Brown County Bluesman
by Bill Weaver
photo by George Bredewater
Love brought Gordon Bonham to Brown County. Love keeps him here. Love of wife and daughter, love of the deeply forested hills that surround his small frame house, love of the music that sustains him, love of the hour and a half drive to work every evening . . . well, maybe not so much the last thing, but to him the drive is worth it.
“It’s a long commute but my home really balances the night club life,” he tells me. To Wabash Magazine he said, “We enjoy our modest life out here … so it’s not hard to make ends meet. I’m lucky because I get to be home all day with my family. It’s like I’m on vacation all the time. I just don’t get to sleep.”
Called a “Bluesman Extraordinaire” by one Noblesville fan, Bonham works 300 nights a year in and around the central Indiana area with his band, the Gordon Bonham Blues Band, at clubs like The Slippery Noodle, Daddy Jack’s, and the Rathskeller in Indianapolis, The Verve in Terre Haute, the Knickerbocker in Lafayette, at arts and blues festivals, weddings, private parties, as well as the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in Bloomington. He’s a regular at the Indianapolis Jazz Festival and has worked with legendary musicians like Yank Rachell, Bo Diddley, Kenny Aranoff, Gary Primich, and Jimmy Walker. One high point was when he appeared with Robert Lockwood Jr. as part of the Grand Opening of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Still, he takes time to give back to the community, often appearing at area junior high school to teach blues clinics to eager young students.
Gordon Bonham grew up in Hammond, Indiana. In high school he excelled at long distance running. He also began to dabble in music, playing trumpet in his high school jazz band. He obtained his first acoustic guitar from his parents in exchange for painting their house. At Wabash College in Crawfordsville music remained just a hobby while he concentrated on his studies, looking towards a career in medicine. Nevertheless, he played in his share of folk and rock & roll bands. Even though he graduated at the top of his class and had a wide range of options, he realized that he was most interested in pursuing a career in music.
It couldn’t have been an easy choice for his parents to understand but they welcomed Bonham back to Hammond after his graduation. He worked as a substitute teacher and for a landscaping company. It was down time, but he put it to good use, visiting the blues clubs in nearby Chicago where he listened, learned, and deepened his understanding of the blues form. Friends, and a vibrant music scene, brought him to Bloomington in the mid-80s. “I was trying to do creative things, I think,” he says.
Bloomington has had many legendary bands, from Carmichael’s Collegians to the Screaming Gypsy Bandits and MX-80 Sound (not to mention a gentleman by the name of Mellencamp). The band Bonham joined, The Ragin’ Texans, fit right into that continuum. Along with Jim Bracken, Craig Brenner, Brian Lappin, and Kenny Aronoff, Bonham created exciting music that is still talked about today.
Wanting to try something new Bonham left Bloomington. “I was in Austin for awhile, at the end of ’88,” he says. He joined harmonica legend Gary Primich in his band the Mannish Boys as they toured this country and Europe. But after a year and a half he returned to Indiana, eventually to participate in another well remembered band, the Cooler Kings with Stuart Norton.
By 1994 he felt confident enough to front his own group, the Gordon Bonham Blues Band. The band includes veteran drummer Jeff Chapin, Dave Wyatt on bass, and Tom Harold on harmonica and vocals. “I call it the blues Top 40,” Bonham recently told Howard Hewitt of Wabash Magazine. “We play a lot of Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, I also throw in some of the Texas stuff, The Fabulous Thunderbirds. I kinda copy some of the sounds they have, what I think of as Texas blues—real guitar-driven with harmonica.” In 1999 they released a raw and energetic CD called “Low Down and Blue” that combines the spontaneity of a live concert with the craftsmanship of a studio release.
Yet, there is another side of the blues that Gordon wants to explore, one that living in Brown County with wife Francine Heimberger has helped engender. He finds his musical interests shifting “towards acoustic and folk, just sitting on the porch with a guitar.” His solo CD, “Get Back Home,” was recorded and released around the time his daughter, Emma Clare, was born. “I have a vision of myself playing more old time music,” he says.
One irony about living in Brown County is that he doesn’t get much opportunity to play close to home, although he does take the occasional evening to play solo at the Pine Room in Nashville. September proves the exception as he returns to a favorite event, the Bean Blossom Blues Festival. “It’s getting better every year and is such a nice venue,” he says, hoping the weather at this year’s event, scheduled for the middle of September, will turn out like Baby Bear’s porridge: “Just right.”
Bonham will be playing in many venues in September. Keep up with him if you can: Thursday the 5th he’ll be at Neighborfest in Columbus; then the Penrod Art Fair, Sunday the 8th, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art from 3-4pm on the Blues Stage. His performance at Bean Blossom is on Friday the 13th where the Bonham Blues Band will be joined by historic blues drummer Sam Lay. Lay has worked with Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, as well as Bob Dylan and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Bonham will be at another favorite spot, The Willard Hotel in Franklin on Saturday the 21st. He’ll finish the month at the Slippery Noodle 3rd Annual Formula 1 Tent Party during Grand Prix weekend. And that’s only about a third of his scheduled performances for the month. If you want to know more about his appearances see his website at <http://gordonbonhambluesband.com>.
There are so many musicians in it for the money, the chicks, and the glory that it’s refreshing to find one who is in it for the music. Pat Webb, who has experienced the music industry from top to bottom, said about Gordon Bonham, “There’s another very capable musician/singer/guitarist. And he’s a nice guy.”
There’s your authentic American Idol.