by Cesca Janece Waterfield | Twitter @cescasings
Fresh from playing the 27th Annual International Blues Festival in Memphis, the world’s largest gathering of blues bands, Richmond’s own “The Bush League” will appear April 9 at the National Theater. With original songs like “Don’t Touch My Liquor” and “38 Special Blues,” The Bush League sends the message that audiences are in for fun.
But they’re serious, too. Co-founders JohnJay Cecil and Royce Folks first met at Morehouse College in 1991. After JohnJay graduated, they eventually became roommates in Richmond. Four years ago, they formed The Bush League. Today’s lineup also features Shane Parch on guitar and Gwen Frederick on drums. They pay homage to artists who have inspired them including blues icons Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Mixing cover songs and memorable originals, they call their style, “FuBaR” which Gwen explains stands for “funk, blues and rock and roll.” They’ve performed on WTVR CBS 6 and recorded a CD during their first appearance at the National. They earned the coveted gig in Memphis by taking first place at the Blues Talent Competition at the Sedalia Blues Festival in Big Island, Virginia.
Road to Memphis
Every July, the Blue Ridge foothills fill with the blues at the Sedalia Blues Festival. In 2010, The Bush League placed near the top of the band competition and earned a slot playing at this year’s International Blues Festival in Memphis. The honor meant they got to play on famed Beale Street. But it represented even more.
“We’ve been at this for a minute and it’s nice to be recognized by people in the industry,” Shane says. “We knew we were on to something good when we started and what the contest did for us was confirm that.”
The road to Memphis began long before that afternoon last February, however. In this case, it all started at an open mic in Church Hill where JohnJay and Royce met Shane.
“In what can only be seen as advantageous irony,” JohnJay remembers, “it was a white guy who ended up teaching two black guys about the music that spawned American music, which was originally done by black guys. Go figure. The boy does play a mean slide guitar, though.”
Putting the “work” in the term “working musician,” The Bush League doesn’t shy from playing overtime: On May 14, they will play on Brown’s Island at 1 pm. Then just a few hours later, they’ll load in at McCook’s Lakeside Sports Grill in Henrico for a show at 9 pm.
In addition to gigs with the whole band, JohnJay and Shane began appearing last year as a duo dubbed “Sleepy Eyed Jay and Chicago Slim”. In 2009, they won a blues society’s competition in North Carolina, earning the opportunity to open for legend Duke Robillard in Memphis. The duo has received write-ups in Greensboro, North Carolina papers.
But even after sharing stages with greats and getting kudos – or more precisely, getting “mojoed” – by Big Bill Morganfield, The Bush League loves playing in Richmond.
“Playing for a hometown audience is really cool, especially at a venue like [the National],” Royce says.
Secret Weapon of The League
Richmond resident Kenya Watkins is a familiar sight at shows. As the band’s manager, she keeps busy promoting and booking the band.
“Without Kenya, a fair amount of the opportunities we have gotten would most likely not have been possible,” JohnJay says. “Her business sense has served The Bush League well and her forethought has kept us away from more than a few of the sticky widgets that usually trip up other bands.”
For Kenya, working for The Bush League is “a labor of love,” she says. “Seeing them play on Beale Street made all of the hard work worth it, as I knew how much it meant to them. Knowing that motivates me to work harder and dream bigger. I couldn’t be prouder.”
‘Further on Up the Road’
As summer approaches, the band looks to a season of gigs around Virginia, Washington D.C. and North Carolina. They’re hopeful about the future.
“Our fans responded very well to the first recording,” Gwen says. “Since the recording came out, for me, it’s great to see people out in the audience singing and mouthing the original songs. We’re doing this with all our heart and soul. As long as people keep coming out, we’re gonna keep doing this.”
“The main goal is to keep plugging away at this,” Shane says. “Unfortunately for a viable blues scene, Richmond bands have to go elsewhere like DC or Maryland or even North Carolina. I would love to see that turned around and have people coming here, but we shall see. I guess that will be The Bush League’s job!”
“We’re trying to sustain ourselves,” JohnJay says, “or in my case, my family, because I’ve got a wife and three kids, one of them two years away from going to college. But I’m gonna tell you: I feel nothing but joy when I hit that stage. This is what I would like to do. If a little fame and notoriety come my way, I’m not gonna be the one to turn it down.”
Want to go? The Bush League will appear with the Lost Vagabonds, Every Other Weekend, Whisper to Baxwell and Burnside, Sat, Apr 9, 6:30 pm, the National, 708 E. Broad St.