An adept finger-style guitarist, natural singer and expressive songwriter, acoustic blues artist Paul Geremia has spent the last 40 years playing folk- and country-blues, creating a personal style influenced by his heroes, such as Howlin' Wolf, Son House and Skip James.
Geremia's a true journeyman, too, spending about six months out of the year driving himself to gigs across the country, alone in his 1996 Nissan Maxima, the odometer of which showed about 268,000 miles earlier this week. In a recent interview, he said he travels between 50,000 and 75,000 miles each year.
"It's a necessity, but I also enjoy it. I don't know about everybody else, but for me, it's the only really logical and realistic way to get around," said the 65-year-old Geremia, who was born in Providence, R.I., and still keeps a home there.
But he's just as often on the road.
"Sometimes, I stay with friends; I have a few along the way on the road. But I often stay in motels on the road," he said via cell phone from a windy truck stop about 25 miles west of Omaha. "I play as many gigs as I can. Out West, where I am now, sometimes it's a little longer between gigs, because towns are farther apart than they are back East. It takes a little while longer to get from one town to another."
Geremia will return to Tucson to perform in the lush and intimate environs of the courtyard at Old Town Artisans on Friday, May 15. The show will include an opening set by Phoenix's Hans Olson, a member of the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame.
Geremia has played in 48 of our country's states. "I think I've played in every state except Utah and Nevada. But I have a gig in Nevada this tour, so I am whittling them down little by little."
Although he's playing often now, audiences in the United States haven't always been receptive to Geremia's music. Tastes in music evolve as trends ebb and flow.
"There were times when I was getting frequent tours in Europe. ... But the amount I have played in Europe has dropped off in the last 10 years or so, which roughly corresponds to the increase in my American touring, luckily for me."
Geremia, whose last album was Love, Murder and Mosquitos (Red House), in 2004, started playing blues harmonica when 12 or 13 years old, he recalled, and he first learned about the world of traditional folk music during rehearsals for a school performance.
"I had a third-grade teacher who kept me after school and taught me Navajo Indian songs so that I could perform them in a play or pageant type of thing that they were putting on. That was my first exposure to folk music."
As a teenager, Geremia picked up the acoustic guitar and began studying folk blues—he now plays 6- and 12-string guitar, as well as piano. He soon became enamored with the early Delta-style blues players. At 19, he finally got to attend the Newport Folk Festival.
"I always had wanted to go to the Newport Folk Festival, but I wasn't able to get there until 1963. That year, I was working and only able to go for Sunday afternoon and evening, but I heard Mississippi John Hurt, and that just twisted my head around. I don't want to overstate the effect, but that experience of hearing him was a little bit like waking up after being asleep my whole life."
Geremia spent a year or two in college, but dropped out to pursue music full-time in 1966. His first album, Just Enough, was released by Folkways Records in 1968.
"I found a $14-a-week room at a rooming house in Providence, and I've been lucky ever since that I've been able to make my living by (music). I've been lucky to have spent my life doing what I love best."
Soon, Geremia was sharing stages with the musicians he idolized, such as Wolf, House and James, and becoming part of their legacy.
"I met them and knew them, so I got some pointers just watching them, and I did get to open some shows for some of these people in the 1960s. Skip James showed me the tuning he used. Howling Wolf showed me some things he learned from Charley Patton. But basically, I learned everything I know from watching and listening."
Among some of the other artists whose music he studied faithfully are Woody Guthrie, Babe Stovall, Yank Rachell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, King Oliver and Pink Anderson.
"Eventually, I learned how you adapt what you learn to what you're doing. Old 78 recordings also were very helpful. I haunted the Salvation Army stores and junk stores looking for them, and I still do when I am on the road. It's a great resource, now that the old-timers are mostly gone."
Life as an itinerant blues musician can be lonely, too, but Geremia said he has been less lonely during the last several years.
"I've sort of gravitated toward spending more time with a woman I know in North Texas, whose family has a big spread down there on a wheat farm. I even lived there for a while a couple of winters ago. And then she comes and visits me sometimes in Rhode Island during the summer. It's been a big relief from the trials of the road."