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Photo By Laura Roberts
Jon Boy Slim

Jon Boy Slim: Making the blues feel alright

By Kevin Gibson

Jonathan Wade Hessig was 15 when he first heard Stevie Ray Vaughn; the experience would change his life forever. Looking back, he is glad he'd gotten kicked out of school, prompting his parents to drop the hammer and ground him to the house for the entire summer.

You know what they say about when life hands you lemons, though he did just that, using those long hours stuck indoors to learn from one of the all-time blues greats that summer, watching videos and listening to albums until he could play the songs note-perfect.

"I didn't have anything else to do" but play, Hessig, who now goes by the stage name Jon Boy Slim, said. "The worst thing that ever happened to me was a blessing in disguise; it was actually the best thing ever happened to me."

JonBoy Slim

Photo By Laura Roberts

JonBoy Slim JonBoy Slim

JonBoy Slim

Photo By Laura Roberts

JonBoy Slim JonBoy Slim

JonBoy Slim

Photo By Laura Roberts

JonBoy Slim JonBoy Slim

JonBoy Slim

Photo By Laura Roberts

JonBoy Slim JonBoy Slim

His younger sister Katy Rene, a singer/player in her own right with whom Slim performs regularly, remembers the experience well she was 11 at the time.

"That's all he did," she said, of his guitar obsession. "I would wake up and hear guitar, and I would go to sleep and hear guitar. He had this tape of Stevie Ray Vaughn and he would mimic it note for note. He got really good, really fast."

The strangest thing, perhaps, is that he had no interest in music up to that point. The light just came on unexpectedly, for whatever reason. Perhaps it was him channeling the negative situation in which he'd put himself into something positive, something he still does with his music today.

"I would have to owe my entire musical career to Stevie Ray Vaughn," Slim said. "I literally did not have any clue about music at all and never was into it. Then I heard a Stevie Ray Vaughn record and that was the end of it or the beginning of it."

The first song he heard was "The Sky is Crying." I got a Stratocaster and started jamming with it, started playing out, and later went down to New Orleans and started playing with random people on streets."

He still hits The Big Easy on a regular basis, often busking near Jackson Square and other populated areas of the city, while also being recruited to play parties, bars and restaurants at night. He'll hit the road and stay in New Orleans for a couple of weeks, then come back to Louisville and gig around town playing his regular shows at Bearno's in the Highlands, River Bend Winery downtown and Diamond Billiards in St. Matthews.

For someone who until 12 years ago was not at all into music, it's a bit startling that he now makes his living at it. His shows consist of almost entirely original songs, with a few covers sprinkled in ("Dock of the Bay" is a regular in his show). So what is it that he does? A fellow successful blues player, Mark "Big Poppa" Stampley, praised Slim's style, saying he not only had a unique playing style but is also "a great interpreter of the country blues tradition."

Katy Rene thinks it's the passion with which her brother approaches the music. Or, it may simply be a blend of all of the above.

Who is Jon Boy Slim?

For someone who, as noted, until 12 years ago was not at all into music, he now personifies it almost literally. Jon Boy refers to himself often as a "blues man," and the Jon Boy Slim persona he has developed is that of an old-time blues man. It's part of his show, naturally, but it's also a part of him.

He usually shows up on stage with a top hat, a suit and a suitcase, and entertains with a very serious yet laid back intent. Is it him, or is it an act?

"His whole persona of Jon Boy Slim it s not really an act," Katy Rene said. "He really is kind of this superstitious blues man. His hat has cards in it, and that's not just a costume; he has found those cards in certain moments in his life, and he really believes they bring him luck. He's got his little suitcase and his hat, and everything has to be there. He really is this blues man. It's kind of cool."

Jonathan Hessig adopted the name Jon Boy Slim about three years ago. "Everybody always called me 'Jon Boy,'" he said. "Somebody messing around said [Jon Boy Slim] one night and it just kind of stuck. I have a slim build, so they called me Jon Boy Slim. I figured I would go with it.

"Basically a blues man needs a blues name, and I never had a good name."

Until now. So who is this guy, anyway?

"Jon Boy Slim is a traveling blues man," said Slim, effortlessly slipping into the third person to describe the character. "Basically, every time I come out and perform, I wear the top hat and the three piece suit. I saw B.B. King perform a few years back, and he had on a tuxedo and looked really classy. Look at pictures of Robert Johnson, he's always looking classy. That's basically what Jon Boy Slim is."

OK, so Jon Boy Slim is a "blues man." So, what exactly is that?

"A blues man is somebody who plays the guitar and travels, and writes music about real things in life," Slim explained. "Honestly, what a blues man is, is somebody who plays music and takes the bad things that happen in life that have caused you pain and sadness, and put them into song and look for something better to come out of it.

