John Nemeth

Sarah Cooper 699 views

Boise, Idaho is hardly the place anyone would conjure up as a hotbed of soul-blues.

But for John Németh, it's where his love for the genre began-and the starting point for a journey that's taken him from his first gigs fronting a teenage blues band to five Blues Music Award nominations in 2013 alone.

It's where this preternaturally talented son of a Hungarian immigrant gained his early chops on the harmonica, building on the style of blues heroes like Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. Németh's first paid performance came in 1991, when he was hired to perform drinking songs for a pinochle luncheon held by the Catholic Daughters of America. The following summer, his first band, Fat John and the Three Slims, landed a steady gig performing outlaw country and Chicago blues covers at the Grubstake Saloon in Horseshoe Bend, Idaho-but the group was 86'ed from the town after their soon-to-be ex-drummer was caught mouthing off to drunken, angry loggers during the annual Loggers Day Festival. Unchastened, Németh and his band set their sights on the Boise club scene, where, for nearly a decade, they played seven nights a week at local pubs, taverns, joints, and parties.

After opening a show for Junior Watson, Németh was tapped as tour opener for the jump blues guitarist, a gig that took him across the United States, to Scandinavia, and into the recording studio for his 2004 solo debut, Come And Get It, featuring Watson. When Németh's girlfriend decided to relocate to California, he knew he couldn't lose her, so he packed up the house and traveled west. It was an astute move: shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Németh was performing at Biscuit and Blues when Blind Pig Records signed him to a three-album deal.

Opportunities abounded, from the phone call Németh got from Anson Funderburgh, who was looking for a frontman to fill in for ailing blues legend Sam Myers, to a gig opening for Elvin Bishop, which led to Németh's role as featured vocalist on Bishop's Grammy nominated album The Blues Rolls.

"I learned a lot living in Oakland and San Francisco," Németh says, "from recording and performing with Elvin Bishop to hearing Freddy Hughes perform. Record shops like Amoeba Records and Down Home Music provided a wealth of material that did not exist back home in Idaho, like the records of Lowell Folsom, Jimmy McCracklin, Roger Collins and the songbook of Bob Geddins. Oakland is like a truly southern city, only it's on the west coast. It wasn't until after I arrived that I discovered that so many great songs I love actually originated there."

After logging over 1000 concerts between 2007 and 2011, Németh released a pair of live solo albums showcasing his 25 most popular songs. Those discs, titled Blues Live and Soul Live, received five Blues Music Award nominations-the most ever for any live release. They also earned critical acclaim that places Németh in, as Nick Cristiano of the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, "a cadre of young and relatively young artists such as James Hunter, Eli 'Paperboy' Reed, and Sharon Jones."

In early 2013, Németh traded his life on the west coast to settle down in Memphis, Tennessee. He and Jaki, that girlfriend he followed to California, had married and started a family, and Memphis made sense for multiple reasons: It's centrally located for touring, the cost of living is inexpensive, and the river town is the historical ground zero for blues, soul, and rock-and-roll.