A guitar master enjoys an overnight success decades in the making
Joe Bonamassa nurses a sore neck as he discusses his new album, Driving Towards the Daylight—the result of too much headbanging onstage the night before. “We added a bit of ‘Still of the Night’ by Whitesnake,” he muses. “Maybe that’s what wrenched out my neck.” Bonamassa, 35, isn’t letting a wrenched-out neck slow him down now. He’s an acknowledged modern guitar hero, burning up stages both on his own and with the supergroup Black Country Communion. Daylight features two new Bonamassa originals alongside favorites like Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway.”
Why do so many covers?
I don’t have any ego about it. A good song is a good song, and it doesn’t matter who writes it. I’m not a prolific writer. I’m not Bob Dylan. I think Dylan wrote more verses in one song from his last record than I have on 13 albums. I can come up with good songs, but it takes a long time and it’s frustrating for me. I’m not a confident writer. All my best songs were at risk of not being handed in because they embarrassed me.
How about “Stones in My Passway?”
We approached that one like Led Zeppelin. We messed around with it—took the ones and threes and made them twos and fours. It’s a heavy, stomping swamp thing. That one fought me. I almost walked out of the room, I just wasn’t feeling it. But once I did, it made all kinds of sense. Getting me there, I was like a toddler on Sunday morning before church when they don’t want to go.
Do you get flack from purists?
Every day. They accuse me of trying to hijack the blues, because what we do is a bit popular at the moment. I don’t buy it. I think Zeppelin is as much blues as Robert Johnson. How would you describe Robert Johnson? Well, that would be traditional blues, the way it first started. Then 40 years later that would be Zeppelin. How would you describe the blues I play today? It’s blues updated for 2012. It’s like a car—and cars don’t look the same as they did in 1926.
Is it odd to be getting buzz?
We’ve been living in a bubble for so long that any mainstream attention is foreign to me. Some of these cats don’t know about these years in the damn van, going out in front of 30 people, hoping you make enough merch money to stay at a Days Inn only to drive 600 miles for the distinct pleasure of repeating it. They see two tour buses and two semitrucks out back and are programmed to think the only way you can do it is with a Svengali. It would never come into their brains that the cat may have just gone out there and worked hard.
What else got you here?
It’s a lot of word of mouth. People are selective about the shows they go to, and for some reason they like what we do. Ticket sales are on fire. You look at some of these venues and it’s like, “I can’t believe we sold it all the way to the back. I guess we fooled them again.” I’ve got 24 years in the music business, and now I’m an overnight success. It’s very strange. Somebody just told me that in the U.K. we’re on pace to have the No. 1 album in the whole country. Joe Bonamassa! Crazy talk.
–Eric R. Danton