A musical education

Robert Jones is Detroit’s most complete bluesman. The man sings, plays guitar, slide guitar, harmonica, mandolin, fiddle, quills and banjo. Jones has also hosted WDET–FM 101.9’s award-winning “Blues From the Lowlands” for more than 15 years, and is a respected blues historian, blues scholar and teacher. Just for good measure, he is also an ordained Baptist minister.

In short, Jones is way ahead of most of his peers on the local scene. The man doesn’t blow his own horn as loudly as many lesser talents do. He doesn’t really need to do so. Jones simply goes about the business of taking care of business, and that approach all by itself puts to rest the myth of the shiftless, happy-go-lucky bluesman who just can’t keep it together without a guitar in his lap and a tall bottle of whiskey perched on a nearby table.

Jones is the bluesman of the new millennium. He has used the lessons of his musical ancestors as a roadmap to avoid falling into the same potholes that swallowed so many of them. His phenomenal voice and formidable guitar and performance skills are balanced by his seeming determination to undermine the stereotype that far too many so-called blues lovers equate with “the real thing.”

What Jones proves every time he performs is that a bluesman — or woman — doesn’t have to be consumed by vice to be authentic. You can have an education, know how to put a correct sentence together and still be a bluesman who hasn’t “sold out.”

“I’ve been really fortunate that I can walk between worlds,” says Jones, meaning he can communicate effectively with just about anyone, from the edgy characters of the street to the middle class to academics. “I view my responsibility as being able to communicate between these worlds.”

Imagine what blues legend Robert Johnson would have been like if he had attended Harvard. Now you’re getting a good picture of Robert Jones. Actually Jones holds a bachelor of arts degree from Wayne State University, but I’ll bet money there aren’t many folks at Harvard who can match Jones when it comes to his knowledge of the blues.

Jones has already been recognized at the national level by “Living Blues Magazine,” and he has twice been named “Detroit’s Best Blues Instrumentalist” at the Detroit Music Awards. He has opened for the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Taj Mahal, Dave Van Ronk, the Persuasions, Robert Lockwood Jr., Junior Wells, Albert Collins, Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Brownie McGhee, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Charlie Musselwhite, Ronnie Earl and David Lindley.

“I think it’s because I don’t clash with what they do, and I’m a quick set-up,” says Jones in his characteristically self-deprecating manner. The truth is that he’s been chosen because the man is bad, and all these national acts recognize it.

Jones has taught or lectured at Wayne State University, the University of Alabama, Loyola University in Chicago, the Blues In The Schools Program in Charleston, S.C., the Detroit Historical Museum (where he did what’s known as “Storyliving”), Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village, Central Michigan University, Kalamazoo College, Monroe County Library System, Pontiac Center for Creative Arts, Detroit’s Center for Creative Studies and at schools all over metro Detroit.

I first saw Jones perform nearly 10 years ago, and what stood out to me just as much as his talent was his humor, humility and ease with the audience. It’s not easy to keep the house entertained with a full band behind you, so I can’t imagine how hard it is to pull off as a solo acoustic act. Jones confesses that he was forced to develop good storytelling skills because when he first began performing he only knew a handful of songs — and not all of them were blues songs. To fill the empty space between his spare selection of songs, he quickly learned the value of being able to spin a tale.

Jones no longer suffers from that sort of intimidating drought, but he loves to tell his stories just the same. In fact, those stories have become an indispensable part of his show, which he performs mostly in the Michigan area due to family considerations.

“I made a decision a couple of years ago to do more gigs close to home. I don’t want my son to say, ‘You were never there for me, Dad!’ I don’t wanna hear that,” he says.

Still, “I’ll go anywhere for a week. That’s my motto. I’ll go anywhere for a week.”

Robert Jones will perform at 11:15 p.m. Thursday at the Attic Bar.

Check out the entire Blowout schedule at http://blowout.metrotimes.com.

Check out the rest of our features on this year's talented Blowout artists:

• Go back to the future with The Bloody Holly’s
• The eclectic Brothers Groove are driven by white-hot funk
Clone Defects front man Tim Vulgar lives the punk life
esQuire’s frenetic but fabulous rise to fame
The Kielbasa Kings' tale of accordions, beer and never-fail pickup lines
• Inside King Gordy's heart of darkness
Miz Korona shines through the hype and distractions
• Stowing away on Sista Otis' path to enlightenment
The Von Bondies are on the edge … but of what?

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-based musician and writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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