“So, one day, my grandfather gave my mother Deuces Wild and said, ‘Play this in the car when he’s crying.’ The song ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ came on, and I started singing. She almost wrecked the car. For a while she thought, ‘My baby’s not gonna speak. He’s not gonna talk.’ And I had a lot to sing about that day, and have been ever since.” D. K. Harrell performs Friday, October 6th at noon on the main stage of the King Biscuit Blues Festival. His debut album, The Right Man, is topping the charts, and he’s being touted as a blues star – almost an oxymoron, particularly for a musician who is only 24 years old.
“It’s not the cover of the book that defines the book. It’s the first page,” says a young man wise beyond the years with a style of guitar playing strongly influenced by B.B. King. The 11 cuts on The Right Man are all original songs mostly about relationships that cut deeper than most blues classics.
He remembers the last conversation he had with his grandfather before he passed. A man who played the music of blues legacies all the time, he told his young grandson, “D., be a leader. Take care of business and always remember that time waits for no one. Do what you can now. When life says you’re ready to go, you don’t need to regret in your soul. So, do everything you can.
“He was the father I never had and, when he left this world physically, he really was a piece of my heart. He really was on my mind, and my heart hasn’t been the same since. He is the reason why I focus so hard on a lot of stuff.”
It wasn’t easy growing up in rural Louisiana. Young D. dressed like a gentleman. He was overweight and he liked old music. “I got called ugly a lot. I wasn’t athletic. I wasn’t the most handsome man in school. So, yeah, I stuck out.”
His music made him stronger. “Music ended up kind of my friend. It was all I had. Of course, I had my mother. The blues kind of filled some holes my mother can’t fill. It’s just been my best friend ever since.”
The church both helped and hurt him. “When I was playing blues, I wanted to play harmonica in church, and they turned away from me. They kinda didn’t want me doing that. Then when I played it for Mother’s Day in 2019 right before the pandemic happened, we had a different pastor, a different music director. My mother begged me to play that day for Mother’s Day, and I was afraid. Man, they’re gonna kick me out of the church. They’re gonna complain. and I played on that Mother’s Day, and they came over. The new pastor was like, ‘Do you want to play in church every Sunday?’
“I think he was just surprised at how I take the blues licks and apply them to gospel, and not make them sound like blues. It was fun. It was weird. They were kind of unaware of how close (blues and gospel are). At the same time, they were aware of the changes like the cord changes of gospel and blues and licks. They’re natural. So, it puts it into the what-the-hell-is-going-on situation, whatever it is.”
D. K. is one of five Little Village acts appearing at King Biscuit. Little Village offers to record their artists’ music at no expense to the artist at all. Sometimes, this is the very first time the artist has been recorded. Not only is there no expense to the artist, but the label gives each artist 1000 copies of their CD to sell on tour. The artists retain their “intellectual property,” and Little Village sets up all retail accounts for the sales of CDs in the artists’ names. This happens with generous public donations and grants.
D. K. Harrell could almost not believe his good fortune to be signed to Little Village. To have seasoned veterans like guitarist Kid Andersen and pianist Jim Pugh recording with him was a gift he never expected. Bass player Jerry Jemmott was particularly a joy. “I honestly thought getting Jerry Jemmott was a joke. I thought Kid Andersen was pulling my leg. And he calls me about a week or so later. He says, ‘Well, Jerry Jemmott is going to be on your record,’ and I was very delighted. So, you have Tony Coleman, B.B.’s drummer, and Jerry Jemmott who is the bass player on ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ and many other hit records like Aretha Franklin. That was just extremely exciting and overwhelming.”
“Kid (Andersen) just has the touch, man. I think what it is, is that Kid has a genuine love of the music. He doesn’t see it as another check or another project. He actually put his heart and soul into engineer what the artist is trying to do.”’
D. K. Harrell promises to be one of those artists that years from now you’ll say you saw first at the Biscuit. In our interview I told him to beware of one pitfall. When Koko Taylor passed, her daughter wanted to make Shemekia Copeland the new Queen of The Blues, and Shemekia said, “There’s one queen.” I told him not to let anyone talk him into becoming the new King of The Blues. There’s only one king. That will not do his career any good.
“No,” he said. “I’ve been asked that honestly. One guy asked me. He said, ‘How would you feel if people tried to get you to become the new King of The Blues?’ I said, ‘Honestly, I don’t want the title. B.B.’s shoes are B.B.’s shoes. I’d be more than happy to be named the prince or heir to the throne or whatever (but) I can’t take that from B. B.”
D.K. needs his own title, his own space. Yes, he was inspired by B.B., but he also was inspired by a number of other artists, and he’s not a B. B. clone. He’s obviously an influence, but that’s just what that is: an influence.
“That’s true,” he responded. “I’ve had people try and give me their Lucille, their Gibson Lucille, and I’m ‘No, I don’t want it.’ ‘Why don’t you want it?’ ‘I got my own, and that’s who I am.’”
See part two of this interview coming tomorrow.
Mark your calendar for the date, Wednesday, October 4th for the start of a four-day wang dang doodle that proclaims the blues alive and well. You want legends and legacy? Saturday night headliner is Louisiana Wetlands firebrand Tab Benoit backed by The Big Easy’s Dirty Dozen Brass Band. This Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and guitarist is home grown, but his dexterity on guitar is needle sharp, and his rapport with an audience is nothing less impressive than what I’d expect from an Apollo Theater crowd on a hot Saturday night in Harlem. It’s the kind of bonding that eliminates the distance between the stage and the fans.
