Like many artists and performers, guitarist, singer, and band leader Tommie John says that his interest in making music was first nurtured while he was still a child. “It’s quite possible that my first real musical interest came after seeing Marty McFly jam out at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance in ‘Back to the Future,’” he said. “I wanted to be that cool.”
That was enough to get the ball rolling. “I pestered my folks for long enough so that my mom gave me her old acoustic guitar, and my grandmother took me down to Murlin’s Music, where I began taking lessons with Steve Kaufman,” John said. “I don’t know if any of us at the time realized just how big of a deal that was; he’s one of the greatest bluegrass flat-pickers that’s ever lived. I definitely lucked out on that one.”
That said, John claims he didn’t have a lot of interest in bluegrass at an early age, but he did receive the technical knowhow that he needed to carry with him throughout his career.
“Steve is a wonderful teacher and a great guy,” John said. “I really do owe a lot of who I am as a player and as an improvisationalist to Mr. Kaufman. I knew what I wanted to do even before I finished my first lesson. This thing chose me. I wouldn’t know how to do anything else if I tried.”
Having become one of the best known and most admired artists on the local scene, John can claim a number of high points he’s achieved in his career. Winning the regional International Blues Competition that brought him to the finals in Memphis and playing the Bijou Theater in Knoxville are among the more obvious, but he also said there are other accomplishments he considers equally important.
“Being called up to sit in at the Red Piano lounge with Donald Brown, Keith Brown and Kenneth Brown was a moment that meant a lot to me,” he said. “I respect those guys so much as musicians and as people. They’re pretty much jazz legends, so getting invited up on stage with them was a reassuring and validating moment that let me know I’m on the right track. I think a lot of artists struggle with wondering if we’re coming across the way we intend. Little moments like that are just the boost we need to confirm that it’s all coming together.”
John has led a number of rotating ensembles through the years, but he offers plenty of accolades when speaking about the current incarnation of the Tommie John Band, consisting of drummer and occasional guitarist Yattie Westfield, keyboard player Mark Caldwell, bassist Jack Willard, and saxophonist Brandon Bowman, with John himself on vocals and guitar. “These guys are world-class talent, and they’re highly in demand,” he said. “I’ve known the fellas through the local scene for years, and we’ve all played in other bands together, as well. They’ve become my best friends, and honestly, there aren’t a better bunch of human beings around. It’s rare to meet people with so much talent and so much humility. Getting four of them at once is pretty much a dream come true. They make my job pretty easy!”
John seems to know of what he speaks. He began playing professionally as a sideman with other people’s outfits, among them, as a bassist in Matt Wood’s Plan A, a funk guitarist in the Jaystorm Project and as lead guitarist with the country band, Homemade Wine.
“I had always wanted to do my own thing, but the sideman opportunities kept coming and I kept taking them,” he said. “I did some Tommie John Band shows here and there, but I was too busy to really focus on it. Finally, when I left Homemade Wine around 2012, I began to pursue this project and my own career full-time.”
Having developed a strong local network, the transition was fairly smooth. Nowadays, he frequently performs solo as well as with his band nearly every weekend. In the process, he and the band have established a reliable reputation.
“Although we’ve been working in more original tunes, I think we’ve come to be known for our take on covers,” he said. “We pick some tunes that the audience would never expect, and when we do the classics, we completely turn them upside down. Our musicianship is top-notch, and we are highly improvisational. Lots of the songs we do go to new places every night. We take a kind of a jam band/jazz influenced improvisational approach. Mainly we just love to stretch out and let the songs go where they’re gonna go in the moment. The songs never seem to turn out the same way twice.”
As a result, the band get as much joy from making their music as the audience does from experiencing it. “We love trying new things on stage,” John said. “It really is sort of magical when it all comes together spontaneously. Chasing that magic and being able to share it with an audience is a big motivator for us.”
John said that the group is currently integrating more original material into their sets, with an emphasis on what he describes as “catchy beats and hooks with lots of jam and improvised elements.” He said the sound can be compared to George Benson meets Herbie Hancock with the Headhunters, as filtered through a modern, more urban influenced foundation.
“Our cover list is all over the place,” he continued. “I love doing songs that no one expects to hear. Everything from Aaliyah and Whitney Houston to a funk version of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ that sounds like it was written by James Brown and a cover of George Michael’s ‘Faith’ in a New Orleans second line style.”
Not surprisingly then, John said his greatest satisfaction comes from simply making music.
“Paying the bills and playing close to 200 shows a year is all the honors that I need,” he added. “Everything else is just icing on the cake. We’re so fortunate to be able to do what we’re passionate about for a living. That never gets lost on me. I’m even more blessed to get to do that with my best friends. Life is good.”