Joe Bonamassa can tell a story about nearly every inch of his Nashville home.
His walls overflow with vintage memorabilia. Buzzing neon signs from Fender, Marshall, Gibson and Taylor fill the multi-story space with an orange-yellow shine. Illuminated by the glow, curated mid-century concert bills, decades-old advertising and rare amplifiers circle his living room, hallway and lobby.
Oh, and guitars. Lots and lots of guitars.
On one ledge sits a 1940s catalog acoustic with Gene Autry written on the fretboard. Across the room, Bonamassa keeps a worn Stratocaster — complete with an “I love Willie” sticker on the back — that he bought off a New York man who allegedly won it decades ago in poker game from Jerry Jeff Walker. And those barely scratch at the nearby closet overflowing with cases or his Los Angeles space that houses more of a 400-plus instrument collection.
Bonamassa calls the space “Nerdville East,” a Nashville extension of the moniker he adopted for his Los Angeles home, and a fitting nod to the eccentricities that could keep museum curators occupied for hours.
His vintage collection hobby? The by-product of American Express spending gone awry, Bonamassa joked.
“I am blessed and I am cursed with the eye,” Bonamassa said. “I will walk into the store and I will find the coolest, rarest item … that is not for sale.”
Still, most know Bonamassa not as a long-lost collector’s cousin to Mike Wolfe of “American Pickers” fame, but as a world-class blues guitarist who graduated from child prodigy to genre torchbearer in sold-out theaters around the world.
When Bonamassa parks his tour bus at “Nerdville East,” he can often be found producing albums for vital blues artists, occasionally headlining the Ryman Auditorium and, at least once, hopping on stage to join Brad Paisley at a packed 4th of July gig.
And this season, he represents Music City behind his “Royal Tea” album and live film, shot at the Ryman. The studio release earned Bonamassa his third career Grammy nomination, for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and the live DVD scored a nod in the upcoming regional Emmy Awards.
“A lot of my friends, when I first moved to Los Angeles, were there,” Bonamassa said. “Our little wrecking crew, they ended up here. Unlike Los Angeles, every night of the week within a three-block walk, there’s music going on. You can play a gig any night of the week. Me, being a musician and my friends being musicians, [Nashville] was a logical choice for a lot of us.”
A 44-year-old New York native who spent about two decades in Los Angeles, Bonamassa moved to Nashville part-time in summer 2017. However, he began writing songs and making albums in Music City years before, working largely out of Music Row studio Ocean Way.
When the condo came up for sale from a friend, he asked himself: Why spend time living out of a bag when he could instead come home after sessions?
“If I produce a record, it’s usually made out of here, because all the players are here,” Bonamassa said, adding: “It’s a five-minute ride to Ocean Way, [and] logistically my touring operation’s here. So I can go, ‘Can we have this case, this case and this case sent over?’ And it’s [there] in 15 minutes.”
Now, when Bonamassa headlines the Ryman, he can walk from the stage door back home after playing — which he’s done, without once being nudged by a concertgoer.
Known on stage for his shades, suit and slicked back hair, he said he’s played the famed hall nine times since moving to Nashville (nine-and-a-half including an audience-free live show in 2020). Off stage? Maybe fans don’t recognize Bonamassa in jeans and a pair of eyeglasses.
“My stage manager’s walked me back to this place nine times as 2,600 people were exiting the Ryman,” Bonamassa said, “And not a single person said anything. And that’s why I like it.”
Arguably his biggest obstacle during his latest Ryman headlining run came from across the Cumberland River, when he played opposite a Rolling Stones gig at Nissan Stadium.
“We still sold it,” Bonamassa said, smiling. “It was like, what are we? Suicidal? It was good.”
And like most musicians in Nashville — country, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, Americana or otherwise — the Ryman holds a significant place in Bonamassa’s creative history.
Opposite memorabilia from country legend Charley Pride and pop powerhouse Miley Cyrus, one of the most important guitars in Bonamassa’s journey hangs on display: A 1955 Stratocaster, considered one of the first black Strats in the world, once owned by musician Howard Reed. Bonamassa still owns a Guitar World cutout image of the guitar that he pinned to the wall of his childhood bedroom.
He purchased the guitar, picking it up on the day of his first headlining Ryman gig. Bonamassa makes a habit of busting it out of the display for a show in Nashville, he said.
“I get ’em to crack it when we play there, I’ll be like, ‘Let’s get it out,'” he said. “I always put an I.O.U. I always write, ‘I owe you one ’55 black Fender Strat.'”
And in 2020, as COVID-19 punished touring musicians, Bonamassa and his team filled the Ryman pews with cardboard cutouts of fans for an audience-free livestream that raised funds for artists impacted by the pandemic. It reached roughly 100,000 viewers in 44 countries, Bonamassa said, fueling part of a $550,000 fundraiser that year. He released the show as a live album and DVD last summer, earning a regional Emmy nomination.
Still, nothing beats a live audience.
“I told the few people that I let in, ‘Don’t you dare clap,’ Bonamassa said. “It’s gotta be silent. It was the weirdest thing. You would just hear the footsteps of the techs bringing stuff out.”
On tour, Bonamassa spends time scouring vintage stores — no eBay, he insists —and scouting collectable guitars, but in Nashville he often turns days off stage into album producing (when he’s not geeking about gear on Twitter, of course).
He works on albums for Keeping The Blues Alive Records, a label launched under the nonprofit foundation of the same name that Bonamassa debuted in 2011 to help fund blues education.
Under his Keeping The Blues umbrella, he’s worked with Memphis player Eric Gales, early rock singer Dion DiMucci, British artist Joanne Shaw Taylor and more. Ten percent of label profits benefit the foundation, according to the Keeping The Blues Alive website.
“There’s always the charitable aspect of it, plus we’re doing what we said we were gonna do: We’re keeping the blues alive,” Bonamassa said. “We’ve giving real budgets to make blues records [when] that opportunity wasn’t on the table.”
But there’s always time between projects to do a bit of haggling. How else would he have found a mini-marquee to hang above his kitchen?
“That took me eight years to pry it out of [the owners’] hands,” he said. “It took me eight years and a lot of different purchases. Highland Music in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Every once in a while you gotta throw a Hail Mary pass,” he continued. “He was, frankly, probably tired of deal with it every time I would go there, so I offered him enough money that he got it down. … [The] stuff’s hiding in plain sight.”