Thursday headliner Ruthie Foster is the winner of seven Blues Music Awards and has been nominated three times for Best Blues Album Grammy. “I’m not just singing the blues, I’m singing my own story,” says this singer whose repertoire covers gospel, blues, jazz, folk, and soul. When she played the Biscuit in 2015, she told me it felt like home. Her music is “my story as a woman that’s grown up with gospel music. It’s really all these different types of genres being raised in Texas. I look at music as in the beginning it really was a way of healing for me in a lotta ways.”
Friday’s headliner offers the primal screams of Chicago South Side veteran Nick Moss and his very electric band. His music combines postwar electric sounds in the Chess tradition with hard rocking contemporary blues. If you like big city blues done with pinpoint precision and a hard edge, this is as good as it gets.
“I’m surprised by (my success),” says 24-year-old blues phenom D. K. Harrell who plays the main stage at King Biscuit Blues Festival Friday, October 6th in Helena, Arkansas. “It took all of my idols 15, 20, 30, 40 years before they got recognition. So, they were well into their 40s, 50s, or 60s before they ever got recognition.”
It’s almost as if D. K. has lived 40 years in his first 20 before signing with Little Village, the label that’s fast-tracked him into the limelight.
“I was like a nerd. Everyone that was there in my life, some girlfriends, family, and friends I just applied to this music. And I keep it raw and real. I don’t want (to sing) corny cliches. I just try to keep it as real and true as possible.
“There was one review where somebody said that my lyrics are not common blues stories or the blues deliveries that everybody is used to. They said it was very different. It’s very natural. And sometimes I don’t know how to respond to it because I’m saying, ‘I’m just saying how I feel. I’m just showing you what happens.’ It is just kind of hard to explain. I can’t put it into words. I just say what’s going on.”
It hasn’t been a straight trajectory for the young artist whose guitar work on The Right Man seems to channel B. B. King.“I gave up guitar from late sophomore year all the way to my senior year. What I was doing then was focusing on choir in high school and focusing on getting my voice strong. I could have done both at the same time, but I really wanted to concentrate on singing more, plus my father had a lot of stuff going on. So, I had to study music and get lyrics down and stuff of that nature. It was not because of the bullying. No, and don’t get me wrong. (People bullying) does not make me want to give up something that I love to do.”
D. K. took flak in school for being overweight, dressing like a gentleman, and wearing his hair in a conk like B. B. King circa 1955. “I actually graduated high school (chuckle). My graduation picture was nasty because my hair was so big, they had to pin the cap to my hair and my head so it could stay on.”
D. K. talked about his struggles with the church over his secular music, but he gets signs from God all the time that he’s on the right path. “I have these signs that show up. This happens all the time. I was in the Guitar Center yesterday, and they started playing B. B. King and Van Morrison ‘If You Love Me’ over the intercom. It’s like everywhere I go it never fails. Almost every show that I play after IBC, festivals, clubs, I always hear some B. B. King song everywhere I go. Everywhere I go!
“I do get physical signs. This is the first time I’m actually talking about this. My mother doesn’t know this. For about the last year when I’ve been at a gas station or a store on the road, I always end up seeing a man that looks just like my grandfather. And it’s very scary. It scares me.
“One time I was in New Orleans. This was at Jazz Fest actually, a few months ago, and I went to Wal-Mart, and I saw a guy who looked just like my grandfather from a distance. This is maybe the fifth time I saw my grandfather, and I said ‘I’m gonna see this man, and tell him he looks like my grandfather.’
“I can’t make this up.
“I quickly walked over there to that aisle, and when I turned the corner that he was on, he was gone. I ran to the other end of the aisle, and that man was gone.
There are other signs.
“Why did I go to the International Blues Challenge last year? I did not want to do it. They reached out to me. First, the Society that reached out to me was the Indianola Mississippi Delta Blues Society, and that’s B. B. King’s hometown. Second, when I went to the IBC and started competing, two of the four performances were at the B. B. King’s Blues Club in Memphis. Then, third, when I as leaving Memphis from the IBC, we went to an island, and when our food was given to us over the intercom, they were playing ‘Sweet 16.’”
So, how does a 24-year-old write songs that sound like they come from a man who’s lived a long and full life? He often writes just before he goes to sleep. “I’ll just be laying there trying to force myself to go to sleep. Something just hits me, and I have to grab my phone and write this down. I probably don’t even have a full song in my head, but it’s something saying some phrase I want to talk about, and it just hits my mind, and I go ‘Ok, let me write this down right now.’
“I’ll come back to it the next day or the next morning, and it’ll be completely gone. Like what was I writing? Then, I can come back to it three days later, and it hits me. ‘Oh, yeah, this is what I was writing about. This is what this is.’ And this happened so much it’s not even funny. And a lot of times, a lot of songs I’ve written I put the information from just having a conversation. I go, ‘Oh, I’m going to write a song about that and take my phone out and put this information from part of having a conversation.
“It’s a beautiful gift. I just try to keep it as real and true as possible. The blues fills some holes my mother can’t fill. It’s just been my best friend ever since.”