The dedicated bluesman mines Music City talent for an album of originals

When Joe Bonamassa started work on his 11th solo release, Different Shades of Blue, the guitarist-vocalist knew he needed to shake things up. So Bonamassa teamed up with top Nashville songwriters—including Jonathan Cain, James House and Jerry Flowers—to pen original tunes. “I owed it to my fans to do an all-original record, and I owed it to myself to prove I could,” he says. With producer Kevin Shirley (Journey, Iron Maiden, Rush), Bonamassa recorded with session pros in Las Vegas. “The album has a distinctive feel to it,” he says. “It’s bluesier than anything I’ve done in the past five years.”

Why team with other writers?

Because I’m not Bob Dylan, and it’d probably take me five years! Necessity is the mother of invention, and a plane ticket is the mother of necessity. Every three or four years I like to throw a cherry bomb in my life—shake it up, do something different. I just said, “I’m going to be involved in writing all the songs, but I’m going to Nashville to work with some of the greatest songwriters I can think of.” Luckily, they were nice enough to work with me. I went to Nashville five times last year.

Nashville isn’t known as a blues town.

It is known as a country town but some of the most soulful people I know—including great blues writers—live in Nashville. Some of the world’s best players live there. It’s not all Luke Bryan and Taylor Swift. Many artists go there because that’s where the great musicians are.

Was it a challenging experience?

I’m of the mind that I’d rather be the worst person in the room than the best person in the room. I don’t want to be sitting in L.A. talking to cats about singles. We don’t do singles. It was definitely a good experience, and I’m going back to Nashville to record next summer. The writers I worked with are great lyricists and that’s the name of the game—if you get a great lyric you can put one chord over it and still have a great song. If you put bad lyrics over a beautiful piece of music, it’s still a bad tune.

Describe the writing process.

It’s like going to a dinner party. You bring an appetizer or a bottle of wine. You walk in and hopefully you’ve got something started and they’ve got something started, and that’s the ballgame.

You’re not a big fan of recording.

When I go into the studio, I just want to get in and out. It’s like going to the doctor’s office for me. I prefer playing live. Nothing makes me happier than doing one or two takes and getting out. All the solos on this album, except for one or two, were done live, and there’s not a lot of layering. It really is old-school. The only thing I don’t do while we’re tracking is sing. Chances are I’m chewing gum at the same time and something’s gotta give.

Why did you and Kevin Shirley decide to record in Las Vegas?

We’ve done four albums there—we mixed one and recorded three. We recorded everything pretty much live except for the vocals, which were done later because there’s a lot of bleed. We like Vegas and the Studio at the Palms. It’s a great way to get out of town and escape L.A. It’s also a great way to change your headspace. This album is one of the best-received albums I’ve done in a long time, if not the best-received. If the fans love it, I’m happy—and if the fans hate it, I’m not happy.

–Jeff Tamarkin

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