Jontavious Willis has a sure way of telling when he’s been away too long from his home in west central Georgia.
“One of the saddest things is when you leave and come back and see that people done aged,” he said. “But I try to be in folks’ faces enough so I can’t see that.”
Willis has a deep respect for his tradition, as anyone who has heard his music can attest — a respect that extends to his senior relatives. Willis and another old-style blues singer, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, will perform next Thursday, Nov. 14, at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.
The show will be the 22nd in the Crossroads @ SECCA series, launched by Andy Tennille in 2011.
“I’m excited about these guys because here we are in 2019, almost 2020, and you’ve got two relatively young artists who are taking this style of music and moving it forward,” Tennille said. “Not only harking back to their predecessors, but also making it their own.”
Willis just graduated from college in May, but he already has two albums out: “Spectacular Class,” released in April, and “Blue Metamorphosis” from 2017. He has toured and recorded with Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’, both of whom had a hand in producing “Spectacular Class.”
“Jontavious Willis is the future of acoustic blues,” Martine Ehrenclou wrote in a review of the album for the website Rock and Blues Muse. “He’s the real deal, and at age 22, to be this talented and such a soulful, full-bodied singer with spunk and sass (think Muddy Waters), something’s gotta be rumbling in the area of the blues, and in this talented, young musician’s old soul.”
Willis received a sociology degree from Columbus State University in Georgia. He missed his graduation ceremony this spring because he was on tour with Keb’ Mo’. He recently became artistic director for an annual blues camp in Washington state that draws about 250 participants who study blues fiddle, mandolin, banjo, piano, guitar, bones and washboard. He works with about 20 people in his classes on country blues guitar.
“I just taught the basics and exposed them to some new artists,” Willis said. “Next year I’m probably going to do something a little more advanced.”
He spoke about his upcoming Winston-Salem appearance while enjoying some rare down time back home in Georgia.
“I go check on my grandmother,” Willis said. “She’s 77. My grandfather’s 82. My great-grandmother’s 96. I go see my mother and father and everybody. I make sure I see them multiple times a week. I only stay about 20 minutes away, so I go just about every other day. And my girlfriend, she comes up here and we hang out.”
He learned about vintage blues in part from his father, a big Muddy Waters fan. Willis and his grandfather sang gospel music at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church. His older relatives and life in small-town Georgia connected him to the world described in classic blues songs. The population of Greenville is fewer than 900 people, and agriculture has dominated the local economy for centuries.
“There were people around who had cotton, peaches and all that good stuff,” Willis said. “My great-granddaddy had a farm, and a lot of my aunts and uncles worked on it.”
Willis started out playing piano and trombone before his love for the blues led him to guitar, harmonica and banjo. One of his favorite types of blues flourished in the Piedmont in the middle of the 20th century. Piedmont blues practitioners include such North Carolinians as Elizabeth Cotten, the Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Boy Fuller.
“The Piedmont stretches on down to Georgia, too!” Willis said.
Blues all over
Paxton shares Willis’ love for early blues. The young men met at the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival and Workshop at Centrum in Washington state, where Paxton served as artistic director before Willis took over. They are touring across the South and Northeast this month under the banner “Two Future Legends of the Blues.”
While Willis grew up in the part of the country that spawned the blues, Paxton came from a very different place on the other side of the continent: the Watts section of Los Angeles. But he got a feel for the rural south via his parents and other relatives in his parents’ home state of Louisiana.
The multi-instrumentalist first appeared on the radar of many blues fans when he performed in a 2016 Lead Belly Tribute at Carnegie Hall in New York City alongside music legends such as Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Paxton’s debut album, “Recorded Music for Your Entertainment,” came out that same year. He has opened for Guy and Robert Cray and appeared in the documentary “American Epic,” produced by Robert Redford, Jack White and T-Bone Burnett.
“Blind Boy Paxton is the embodiment of the blues in the 21st Century, but plays it all in the true folk songster tradition — ragtime, hokum, old time, French reels, Appalachian mountain music, blues and more,” Carol Lyons wrote in a concert review for the New Zealand Herald.
Paxton and Willis aren’t just playing one after the other on their current tour.
“We’re gonna have two separate sets, but then we’re gonna come and do some stuff together,” Willis said.
Tennille has never seen either of them play live before, and he looks forward to seeing what they will do separately and together at SECCA.
“To have two artists who are so refreshingly old school and genuine I guess is a bit of an anomaly these days, but I’m excited to see what the show’s like,” he said.