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Nick 'Hambone' Hamstra

NICK "HAMBONE" HAMSTRA:

THE BLUES. . .ON HIS OWN TERMS

By Tim Roberts

"This is what we do to naughty boys."

--Spoken to six-year-old Alfred Hitchcock by a policeman who had just locked him in a jail cell on a request by his father.

Toddlers can't keep their hands off anything. That's a given. Still relatively new to the world, everything screams out for tactile sensation to them: a well-balanced display of oranges at the grocery store (touch one and they all tumble onto the floor in a citric avalanche), a laptop's keyboard (turn away for a minute on a document you're writing, then look again to see how the page has scrolled down about a dozen lines and the letters juxppexzuye appear), the flower garden in a neighbor's front yard (you're presented with a stem-crumpled handful of Gerber daises, followed by a curt phone call from the older woman next door).

For Nick "Hambone" Hamstra, it was something he touched as a three-year-old that formed the zygote of what would be his approach to music.

"I was three years old," he said, "and I'm in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. There's this priceless piano from Mozart's day on display. I walk up to it, then there're security guards all around me. That's when I started getting into music. It's an apt metaphor."

To be sure, it took 14 years before he touched another musical instrument and actually learned how to play it. But the experience parallels what happened to filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock as a child. He had done something particularly heinous but never remembered exactly what it was, even until the hour he drew his last breath, yet it caused his father to send him to the closest police station with a note. The officer on duty read the note, escorted young Alfred to the jail cells in the basement of the station, then locked him in one for a few minutes, and said, "This is what we do to naughty boys." The theme of a man wronged but doesn't know why flows throughout Hitchcock's work. Think of Cary Grant's character being chased by an armed crop-duster biplane in North By Northwest or even nature taking vengeance on humans in The Birds.

While he hasn't been pecked to death by sparrows (literally, at least) or is mistaken for a nonexistent government agent on the trail of a group of spies, you can sense the feeling of innocence wronged in Hambone's work, to the point where it becomes a defiance. It's blues, but not blues exactly. The licks are there, but the lyrics aren't always about how hard life is or how long you're woman's been gone or how you long to be back in the Delta. Indeed, blues is considered to be the mother music of all genres that are distinctively American. But Hamstra wasn't born to play the blues, nor was he called to it. It is if he just stepped up and volunteered to play it.

"To say it's a calling is pretty ridiculous," he said. "Not because of the history behind it, but I still think it's ridiculous. A lot of people see my stuff as only blues music. I chose it. I was around it. It was easier to choose it. It wasn't because God handed me a flaming microphone and said, ‘Do this.' I'm very realistic about it."

Nick 'Hambone' Hamstra. Photo By Laura Roberts

Indeed, Hamstra may not have received a flaming microphone from above, or even met the Devil and the Crossroads, but his take on the blues is just as raw, dirty, low-fi and under-produced as anything that was recorded on a wax cylinder nearly a century ago. You'd hear it played on a battered Wurlitzer with only one speaker working in a small bar with a wooden floor warped by too much spilled beer and a single window-unit air conditioner that only works on low-cool.

Hard to believe that it comes from a twenty-five-year-old certified Kindergarten teacher who looks as if he should be riding on his skateboard somewhere in the Highlands wearing a backwards-turned ball cap and pants that have cuffs the size of an elephant's feet, with white earbud cords trailing down the front of his shirt and plugged into an iPod that's playing the Best of Metal Bands Whose Lead Singer Doesn't Know How to Use His Indoor Voice.

Indianapolis-native Nick "Hambone" Hamstra came to Louisville after finishing his Bachelor's degree in Education at Indiana University to work as a Kindergarten teaching assistant at Kentucky Country Day school. But before he arrived in town to teach, he was already playing music and developing his career outside teaching.

"I started playing guitar when I was 17 or 18," Hamstra stated. "I played my first show on my 19th birthday. When I was in Bloomington, I met a guy named Curtis Crawford who'd traveled around with all the old blues guys like Homesick James. He taught me a lot of what I needed to know about blues. I was young and was heavily influenced by him. It was easy to latch onto him and learn. I was like a sponge. And you know when you first start playing an instrument, your first few influences are very important."

Unlike many of his peers, though, Hamstra didn't share a lot of the same influences.

"I was never a big Bob Dylan guy, or a Beatles guy, I was in and out of Jimi Hendrix for a short time. I really responded to the ironic, contradictory nature of blues music. Ironic in that I like it and I play it. But I think authenticity is bull crap. At every point is someone's life, they decide to be something."

So Hamstra decided to become a blues musician, as consciously and casually as a guy picking out a suit. So far, he likes the way he looks in this one.

Nick 'Hambone' Hamstra. Photo By Laura Roberts

"People still associate me with the blues because that's what played when I got down here," Hamstra said. "Still, it's hard to discern. I like the compliments that I'm a great blues player. I don't take offense to them. I think it's great. But I'm developing my style more."

