by Jason Tomassini | Staff Writer | Wednesday, May 6, 2009
On the surface, Jon Musgrave was never supposed to be a blues musician.
Despite the ever-present cowboy hat, guitar strapped to his back and his stage name "Jonny Grave," the 21-year-old lifelong Silver Spring resident's day job as a guitar repairman at Dale Music store on Georgia Avenue and anthropology studies at Montgomery College don't exactly conjure up images of legends like B.B. King and Buddy Guy. Neither does fighting for the attention of beer-drinkers and diners during his regular sets at Quarry House Tavern and McGinty's Pub in downtown Silver Spring.
Naomi Brookner/The Gazette
Blues musician and lifelong Silver Spring resident Jon Musgrave, 21, who works at Dale Music in Silver Spring, will perform Saturday in the first Silver Spring Blues Festival under the name Jonny Grave.
But Musgrave, a slender guy with a neat beard, says a deeper look will prove he has every right to play music steeped in African-American tradition that originated hundreds of miles away from Silver Spring.
"There's a lot folks that will say, ‘Wow, you're good … for a white kid from the suburbs,'" Musgrave said Thursday night at the Quarry House, where two nights later he would play a set for his 21st birthday.
"… It's kind of awkward being white and from the suburbs, it's just weird, but I think if people give me a chance and let me play and let the music speak for itself, it doesn't matter."
That music will be on display 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at the first Silver Spring Blues Festival on Ellsworth Drive in Silver Spring. Musgrave will take the stage at 2:25 p.m. and play a set of acoustic blues for his hometown audience.
Most of the songs Musgrave performs are covers of traditional blues songs. Even at age 21, Musgrave is an encyclopedia of blues history, rattling off classic songs and anecdotes about his idols such as R.L. Burnside, Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf.
He had a childhood spent mostly in the company of musicians and artists: His mother, Julie, is a painter and photographer and his father, Reuben, is a longtime folk musician. Both would hold parties with their artist friends. With his father's extensive record collection, a wealth of global music knowledge was available at Grave's Silver Spring home.
"He was around a lot of adult friends of the family and a lot them were musicians," said Reuben Musgrave, who for years has performed with his son at the annual Washington Folk Festival to be held this year May 30 and 31 in Glen Echo. "A normal activity was to sit around and play music."
While Musgrave's childhood was full of musical enlightenment, an education, a supportive family and a budding music career, he described himself as a "bad kid" who was affected by various school changes and alcohol abuse within his family.
Much of Musgrave's love for blues comes from relating to the musicians from the traditional blues era, not because of the severe racism or poverty they went through, but simply because they used blues as he does: as a diversion.
"Music was a lifesaver, it was an escape, a drug, a hallucinogen," Musgrave said. "You become a rock star for a half hour or more and you go back to normal life."
It was music and a Gateway to College program at Montgomery College that "saved his life" from poor grades and problems he would only describe as "not drugs or anything." He eventually enrolled at the University of Maryland for a year but struggled before returning to Montgomery College.
Now earning money as a musician – he only plays on the weekends so gigs won't interfere with his job or studies – Musgrave has found a way to support himself and stay grounded. He hopes to re-enroll at the University of Maryland and become a teacher.
He stays practical but dedicated to his passion, aided by the acceptance he received at recent gigs in Alabama, which he said helped break down the perceived outsider status. He opened for and played with Kenny Brown, a longtime blues musician who played with R.L. Burnside, one of Musgrave's idols.
"That was the real thing," he said, noting that being flown to Alabama by the concert promoter added to the trip's authenticity.
The headliner of the Silver Spring Blues Festival, Tennessee-born Chester Chandler, aka Memphis Gold, even touted Musgrave as a throwback to past eras.
"[Musgrave] does a lot of old traditional stuff. … He is keeping some of the old blues alive," said Chandler, 54, who lived in Silver Spring from 1995 to 2000 and is known for saving a group of kids in a train derailment off Lyttonsville Road in 1996.
But some aren't ready to hand over traditional blues music to a new wave of performers.
"Everybody wants to be B.B. King and Buddy Guy, real blues artists, the originators," said Barbara Chandler, Memphis Gold's wife and a longtime blues and soul music industry veteran raised in Silver Spring. "There will never be any more of them."
Regardless of how he's viewed by those within blues, Musgrave expects Saturday's festival to be another high. After all, he'll be on stage again in Silver Spring, the place that unexpectedly inspired an unlikely blues talent.
"Look around, isn't this a great atmosphere for writing a song?" said Musgrave, referring to the diversity of Silver Spring and the many quirks of Bonifant Street and Fenton Village. "This place shaped a lot of how I grew up."