BLUES & BEYOND: No looking back
After weathering the worst year in music, Garrett Collins prepares for his next act
When the Garrett Collins Project won the prestigious Atlanta Blues Challenge in August of 2019, then headed to Memphis to represent our city in the International Blues Challenge (IBC) competition, the young blues/soul guitarist’s career should have been kickstarted into high gear. However, the IBS took place in late January 2020. We all know what followed after that. Chalk it up to bad luck and timing, but after a few months lying low, Collins realized he had to keep playing live to maintain the momentum achieved after years of hard work, hundreds of gigs, and plenty of practice. He had come too far to let it fizzle away due to a pesky worldwide pandemic.
Collins, who grew up in a musical family, discovered the guitar when he was around 15 in 2013 after being exposed to Jonny Lang. It was love at first sight. “Something about when I picked up the guitar and started listening to the blues, I just completely immersed myself with that. I knew I wanted to do music, but (after hearing the blues) that was the first time I thought ‘this is what I want to do, play blues music.’” He quit high school and homeschooled for the remaining few years. “I knew it was the best thing for me, because I wasn’t looking back. I knew what I wanted to do and wanted to achieve,” he clarifies. After being inspired by fellow Atlanta bluesman Cody Matlock when the two connected at a Northside Tavern tribute to Sean Costello (Collins was playing acoustic at that point), he learned how to solo on electric guitar and hasn’t looked back.
The “project” started in 2017 with drummer Justin Raffield and bassist Dennis Stevenson. That lineup has, somewhat incredibly, stayed consistent to this day. They had considered adding another member on keyboards — they use one in the studio — but “we really love what we’re able to produce with just the three of us. It’s easier that way. We always joke that we have a fourth member because (bassist Stevenson) has this pedal that makes his bass sound like an organ.”
After the pandemic brought live music to a screeching halt, Collins took a job as a cook (another of his passions) in March of 2020. But in May, his outfit played a private party and soon afterwards got a regular gig as the house band at Two Urban Licks. “For about three months, that’s all we had every weekend, Friday through Sunday. But we still managed to play over 200 shows last year during the pandemic.” That’s about what the trio has been logging for the past three years, pre-COVID-19, which is quite an achievement. Of course the crowds were thin for a while, but that’s improving, albeit slowly. “For us who have been out in the trenches, we’ve just kept doing it, obviously being as safe as possible. But we gotta eat.” Collins admits, “It was a crazy year but I really can’t complain.”
Things have been going remarkably well lately considering the circumstances. “Back in September of 2020 we landed the residency for Northside Tavern every Thursday. We’ve been doing that for about six months. We just found out it’s our spot for sure. We’re really proud of that.” But it hasn’t been easy. “We have busted our tail going into clubs doing jam nights, just trying to show people what we can do.” It helps that Collins expands his music on stage to include soul, R&B, and even country covers. Most, like crowd favorite “Ring of Fire,” are creatively rearranged and revamped to make them fresher and more blues oriented, rather than simply rehashing the originals as note-perfect reproductions.
Collins is effusive in his praise for assistance from Atlanta’s blues organization. “I can’t say enough about the Atlanta Blues Society. They have been so supportive of not only me but of all the young people trying to make this music live on. They helped raise money to send us to Memphis (for the IBC).” Collins and his group networked there, played five original tunes, and made it to the semifinals as one of the top 40 bands out of 250 acts. Then, when they were at their hottest, COVID hit.
Now that pandemic restrictions are loosening, Collins is revving up for the next phase of his still young career. He’s working on a professionally recorded album of originals to release and sell at shows, something he has taken his time doing in order to get right. “We’re now in preproduction to start recording new songs in Atlanta,” he says. “The plan is to release the album in three song sets.”
Collins is committed to the music and moving forward in a tough genre with substantial competition. He has received priceless support and mentorship from 75-year-old Macon musician Robert Lee Coleman, who played guitar with James Brown and Percy Sledge. The relationship has cemented Collins’ appreciation for the blues. “That’s what I love about (blues) music, how it transcends generations. Color doesn’t matter, age doesn’t matter, how you were raised doesn’t matter. I love how a 75-year-old Black man was sitting in central Georgia with a 17-year-old white kid, and the one thing that brought them together was the blues.”
