In a world where TV contests promise instant stardom and post 9-11 border hassles have forced many artists to hang up their guitars, James Armstrong is still out there, earning his title as “Ambassador of the Blues.” Instead of buckling under the pressures of being a touring bluesman in the 21st century, he’s made them the topic of many of the songs on his much awaited new album, Blues at the Border. Recorded in New York and Texas for his new label, Cat Food Records, Blues at the Border manages to honor the sound of traditional blues while giving it the contemporary grit his fans have grown accustomed to hearing from James.
Born in Los Angeles, Armstrong’s mother was a blues singer and his father played jazz guitar. James started performing at the age of eight and by the time he was 17, he was touring across the country. Over the years he’s worked with Albert Collins, Keb Mo’, Coco Montoya, Roy Brown,Joe Louis Walker, Chaka Khan, Ricky Lee Jones, Peter Tork, Jan & Dean, Mitch Mitchell and Tommy Castro.
While economic hard times and a climate of fear after 9-11 have ended many careers in the industry, James is not a stranger to hardship. “As a survivor of a violent home invasion, which left my left hand with permanent nerve damage, I’ve always known that life is not about how many times you fall but how many times you get back up. And in this business, after being true to yourself, the key to success is endurance. Since 9-11 it’s been hard for everybody: musicians, clubs and fans. I wanted to make an album that reflected how much the world has changed.”
Producers Michael Ross and Bob Trenchard went with “Blues at the Border” as the title cut to illustrate James’ point; the song uses grit, groove and lyrics that reflect a very 21st century frustration – border crossing. Add to the fact that I’ve been in a long distance international relationship for over eight years and it was only a matter of time before I’d write a song about the border. My girlfriend and I wrote it together over the phone!” The song has some of the best slide-guitar on the album and a comic riff at the end, reminding us that James is a born entertainer. “I wanted the song to be funny, not a pity-party or giving over to despair. I’ve never seen the blues as sad music.
James skill as a performer has not gone unnoticed by filmmakers. Several of his songs have been chosen for movie soundtracks. “Bank of Love” was used in Hear No Evil, with Martin Sheen and Marlie Matlin. “Two Sides to Every Story” is featured in Speechles with Micheal Keaton and Geena Davis also in The Florentine with Jeremy Davies and Luke Perry.
Trained early in life as an actor, using grace, grit and animal instinct, he has the rare ability seduce, energize, and soothe over the course of a live show. He brings some of that live feel to several of the songs on Blues at the Border, especially with his skit at the end of the funky “High Maintenance Woman.”
“Young Man with the Blues” is his most autobiographical song to date. It pays tribute to James’ father, a musician himself who gave James the gift of music, a love of the road and, despite the absence of a mother, a happy childhood. About love and loss, “Young Man with the Blues” is a sad but, not self-pitying song
By drawing on his rock, country and folk influences as well as his deep blues roots, James manages to transcend the constraints of tight musical boundaries. “The blues is evolving like every other genre,” he says. “You can be authentic and contemporary at the same time. It’s all about balance!”
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