IN THE BLUES WORLD—OR ANY OTHER genre, for that matter—the complete package is hard to come by. Plenty of players can engage a fat-sounding neck pickup and wail some mean licks. Some may even sing quite well. But to combine facile fervor on a Tele, a lap-steel, and a flattop with a truly compelling vocal style and soulful songwriting—that’s something rare in an artist of any age. It’s even more impressive when such maturity and authenticity come from a 25-year-old like Damon Fowler.
Born and raised in Brandon, Florida, Fowler takes a different route than many blues wunderkinds. His style is informed by Bakersfield country and Hawaiian lap-steel as much as it is by the pantheon of blues greats, and it puts songs, vibe, and nuance above Texas-sized riffs and tones. Doubters need only take one listen to the heavenly tones, smoldering Les Paul groans, and molasses-sweet vocals on “I Hope It’s Gonna Rain,” off his Blind Pig debut, Sugar Shack.
Your playing is very traditional for someone your age. Do you primarily listen to old-school blues and roots music, or are you open to all sorts of music?
I’m open to all sorts of music. There are really only two kinds of music—good and bad. But, especially with the blues, I’m drawn to more of the older stuff because there’s a certain organic-ness to it. It’s not perfect. It was made a different way than a lot of music is made today.
Are you talking about the whole Pro Tools revolution?
Yeah, it’s that and what people had in their hearts. They were doing it for a different reason sometimes, I think. But there are some modern guys that I really love, too, like Jeff Lang, this Australian slide guitarist who’s just awesome. As far as songwriting, I really like Martin Sexton. He’s not really flashy—he just accompanies himself on his songs—but his tunes really draw you in.
The tones on “I Hope It’s Gonna Rain” are incredible. What gear did you use?
The guitar was a Gibson 1960 Les Paul Classic reissue from 1990 or 1991, which I think is the first year they made them. I also used a ’65 or ’66 Fender Princeton Reverb loaned to me by a friend. I had a bunch of different amps, and I normally use a Super Reverb live, but Scott Cable, the producer of Sugar Shack, told me to try it. Once we heard it I was like, “Oh man, that’s the one right there.” I used that for the entire album, with the volume typically set at 5, 6, or maybe even 7.
What other guitars did you use?
I was a Strat guy for years, and then I switched to the Les Paul for a while. But I’ve always been a fan of Tele players, and I’ve started getting into them more and more. A guy named Jeffrey Clements in Florida has aWeb site called playerbuiltguitars.com, and he hooked me up with that Tele that’s on the cover of Sugar Shack, which I just love. It’s got a Japanese-made, V-shaped neck up to about the fifth fret, then it kind of turns into a C shape. I don’t even think it’s really a Fender body. He put a Rio Grande bridge pickup in there, and the neck pickup is a Gibson mini ‘bucker from the ’70s. It has compensated brass saddles, and I just had big frets put on it because it originally had little bitty frets that I went through pretty quick. I used a ’64 Epiphone Cortez for all the acoustic parts.
What about strings, slides, and picks?
I use Ernie Ball strings. On the Tele I use .010s, and on the Les Paul I use a .010-.052 hybrid set for a meatier low end. On the lapsteel and any slide guitar, I use .013-.056 sets. On the acoustics, I just use any nice set of nickel .012s. For slides, sometimes I use a Stevens bar, but they’re so heavy, and I like a lighter one that I can roll. I had a perfect, hand-blown glass one that a friend of mine had custom made for me, but it got lifted at a gig recently. My picks are the orange Dunlop .60mm Tortex ones.
Many players have never experimented with lap-steel. What are they missing?
Lap-steel is cool as it can give your songs such a great texture It can sound like a screeching cat, too, but it’s a really cool texture. On “Sugar Shack” and “James,” I used my old Gibson BR9. I used it on “Third Rate Romance,” too, tuned up a sixth to give it more of a country or Hawaiian steel-guitar sound.
Do you use the BR9 for all your slide playing?
No, I use it a good bit, but I also use a Harmony H44 Stratotone, which I usually tune to open G or open A.
Did you use any stompboxes on Sugar Shack?
None. I don’t use them live, either. The overdrive and tremolo from my Super Reverb are enough for me. When I was younger and playing more of the bluesrock stuff, I had a Fulltone Full-Drive, a wah-wah pedal, and all sorts of wacky stuff. But for the last three or four years, I’ve just concentrated on getting tone out of my amp and my guitar. I have nothing against pedals. Some guys use them great, but I feel like I get a more organic tone this way.
Who’s your biggest influence as a guitarist?
I’ve had a bunch of them. When I was 12 or 13, and I first really got into the bluesrock thing, Jeff Healey was a big one. I really like Warren Haynes’ guitar playing. Being from Florida, I was fortunate enough to do a handful of shows with Derek Trucks when he was 14, 15. I really like Roy Nichols from Merle Haggard’s band, and I’ve been listening to Ry Cooder quite a bit recently. But the guy who really turned me on when I was young was Johnny Winter and his record, Nothin’ But the Blues, with Muddy Waters, James Cotton, and Bob Margolin. It’s just a great blues record—and Johnny mainly plays Dobro on it.
A lot of blues cats today put all their energy into nailing great licks, but your nuanced vocals prove you’ve put as much into them as your guitar playing.
You know, I really have in the last few years, and I wanted to make this a record with songs on it. I didn’t want it to be an excuse to play guitar.
Which artists inspired you in your quest to be a better singer and songwriter?
I love Willie Nelson—he kills me. He knocks me out. I love his songs, but he’s also a very underestimated guitar player. He’s very much a stylist in the same sense as Albert Collins, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Mark Knopfler. There are very few guitar players that, after a couple of notes, you know it’s them. You’re like, “Holy crap, man, Willie Nelson’s on this record?” He’s not just a guy playing guitar—he’s an artist. He really has his own voice on the instrument.
What is it about his singing and playing that you find so captivating?
Vocally, he never goes past a point that he can’t physically go. He always sings what’s right for him. Guitar-wise, he’s sparse and very barebones, and he just cuts straight to the point. I don’t know—something about it just really tickles me.