Since 2010, New Bern has been fortunate to have one of the country’s foremost blues guitarist in our midst. Blues purist Jim Kohler, from Long Island NY, and his wife Kathy moved here and raised the bar for blues playing in a town not especially known for the blues. His influence, nevertheless, is strongly felt among aficionados of the genre. He has attracted a fair number of musicians eager to sit in with him during his weekly sessions at restaurants and bars in the region. Listening to Jim play with his band mates, often dueling it out with other guitar players, brings a real vibe to his shows.
Kohler, influenced by his father who played Irish music in a local band, attended his father’s performances, and was caught up in the joyous mood of the audiences that attended the shows. He developed an appreciation for the affinity that goes on between players and the audience and soon got his hands on his first guitar, a 1929 Silvertone. He told me he took a guitar music class in the 7th grade to learn the fundamentals of playing, but ironically, failed the class. His teacher told him to forget about the guitar. That didn’t stop him from forming his own band later and experimenting with the blues sound after discovering and following Chicago blues master Son Seals play on TV.
Kohler grew up playing music all over town honing his skills and quite amazingly got a job playing guitar in Seals’ band 20 years later. Seals hired Jim and his NY band to back him up while playing gigs on the east coast. Kohler’s long association with Seals ended when the blues man died of diabetes complicated by alcoholism. Jim was writing songs for Seals at the time of Seals’ death in 2004. Fortunately, those songs ended up on Jim’s second CD.
37, and without his mentor and employer, Jim picked up gigs in NY and was often flying back and forth to Chicago to perform. To make ends meet, he drove a truck and continued writing songs that would be incorporated on his CDs. Jim has since written 30 blues songs and is still in full song writing mode today.
In 1990, Jim met his wife Kathy about the time he formed a new band. Kathy was singing in another band Jim was playing in. A romance developed and the chemistry took them down the aisle. She became an integral part of Jim’s band providing a richness and depth in her interpretations that, from the beginning till today, thoroughly delights audiences whenever she takes the stage alongside her husband.
Jim and Kathy moved to New Bern to be closer to relatives in 2010. New York’s loss was our gain. Nowadays, Kohler and his band are playing area venues up to six nights a week. His Monday nights blues sessions at the Brown Pelican are SRO. I’ve been there many times and heard the band and some of the musicians Jim invites up to play literally bring down the house. He does an acoustic set at Prohibition on Thursdays that should not be missed. He also plays regularly in Oriental, Greenville, Jacksonville, and Beaufort.
Asked about his blues heroes, Jim talked about Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Lighting Hopkins. He came across Mississippi John Hurt, whom he respects, late in his career but doesn’t do the Delta finger picking style that originated there. Of course, he admires Stevie Ray Vaughn even though Texas blues is not his style. Surprisingly to me, he really digs Johnny Winters above all other white blues men. As he says, “Because there are so many good blues players like B.B. King and others it’s hard to have a favorite.”
Listening to him play, I can hear many influences. His mentor Son Seals seems to have left his mark on his playing, as have others. Nevertheless, his playing is strictly his own and his constant riffing and improvising on a standard 12 bar tune is breathtaking to hear. There are very few musicians around that can weave those blues riffs in and out so seamlessly and effortlessly as Big Jim does. Every show, although his set list is pretty constant, never fails to bring out new ideas and spontaneous riffs front and center. After 11 years of listening to Jim, I never get tired of his masterly touch.
At the end of our conversation, I was trying to get him to explain the feelings he had for the spirit in the blues messages that are so often about being down and out or cheated on. His answer was, “The words in a blues song are just to break up the solos.” Laughter off. I guess if you work 40 years perfecting your technique on the fret board, the words in a song are secondary to the feeling you transmit bending the strings to channel misery and lost love. Makes sense.
“What do you want on your tombstone someday, Jim,” I asked. Without batting an eye or giving me a long-winded answer, he said, “He tried.”
See you down the road.