Jimmy Thackery is a great modern blues artist. Or at least that's how he's perceived, though he's forever frustrated by the narrowness of that notion. It's just part of his legacy as a founding guitarist for seminal Washington, D.C., bar band the Nighthawks.
"We did everything from Motown to rockabilly to Memphis soul. We were an American music band, but because we had this stinking harp player, everybody was like, they're a blues band," Thackery says from his Arkansas home. "There's a lot of other stuff I have done in my recording career, but it's one of those things where once you get stuck in that pigeonhole, you never breakout. At some point, you just go, 'All right, whatever.'"
Perhaps he doth protest too much. While in the Nighthawks, Thackery learned at the feet of some of the country's finest bluesmen, such as Hubert Sumlin, Otis Rush, and Jimmy Rogers. The Nighthawks would fly the guest players in and back them without any rehearsals during a standing Monday night residency at the legendary Bayou Club in D.C.
"There's no question I come from those roots," he admits. "Obviously, we were all sponging as much as we could off them. I couldn't cover that stuff up if I wanted to. Only thing I'm trying to do is take what I learned from those guys and inject some real melodies that you can remember the next morning in the shower, which is not something you do in the blues very often."
This is no idle boast. Thackery's not only a sizzling player, but his songs really ring. There's no mistaking the Chicago blues influence, but there's also a vibrancy that echoes the duck-walking, hook-lined verve of Chuck Berry. (Check out his song "Rude Mood" if you have any doubts.) Likewise, his solos are as notable for how they mesh with the songs' melodic themes as for the kind of exhausting tightrope-walking pyrotechnics on which others rest their laurels, although Thackery can shred when he wants to as well.
The Nighthawks helped establish a blues version of the chitlin' circuit, developing a touring route from Boston to Austin that helped lay the foundation for the '80s blues renaissance. Indeed, they witnessed Stevie Ray Vaughan's talent when he was just an Austin fixture and took him out on his first tour outside Texas. Thackery recorded more than 20 albums with the Nighthawks between '72 and '87, when he left to start his own band.
"It was becoming repetitive. We were doing a lot of the same gigs, a lot of the same trails, and it just got to the point where I wanted something better," he says. "I wanted something different musically, and I wanted to see if I could put my own name on some stuff. I didn't just want to be the guitar player in this band for the rest of my life. These life-changing choices are petrifying at first, but more often than that they're the best decision you could make in retrospect. And it was."
Though he started with anywhere from a six-to-13-piece backing band, the Assassins, Thackery downsized to a trio in 1991 and has released 18 albums since. Along the way, he's touched on a wide range of styles displaying his deft, powerful playing and an ever-evolving songwriting touch.
His latest, Feel the Heat, is the second he's released on his own label, White River Records. It's a fine showcase of Thackery's versatile talents, ranging from the jazz swing of "Ain't Gonna Do It," to the nearly nine-minute Pink Floyd-ish blues-psych "Blind Man in the Night," the rumbling rockabilly rave-up "Hang Up and Drive," the country-blues ballad "Please Accept My Love," and the surf-inflected "Bomb the Moon." And sure, there's some more traditional blues mixed in there as well.
"I like what Tinsely Ellis once said," Thackery offers. "He goes, 'People are always trying to peg me as a bluesman. I'm a rock 'n' roll guitar player that happens to play some blues.' Don't we all."