Jim Drew: The powerful freedom songs of a veteran New York blues rocker

Monday 22nd January 2018

Lins Honeyman brings into focus the four-decade career of gifted blues rocker JIM DREW

Jim Drew (photo: Robert Bilsky Photography)
Jim Drew (photo: Robert Bilsky Photography)

The album 'Manumission' by Jim Drew & Humble Soul is the latest instalment in a long musical odyssey which has brought the singer/songwriter from New York no glittering prizes but has found him high regard amongst those who've searched out his recordings. Drew has recorded 12 albums since his 1989 debut 'Blind Man's Beat' and has demonstrated his earthily expressive vocals on skilfully penned songs that express hope to our bruised and battered world which connect powerfully with all who hear them.

It's fair to say that Jim and music go back a long way with his first stage appearance at the tender age of four setting him on a path that would see him perform thousands of concerts in the USA and Canada as well as parts of Europe. At the age of 12, Jim and his brother Peter formed their first band before a teenage dalliance with classical music - in particular conducting - nearly sent him in a different direction from the soulful rock sound that has now become his trademark. However, his love for his chosen brand of music and the connection it brings with his audience proved too strong and the rest is history.

Jim's love for performing has seen him play in a variety of different settings including churches, festivals, concert halls and even military bases and, at each venue, audience members witness his innate ability to communicate something of everyday life experiences underpinned by his Christian faith with sincerity, relevance and passion. This passion also finds its way onto his recorded work with 2014's 'Perspective Shift' - featuring appearances from Blues Counsel guitarist Tony Hooper and CCM stalwart Phil Keaggy - and the aforementioned 'Manumission' receiving glowing reports from Cross Rhythms and a number of other music sites.

Despite recovering from major surgery at the time of the interview, Jim sounds full of energy and enthusiasm as I catch up with him over a long distance call to his home in Rochester, NY. I start by asking him what the title of his new album actually means. "When I was thinking about songs for the new album, I was thinking about all the different ideas of freedom," he explains. "That word is used so freely - it you'll pardon the pun - that it's almost become kind of useless. I wanted the album to express different forms of freedom and that's what it's trying to convey. I literally went to a thesaurus to find freedom-related words and the word 'manumission' was there. Manumission is more often than not associated with slavery and it's about being made free to become a citizen. Yet, when I looked through the different meanings of that word, in my mind it was also describing the freedom that the Lord Jesus gives us and that's how it became the title of the new album."

With the new album covering a number of other topics as well as the overriding theme of freedom, I wonder where Jim draws inspiration from when he's writing new songs. "Ideas for songs can come from almost anywhere," he admits. "I spend time in mainstream venues with a lot of good friends who are wonderful musicians. I spend a lot of that time just observing things that are going on around me. I also spend time thinking through some scriptural ideas and all those pieces come together to form the songs that I write. I usually rework the lyrics a lot before bringing an idea to my band. I've got a really strong band and they're all amazing musicians."

With elements of reggae, Southern rock, blues and folk featuring on 'Manumission', Jim is certain where the Humble Soul sound comes from. "When we do songs as a band instead of me playing acoustic guitar solo, the cool part is that it becomes more rock with a strong blues basis. There are a lot of '70s flavours - most of us in the band were teenagers in that decade. When I'm on my own, there are times when I'll write in more of a folk setting but the style of 'Manumission' came together because of who the players are in the band and the sound they were able to bring. I was also able to gather together some wonderful guest musicians to fill out different parts in addition to the guys in the group."

I ask Jim to introduce the band. "The core of the band is Jimmy Schelkun. Jimmy and I have been together the longest and have been playing as part of Humble Soul since 2005. He's the kind of guy who'll bring a riff or an idea for you to write a song around. Tim Brumbaugh is the youngest member of the band and he's an amazingly solid drummer. My brother Pete plays bass for us and then Lisa Wallace-Smith sings with us and has an incredible voice. She initially came along for a couple of rehearsals and, at the second session, she shared a bit about her story and what she had gone through in life. After hearing her story, I ended up writing 'The Damage Done' and Lisa did a phenomenal job singing it on the album. That's the core of the band but we also have guest musicians like Alan Murphy on keyboards, Bill Tiberio on sax and Doug Egling playing lots of different wind instruments plus Perin Yang plays violin on 'Mother Freedom' which is a cover of a song by the band Bread that we recorded for the album."

