International Blues Challenge champion is a veteran musician, and he’s having a moment

For many acoustic-styled musicians, the music venues they count on the most for their bookings don’t do much for their sound. The ambient noise can drown out the performance taking place a few feet away.

Jon Shain of Durham won the 2019 International Blues Challenge in Memphis on Saturday, Jan. 27. He emerged out of a worldwide field of more than 200 competitors. Photo courtesy of Jon Shain.

It’s a working environment that many artists have learned to cope with in a music business that has leaned hard on the revenue brought in by touring.

For area musician Jon Shain, it was a decision that he recognized had to be made years before his recent resurgence as a performer. Shain, who has maintained a presence in the Triangle music scene, even away from the stage as a teacher of guitar and songwriting, has long headlined listening rooms from the East Coast to Europe.

Fresh on the heels of being crowned the winner of the 2019 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, in the solo/duo category, he’s ready to bring that intimacy of performance closer to home.

“I’ve kind of become spoiled,” Shain admits days before upcoming showcases at Wake Forest’s Magnolia Roots Music Lounge at Sugar Magnolia Cafe, and the Cat’s Cradle Back Room in Carrboro. He will play alongside longtime duo partner FJ Ventre in promotion of their latest album, “Tomorrow Will Be Yesterday Soon.”

“I quit playing bars, and have only played places that are listening audiences, years ago,” Shain said in an interview with The News & Observer. “I kind of run more in the folk music world than the straight blues world, so I’m not looking to make people necessarily dance, you know. We have lyrics, and people listen to him, and they want to know what the songs are about.”

With Shain’s recent win in Memphis, his audience is only getting bigger. We spoke with the rising blues star to discuss his three-decade position within an ever-changing Triangle music scene. Among the topics that popped up during our conversation are the days when every local band was a prospect for a major label contract; being undervalued by one’s peers; and his strategy for winning the crown in Memphis.

Q: What was it like to be a part of the Triangle’s music scene of the 1990s, when every publication was announcing that we were the next “It City” for musical talent, a la Seattle?

A: Once someone signed that record contract, they would think, “We’ll be headlining Madison Square Garden in no time,” and a year after signing they were back at the [local] level. Today, people would just [record and release] their own records, but people weren’t really doing that just yet. I remember that [Chapel Hill-based rock band] Dillon Fence were one of the first bands I knew that made and sold their own album, and I thought, “Wow, I didn’t know you could do that.”

Jon Shain.jpg
Jon Shain, winner of the 2019 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, is performing will play alongside longtime duo partner FJ Ventre in promotion of their latest album, “Tomorrow Will Be Yesterday Soon.”

We were never really a part of that [attention]; they seem to be only interested in grunge rock and stuff like that. It was the bands like Archers of Loaf that got all the attention in magazines like Spin. But it’s funny, because then some other bands just came out of nowhere and became the most popular, like Ben Folds Five. Ben wasn’t really a part of that scene, and we really weren’t a part of it, either. We were doing roots music festivals, and were always a little more on the blues and folk side of things. We did get some attention from a couple of larger labels, but it really never panned out.

Q: Did you ever find that some of the music venues in the Triangle wouldn’t book you back then due to your sound, as it didn’t fall into what was more popular at the time?

A: It wasn’t as simple as that, like they would just turn down music like ours. I know [Cat’s Cradle owner] Frank Heath, and I know his personal taste in music is that he likes all sorts of stuff, and he’s booked us for years and years. Even if those other bands [that were around during that time] didn’t think that [Shain’s blues-rock duo] Flyin’ Mice was cool, we were putting people in the club.

Sometimes, I used to think that people in the cool kid crowd didn’t really care very much for people who could really play their instruments. There was a lot of glorification of bands that had a certain sound, and not bands that either wrote good songs or could really play well, but it was never something that motivated me. It’s like these days: our crowd is a lot older, and I’m not trying to be cool, I’m just trying to make good music. People who are really into music get that, you know?

Q: Have you found the blues music scene in the area to always be welcoming to you?

A: Very welcoming. I don’t think anybody has to play in a certain kind of way, you’re just allowed to express yourself in it. The folks in the Triangle Blues Society...that’s just a great organization of people. They’re just so supportive of everybody.

Q: Did you ever get a vibe when you were first starting to play blue venues, where maybe the audience was thinking, “Oh great, another white Yankee dude is here to save the blues”?

A: You know, I was in college and I found myself in a band, and we’re playing with this guy named Slewfoot. He’s passed away since, but he was a local guy who played pretty straight blues, and he was in good with all the older musicians; through him, I met [Piedmont blues artists] Big Boy Henry and John Dee Holeman, and other good guys like Lightnin’ Wells and the jazz player Yusef Lateef. The older musicians were never anything but supportive. They were always really kind to us, and I think they just got the idea that we loved the music, and so they accepted us.

Q: You recently won the annual International Blues Competition held in Memphis each year. How many years did this make your entering the competition before finally winning?

A: I had only been once before. We won the Triangle Blues Challenge in 2008, and then went to Memphis the following winter, so we competed in — and made the finals of — the 2009 International Blues Challenge.

I had an idea that we weren’t good enough to get to the finals [this year]. It always seemed like a pretty long shot, just because you’ve got different judges in front of you each night, and it’s really subjective. They send you the scores afterward, and one person might give you a very high score in a certain criteria, and somebody else might not. The idea is that, just because you made the finals one year, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make it the next time. I had a pretty good idea that I’d make the semi-finals, just because I heard a lot of the people that were in my quarterfinal rounds and felt pretty good about where I stood.

This year, they did the finals by alternating between the solo/duo act and the bands, so there were 16 [performances] in a row. The show had already been going on for seven hours when I took the stage, because I was the 15th out of those 16 acts, so I saw a lot of players. The two solo acts that went on before me, they both left the stage with these huge grins, like they were really psyched about their performances.

I just went out there and tried to hit on all cylinders, but at the same time you’ve got to come across like you’re relaxed; you can’t come out there all nervy. Part of the problem is that you have 20 minutes to do what you’re going to do, and if you went over 20 minutes, the judges would dock you for points. There is this time crunch.

What I did was — and maybe this was the winning strategy, I don’t know — I played four songs instead of five. A lot of people tried to fit a fifth song into that 20 minutes, but I thought that I’d do less, and be able to take my time between songs. I was able to involve the audience more by kidding around and telling stories, and not just be trying to jam more notes into that amount of time, you know?


Jon Shain and FJ Ventre play at 7 p.m. May 4 at Magnolia Roots Music Lounge, 219 S. White St., Wake Forest. $10. SugarMagnoliaCafe.com or 919-435-4436

They’ll play at 7:30 p.m. May 11 at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room, 300 East Main St., Carrboro. $12 in advance or $15 day of show. CatsCradle.com or 919-967-9053

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