Blues train just another stop for busy Kirk James

Blues music played aboard a classic steam train may be a perfect pairing of Americana.

Now in its third year and extended to two days, the Durango Blues Train will feature national and regional blues artists on a ride up the Animas River canyon. This event, a partnership between the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the Blues and Brews Festival out of Telluride, serves as a summer promotional event looking ahead to the fall festival. This year, the Blues Train will feature Kirk James, Durango’s resident artist, graphic designer, motorcycle enthusiast and blues musician. The Blues Train will pull out of the D&SNG depot tonight and Saturday (Saturday’s train is sold out). Joining James will be Pete Karp and Sue Foley, Lil’ Bryan and the Zydeco Travelers, Todd and the Fox, Lionel Young and Low Volts. James also will play blues music with his full band Saturday morning for the “Men Who Grill” smorgasbord that benefits the Women’s Resource Center.

When James isn’t playing blues, he is an artist. He has been doing illustration and graphic design since 1981. Five years ago, he picked up the long-lost art of pinstriping – painting vintage graphics on anything from cars to motorcycles to electric guitars.

“It’s a way for me to do what I want to do and stay self-employed in a place I really dig hanging out in,” he said. “I create music, and I create artwork.” Later this summer, he’ll be adding the artwork to a car being built locally to race at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.

James’ love of the blues came from digging into old rock ’n’ roll records when he was a kid growing up in Texas. By the early 1960s, decades had gone by with American blues musicians living in relative obscurity. It was the British invasion bands not named the Beatles that helped American audiences discover the blues musicians in their own backyards; the Rolling Stones were the gateway drug for discovering American blues.

“When I was listening to The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, I would see song credits on vinyl of record labels of names like Robert Johnson. So I went back and started listening to Robert Johnson stuff, and I said to myself ‘I get it.’ So I stayed there, and I didn’t really come back,” James said.

For James, blues may be the perfect style of music to play on a historic train chugging through one of the most scenic valleys in the country.

“When a train is shucking and jiving down the narrow gauge, musicians aren’t going for accuracy, they’re shooting from the hip.”

The rhythm and swaying of the train could be the percussive complement for a solo guitar; the click-clack of the track could be the perfect time-and-beat keeper next to a live drummer or a metronome.

“I’ll either go on that tempo or play twice as fast,” James said. Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager.

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