Tom Townsley Interview

One of the better known and most visible groups on the Blues Scene is Tom Townsley and The Backsliders.

Tom, of course is the host of Sunday Night Blues on WAER-FM 88.3 and the founder of Syracuse’s annual Harmonica Blow-off.

Tom and The Backsliders released a CD in 1998 titled “Moonlight Worker” on Poverty Records which they enjoyed great success with.

We’re honored to present an interview with one of Syracuse, New York’s most talented musicians – Mr. Tom Townsley.

Q – Tom, how long have you and The Backsliders been together now?
A – There’s been a band called Tom Townsley and The Backsliders since about 1991, but, we’ve changed personnel several times through the years. The band in its current configuration has been (together) about a year. Morris Tarbell, our guitarist joined the band about a year ago. Our bass player, Pat DeSalvo, has been with the band about four years now. The drummer, Chad Tomlinson, and I have been playing together for about eight years. But, the guitarist, Morris Tarbell, who’s with me now, has played with me on other bands, in the past. We’ve known each other a long time. So, he was able to slide in there real easily.

Q – Did you put this band together or were you asked to join the group?
A – I put it together.

Q – And you just recently added K.J. James to the band?
A – He is with us on some of the shows, yes. He’s not like a permanent band member on every show.

Q – So, who does the singing in the group, you?
A – Well, when K.J. is with us, I do a little bit. He does most of it. But, when he’s not with us, I do most of it.

Q – You also play harmonica?
A – Yes.

Q – Is there any significance to that name, Backsliders?
A – (Laughs). I guess it has. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I was a minister’s son and everybody says that the Blues music is a sign that you’ve fallen from the path, playing and enjoying it. I sort of took the name as a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing, ‘cause Blues guys are always associated with drinking and debauchery and so forth.

Q – Are you a native Central New Yorker?
A – No. I’m actually from Pennsylvania, originally. I grew up near Hershey, Pennsylvania. I came up here to go to grad school at SU in 1979 and, except for a two-year stint in Florida, I’ve been here since then.

Q – What were you studying at SU?
A – Creative Writing.

Q – So, you’re a writer as well?
A – Yeah. I write for Blues Review magazine, which I guess is the largest circulating Blues publication in the world. I’m also working on some other kinds of non-fiction. I’m actually trying to write a book this summer.

Q – What’s that going to be about?
A – I really don’t want to get into all that yet, but, it’s a memoir of sorts. I can say that much. I write a lot of material for the band as well. So, creative writing is very much a part of who I am and I try to bring a lot of that to the band, too.

Q - What other bands have you been in?
A - I had a band in the mid-80's 'til around 1990 called The Cold Shot Blues Band. A lot of the people who were in my band then, are in my band now.

Q - You started this Harmonica Blow-off Contest six years ago?
A - I think that's right, yes. It's not actually a contest. I know Blow-off kind of gives that connotation. I say it's more like a showcase, actually. I'm assuming everybody's going to be actually sort of competitive, and try to out-do each other while they're up there. But, it's not like we hold a banana peel over everybody's head and have the audience applaud, and determine winners. There's really a lot of fine Blues harmonica players in particular in this area. We never get to see each other play that much, 'cause we're all out gigging in separate bands. It's kind of a way to bring everybody together and have some fun and trade licks and hear each other and push the instrument too.

Q - How'd you come up with the idea for such an event?
A - Stole it. (Laughs).

Q - I've never heard of anything like that before.
A - Well, good. It was a clever theft then. No, there are different places in the country. A friend of mine from out in Oregon was telling me about a harmonica blow-off that he participated in, out there that somebody else put together. I just sort of thought it would be an neat idea to do something like that here, because there are so many good players in the area and then we'd bring in a few national acts as well, and kind of spice it up that way too.

Q - You released this CD "Moonlight Worker" on Poverty Records in 1998. Poverty Records is your own label?
A - It's not just my own, it's our bass player Pat DeSalvo, and the two people who actually put up the money for the first CD - Joan Bracey and Andrew McSorley. Joan Bracey has a club up in Fulton called Body's and Andrew is sort of a regular up there too. They kept on saying, "When are you guys going to put a disc out?" I would always say, "When somebody gives me the money." They came up one day and said, "Well, how much do you need? So, from that "Moonlight Worker" was born.

Q - Just how expensive was it to release that CD?
A - Well, certainly I couldn't have paid for it out of my pocket. I'd say the whole thing probably cost us about six grand, something like that. And since then, we've done another pressing of it. And, both are sold out now. So, it's now a collector's item. Everybody who has it can hang onto it and maybe get an extra dollar for it if they sell it in 20 years.

Q - Any plans for another CD?
A - We're going into the studio next week, as a matter of fact. It's gonna be called "Twice Too Much" and it'll probably be eighty percent original material. It'll be a mix between me and K.J. on the vocals. Beyond that I don't want to predict anything 'cause I don't want to jinx it. (Laughs).

Q - We just had the New York State Rhythm and Blues Festival in town, and now we're getting ready for the Great Northeast Blues Festival. Are there that many fans of Blues music in Syracuse?
A - I would guess, off the top of my head, there's probably 15 Blues bands in the area. And that's just the immediate Syracuse area. Start spreading the circle a little wider and there's a lot more. They're bringing in a lot of national acts for these shows too.

Q - I realize the Blues is the basis for Rockin' Roll and Rock music, but it's such a sad type of music isn't it? What is the appeal?
A - Oh, Wrong. No. That's a misconception. There's great Swing music. There's upbeat shuffle. I would say that actually the Blues the band plays and what I play on the show, only ten percent of it is what I would call sad Blues, or slow Blues. Blues is really I think for the most part life affirming kind of music and most of it is really pretty upbeat. For me, the appeal is its raw, honest music. You're not going to hear synthesizers. It's people really playing their instruments, and singing about their feelings, whatever they may be. And improvising, creating something there at the moment that isn't all worked out ahead of time. Parts of it may be. Different bands take different approaches to it, but for me it's a combination of the honesty and rawness of it, and the idea that there's creation happening right there at the moment that the audience can help feed into as well. So, it really becomes a form of communication, if everything is going right. Another thing I might mention is, a lot of the original material we do is of a humorous bent as well, which might be an important thing for people to know who aren't familiar with the band.

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