I was working a double shift at a trendy downtown Detroit music club when I first discovered what the term “blue-eyed soul” meant. For years, I thought the expression was just another cumbersome reference to sad, emotive music.
The act for the evening was Johnny Winters. I know, the irony is stupid, as albinism has rendered Winters’ eyes red and not blue, but after hearing some of the most gut-wrenching blues performed by a man who literally could be no whiter, the colorful phrase began to make sense.
If you really take the time to think about it, the term “blue-eyed soul” could be considered offensive. But sinc this phrase basically means “black music performed by a white artist,” it would take a long history of music, American racism and a timeline documenting exactly who did what to appropriately describe why it ever needed to be noted that a certain musician was “blue-eyed.” But that is not what this story is about. It is about a young man by the name of Chris Brantley.
He plays the blues. And, oh yeah, he’s white.
Brantley, 36, grew up in the suburb of Troy with a guitar-playing mom and banjo-picking dad. Reared in an atmosphere where music was a way of life, Brantley naturally began to explore instruments at an early age. After forgettable forays with the saxophone and the drums, by the age of 10, Brantley glommed onto the guitar tightly. He jokingly credits his older brother for his dedication.
“If I didn’t learn a song by a certain date, he said he’d beat me up,” says Brantley.
And whether it was from terror or tenacity, Brantley kept with it.
To look at him, your first impression might not be “blues man.” He is sweet and soft-spoken. When he walks onstage, his fresh face is, well, almost off-putting. But once he begins to play, he wails. While ripping into a version of B.B. King’s “Everyday I Have the Blues,” you can’t help but wonder where this all comes from. His happy eyes close tightly, his once-smiling lips purse and his head rises and falls to the rhythm of each bent note. He’s a natural. But as most anyone knows (barring legends of souls bought and sold for chops), the term “natural” is simply another way to describe a musician who excels.
Brantley recalls spending many nervous nights at open jams with East. He thinks those were the days when he found his style.
“He was one of the hard hitters for me at that time” says Brantley of East. “Having a chance to play with people who have been playing for years is how you cut you teeth.”
He probably couldn’t have guessed it at the time, but going to those open blues jams would change the course of Brantley’s life. While he was hoofing it, he maintained a steady workaday stint. Suit and tie by day, guitar by night, it took a while for the dichotomous lifestyles to clash. But they did.
“I quit my corporate job and started working at a music store,” he says.
Quitting a job for the love of music … now that sounds like a blues song.
He then moved on to join the innovative and locally based Axis Music Academy, where he still works today.
Not unlike his mentors from the late-night blues circuit, Brantley now enlightens starry-eyed hopefuls. He gives guitar lessons five days a week and performs at various clubs anywhere from three to six nights a week. Two of his regular gigs are open jams — the type of forum that Brantley thinks coughs up the soul of really great music. He also volunteers his guitar playing for services at the Genesis Church in Royal Oak.
“I suppose I spend anywhere from 70 to 80 hours a week playing guitar … but it doesn’t feel like a job,” he says.
Blue-eyed, blond-haired … whatever you want to call it … Chris Brantley has got soul.
Jam with Chris Brantley on Wednesday evenings at the New Way Bar (23130 Woodward Ave., Ferndale, call 248-541-9870) or on Sundays with Cathy Davis and the Soul Searchers at the Blue Goose Inn (28911 E. Jefferson Ave., St. Clair Shores. Call 586-296-0950).Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.