Joe Bonamassa follows his own path, builds cult fan base

By: Brian VanOchten | The Grand Rapids Press

Joe Bonamassa has no illusions about being the next American Idol or achieving mass commercial appeal as a recording artist. The New York-born blues-rock guitarist seems satisfied to please the loyal — but expanding — audience that has been following him since he first opened for blues legend B.B. King at the tender age of 12.

“I have never traveled the avenues of the mainstream, nor do I ever plan on it,” Bonamassa, 33, said after sound check in Tulsa, Okla., on a recent stop on his tour. “It’s such a dangerous game, especially since I’ve spent my whole life working on a cult following … more of an underground following. It’s a growing cult, but, still, it is what it is.

“If somebody said, ‘Would you trade it all to be the next American Idol, to have a big hit,’ I’d say, ‘Nah, why would I want to do that?’ You make one lap of it and then you’re done.”

Bonamassa, who will perform Monday at DeVos Performance Hall, insists he is far from completing his run in the music business.

He has achieved cult-hero status since first popping onto the radar screen as a child prodigy, been the recipient of endless critical acclaim and earned a reputation as one of the premier guitarists in any genre.

His hard-edged approach to the blues has been refined and reinterpreted on his latest album, “Dust Bowl,” which hits stores Tuesday. The response to the title track and other songs off the new release, which is rooted firmly in the blues while exploring the fringes of country music, has been phenomenal, he said.

“We’re tying to write some more story songs,” Bonamassa said. “Some people like the old stuff, some people like the current stuff. It’s all a matter of taste. I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the songs and I’m proud of the record. I think it has a good spirit to it.”

The new album, much of it recorded at Black Rock Studios in Santorini, Greece, is his 12th full-length release.

It features a duet with John Hiatt on “Tennessee Plates,” the guitar stylings of country music superstar Vince Gill on “Sweet Rowena,” and Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple lending his vocals to the Paul Rodgers-penned “Heartbreaker.” The title track, however, is generating the biggest reaction on the tour.

“Songs leak (before the release date). People were able to download the first single and title track, ‘Dust Bowl,’ for free, so people really dug that,” Bonamassa said. “There’s a lot of good buzz about the record. I’m excited for people to hear it.”

He describes the new album as the finest effort of his career.

“I have more control over it,” he said. “It used to be just shouting in key. I’ve been taking vocal lessons for the past seven years, and I think it has helped me develop my voice. I think it’s more of a product of me hearing my voice back and cringing less. I’ve been working on my singing a lot.”

Although he recognizes “Dust Bowl” has a chance to reach a broader audience, Bonamassa contends he’s pleased with his career path regardless if he gets nominated for a Grammy Award in his lifetime.

“I put out 10 records in a decade,” he said matter-of-factly. “We have nine No. 1 blues CDs, especially over the last four or five years. We’ve traveled all around the world and had some real success. The only award I’ve ever been given for any of it was the award that ‘Classic Rock’ magazine created on my behalf.

“I never even paid attention to the Grammy Awards or who wins it. It’s the very first time people actually mentioned my name in the circles of the music business that I wasn’t always allowed to be in,” he said of buzz surrounding his recent solo efforts and as part of Black Country Communion on its self-titled release last September. “So, to me, if you win a Grammy, that’s fantastic. But I’m about making a good record — win, lose or draw — and putting on a good show.”

“I could show you (artists) with 10 Grammys who have a hard time drawing a couple hundred people. That, to me, isn’t an option,” Bonamassa said. “We’re just now starting to reap the rewards of the seeds we’ve planted.

“It’s nice to see it grow. I’m happy with that.”