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Jontavious Willis Says Blues Music Is for The Kids

Apr 11, 2024

Jontavious Willis Says Blues Music Is for The Kids

Originally from Greenville, Georgia, Jontavious Willis is a blues music phenom. When we talk about the blues, the phrase “torchbearer” comes up a lot when it comes to young, new blues artists. I think of that word as a double-edged sword. When you think of a torchbearer, you think about someone who’s carrying on a flame that was lit long ago. It’s somebody who’s carrying on a tradition, but it also can come with restrictions. Such as oldheads telling you that you’re not doing it right or asking you, “Have you really paid your dues? Are you really faithful to the tradition?” And asking you questions about whether or not you belong.

Jontavious handles that double-edged sword with such alacrity. His writing is firmly contemporary at the same time that his playing is rooted in the tradition of country blues. He knows so much about the genre that he’s basically a walking encyclopedia of the blues. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but instead of the traditional Basic Folk lightning round, we played a pop-up game at the end of the interview. I put different styles of the blues (like Delta or Piedmont) in one cup and various 2024 topics, ripped from the headlines, in another. Then we just matched them up. He was so quick on his feet.


Jontavious is a great example of a new spin on a genre that a lot of people think they know already. He is so adamant that the blues is a contemporary genre and always has been. He made the point during our interview that a lot of the blues legends we’ve encased in the amber of memory were young teens or 20-somethings when they wrote their iconic songs. It’s really a genre for free people, for young people, for people looking ahead. It’s not about the past. Another point he made while discussing his Southern roots: When we talk about country, often we’re talking about a musical genre with a certain difficult history. But for him, and I imagine for a lot of other artists, country is a way of life. It’s about being out in the wild. It’s about having a connection to nature. It’s about sitting with quiet. It’s about having time on your hands to experiment with songwriting, or being a singer. It’s about a genuine experience of being connected to a particular place in time.

This interview and live performance was recorded for the podcast live at the Fort Worth African American Roots Music Festival (FWAAMFest). When I was a kid, my dad’s family used to have these big reunions. They’re from a North and South Carolina Baptist family, and it would be a big barbecue at the state park or in a church hall. We would have t-shirts made, people of all ages milling around, catching up. Often there would be an elder getting up to say a long prayer or make an announcement. This sense of belonging and intergenerational connection is what FWAAMFest felt like. Brandi Waller-Pace, the festival founder, is such a visionary, and they bring together artists of so many different genres, all of which fit under the roots music umbrella. There’s this beautiful link between all of the music based on the African American Storytelling Tradition and the Artistic Tradition. In addition to being able to interview Jontavious live onstage, this was my first time headlining a festival, so it couldn’t have been more of a special day for me.

Photo credit: Ben Noey Jr.

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Jontavious Willis Says Blues Music Is for The Kids
Jontavious Willis Says Blues Music Is for The Kids