Lins Honeyman talked to the Kansas City-based bluesman JIMMIE BRATCHER
When Tony Cummings interviewed Kansas City-based blues singer and guitarist the Reverend Jimmie Bratcher for Cross Rhythms back in 2003, the man they call the Electric Rev was a mere two albums into his recording career having just released 'Something Better' with his debut 'Honey In The Rock' hitting the shelves two years previously. Since then, fans of Bratcher's own brand of laidback but razor sharp electric blues have enjoyed a raft of releases that have in part featured songs that point towards Bratcher's remarkable journey from drug abuse, dysfunctional relationships and self-destruction to a life-transforming faith in Jesus whilst exhibiting the kind of lead guitar work that quite rightly puts him right up there as one of the best exponents of electric blues of the current age.
In the years since the Cross Rhythms interview, Bratcher has released no less than six further records - including a Christmas release and a live album - as well as having his book Don't Take Your Dreams To The Grave published in 2005. In addition, his work as a church minister and preacher has seen him travel the length and breadth of the United States as well as several visits to the UK and he maintains a busy gigging schedule that would put younger artists to shame with appearances in clubs, bars, motorbike rallies and prisons complementing his church work to good effect.
With his 2013 album 'Secretly Famous' - produced by Grammy Award winner Jim Gaines - signalling something of a four year gap in output, Bratcher is set to make up for lost time with not one but two releases this year with 'This Is Blues Country' - an album of country music classics reinterpreted as blues songs - getting its official US release on 17th April followed by a collection of reworked gospel songs and hymns under the banner of 'New Old Stuff' later on in the year. As if two albums in the same year were not enough, some Christmas songs, a DVD and another book are also in the offing.
I caught up with Jimmie just as he was putting the finishing touches to 'This Is Blues Country' and I started by asking how he came about putting out an album of old classic country songs - albeit in his own style. "My mum and dad were country people so we listened to country music and that's what I grew up on," he explained. "Even as a teenager, one of my favourite albums was Johnny Cash's 'Live At Folsom Prison' so I've always had this country root in me. However, I'm a blues rock player so I can't really fit that straight country thing into my format so I decided to take some of those songs - which were probably already rooted in the blues - and rearrange them. I tried to stay as true to the original melody as I could but just rework them so I could do them in a blues rock style."
Given that songs on the new album such as "You Are My Sunshine", Hank Snow's "I Don't Hurt Anymore" and the Marty Robbins-penned "Singing The Blues" are established classics, I wondered if doing more literal versions ever crossed his mind. "I thought about doing more traditional versions of the songs but I just had to listen to who I am as an individual and do them my way," Jimmie advised. "For instance, my version of 'Honky Tonk Blues' - the Hank Williams song - is more like a ZZ Top kind of song but it fits. I had these songs in my heart and I just listened for something that would spark a new arrangement. My drummer Terry Hancock and bass player Rick Yord are two very experienced musicians and they also contributed a lot to the arrangements on the album. It was important to put my own stamp on those songs to allow me to perform them as if they were mine and to have the confidence to perform them with passion."
"Honky Tonk Blues" opens Jimmie's new album and was originally recorded by its writer Hank Williams in 1952 and would go on to become a massive hit for the country music legend. "That song has a really great story," Jimmie elaborated. "I don't know if Hank intended it this way when he wrote it but it's actually the story of the prodigal son from the Bible. The boy leaves his papa's farm and wastes his inheritance on riotous living and finally gets tired of it and goes back to his dad."
With an international release for 'This Is Blues Country' scheduled for the summer following its April launch in the US, Jimmie plans to release a second covers album in quick succession. "'New Old Stuff' is a collection of mostly old gospel songs and hymns," he said. "When I came to faith in Jesus in 1976, I was right at the point of just about being able to make a living from playing music. I was 22 and that had been my life's goal. One of the first things that happened when I came to know the Lord was the pastor of my church came to me and educated me on the so-called 'devil's music' and basically told me that I couldn't play what I was playing anymore. As a result, I quit playing blues from 1976 to about the year 2000 and instead played Southern gospel classic hymn type songs and they're songs that I still love to play to this day. For that album, we're also doing 'Doctor Doctor' from my first album and 'Bad Religion' off the 'Red' album and making them more acoustic and rootsy. We hope to have that album out by the end of the summer. We've also got some new Christmas tracks which we'll be finishing up. We're just busy putting out the music!"
Jimmie continued, "I speak in a church almost every Sunday and a lot of the time I travel by myself or with my wife Sherri and so I've gotten into the habit of taking a resonator guitar with me and I just play solo. I've had such a great a response from doing songs that way that I want to put it down on record. I recently did an arrangement of a song that might not be popular in the UK but most people will know it. It's the song 'God Bless America' and I was asked last 4th of July to do a church event and they put the responsibility on me to do the patriotic music. I started researching 'God Bless America' and found out that Irving Berlin wrote it in 1918 but it didn't become popular until 1938. I also found out that there was an introduction which really revealed the purpose of the song. The introduction says this: 'While the storm clouds are gathering across the seas, let us swear our allegiance to a land that is free/Let us all be thankful for a land so fare, as we lift our voices in this solemn prayer' and then it goes into the chorus that everybody knows. In America, it's a big deal for us right now to be thankful for the world that we live in."
Up until now, Jimmie's most recent album was the Jim Gaines-produced 'Secretly Famous' which saw the guitarist move away from more direct references to faith in his lyrics and I asked if this approach was deliberate. "It was a conscious decision to be less direct in terms of matters of faith on that album," he confirmed. "I'm a minister and I'm in churches almost every week but I also play venues that are not church-related. I consider playing those places as being just as worthwhile as appearing at churches. With 'Secretly Famous' and also 'This Is Blues Country', I wanted to do something that was more specific to those kind of venues. However, I can take any song on 'Secretly Famous' and point you to a Bible chapter or verse and preach you a sermon around that song. For instance, the song 'Check Your Blues At The Door' came about whilst I was reading Matthew 6 where Jesus says 'which of you by worrying can add anything to your life?' and the song is my reinterpretation of that verse."
