you keep an open mind as the songs of Damon Fowler’s new disc “Sounds of Home” demand your attention. You experience each successive tune, marveling at the music you hear, astonished that an artist this young could take a sound as old as the South itself and turn it into this new thing as fresh as a dawning day.
Then, five songs in, the Lakeland, Florida-based bluesman hits you with “Old Fools, Bar Stools and Me,” and realization dawns: “Hot damn, this is something special!”
Fresh off a tour with roots rockers Southern Hospitality (which also features guitarist J.P. Soars and keyboardist Victor Wainwright) in support of their award-winning 2011 LP “Easy Livin’,” the high-energy Fowler eschewed downtime to go right back into the studio. The results — eight originals, two excellent covers and a traditional gospel rave-up — are what should be a career-changing collection for the guitar virtuoso.
“I love playing with Southern Hospitality,” Fowler said in an interview from his Lakeland home on a day he was in charge of tending to then-15-month-old son Max. “You have J.P., who’s a great guitarist, to play off of, so you don’t have to carry as much.
“But while we were on the road I put together some skeletons of songs, and they developed into the general idea for an album. As much as I like playing with Southern Hospitality, I also like the idea of having my own deal, my own songs. And when I’m with my trio (that includes bassist Chuck Riley and drummer James McKnight), I play a whole lot more guitar.”
Through San Francisco-based independent Blind Pig Records, which also released “Easy Livin’,” Fowler hooked up with Cajun blues master Tab Benoit at Benoit’s rural Louisiana home studio to start work on “Sounds of Home.” The product of those sessions was musical magic.
“Sometimes there’s something that happens when you go into a room and start making music,” Fowler said. “We found that magic with Tab. He gets it that if you overwork the things you’re doing, you lose the organicness of it.”
Benoit, Fowler and the boys certainly hit their stride in making “Sounds of Home,” the artist’s third solo album with Blind Pig after “Sugar Shack” and “Devil Got His Way.” From the bluesy slide of album opener “Thought I Had it All” to the Clapton-like drive of “Where I Belong,” the “Boogie Chillun’” choogle of “Grit My Teeth” and the angry growl of “Old Fools, Bar Stools, and Me,” there’s plenty to fall in love with.
Even the covers — a wonderful change-of-pace take on Elvis Costell’s “Alison,” the bluesy funk of Johnny Winter’s “TV Mama” and a finger picking delight in the gospel raver “I Shall Not Be Moved” — hold their own, serving to solidify the overall mood of the album rather than detracting from it.
“I went out one night and it hit me, this hook got into my head,” Fowler said when asked about album highlight “Old Fools,” which he wrote with long-time collaborator Ed Wright. “I went to the house and wrote an outline for the song, Ed came up with a verse and it grew from that.
“I had a riff that would become ‘Grit My Teeth,’ and I started playing around with some vocal ideas in the studio. Tab had some lyric ideas, and it all fit together.”
And while “Alison” seems like an unusual cover choice, Fowler said he’d always liked the Costello tune and was encouraged by Benoit to use it on “Sounds of Home.”
Fowler may not exactly be the prototypical blues musician, but his story is pure blues. Growing up in the Tampa area in the home of his maternal grandparents, who owned a successful ceptic tank business, young Damon came to his music at Sunday family barbecues. His uncles would pick and sing at the gatherings, and one — Fowler’s Uncle Bobby — showed him a few chords.
The budding musician got his first guitar at age 10, and a couple of years later he started playing along at the family picnics.
“We mostly played that bar-band country thing of the past, but I loved that time,” Fowler said. “I think I really got into the blues after hearing James Taylor’s ‘Steamroller Blues.’ It spoke to me, and after hearing it I found myself drawn to the music.
“I think maybe it has something to do with your surroundings; maybe it’s an additive in the Southern soil.”
Fowler’s country-blues roots shine through on “Home’s” “Old Fools” and “Do It for the Love.”
After forging a name for himself playing at bars and honkeytonks that were part of the national blues circuit and capturing the attention of blues artists who would become his peers, Fowler was recommended to the folks at Blind Pig by Chicago bluesman Nick Moss. The label heeded Moss’ advice, and Fowler signed with the label in 2009.
“I’m happy with the relationship I have with Blind Pig,” Fowler said. “I feel like they’ve supported me and allowed me to grow as a musician.”
Fowler’s growth is evident on “Sounds of Home,” selected (perhaps prematurely given its release date) by The Albany Herald as one of the top 10 albums of 2013. Blues connoisseurs will have an opportunity to experience the masterwork with its national release on Jan. 21. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.