Musician nicknames like Chubby, Jellyroll, Dizzy and Whitey often have a genesis in a personality trait or a physical attribute. As a teen, John Nemeth regularly performed in Boise under the moniker Fat John. It was a clever attention-catching name and it did contain a kernel of truth, but not because his pants came from the boys' husky section at Sears. From the moment the kid put his harp to his lips or growled out a note, every room he played seemed to swell to double its size with the blues he belted out.
Before he and his now-wife Jaki moved to the Bay Area, Nemeth played in Boise bars six nights a week. It was an opportunity to hone his craft in an environment surrounded by friends and fans and where a young bluesman was an anomaly both for his age and for his choice of music. San Francisco was a challenge but also an opportunity.
At 33, Nemeth is a full-fledged adult. He has been living in San Francisco for several years and recently bought a house in Oakland.
"We had an opportunity to move into a house [with] a garage and all that. We have a dog that likes a back yard, and I like a back yard and plenty of street parking," Nemeth said. "I mean, you have to put up with gunshots and all sorts of crazy night life. You have to make sure your doors are locked tight, but other than that, it's a nice place to live," he said, laughing.
- Though he sings the blues, sadness is John's arch Nemeth-is.
Maturity and a record deal with blues purveyor Blind Pig Records—a label known for putting out both classic and contemporary blues CDs—appear to have given Nemeth the confidence to wrap more traditional blues in a big soft pop music blanket. Now he's making music with a wide audience appeal and definitely getting it before a larger audience. With a new CD, Love Me Tonight—which is currently in the No. 2 spot for roots blues on the Roots Music Report—in hand, he plans to stay that course.
"Over the last couple of years, we've been doing about 220 shows a year," Nemeth said. "We cover the entire country ... I wanted to make sure I got Idaho on this tour. A lot of [musicians] bypass Idaho. I can't," he said.
Though Love Me Tonight is Nemeth's second release with Blind Pig, following 2007's Magic Touch, it's his fourth or fifth overall, and an album truer to his own heart.
"I think [Love Me Tonight] is a little closer to me and my sound. This new CD is pretty much going in a direction I was always wanting to go," Nemeth said. "I touched on it a little bit before I left Idaho, putting more soul and R&B into it, especially Southern soul, where country music meets black roots music [and] putting a Chicago blues edge onto the sound to give it a savvy sound. That was the approach I've been wanting to take, and I finally put it all together."
Whereas Magic Touch was produced in Texas, Love Me Tonight was produced closer to home in San Jose, Calif., and, on this album, Nemeth took another step on the road to autonomy, producing the album himself.
"I figured no one knows me better than me," Nemeth said.
But was that the smart move? Nemeth thinks so. He followed a traditional '60s pop formula but with a heavy dose of soul, keeping songs under three-and-a-half minutes, especially the ones considered for commercial airplay. He kept the "guitar stuff to a minimum," again mindful of what would work on radio. He understood that the risks in self-producing would be minimized by the fact that he knows what he does and he knows how to sell it, something many musicians fail to recognize the importance of.
"A lot of groups want to put 15 or 16 tracks on an album. I think that's just diluting it. Pick the best material and format the album so it has a nice flow and makes sense. You can get caught up throwing a bunch of songs on an album that don't need to be there," he said.
As a musician, it can be hard to toss out some of those gems, but it's an important aspect of being a producer. And though he has control of his music, he also faces the double onus of creating and producing something people may not like. Especially blues purists.
"A lot of my material in the past had been even more traditional blues influenced," Nemeth said. "And when you take more chances with different material, sometimes people get mad at you ... As a producer, you don't want to alienate those people who buy your records already, but you want to give those people something fresh."
That fresh material may be what elevates Nemeth into stardom. And he has friends already there who are happy to give him a hand up.
Legendary blues guitarist Elvin Bishop tapped Nemeth to sing a few tracks on the Grammy-award winning The Blues Roll On, and Bishop plays on Love Me's "Country Boy" and "Daughter of the Devil."
Local/international jazz-pop musician Curtis Stigers sent an unsolicited e-mail just hours after BW hung up the phone with Nemeth, writing, "I happen to think [John is] one of the most remarkable singers I've ever heard. He is a force of nature. He's also a fine and well-respected harmonica player, and a terrific showman. He's the real deal and he's finally getting his due, after years of hard work on the road. I'm very proud of him."
Though he now goes simply by John Nemeth, if his newest CD pushes him into the stratosphere, he may want to change his nom de plume once again. Would Super Successful John ever catch on?
Friday, March 13, with Audio Moonshine, 8 p.m., $12 advance, $14 door. Knitting Factory, 416 S. Ninth St., 208-367-1212, bo.knittingfactory.com.