When you picture someone playing the blues, you imagine someone who's been through the school of hard knocks. The lead singer for the Homemade Jamz Blues Band has been to school, all right — high school.
Frontman Ryan Perry is 16 years old. He sings like a man and manhandles his guitar, but when he and his bandmates break into giggles, it's clear they're all kids.
The three Perry siblings are 9, 14, and 16 years old; together, they're the Homemade Jamz Blues Band. Ryan took up the guitar at age 7. His brother, Kyle, followed with an electric bass, and their baby sister, Taya, rounded out the trio when she picked up drumsticks. The three are now regulars on the blues-festival circuit.
Home for them is Tupelo, Miss. It's where they recorded their new CD, Pay Me No Mind. It's where they make their instruments by hand. And it's where they caught an early case of the blues listening to their father's collection of B.B. King recordings.
The band sat down with Michele Norris in NPR's Studio 4A to perform a few tunes on their unique guitars, each made from an automobile muffler. In between, they explained how they got their start making music.
Learning The Blues
"I was put in guitar lessons, and I was doing pretty well in it," Ryan says. "I was learning notes, though, and the material that he was teaching me wasn't what I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn blues; I wanted to learn B.B. King, Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, all those artists."
Ryan says he went through several instructors before a little friendly coercion from his dad landed him a mentor seasoned in the blues. Dad Renaud Perry was working as a police officer when he approached a local bluesman known as Jabbo.
"I know that if I go to this guy's house as just a regular person, he was going to say no," he says. "That is what I kept running into all the time. ... So, you know, I said, well, 'I'm on duty, I'll swing by there in my police car and my uniform.' And he was out cutting grass. We laugh about it today, but when he saw me pulled up, he said his mind got to racing, 'Man, what have I done?' "
Jabbo reluctantly allowed Ryan, then 12, to swing by and jam that weekend.
"They rocked that porch. I mean, they had that porch going in no time," Renaud Perry says. "And at the end of the session, that man looked at me and said, 'You know, this kid: I want to teach him everything I know.' "
Living The Blues
One thing that Jabbo didn't teach the Perrys was how to make their own instruments. Their homemade muffler guitars — literally, the guitar bodies are made from car mufflers — are slung around their waists with seatbelt straps.
"Basically, what we did was bolted on a neck, took the electronics from a regular guitar, and just shoved them in the body of this muffler," Ryan says. "On the back of it is a license plate, covering the giant hole that we cut in it. And then we have exhaust tips that we put at the end of the guitars."
His father contributes a little harmonica to the outfit, and also wrote most of the band's repertoire. Many of the songs tackle life experiences that the young siblings couldn't have had yet. Or could they?
"No, not yet," Ryan says. "But it's just putting yourself in the frame of mind. When he hands me a sheet of music and I get the subject, he shows me how to sing it. So in my mind, I'm thinking ... 'Say OK, I'm a guy, I just lost my woman. How am I going to sing this, how am I going to play this, you know, how's the mood of the song going to be?'"
So how does the band sing the blues about experiences it hasn't necessarily had yet?
"To this day, I still don't know," Ryan says. "I think it's just a talent, a natural talent we all have. A God-given talent. And I think we're all grateful to have that talent. And, hopefully, none of those experiences will hit us too hard if we have them. But if they do, they'll do nothing but help us in our career."