(photo: Robert Bilsky Photography)
(photo: Robert Bilsky Photography)

With "Mother Freedom" being one of many highlights on 'Manumission', another song from the album sticks out - not least on account of its wordplay title. "I guess I'm not a big fan of what's going on in the political arena at the moment - from either side. I didn't want to take a side politically for this album - as a matter of fact, I try to avoid politics anyway as that's not what will fix what's wrong in our hearts. With the song 'What The Govern-Meant', it was the title that popped into my head first and I shared some of my thoughts and lyrics with the band. We were able to create that old style rock sound mixed with a reggae feel. The song helps convey some of the questions I have about the government but it's also a tongue in cheek poke at it all."

The opening track "Here At The Crossroads" also seems to have a special place in Jim's affections. Giving some background to the song, he explains: "I spent some time reading through Jeremiah 6:16. It's where Jeremiah is confronting the people but he's also saying 'stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it and you will find rest for your souls.' Jeremiah's just saying 'stop and take a moment to look around you and see what's going on.' I take the bit about following the good way to mean finding out what you're about and what your strengths are so you can walk the path you're meant to walk. I take the line about finding rest for your souls to mean that, if I'm doing all that other stuff, no matter what struggles or issues come at me, I will ultimately have rest in my soul. That is amazing to me - it blows me away that I can go through all this stuff and still have an amazing sense of peace which comes only from the Lord. That song is a reminder to myself - not just the folks I sing it to - that I need to stop and ask God what he's showing me and which path I should take next."

Jim's songs tend to have a way of communicating the Gospel message in a relevant and natural way without being too direct. I ask if this is a deliberate approach. "I used to write very teaching orientated songs," he advises. "I grew up in the church and I sincerely love the Lord and accepted Jesus early in my life as Saviour but I also want my music to relate to people in a natural way without me coming across like a walking Bible. I think we're supposed to walk with what God teaches us in our hearts but we do have a tendency as Christians to sometimes use phrases and statements in public that make people wonder what in the world is wrong with us.

"I started to write songs that could be played in almost any venue but would also still carry my love for God - even if it wasn't blatantly mentioned in the lyrics," Jim continues. "In doing that, I decided to take a trip to Nashville to meet up with some musician friends. When I got there, all my friends were either on tour or in the studio. For most of my life, I had avoided going into bars because my dad was an alcoholic. In that situation, you either follow or avoid completely and, in my case, I was almost afraid of going into places where drink was available as I had a fear that I would end up like my dad and become a drunk. So here I am in Nashville and all my friends are busy and all the songwriter venues are - guess where - in the pubs, bars and clubs. God kind of forced my hand and I had to confront my fears.

"One of the places I went to was a bit of a dive but I was there to do an open mic thing and I got up to do my couple of songs. I was singing one of the songs that God had helped me to write and I realised I really loved the people I was playing to - I genuinely cared for them and it blew all of my fears away. It blew my doors off. Here I was caring about people that, for the longest time, I'd been inadvertently steering clear of through my avoidance of clubs and bars. It was an amazing experience and, since then, I no longer avoid anything. If God wants me to play in a certain place, I'll play it. A lot of the songs we do - especially the blues rock ones - tend to hit home with any audience. The style tends to fit who and what they are even if they don't believe in the same God as I do. I see God's love for these folks every time I play at these venues."