Spoken like a lifelong bluesman.
Roots music shows start revving up in May:
Thurs., May 6 Carsie Blanton, Eddie’s Attic — Philly-based folkie Blanton enlivens her roots with retro jazz and even rocks out a bit, although in a reserved way. Her lyrics are sharp, wry, and witty (“Jesus Christ was a handsome man,” goes one tune), and she’s got charm to spare.
Fri.-Sat., May 7-8 Chris Knight, Eddie’s Attic — Kentucky-born Knight has been singing about the blue-collar, hardscrabble people he knows and loves with raw, often ragged country rock that skews to the darker side. His 2019 release, Almost Daylight, which included a cameo from John Prine (an obvious influence), was one of his finest in a catalog filled with tough and scruffy heartland folk/rock.
Sat., May 8 Randall Bramblett Band, From the Earth Brewing Company (Marietta) — Athens-based, Georgia-born Bramblett hasn’t looked back after leaving Steve Winwood’s band and flying solo. He will feature music from 2020’s Pine Needle Fire, another classy notch in the singer/songwriter’s expansive catalog of dusky, idiosyncratic, introspective Southern-tinged rock.
Sun., May 9 Shawn Mullins, Red Clay Music Foundry (Duluth) — Local folk/pop veteran Mullins kicks off a month of early evening (6 p.m. start) Sunday solo shows (the others are May 16, 23, 30) featuring selections from his deep catalog, mellifluous voice, engaging personality, and, of course, his big late-’90’s hit “Lullaby.” That may be his most popular tune, but there are plenty more gems where that came from and Mullins always brings it live.
Fri., May 28 Pony Bradshaw, Eddie’s Attic — Bradshaw, whose Mom calls him James, crafted a terrific set of songs around a fictional character named Calico Jim, releasing a titular album of them earlier this year as his second full-length. His sound is tinged with darker country and folk influences reflected in his everyman voice and lyrics about a drifter’s life that seems awfully close to his own.
Fri., Sat., Sun., May 28-30 Forward Festival at Cherokee Farms, LaFayette, GA — It’s a bit of a drive north on I-75 but the first major Georgia fest of the year features local favorite Oliver Woods (now a Nashville resident) headlining a decidedly rootsy bill with Grass Is Dead, Jon Stickley Trio, and Blair Crimmins & the Hookers, among other similarly organic acts. The promotional material promises “music, art, and camping,” which sounds like a good way to welcome back a festival season that took a year’s sabbatical.
Fri., June 4 Liz Longley, Eddie’s Attic — Nashville-based Longley is an introspective folk/pop songstress who has been refining her career for well over a decade. Her latest, 2020’s Funeral for My Past, is her most soulful release, as she sings emotional tales detailing the ups and mostly downs of romantic liaisons, likely based on personal experience.
Sat., June 5 Eddie 9V, Blind Willie’s, 8:30 p.m. show — A CD release show to celebrate the release of Eddie’s new Ruf label album Little Black Flies. This is a major event — not just as a big break in the singer/songwriter’s career — but also as an acknowledgement that the young blues/roots talent cropping up in Atlanta is ready for prime time. Come out and support the cause.
Sat., June 5 Jason Ringenberg, Eddie’s Attic, 7 p.m. show — Ringenberg will always be remembered as one of the founding fathers of country punk for his frontman status for the legendary Jason and the Scorchers. But he has a sturdy catalog of solo albums, too, and has found a successful secondary niche as Farmer Jason, crafting a colorful persona for children’s music even adults can love.
Sat., June 5 Dom Flemons, Eddie’s Attic, 9 p.m. show — Rhiannon Giddens isn’t the only member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops to have a successful solo career. Multi-instrumentalist Flemons has released a handful of albums that display his love of rustic country, bluegrass, blues, and rooty-toot-tooting old-timey Americana, often with humorous lyrics, not far removed from some of Taj Mahal or local icon Mudcat’s work. —CL—
Please send upcoming blues events to consider for CL’s Blues & Beyond concert calendar to hal.horowitz at creativeloafing.com.