THE ROAD WARRIOR

Many band names are just whimsical words that sound good together or express an emotion, but blues guitarist Jimmy Thackery’s outfit for the past 14 years – The Drivers – is a straightforward description.

“Blues caught my ear from when I was a kid,” says the 53-year-old guitarist-singer-songwriter who started the influential group, the Washington, D.C.-based Nighthawks, when he was still a teenager. “That stuff floated my boat before I even knew it was called the blues. I knew what I was going to do when I was in seventh grade. The thing is, I got so involved in it at such an early age that one day I woke up, realized I was thirty-five years old and never had gotten a driver’s license.”

It’s a safe bet that Thackery’s current cohorts don’t mind handling chauffeur duties as long as the leader keeps delivering those tasty licks as a master of the Stratocaster, which the blues veteran is sure to do come Veterans Day (November 11), when Thackery & the Drivers perform at a Santa Barbara Blues Society gig at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. Harmonica hero James Harman, who has headlined many a Blues Society gig in his own right, is the special guest.

Q. You’ve been out on a solo career longer than you were with the Nighthawks, but still people think of you as part of that band first. Is that frustrating?

A. Let’s put it this way. I wouldn’t trade any of those days for love or money. We were talking about it amongst ourselves not too long ago and we all said that the time we were together playing and eating the road up was a truly magical time. We were able to play with all of our heroes. We were touring around with Muddy Waters, and James Cotton, playing with Otis Rush, Johnny Winter – all the real heavyweights, we were right there with them. That was an incredible period of time. We honed our chops with our heroes. So none of that is diminished.

Besides that, we were the trailblazers for what became a nationwide touring network for blues bands. We were like the first guys to throw caution to the wind and take off for California. Mostly we were in the right place at the right time and made an impact.

When you talk about the ‘Hawks, it sounds like it was just great. So why did you leave again?

Well, it was great. But it was also three hundred-plus nights a year of traveling. Which left very little time for writing and creativity. Also, basically, I put seventeen years into that project and I’d come to the conclusion that we’d run our course, or at least I thought so at the time. It was plenty enough at the time. I didn’t think we were going to get much further. I was ready to go try something different and I figured, if I’m ever going to do something on my own, I’d better do it pretty soon. I knew I’d have to be resilient and you can’t do that as an old man, like I am now. So I had to break away.

Indeed, guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan and George Thorogood had made names for themselves with more or less the same sort of chops.

Mainly those guys were in the right place at the right time. They had something smile on them and they ran with it. But that was a good thing for everybody. It perpetuated the next generation of blues musicians well into the future. Nothing wrong with that.

How is it you hooked up with James Harman for this concert?

Well, we tried once before, but he got stuck in traffic! We’ve been friends for a long time. He’s not able to travel like he used to so he latches on to other bands when they tour in his area. He’s still got a great following out there on the West Coast. It’ll be a fun gig, anyway, because he’s truly a spirit of joy. The guy just makes me laugh constantly. So it’s always party time around him.

You’ve played with so many blues greats. Anybody you’d still like to jam with?

I’m up for playing with anybody who wants to, if they got the stuff. I’ve been doing a lot with having guest artists play with us. Reba Russell has been touring with us, and she just sings her little tail off. Doing a lot with the Cate Brothers. Idea is to bring in some people who wouldn’t get in front of the same crowd as me, so we can introduce them to each other. Since we all kind of speak the same secret language, it’s easy to do. If you got somebody who knows that same universal language, even if you’ve never met them before you can just throw them up on the stage and make it work.

Given that it is a standard language, how do you think you stand out?

Well, hell, it’s what you do with it. Most of what I write is kind of outside of the standard twelve-bar box. But it’s how you paint your own painting that matters.

You’ve mostly painted that picture as a road warrior, even after leaving the ‘Hawks.

First thing I did was start this giant band, the Assassins, but it was hard to move ‘em around and pay ‘em. After five years, we decided to go to the trio thing, and all of a sudden we were a lean, mean blues machine. Next thing I knew I was doing three hundred nights a year again! So the last couple of years I’ve scaled back. For one thing, I’m not getting any younger, and for another there aren’t that many gigs you can do in this country. With the onset of technology – DVDs, PlayStations – it’s harder and harder to get our demographic, who are all fifty years old, out of their Barcaloungers. That’s part of why I bring these extra artists along with me, to try to pique some interests in these old farts to get up and go to a show. It’s hard to fill your club up on a Tuesday night with a touring band, because more than likely they’ve seen that guy already. Which is why my hundred-something-mile drives between gigs have become five hundred miles a day.

People are always examining the state of blues in the U.S. Maybe a decade ago there was that major blues revival with guys like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang, but you don’t hear about that anymore.

Sure, there was a sudden resurgence of the young kids. They were all pretty much what I call Stevie Ray Vaughan-a-bees. While I wanted to encourage them, my advice was to quit trying to sound like that guy and develop their own sound. Jonny got over the hump, but a lot of the other ones, well, they’re washing cars, I guess. I know they’re not out here on the road. But in general the blues goes in cycles, just like anything else. Skinny ties are coming back in fashion, so maybe the blues will become a valid sellable art form again.

What has been the high point of your own solo career then?

I never missed a step. I’m still touring all over the country and the world for that matter. The record making has been a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the heroes have all passed by. There aren’t too many left. But for me headlining a festival, playing some blues cruises, those are real fun high-profile dates. I have no complaints. It’s been a great run.