It's obvious that Jim's passion for live performing goes deeper than just singing his songs on a stage. "I feel strongly that, if I'm going to do a concert or an event, it's got to be about the audience," he affirms. "It can't be just about the guy up on the stage - it's got to be, in some way, about creating community with the audience so that they become a part of the evening. Really cool stuff happens when you do that and conversations open up even more so afterwards. I have wonderful conversations with people and sometimes even the opportunity to pray with them. I was in a pub here in Rochester at an open jam night and, at one point, I went out back to hang and chat with a couple of folks. This one gentleman turns around and told me that he'd never understood faith and asked me to tell him a little more about it. Inside, I was totally jaw-dropped but we sat down and chatted about God."

Jim Drew & Humble Soul (photo: Robert Bilsky Photography)
Jim Drew & Humble Soul (photo: Robert Bilsky Photography)

It seems this experience is not limited to live appearances in the United States or even English-speaking countries. "Two years ago, I got my first chance to travel outside of the States and I got to play in places like Spain, England and Berlin," Jim explains. "I did a concert in Spain with a translator helping me introduce the songs and, after the show, I had people coming up to me in tears, pulling friends along who spoke both English and Spanish to help us speak to each other. I was blown away by how the Lord overcame the language barrier and you could tell that they had been touched deeply through what the songs were about and that was just amazing to me."

Whilst his ability to connect with his audience is now an essential part of who he is, back in the day Jim very nearly went down a completely different musical path. "I was a rocker but the school I went to was an all-classical school," he recalls. "I mean, they didn't even do jazz or anything else outside of the classic realm. I fell in love with classical music so much that I sincerely was considering becoming an orchestra conductor. I was looking at the University of Colorado and a few other places and was entertaining the idea of conducting but my heart and mind kept going back to this love I have for the streets and for music being on a much more personal level. Orchestral music is wonderful and yet most of the time it separates the performer from the audience and doesn't have that personal touch. With rock music, you can get on the same level with your audience and I just love that. I have had a couple of ideas for symphonies though but have never got round to completing them - maybe someday!"

With a career spanning nearly four decades, I ask Jim what some of the high points have been. "One of the highlights of doing music for me is some of the great folks that I've gotten to play and record with," he replies. "On recent albums, I've had the pleasure of working with guys like Tony Hooper - an amazing guitarist and vocalist - who just brought some wonderful things to my previous album 'Perspective Shift'. Tony suggested we have Phil Keaggy play on the album because he was working with him at the time. The next thing I know, Phil is playing on three songs of mine and just brought that wonderful heart of who he is to proceedings."

Despite being forced to take it easy following recent surgery, Jim is determined to get back on the road again soon. "I'm hoping to recover faster than I think I am," he laughs. "At the end of March, I'm supposed to go back to Spain - specifically Madrid and Barcelona. I've been talking to some of those talented guys in the Blues Counsel lately and they seem to be interested in doing an album with me either in Nashville or down in Muscle Shoals. That would be amazing if it happens."

Before we finish, I ask Jim what keeps him going. "There's a Scripture that talks about rivers of living water flowing out of your belly and music's that kind of thing for me," he states. "If I'm not writing, I feel like I'm trying to stop up that river. Throughout my career, I've constantly been writing and I've come up with some nice stuff and some terrible stuff but that's the reality of songwriting. You have to work at it and hone your skill. God gives us really wonderful gifts but he also asks us to take part in those gifts to grow, change and develop them. I have been learning from day one - from the moment I first started getting into music and stepping on a stage as a little kid. I've always had to take part in music because it's such a big part of me.

"I guess the biggest deal for me is that, if this is how God has made you, you have to live with it and you have to love it," Jim adds in closing. "You'll probably end up working a lot of jobs on the side whilst you're learning your craft - I've cleaned meat rooms, I've developed film and I don't know how many other jobs - but I love where the Lord has brought me to and I'm excited about what the future might hold." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Lins Honeyman
Lins HoneymanLins Honeyman is a Perthshire-based singer/songwriter and currently presents The Gospel Blues Train on Cross Rhythms Radio on Saturday nights from 11pm and on Listen Again.


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