LEXINGTON, Ky. — Joe Lewis knew he had to stand out. He had no other choice.
Growing up in Austin, Texas — the city that claims the title “live music capital of the world” — the singer and guitarist was surrounded by bands of every style and sound. Lots of practiced ones, too — acts that conceivably would intimidate a young artist who wasn’t just in search of his own musical voice but one who was still learning how to sing and play.
“Austin is just the same as anywhere else, really,” said the artist, known professionally as Black Joe Lewis. “You just have to have your own sound. You have so many other people trying to do the same thing that it takes a little more to stand out in front of everyone else. But they’re all doing the same thing, so you’ve just got to have your own sound. It’s just that in Austin, we have a lot of really good bands, so it’s hard to do that.”
Lewis forged a sound rooted in the blues that wasn’t the blues. It was wilder, like something fried up hot and spicy in a rural Southern juke joint. But there was also a smoothness at times — not studio processed spit-and-polish, but a soulful flow that was more in line with vintage rhythm and blues. So Lewis signed up a horn section. Then there was the matter of his guitar work. It had the scorched, jagged immediacy of numerous rock ‘n’ roll generations.
So what do you have when you mesh these roots-driven ideas? You get a singer and ensemble called Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears.
All of the sounds that go into the Honeybears’ big, brassy groove go back to Lewis’ childhood and music that circulated in his home. But that wasn’t all he heard.
“Blues and R&B were around when I was growing up,” he said. “My dad really liked soul music and stuff like that. But I didn’t really partake in that until I was older. I always thought, ‘Oh, that’s what old dudes listen to.’
“Once I got through high school, I started getting into Jimi Hendrix as well as whatever else was around me. Nirvana was big back then, and Stone Temple Pilots. I used to listen to a lot of hip-hop growing up. (The Memphis rap duo) 8Ball and MJG were probably my favorite group back then. Then I just started expanding my musical tastes as I got older.”
The catalyst for creating his sounds, though, came not from a particular artist or recording but from a vocation — specifically, a period in his early 20s when Lewis worked in an Austin pawn shop.
“That’s where I got my first guitar at,” he said. “Got it at a discount, too. I kind of fiddled around with that for a few years until I figured out if I wanted to try and play in a band.
“I actually grew up outside of Austin, the south side of it, and moved into the city when I was probably 23 or so. My neighbors at the first place I lived were in a band. That’s where I got the idea. I didn’t know you could travel around and party and make a living. So I wanted to try that. But I barely knew how to play, so I started hanging out with other musicians, picking up what I could, and I slowly built my way up to where I’m at now.”
“Now” translates into a smattering of EP and indie discs and two albums cut with the Honeybears for the acclaimed Americana label Lost Highway with another Austinite, Spoon drummer Jim Eno, as producer.
The newest of the two is 2011’s Scandalous, which serves as a fine summation of Lewis’ rock/soul/blues hybrid. The album-opening Livin’ in the Jungle slips from a brassy soul intro undercut with Lewis’ coarse guitar colors into a furious funk groove. Mustang Ranch, on the other hand, is all turbo-charged, rockabilly-greased propulsion. But on the album — closing “Jesus Took My Hand,” the music’s roots-savvy sound turns primal with a guitar-hook that sticks in your head long after the song’s four-minute ministry has had its say.
Capping off this roots music roughhousing is Lewis’ singing, a wail that is as soulful and unrefined as his guitar chops.
“I’ve never really considered myself to be the best singer around,” he said. “When I started, I just kind of sang quietly. Actually, I was kind of scared of singing with anyone. Then it turned into where I started screaming all the time.
“From there, I just learned how to use my sound. I figured it out just by doing it. It was trial by fire. I guess that’s what gives me my own style.”