It’s been a slow-and-steady progression for harmonica man and songwriter Johnny Sansone, but he has become one of the best bluesmen running around New Orleans. His trio gigs at Chickie Wah Wah with an array of great musicians including John Fohl, Joe Krown, Anders Osborne and Monk Boudreaux have had a relaxed, guys-sitting-on-their-front-porch vibe, while his full-band shows have gotten more taut.
This should be no surprise—Sansone has always been a man dedicated to his craft. He says that when he started out, “My father was a sax player and he started me playing saxophone when I was eight years old with lessons. He played with Dave Brubeck during World War II and he was really into big-band music and swing music. He really pushed it on me to learn about tone and phrasing. These were some of the most important things I’ve practiced my whole life. Nobody survives in the music business without some kind of tone. I still feel that some of my favorite music is just a few notes, but they were put in the right place. That’s phrasing. And the tone was so beautiful, it just pierced through.”
Sansone kept this in mind as he lived in different cities before he settled in New Orleans. “I gypsied around for a long time going where ever there was music trying to understand that era,” he recalls. “I lived in Texas and Austin for a while. I lived in Kansas City. I lived in North Carolina. Each place offered a different kind of music. It was interesting to learn about soul music on the East Coast and Kansas City swing and jump music in Kansas City and Chicago. I stayed there a while. I moved to Boston and played with Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters. I looked at every place I went as an educational place to live until it was time to leave. After I left Ronnie’s band in 1987, the Iguanas were living here and we were all really close and we had a band together in Colorado, and I wasn’t sure where to go at that point, so it made sense to put roots down here. I knew there wasn’t any other place I was going to be that I hadn’t already been that felt like I needed to be there.”
That was in the late ’80s and Sansone has been here ever since. New Orleans has given him plenty of inspiration for playing and songwriting. He has received several nominations for Song of the Year from OffBeat’s Best of the Beat Awards and the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards—including this year’s nod to his poignant song “The Night the Pie Factory Burned Down” from his latest release Once It Gets Started. The title cut from his 2007 album Poorman’s Paradise is one of the best songs to assess the physical, mental, and emotional effects of Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood. As a songwriter, Sansone is constantly on the lookout for inspiration. When writing, he says, “I think in terms of an album’s worth of material and I think in that direction. I’ll take notes on a daily basis of things that will help me when it comes time to write. If I see something happen, I make a note of it and how I felt when I saw it. Or I heard somebody say something and I can hear the sadness, and I make a note of it. Then I go back when it’s time to write and take all my notes and put them all over the place and sometimes lock myself in and not come out until I have enough songs together.”
While he was coming up, Sansone listened to the Chicago blues of Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter, all musicians who have a distinct sound and attitude in their music. His two recent records, The Lord Is Waiting and The Devil Is Too and Once It Gets Started, have that kind of an aura. They are harder, more intense, leaner, tougher, haunted. They sound like Sansone has been drinking moonshine in the graveyards of North Mississippi. Sansone acknowledges this.
These new Anders Osborne-produced records, he says, “have been life changing for me. They put me in a different direction than where I was traveling. I really got close with Anders when we were in Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars. We both came into the situation of being songwriters and I wanted to put together a trio with a songwriting type of thing. So I got to put together the trio of Anders, John Fohl and me to do Tuesday nights at Chickie Wah Wah. The idea behind that was to bring in fresh songs that nobody had played before and play them in front of people. Those guys are such great musicians that they were able to read what was going to happen next in the song and take the form. We were all really excited about it, and people wanted to see it. I brought a couple songs in there that Anders thought I should be recording. So he came and said, ‘I have an idea to produce a record for you, and I think we should go in the studio right away.’ So that’s how we got the first one. And then it was so successful with that that he wanted to do it again, and I jumped at that.”
The sessions for The Lord Is Waiting and The Devil Is Too still stick in Sansone’s mind. “I had written some really hard edged blues,” he recalls. “When we went in there, I realized I was playing with some of the toughest guys in the business—Stanton [Moore] on drums and Anders on guitar. And these guys did not fool around. I wanted to stand as tall as they did. I pulled out all the guns I had. I knew Anders was using three or four different amps and I brought every vintage amp I had and stacked them up until I got what I wanted. And when the bell rang, everybody came out fighting so hard and it comes out in the recordings. I was surprised when I heard the playback. I almost didn’t know I had that in me. It was really just being thrown in the ring with two super powerful lions and I had to try to keep up with them.”
Once It Gets Started expands the palette of The Lord Is Waiting with a greater range of songs, Sansone on accordion on some tracks, Maggie Koerner on wailing background vocals, and Moore’s Galactic rhythm partner Robert Mercurio on bass. But the sound continues to dig in hard and stay there. These records have elevated Sansone’s playing and music to a whole new level, and it’s one he has been preparing for and plans to stay at for a while.