Hamstra's debut release, Lightning in My Hands (currently out of print, but four songs are available as free downloads at his web site), is loaded with the blues in all forms: fingerpicking, dirty, raucous, and, in some places, as lonesome as bluegrass. Throughout it his vocals belie his youth and he sings from that region between the gut and the throat, as ragged and beat and comfortable as a pair of old jeans. You know the feeling behind what he sings.

However, it isn't his first album.

"The first album I ever recorded," Hamstra said (emphatically stating "No," when asked if it was available), "was singer-songwriter stuff. I've always been rooted in writing songs. I played in blues bands for awhile, ripping guitar and stuff like that, in my own way. I just play songs. I don't play that many solos. I'm not a blues guitar player. I'm a song player. If I had that tattooed on my forehead, maybe people would understand."

Hamstra does seem to step away from the blues with his latest release. Gasoline. There's some blues in it, no doubt, but there's also more raw garage-style rock, an experimental tonal piece entitled "I Want to be Ambient Just Like Everybody Else," all dreamy and chord-leaden, plus a pair of singer-songwriter, acoustic folk selections "I Mean What I Say" and "Red Door I"

"This is my philosophy for any music: if it sounds good, it is good, done. That's it. It doesn't have to mean anything. It can mean everything to you, it can mean nothing to you. If it sounds good, it is good. It's done."

Hamstra's not only unconventional about his music of choice. He's also unconventional about how me markets it, but only in the sense that he's one of the few who have just about completely foregone releasing material on a CD. He operates digitally, selling Gasoline as a download only and not as a physical product.

"I have a music card that is redeemable for an album. There's a scratch-off code on the back. Follow the directions, go to the web site, get the download of the album cheaper than iTunes. It cost me 30 cents per card. I sell them for five dollars. It's different. It's on the cutting edge."

He outlined the reasons for going all digital.

"It provides a solid foundation for viral marketing. It goes instantly global. And it's cheaper. That's a three-pronged attack. That's what I have. I like the underground method of doing things. It's like guerrilla warfare. It's just one extreme way of doing this.

"We're all just snake-oil salesmen to a certain extent. That's important to know. I don't care who you are."

Having an actual presence on the Internet nowadays to peddle your poultice is more than just having a web site that lists your performance dates. It's a place where fans can grab a couple of songs for free, see your music videos, interact with you on your MySpace or Facebook or LinkedIn pages. If Allardyce T. Merriweather, the traveling snake-oil salesman in Little Big Man, were alive today, he'd have his own web site and companion social networking pages. But then he'd also be able to replace his missing body parts, which he would probably find on eBay.

Hamstra has such an operation called hambonemusic.com that he runs with an investor partner named Bruce Wee. The entire operation, web site and album card and everything else falls under the umbrella company Toast & Jam Music, LLC.

"It's less of a casual thing and more of a business thing," Hamstra stated. "I get up at seven in the morning, I have meetings, I do the books, I do everything just like everybody else does. Plus I play three or four nights a week and pay the rent."

To help pay his rent, Hamstra regularly plays Gerstle's, Stevie Rays (where he recently opened for blues guitarist Tab Benoit), and Headliners Music Hall, plus he has plans to take his makeshift band (meaning, whoever can spare a few weeks off to travel) for a tour of Canada sometime later in the summer.

The purists of any genre of music are often quick to point out inadequacies of those who betray, or are even half-hearted, toward the canon of music. More than four decades ago, Bob Dylan literally stunned concert-goers during his performance in London at the Royal Albert Hall when he removed his acoustic guitar, strapped on an electric one and plugged in. The disdain was immediate. Of course, there was also the shocked, shocked cries of "sell-out" when Dylan lent his song "Lovesick" to a Victoria's Secret commercial, in which he also appeared.

Nick "Hambone" Hamstra's own journey into (and maybe soon out of) the blues is his own. He refutes the crossroads mythology and plays the blues only because he chooses to. There may be disdain from the purists because it is what they "do to naughty boys," the ones who aren't so steeped in the blues that they bleed cheap whiskey when they're cut.

But Hamstra is still young. He's playing music now, but he could just as easily go back into teaching and become Mr. Hamstra to a group of five-year-olds, the guy who will most likely set the foundation for the rest of their years of learning. Behind his back, they might giggle and call him Mr. Hamster. It's something minor he'd put up with. All teachers do.

Regardless, he's still able to make choices in career and music to play. And choice is always good.

"I'm happy with what I'm doing," he said. "I'm doing really well. I wake up and I can say I'm playing music on my terms. That really means a lot to me. I don't care who likes it or who doesn't. I do what I do. I love it.

"I'm blessed."

Find out just how blessed "Hambone" is and how he makes music on his own terms by visiting www.hambonemusic.com.