"It's why I love blues: They can be singing about something terrible that happened to them, put a melody to it and somehow it makes you feel better."

Jon Boy Slim has certainly made the most of the blues man in him. Referred to many around town as a rising star, Slim won the Kentuckiana Blues Society Solo/Duo competition last year after hearing about the contest while hanging out at local blues jams. He submitted a CD and photo, and blew away the judges with his poignant "Big City Blues" and other selections.

As described by LMN writer Keith Clements: "His slide echoed the despair of the Delta and Louisiana. It was Jon Boy's fresh originality that set him apart from the others that evening."

Originality

Originality isn't an easy thing to achieve, especially if you're playing within the constraints of a time-tested genre like the blues. And to make a living playing original music is no easy feat either. But to achieve both at the same time? Wow.

It is probably important that he began writing original songs almost immediately after he began playing. Mimicking Stevie Ray was just a springboard to something else, and over the last dozen years Slim said he has written hundreds of songs. He grew up musically playing originals, while learning his live chops at jam sessions with other local blues artists. His first live performance was a sit-in with the Mudcats at Zena's, and Tanita Gaines also let him sit in with her band.

"These musicians here in town the Mudcats, Tanita Gaines were really gracious," Slim said. "They would let me get up on stage and play with them when I was a kid. Now when I'm playing shows it's fun to let people get up on stage and play. They were really nice to do that for me. It's what really got me wanting to do it live and make it a career."

He's doing just that. His one Jon Boy Slim album was recorded at home on a 16-track electronic recorder, and he sells them frequently at shows to boost his income as a performer. Whereas many do this while also working day jobs, Jon Boy Slim has found a way to make money playing his own music.

"I don't know what other people are making at jobs or careers, but honestly I can work as much as I want to or as little as I want to," he said. "I do know from being around this town, and other cities as well, the bands who are really making a living doing this stuff, they are signed to labels and are basically kind of famous, OR they are in a good cover band.

"I'm lucky I get to play all my own music. It's not that my music sounds like other people's music, but sometimes I get people coming up to me saying, 'I love these songs, who wrote them?' And I get to say, 'I did!'"

That's a payday in itself, from an emotional and creative standpoint, he said: "That's one of things that keeps me going. That's what music is all about: People digging what you're doing. I pride myself on playing original songs and striving to write better and better ones all the time."

An unknown author wrote, "Music is what emotions sound like." This sums up Jon Boy Slim, at least as far as his sis is concerned.

"He feels music more than any person I've ever seen," Katy Rene said. "He is a very feeling person, and I think that's why he is so good: He is able to translate that feeling. I work very hard at music, but a song is not going to be very good unless you feel it in your heart. He feels it every time.

"It's really interesting to watch and listen to, because he translates all these emotions."

Positivity

And he is hell-bent on making the blues a positive experience. His songs may focus on real-life tragedies and issues, but behind each one is a bit of hope. One of his favorite songs is called "Feelin' Alright," which hardly sounds like a pessimistic message from the get-go.

The blues are steeped in southern, African-American tradition and were originally an outlet. The term "the blues" is based on the term "blue devils," which originally referred to melancholy and sadness. Often the lyrics were melancholy, telling stories of oppression, depression and even disaster. But just as often, the songs could be humorous or raunchy, creating a fun sing-along opportunity for the performers and audience alike.

Slim's songs are probably more rooted in the latter.

"He's had few bands," Katy Rene said, "and it's always been blues-themed. It's optimistic blues, though; they all have happy themes in them. He's always smiling during all the songs. It's the feeling you get walking around the French Quarter of New Orleans."

She accompanies her brother on the busking trips to The Big Easy sometimes (she said their parents lived there for a time), and indicated that the happier the blues song, the better the reception they get. "His style is perfect for that; kind of bluesy and feel-good."

Which would make a song like "Feelin' Alright" (which has been spun a few times on WFPK's Saturday Night Blues Party) a natural, given breezy lyrics like this: "The sun it is shinin', the birds are flyin', the clouds, are so big and bright. / The sky is blue, and the ocean is too, everything is feelin' alright."

The song also mentions a pair of alligator shoes and his dog Hank. You can't have a blues song without shoes and a dog.

Slim considers it the Jon Boy Slim theme song in a way. "Basically, it's just talking about taking all the good things in life, and feeling good about them," he said. "It talks about feeling down and blue, but the chorus pops in and says 'Right now I won't worry, I'm no hurry, I'm feeling all right.'

"That basically is everything about me, so it's pretty much my favorite song I play."

It's a fitting theme song for a guy who took a summer-long grounding and turned it into a life-long career. Talk about making lemonade.