Dallas bluesman Jim Suhler doesn’t stand on the mountaintop and scream about it, but at 55 he’s had a rather amazing career in the often moribund genre known as the blues. When Suhler isn’t fronting his band the Monkey Beat, coming to town this weekend for gigs at the Big Easy (tonight) and Shakespeare Pub (Saturday), he’s on the road as rhythm/lead guitarist with George Thorogood and the Destroyers.
“I joined the Destroyers in 1999 and having the gig with George has made things so much more viable for me in other areas,” says Suhler from his home in east Dallas. “And that gig has exposed me to some amazing things that probably never would have happened if I’d just stayed on my own and tried to slug it out on the Texas blues circuit.”
At the top of Suhler’s current agenda is mixing a new live album recently recorded at the historic Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff. As reported last week in Houston Press, the owners of the Kessler are opening a Houston venue soon in the old Heights Theater building that will emulate the Oak Cliff club.
“I think it’s great that the Kessler people are opening another venue in Houston,” says Suhler. “They really have a great vibe there, it’s all about the music and about the musicians and fans having a positive experience. They treat the musicians and the audience well, there’s no attitude, and they go the extra mile to make sure the sound is as good as it can be. A lot of venues think they do that, but the Kessler is exemplary along those lines. This new place should be a great addition to the Houston scene.”
Suhler’s other current project is learning material for former Dallasite Gary Nicholson’s blues project, Whitey Johnson.
“Gary and I go way back,” Suhler explains, “and he’s booked on the Joe Bonamassa Blues Cruise that leaves Miami February 15. Gary and I have some history and he needed a band for the cruise and we were already booked on it, so he’s coming in a week prior to rehearse and we’re going to do a few gigs in the area before we take off.”
Nicholson, who has written many songs covered by Delbert McClinton over the years, is one of the most successful songwriters in Nashville. Suhler worked with another stellar Nashville writer/producer, Tom Hambridge, on his 2009 album Tijuana Bible. Suhler notes that both Hambridge and Nicholson have a rare gift.
“I like writers who can say something elegant about the commonplace things in life," he says. "To me, that's a rare gift. Gary and Tom can take a simple, everyday thing and, without dressing it up too much or overstating it, make you feel an emotion or see something in a different, clearer way. They’re both masters of that, which is a big part of why they’re both so successful in Nashville without being part of the vanilla side of that scene.”
Suhler’s most recent album, Panther Burn (2014, Underworld Records), featured Bonamassa, Fabulous Thunderbird Kim Wilson, Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel, and former Houstonian Carolyn Wonderland, and was nominated for Album of the Year by Blues Blast magazine. Suhler hopes to get his new album out by spring, but his schedule is already cram-packed for the first half of the year.
“We’ll do the usual Texas circuit thing the rest of this month, then the local gigs with Gary," he says. "After that we take a run to Florida and then jump on the cruise. As soon as we get off the cruise, I start a tour with Thorogood, beginning in Mississippi, over to Texas, and then back to Florida. After that I can do my own thing again until May, when we’ve got another Destroyers tour. So with all that in addition to mixing and getting the album out, it looks like a busy year.” [Note: Thorogood & the Destroyers perform at House of Blues on February 28 — ed.]
A serious student of blues history, Suhler is familiar with and appreciative of Houston’s blues legacy.
“Houston has produced so many great musicians,” he says. “Of course people are familiar with the Don Robey Duke-Peacock recordings and artists, but beyond that Houston has been so important as a place to get top-tier musicians. So many piano players, horn players, and drummers have come out of Houston and gone off into the major touring blues bands like B.B. King’s or Ray Charles’s.
“Right now Fort Worth seems to have a lot of cool stuff happening," continues Suhler. "There‘s a renewed interest in blues and R&B, and several good venues have opened up, so we’ve been playing over there more than we used to.”
One thing the easygoing Suhler is over is the rivalry and bickering between cities.
“Facebook and social media have made it even more obnoxious than it was,” he laughs. “It’s like someone can’t compliment Austin without taking a shot at Dallas. The whole Dallas versus Houston thing; so silly. I get around quite a bit and to me every major Texas town has plusses and negatives. Those endless, pointless arguments about why one city is better than another just annoy me anymore.”
Jim Suhler and Monkey Beat perform 9:30 p.m. tonight at The Big Easy, 5731 Kirby, and Saturday, January 16 at the Shakespeare Pub, 14129 Memorial.
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