Sunbury native sings the blues
John Lee Hooker once said, "The blues tells a story. Every line of the blues has a meaning."
This is a story about a man who found the blues and what that music came to mean to him.
Nate Myers, 39, originally from Sunbury, attended a 40th birthday party for his father Nov. 11, 1996, when one of the attendees broke out an acoustic guitar and started to play Delta-style blues. This was the first time he was exposed to anything with that sound and he was completely fascinated by it.
As chance would have it, two weeks later, Myers ran into the guitar player while running an errand in Selinsgrove and spoke with him about what he had heard that night. Long story short, the man invited Myers over, they got to talking about music and Myers was given an old harmonica the man had laying around his place.
That moment was the birth of a blues musician.
Myers would go on to start messing around with the instrument, playing by ear and picking up what would grow into his own musical stylings and a long career playing music. Although, now that he's a professional, he's going back to square one.
"Being self-taught and an ear player is good. It gets you to a certain point but, I'm trying to go back and start at square one with a traditional style of music education. I feel like it's holding my song writing back. Although it is a little late, since I'm being paid as a professional already, I just feel like I owe it to my people. I owe it to myself to be a better artist," Myers said in a phone interview.
A man and his music
Although there is good opportunity to book shows locally, Myers moved to Harrisburg to play music in a larger scene with a band named Krypton City Blues Revival. He broke off on his own in 2004 to start his current band, Nate Myers & The Aces, which is made up of Myers on vocals and harmonica, Pete Netznik on bass, drummer Mike Noll and Jimmy Sexton on guitar.
The conversational style of their shows draws the audience into a much more personal experience. The band also finds success playing original material, which is no easy feat in a world where cover bands monopolize most venues.
"By God's grace, we're getting gigs as much as any full-time unit out there. Our last five CDs contained original music and the last one was all original," said Myers, who works for the Commonwealth as his day job. He would like nothing more than to be a full-time musician, but, the reality is it's a gamble. "I just bought a house so it's tough. The kind of music we do isn't what everyone necessarily wants to hear. I feel a pull to write more material, but we also do some cover stuff. It's almost like you have to give people some cover material, but we do it our own way."
To say the band does a cover "their way" is quite apparent the first time one attends a show and hears what they do with Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." Hard to imagine that song could go blues, but Nate Myers and the Aces makes it happen and the crowd's reaction speaks volumes of their ability to entertain.
But the original material stands strong on its own. Myers writes the majority of the songs which start out as a basic shell.
"The way it works is, I'll bring the basic shell and the band and I play and refine it. I'm like, 'This is good, I like this.' Then we'll tighten it up in the process, which gets everyone involved," said Myers on how an idea becomes a song.
Blues has always been a tool to share life experience and the music Myers writes stays true to form. Well, that's a big part of it, but all stories aren't all personal. Myers find himself occasionally finding inspiration in not-so-typical places, like a recent fascination with true crime and local history.
"My mom gave a book on true crime in Pennsylvania. It sounds awful, but there is a lot of neat stuff. They speak about the jail in Sunbury and how the last of the Molly McGuires was hung there. So, I've been writing about historical events in local history. I've also read books on Centralia and took a motorcycle ride out there."
He's not alone in this approach. He shared that, "Bruce Springsteen put out a record called 'Nebraska.' It was based on a series of murders. The whole record was written about true crime."
During a performance, Myers occasionally injects conversation and tells a story in a literal sense as the music fills the background. None of it is rehearsed; it's all off the cuff, which can be a little dangerous, he joked.
"Sometimes I step in the middle of something I shouldn't have stepped in when I didn't mean for it to go awry. The delivery is all stream of consciousness and I just go with it."
Anyone who listens to the blues will recognize that style utilized by many of the great blues musicians throughout history.
When he was initially turned on to the blues, Myers found himself listening to old Muddy Waters records, Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. After moving to Harrisburg, he got a dose of heavy Chicago style blues like Little Walter and James Cotton - both singer/songwriters and harmonica players as well, some say some of the greatest of their time.
Inspiration isn't limited to strictly blues, though. When Myers broke off on his own he found himself listening to outlaw country music. Musicians like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings prove the connections throughout different genres and their abilities to influence each other run deep. Although he doesn't like modern country too much, he'll give anything a listen. His snap of country also found him getting into such acts as Jimmy Rogers, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Wille Nelson and George Jones. And, as a testament to the variety in influence, Myers can also be found listening to old school hip-hop, funk, rockabilly and even some rock steady and reggae at the moment.
That variety brought Myers to the realization of just how connected music is. He said, "The roots of music are like a big wagon wheel. There's a hub in there with blues, jazz, country, rockabilly, reggae and all the world's music. It all exists together and everything else is like a spoke coming out of that hub."
Music in schools
Music is a true art form and Myers helps to mold young minds and tell of the importance of music by visiting schools on career day. The reason, he says, is because people don't always understand music and art and what goes into it.
"Being a musician is a lifestyle choice and it's also demanding. The compensation doesn't always equal the effort and work put into it. People get disheartened. But kids and adults need to hear it. It's not all about American Idol. There are plenty of musicians making a living. People get jammed up about measuring success by if you're on TV or if you have a top 40 song. That's not what it's all about."
Myers stressed the importance of music as an outlet, but also pointed out the downside of the artistic temperament in the propensity to use chemicals. His advice to young aspiring musicians is to get involved.
"Private lessons are good," he said, "but sometimes expensive. Don't be afraid to use YouTube. There are dynamite free resources out there. Get involved in church groups. Get involved in plays. As long as schools have those programs, it's free music education. Learn how to present yourself on stage. Get involved in public speaking. Get comfortable in front of people."
He also stressed the importance of talking to real musicians for guidance and invites young musicians to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for advice.
"I got a lot of encouragement from other musicians and people in the arts. I've also been discouraged by the same types of people. Music and art are just like professional football and baseball. You're going to have attitudes and people who are afraid of their position. They won't want to talk to you or share their advice, but this industry has a propensity for good than evil."
On the horizon
Nate Myers and the Aces are soon headed to Memphis for a third time to take part in the International Blues Challenge after qualifying by winning a gig in Williamsport. They also take the opportunity to play benefits for a variety of causes. The band plays at Millville's Camp Victory for campers 4 to 18 years old who are dependent on ventilators and they're playing a greyhound benefit in a few weeks in Altoona being put on by Mostly Mutts.
Myers understands the value in his craft and hopes people continue to do the same by supporting local music. "People don't understand if art and music go away, there's a big chunk of your life that you're not going to enjoy. Support local artists. The only way they are going to survive is if you support them. It's very important." Myers concluded, "The people who support us are the reason we survive. I feel blessed to be in that spot."