AT 30 years old, Jarekus Singleton is bringing blues to a new generation, earning many noteworthy awards and feathers in his cap along the way. But to the humble and genial Mississippian, he's still "just Jarekus": a boy who learned to play music in his granddaddy's church, a former basketball star who, when struck with a life-altering injury, found his way back into musical expression, and, when we chatted on the phone, a dutiful boyfriend replacing lightbulbs in his girlfriend's garage before he hits the road again.
Singleton stunned the crowd at Savannah Music Festival’s lineup announcement party, and he and his band are thrilled for their second trip to Savannah.
I understand you started out playing bass. How’d you start playing guitar?
My granddaddy played guitar, my Uncle Tony played guitar...one day I came to church—I was playing bass there—my Grandaddy says, “Man, don’t play bass no more! Start playing guitar now!”
I was like, “Cool.” So that’s how. Here I am today, trying to play guitar like Grandaddy said.
I was playing testimony services, which can last anywhere from a minute, thirty minutes, to two hours. People get up and testify, get up and sing, young people sing all the newer songs, older people sing more traditional songs. So I was learning how to play in all those different keys and tempos, playing by ear, trying to follow. We had church five times a week.
I guess you really had to be on your toes to keep the vibe; it seems like you had to know how to improvise.
Oh yeah. Granddaddy was the music director, the preacher, the lead instrumentalist...and in the middle of service, if somebody was off on drums, he turn and say, “Get off the drums!” He’d get on my bass playing—if I wasn’t in the pocket, he’d say, “Gimme somebody else on bass who’s in pocket!” in the middle of service. So that’s how we grew up! It just be like that sometimes. It was great training.
Sounds like you had to get used to playing with all kinds of people, too.
Everybody played. My mama played organ, my brother played drums. We all sang, my cousins played instruments, they sang. All my uncles, most of ‘em play. Everybody did something.
What was it like transitioning from the church environment to being a professional?
We have other people [in the family] that are all professional musicians. But you gotta understand, playing secular music is a thing of the world, and my granddaddy preached against that. He preached against my playing basketball.
My mother always wanted me to be who I was, and always believed in who I was. She always made sure I was straight, made sure I was good, did what I wanted to do, followed my dreams. I’m really thankful for my mama. I don’t know what else I’d be doing without her; I may be lost in the sauce.
What was it like to start playing secular music?
It really wasn’t a transition for me. I went to college when I was 17 on a basketball scholarship. When I went to college, it was just basketball and school. I was a rapper—I rapped here and there for friends of mine, put some songs together. I never played with a band or anything; a lot of my classmates never knew I played an instrument until I was a grown man and I started my band.
In 2010, a lot of people were like, ‘What the hell’s going on? Why you not playing ball?’ I didn’t have any choice. I messed my ankle up real bad and had cartilage taken out in 2009. A lot of people still don’t know: a friend messaged me on Facebook the other day and said, ‘I read one of your articles. I didn’t know you messed your ankle up! I thought I’d see you in the NBA.’ People say that all the time. Thought I fell of the face of the earth, that I had a change of heart playing music. But I been the same guy since I came out of my mama’s womb.
So the guitar sat there during college?
I didn’t even own a guitar until I was 20. When I went to college I didn’t even have a guitar; my granddaddy bought a guitar from one of the deacons at church and said, ‘You want it?’ So I took it and that was my junior, sophomore year.
I never played with a band, never owned an amp, never nothing. I just had it in my room, and when I get bored at night when I was too tired from basketball and going to school, I’d just occasionally pick it up. Nobody knew I played, except maybe my roommate. I never took any lessons; I’d always just sit on my bed in my dorm room and just wanna hear the strings pluck.
I never thought about being a musician. I always thought I’d be a professional basketball player. Once I hurt my ankle, it took me two years before I could watch a basketball game. I just got there—2015 was my first time buying an NBA pass.
It’s got to point where, my Uncle Tim, who taught me to play ball, we can call and talk about players, who scored what. For years, I couldn’t; it hurt me too bad. I’d watch and be like, ‘I’m supposed to be there.’ I’m just now really starting to get over that hump, which I don’t think I’ll get all the way over. You learn how to cope.
Has delving back into guitar and finding success in that helped?
Yeah. It took same hustle, same mind frame, work ethic. It’s just who I am: I’m just Jarekus, and I’m a musician now. That’s what I’ve always been. I learned a lot with basketball: it taught me to be a good leader, a teammate. It taught me how to manage people: you gotta know everybody’s plays, where everybody’s supposed to be. You can’t talk to all your teammates the same.
Those are crucial skills for being in a band.
Yeah, man. People are hard to manage. That's why they pay managers so much.
So why did you choose music instead of coaching when you got injured?
In 2009—I was born in '84, so I was 25 when I had surgery—I didn't want no kids to be calling me 'Coach!' I couldn't take that. I felt like I was an old man. I thought, 'I have something else left in me that I can do to help, something else that I can do to get my emotions out.' I always struggled with my emotions, man—growing up, I never knew how to channel them.
You wrote poetry, right?
Yeah, but still. That's a form of art. When you're doing something with art, it's a form of expression. But when I play music, and I'm on the stage and the vibe is there, and I'm playing my instrument—ain't no art like that in the world. Writing poetry never made me feel that way, being a ball player never made me feel that way. The way I'm feeling in my heart, I can convey it through my guitar, and I never been able to do nothing with that.
If you get pissed off and you’re playing ball, it’s hard to play mad. You make mistakes, you gotta be relaxed and have that focus. If I get mad, I can play guitar all night. If I want to hit it hard, I can hit it hard. I can play it softly and soulfully. And I don’t have to run faster than nobody to do it, jump higher than nobody to do it. I can just pull it out of the case, sit down, turn my phone off, and get with it.
You’re a very visual storyteller. Do think your lyricism grew out of your early rapping and writing?
Oh, most definitely. I’ve always been a fan of lyricists; growing up, my family always listened to lyrics and the storytelling of a song.
It’s hard to think something, but try to convey it artistically and have people take it as you intend for them to take it. When I find an artist that can do that, like Brad Paisley, his storytelling is just off the charts, and he just knows how to communicate what he’s trying to say artistically.
I used to try to do all this wordplay—you freestyle battle in school at the lunch table every day, y’all trying to come up with something to out-rap the other guy. It’s one of those things: you think it, you write it.
You’re always so open about your diverse influences: would you say you’re taking a contemporary approach to blues?
You have contemporary music in all genres. My thing is this: when B.B. King plays the guitar, can’t nobody play B.B. King style better than him. If I play a B.B. King song, I always feel like B.B.’s the truth—what I’m doing ain’t never going to be good enough for the song. And he was doing stuff that people do now way back when in the ‘50s.
With me, I can only be the best Jarekus that I know how to be, and I have to approach it like that.
My vision comes from the masters that started it: B.B. King, Albert King, even Jimi Hendrix is a guitarist that I often listened to growing up. It’s amazing how I can listen to all those different guitar players and get something from every one of them.
And I have a style of my own as well. All you can do is tell the story.
Blues in the Garden: Heritage Blues Orchestra, Jarekus Singleton
Sat. March 21, 5 & 8:15 p.m.
Ships of The Sea Museum