I asked Jimmie what it's like playing songs that, at least in part, reference his Christian walk in secular venues such as clubs and bars. "Christian people always ask me about how much persecution I get playing gospel-themed songs in those kinds of venues and my answer is that I don't get any," he stated. "That's because I respect and love people and I try to communicate my love and respect for them which then builds a platform for me to be who I am. When I get up and sing a gospel song, it's part of who I am and not just a song."
Jimmie continued, "Back in 2002, the bass player on 'Something Better' - a guy called Jeff Wollenberg - passed away. Jeff used to be a meth manufacturer and he got sent to prison but came to faith in Jesus whilst he was in there. We met shortly after he got out of prison and we quickly became friends. On July 25th 2002, he was lying in bed reading his Bible and he circled a passage of Scripture, let out a wheeze and had a massive heart attack and died on the spot. When it came time for his funeral, there was no money to bury him so the guys he played clubs with all came together and played a benefit concert and they asked me to come and be part of it. They were insistent that I play one of the songs that Jeff and I had played together. The benefit was at the Blue Moon Lounge and I got up and played my song 'Love Running' which is a slow three chord prodigal song and the last verse has me screaming 'Jesus, Jesus - will you take me just as I am.' That was my first experience of doing a gospel song in that kind of setting and one of the guitar players came up to me afterwards and just fell on my shoulders, wrapped his arms around me and whispered in my ear 'Rev - you can save me'. I was able to lead that man to faith in Jesus and it was all because we were there in that venue. That was the beginning of my eyes being opened to see that the Gospel is supernaturally attractive to people and it's a message that, when it's delivered with love, absolutely connects with people."
I suggested that people must still initially feel awkward when they find out that the person playing in their bar is in fact a man of the cloth. "Usually, when people find out that I'm a minister, they do become nervous," he admitted. "Sherri and I work real hard to make people feel valued and loved - that real agape love - and it takes them a minute to get over it and loosen up. On the flipside, I constantly try to introduce church folks to the songs that we might play at clubs, prisons or biker rallies and one such song is a track from the 'Red' album called 'Three Chords'. People from the churches will come up to me afterwards and say that they didn't even know that they liked blues music but they like what I've just played. I've always felt that we're taking the blues to the most difficult audience in the world when we take it to church because that's the audience that's been most resistant to it because of the erroneous assumption that it's the devil's music. For me, it's a challenge to change people's minds and preconceptions and point them towards the truth that God loves creativity and he loves us to be expressive and be real in the expression of our art."
I put forward the suggestion that a lot of blues music - even without the gospel blues strand - consists of a hopefulness that shatters the misconception that the blues is simply downcast and depressing. "Absolutely," Jimmie agreed. "As far as you go back, blues music is about hoping for a better day. It can be about expressing the grief that's in a person's heart or it can be about dancing and happiness - all the things that equate to life. I feel that the blues is one of the most expressive forms of music because you can be broken-hearted or sad one minute and letting the good times roll the next."
Jimmie's first two albums were produced by American gospel blues pioneer Larry Howard who sadly passed away in February after a long-term illness. I asked Jimmie what it was like working with Larry and how they first met. "I became aware of Larry Howard and his music mainly through his 'Bright Side Of The Blues' album which I think is one of the best gospel blues albums ever recorded," explained Jimmie. "Sherri and I were part of an outreach event at a motorcycle rally at Sturgis back in 1998 and I called Larry - who I'd never met before - and said we would love it if he could come along to it and he immediately said he'd be there.
"We met at that event and he heard me play a song I'd written called 'I Can't Get Over It' and he immediately told me I had to come to his studio in Macon, Georgia and record an album. Larry produced my first record 'Honey In The Rock' and he was definitely a mentor to me. He opened up my eyes about how to write and gave Sherri and me the accessibility to do prison ministry - something we still do to this day. He was one of my closest friends here on earth. I'm sad to say he left an unfinished album and I don't know what will come of it - I've heard bits and pieces of it and hopefully somehow that record will make the light of day. Larry was a great man and he helped a lot of people and the world's a better place because Larry Howard was here."
With lots of new music planned for 2017, Jimmie would be well within his rights to take it easy for the rest of the year but this doesn't seem likely to happen. Jimmie confirmed: "We're pretty much on the road all the time and we've just been invited to play at the Invictus Games - an event that Prince Harry initiated where wounded warriors from all over the world come and participate in athletics. That's in Toronto in September and we're really excited about that. Also, Sherri and I will be publishing a book in the fall called Granny Paid For Our Divorce. It got that title because we were married previously and then we got a divorce which my grandmother paid for. Happily, we got married again and the book is the story of our marriage. We've also got a new DVD coming out called 'The Little Girl Wins' which is the story of how, in 2011 for the very first time, I met my 38 year old daughter Jessica who is from a relationship I had before I met Sherri. It's an incredible story of reconciliation and forgiveness that needs to be told and, following that, there will be a book that will come out which Jessica and I will write together."
In closing, I asked Jimmie what keeps him going. "People keep me going," he stated simply. "I see the hurt in people's eyes about what they're going through in life and whilst I don't have all the answers - none of us do - I can connect folks to someone who does have all the answers. That keeps us motivated to keep going to the places where people are hurting and to offer solutions to them. I don't know what else to do. I'll soon be 63 years old and I don't have a plan for slowing down. I know at some point I'll have to but, until that day, we'll keep going everywhere we can."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.