|When it comes to blues music,
Dana Hubbard takes it to the extremes. While he now tours the nation
performing as a blues-infused acoustic-based artist, he began as an
electric practitioner within the bustling blues bars of San Francisco
in the mid-Seventies. It was while he was adding some color to his
first album that the California native reacquainted himself with the
acoustic guitar which then led to his evolution into a
singer-songwriter of considerable merit. Hubbard honed his craft at
festivals and competitions across the country and glowing accolades
quickly followed. During his considerable career, Hubbard has shared
the stage with some illustrious company, but this month finds him
taking to the enchantingly intimate surrounds of Trinity Backstage.
While the licks he will no doubt unleash might not wail with an
electric resonance, the mastery with which they will be projected will
be a sight well worth
I believe you grew up on the Californian central coast …
I was born in Stockton, California, and my folks moved to Monterey when I was only a year old. I grew up in Monterey,then went to school in Santa Cruz, and then moved to Bay Area and started playing music. So, I am Californian through and through.
How does someone raised on the coast in California become such an aficionado of blues music?
Ha! Good question! My dad is a jazz musician, and he played jazz piano and taught music in the schools. When I was young, I kept bugging him about this music I was hearing on the radio that I didn’t know what it was. He told me it was the blues and taught me the basics of blues music. He taught me the pentatonic scale and the twelve bar pattern, and I started recognizing what in the music was really tugging at me. But, I don’t why that music speaks to some people in the way it does.
What was the experience of moving from Monterey to San Francisco to pursue music like?
It was quite a culture shock. But it was really a good time to be a musician. It was the mid-Seventies and, while I wish I had been there a decade earlier during the flower power revolution, it had a great scene. I did a lot of street singing and, then, I started getting into the clubs; eventually, I had a band and played live blues.It seems like it was a case of right time and right place, because the blues really came to the fore again not long thereafter, didn’t it? Right around the early eighties, a whole blues renaissance took off. The Texas blues stuff took off, George Thorogood came onto the scene, the Nighthawks were coming out of Washington DC, and the Thunderbirds breaking away from Texas.
You, of course, went on to play some very high profile shows with some incredible artists such as Etta James, Robert Cray, and Big Mamma Thorton, but can you look back with an eye of romanticism at the days you were belting out the blues in bars and saloons?
To tell you the truth, I was really proud to be making a living that way. There were a lot of people I knew who couldn’t. I just loved to play and I love playing the bars. There was also this amazing level of talent to play with. There would be all these players who would come off the road from playing with Santana and Chris Isaac and would just want to play. So, I was able to tap into an amazing level of players. And, boy, talk about kicking me in the butt to get a lot better fast! How different for you as an artist is the experience of wielding an acoustic guitar, which you do now, compared to those days of blazing away on an electric instrument? They are very much different. It was while adding some acoustic parts to my first CD that I rediscovered the acoustic guitar. The acoustic guitar is much harder to play well than the electric guitar. So, it became a huge challenge for me. Then, the acoustic singer-songwriter world came calling to me. I started out playing a lot of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, so, as I started going back in that direction, I started becoming a little more jaded about being in the clubs; so, the move came at the right for me.
You have gathered a very impressive array of accolades for both performing and writing. How do those achievements resonate in terms of being a working musician?
The biggest way they resonate, and there is no understating this, is that they really help book shows. When you approach a venue, the basic question is why should we book you? So if you can come back and say,”well, I have won this and I have won that,” you are handing them references they know about, and they can get an idea of what you have done. Most promoters and bookers know how hard it is to win that stuff. They have to turn around and sell you to their audience and that helps them. So, in terms of booking shows, it’s huge. And what does it offer you personally? It gives you a lot of confidence to keep going. I always find songwriting competitions and battles of the bands to be very fascinating because here are situations where you are weighing creativity against itself and trying to qualify it. Art is such a subject thing.
What is it like to put yourself in that situation with a collective of your contemporaries?
When I started doing the national competitions, I started running into the same people over and over again, and I have made some really close friends. It is always emotionally difficult to lose. For me, I go to win, and when I lose, I do feel horrible. I allow myself a couple of hours to feel wretched, and then I get straight back to work. The festivals are where you do all the networking, so the competitions at the festivals are less important than making contacts. Something that is discussed in the competitions themselves is that dynamic you brought up of putting an artistic endeavor into a competitive environment. My response, like many people, is that it shouldn’t really be done. But, it provided me, and a lot of other artists, with a way to get out there that we never would have had and that’s where the value is. It allows me to go out there and be seen and heard in ways I could never have otherwise.
And there is a great legacy of that, isn’t there?
It is very interesting. Go back and look through the past years of the Kernville Folk Festival and see who won and even the people that didn’t win but were finalists. It includes people like Lyle Lovett and Slaid Cleaves. It goes to show you that they were unknown at that point, and it really helped get them out there. It wasn’t until I started competing that I really found out just how good you have to be. Those experiences have really pushed me as a songwriter.
You have shared a stage with some incredible people – Jesse Winchester, Sam Bush, David Wilcox – do you get to be fan in those situations, or does the artist in you exert a presence and you dissect their performances?
That’s a great question. First and foremost, I am an absolute fan. But, when I watch someone like Jesse Winchester, it’s hard not to be in total awe of the guy. I played with him in September, and I am telling you I was at the feet of a master and was going to school. There is such an art to his performance, and it is so thrilling to watch people who are that good and sit there knowing that is exactly what I am aspiring to do.