Things were coming to a close for nascent guitarist Joe Lewis. The nearly lifelong Austin resident had reached the end of his musical rope. He was without a band and about to hang up his short-lived guitar career, when he received a call from Zach Ernst. A member of the University of Texas Music and Entertainment Committee, Ernst booked Lewis to open for Little Richard at the University of Texas’ annual Forty Acres Fest. From there things have just snowballed.
Ernst, a guitarist himself, introduced Lewis to bassist Bill Stevenson and drummer Matt Strmiska. They recruited three horn players and started playing together. The chemistry came quickly, as did the attention. Before long they’d developed enough of a reputation to attract the interest of major label imprint Lost Highway, which released the blues/ funksters’ first two albums and an EP, making them the style’s most buzzed-about act since Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings (with whom they’ve toured).
It all began in a pawnshop where Lewis worked.
Though he’d never played, Lewis was fascinated by the guitars musicians kept bringing in to pawn.
“I fucked with all the merchandise, and I just kind of thought one day that I’d buy a guitar, and started messing around with it here or there,” he says, on his way to Albuquerque for a gig.
At the time, Lewis was only 20, and had never played an instrument. He moved a bit closer in to town and began hanging out with other musicians.
“I started just learning everything I could from them, and decided to try to play music for a living,” he says. “I got my guitar, and got into blues music then that kind of naturally led into soul music. They kind of go together.”
He started playing Sunday nights at the appropriately titled Hole in the Wall with a klatch of friends who comprised local Austin bluegrass staple, The Weary Boys. It was a sketchy existence, shucking oysters or waiting tables by day, drinking and playing all night. Without a car or even, for a while, a steady place to stay, Lewis pushed on for almost five years. For a while he could be spotted around town wearing sweatpants — seen in some quarters as a sign of surrender.
“If you don’t want to get dressed you shouldn’t have to,” the ever-casual Lewis offers in his defense, with a telltale chuckle.
As you might imagine, it was a work in process.
Just standing up in front of people and singing was difficult, having never done it before. But slowly he developed his own distinct style.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking at first … because I didn’t know what I was doing. I had so many bad shows over a while that it didn’t bother me anymore,” he explains. “As you go along, every show you find out something a little newer. One day I just started screaming and I tried to make the scream into singing, and ended up somewhere in-between.”
At once sultry and excitable, his shout/croon style recalls artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Wilson Pickett and, of course, James Brown. Like the guitar, he says, “It just came naturally, I guess.”
After the Weary Boys went their own way, and then pulling together Ernst and company for his band, the Honeybears, Lewis self-released a couple of EPs. Two of those songs were plucked for his four-track, self-titled Lost Highway debut EP, the most notable being slow-burn soul rave-up “Bitch, I Love You.” The slyly humorous track (with some wicked lead guitar) has brought the band some heat, but true to form, Lewis could care less what other people think. The song cost him a chance to open for Al Green, which he finds amusing.
“He’s a hypocrite. He’s probably beat a few women in his time. What’s that story about having hot grits poured on him? You know he must’ve been doing something wrong,” Lewis laughs. “You can’t really worry about it, as long as people are talking about you. That’s the main thing.”
Similar wit shines on their two full-lengths, 2009’s Tell’em What Your Name Is? and the recently released Scandalous. It’s there on tracks like “Get Yo Sh*t,” where Lewis tries to console an angry girlfriend upon finding his stuff in the front yard after a night of drinking with his friends. “She said you don’t even buy me presents / Yeah I did, I bought you a box of chicken but I ate it on the way home,” he sings. “She said you don’t even know my name / I said, yeah, it’s Melissa, she said, no dumbass, it’s Roxanne.”
For Scandalous, they spice their blues-soul staples with a few more excursions into the rock end of the spectrum. Perhaps the most surprising of these is “What Love Is,” a searing cover of the Dead Boys’ punk classic.
“You just try to play music you like and I don’t think anyone should just do one thing,” says Lewis. “There are a bunch of different genres on the record. They’re just the songs that ended up being cool that we came up with. We kind of put whatever’s the best on there. We had country songs, blues songs, garage songs, and stuff. Just mixing it up.”
Meanwhile they’ve scheduled their fourth trip for Australia next month and plan some more European touring next year — their sixth visit. It’s quite a switch for a guy who was homeless less than a decade ago.
“It’s rags to riches,” Lewis laughs.
“I’m just having the time of my life.”
And it shows.
On the Bill
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears plays the Fox Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 22. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 day of show, with a $2 fee for being under 21. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.