Jontavious Willis Says Blues Music is for The Kids, ep. 256

49m | Apr 11, 2024

Originally from Greenville Georgia, musician Jontavious Willis is a Blues music phenom. When we talk about the Blues, the phrase or the word "torchbearer" comes up a lot when it comes to young, new Blues artists. I think of that word as a double edged sword. When you think of a torchbearer, you think about someone who's carrying on a flame that was lit long ago. It's somebody who's carrying on a tradition, but it also can come with restrictions. Such as oldheads telling you you're not doing it right or asking you: "have you really paid your dues? Are you really faithful to the tradition?" And just asking you questions about whether or not you belong. Jontavious handles that double edged sword with such alacrity. His writing is firmly contemporary at the same time that his playing is rooted in the tradition of Country Blues. He knows so much about the genre that he's basically in a walking encyclopedia of the Blues. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but instead of the the traditional Basic Folk lightning round, we played a pop up game at the end of the interview. I put different styles of the Blues (like Delta or Piedmont) in one cup and different ripped from the headlines, 2024 topics in another. Then we just matched them up. He was so quick on his feet.

Jontavious is a great example of a new spin on a genre that a lot of people think they know already. He is so adamant that the blues is a contemporary genre and always has been. He made the point during our interview that a lot of the Blues legends that we've kind of encased in the amber of memory were young teens or twentysomethings when they wrote their iconic songs. It's really a genre for free people, for young people, for people looking ahead. It's not about the past. Another point of his he made while discussing his southern roots was we talk about country, often we're talking about a musical genre with a certain difficult history. But for him, and I imagine for a lot of other artists, country is a way of life. It's about being out in the wild. It's about having a connection to nature. It's about sitting with quiet. It's about having time on your hands to experiment with songwriting or being a singer. It's about a genuine experience of being connected to a particular place in time.

This interview and live performance was recorded for the podcast live at Fort Worth African American Music Festival (FWAAMFest). When I (lizzie) was a kid, my dad's family used to have these big reunions. They're from North and South Carolina Baptist family, and it would be like a big barbecue at the state park or in a church hall. We would have t-shirts made, people of all ages milling around, catching up. Often there would be an elder getting up to say a long prayer or make an announcement. This sense of belonging and intergenerational connection, that is what the FWAAMFest felt like. Brandi Waller-Pace, the founder, is such a visionary, and they bring together artists of so many different genres, all of which fit under the roots music umbrella. There's this beautiful link between all of the music based on The African American Storytelling Tradition and The Artistic Tradition. In addition to being able to interview, Jontavious, this was my first time headlining a festival, so it couldn't have been more of a special day for me. 

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