Chops Plus Heart

Meet 9-year-old blues prodigy and new Tucsonan Roman Barten-Sherman

Kid guitar virtuosos are a dime a dozen these days. Through the magic of YouTube, you can watch 11-year-olds shredding on Van Halen's "Eruption" or 5-year-olds playing "Folsom Prison Blues." Most are simply well-trained savants.

Then there's 9-year-old blues guitarist, singer and occasional songwriter Roman Barten-Sherman, a brand-new Tucsonan. Purists might question his authenticity, for ageist or even racist reasons—but Roman not only has chops, but heart as well.

Preternaturally articulate and intelligent, but far from precocious, Roman says he doesn't aim to perfectly re-create acoustic country-blues classics. Instead, he attempts to capture the spirit of the music he has loved since he was about 2.

"I sort of actually don't like the word 'perfect,' to tell you the truth," Roman says, kicking it with his dad, David Sherman, a filmmaker, one recent afternoon at Hotel Congress. Patiently waiting nearby were Roman's mom, Rebecca Barten, a filmmaker and visual artist, and David Sherman's parents.

"If somebody quotes a Robert Johnson song 'perfectly,' there's no soul to it. With Robert Johnson, every song, he played in a different way. That's how the blues is, you know? Even if I get the song perfectly and the way I like it, I'll keep experimenting with it in different ways."

Go ahead. Click on a video of Roman playing the music of Mississippi John Hurt, the Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson or R.L Burnside. Or better yet, see him play live. There's something that feels meaningful, or even deep.

Last week, Roman and his parents moved from Bisbee to Tucson so he could attend a better school (BASIS Tucson) and possibly further his music career.

Roman has collaborated with a few people over the years, most notably family friend and former Bisbee musician Ben Todd, who turned him onto the blues and fabricated a banjo from a salad bowl for Roman's second birthday. But beyond the occasional jam session, Roman primarily has performed solo.

David Sherman said he hopes that moving to Tucson will allow Roman access to more potential venues and a bigger pool of musicians, some of whom might welcome playing with him.

Still getting settled in Tucson, Roman already has a gig lined up: He'll play in the early evening on Friday, July 20, opening for local bluesman Tom Walbank as he performs a weekly happy-hour show at Café Passé.

Roman says he wasn't always into the blues.

"Really, I started off listening to Bob Dylan; he was one of my favorites when I was really young. It's really interesting, because I feel like I almost aged backward in the timeline of my music, in a way."

Sherman remembers that he and Barten "actually used to put (Roman) to bed listening to (Dylan's) Self Portrait, which is one of his craziest records."

After graduating from salad-bowl banjo to baritone ukulele, Roman got his first guitar, a Gibson he fell in love with.

Roman has traveled with his parents from Bisbee to Tucson to play at the Tucson Folk Festival or at farmers' markets, and to do the occasional bit of busking. He's performed often around Bisbee, as well as in New Orleans and at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Miss.

Roman also has studied for the past couple of summers at the Acoustic Blues Festival and Workshop at the annual Centrum arts festival, under the directorship of Corey Harris, in Port Townsend, Wash. He's going back this year, and says it has been a huge influence on him.

"When I was 7, I got a scholarship to (Centrum). It was pretty amazing," Roman says. "There were lots of good blues guitarists who were teaching there. At that point, I had only been playing guitar for a year. I took the most-basic classes. But that actually started me on fingerpicking."

Says David Sherman, who never really listened to the blues before his son starting playing the music: "One of the beautiful things about the blues is you can do what's like detective work to dig deeper and deeper."

Roman, who has recorded one five-song CD so far, says when he hears a great blues tune, he has to make it his. "When I listen to it, the tune gets stuck in my head ... and it drives me crazy until I can play it. ... I get a song stuck in my head, and the only way to get it out is to play it. And it adds a pretty cool new song to my repertoire."

That repertoire also includes a half-dozen original songs. "Some songs, I write because I'm actually feeling this feeling; some songs, I just write plainly for fun."

He says "School Yard Bully Blues" is about real-life incidents he witnessed at his old school. "Sometimes, you get these feelings that you have to experience every day, so why not write songs about (it)? But another song I wrote is called 'Superstition Blues.' The lyrics are: 'Black cats, voodoo powers / Purple dots, they sprouted from flowers.' I just sometimes try to be poetic with it, you know?"

Most kids Roman's age listen to pop music on the radio. That's never appealed to him.

"On pop radio, they're just doing it to make money. With country blues, it's a lot more raw, and it may have actually happened to the person who is writing or singing the song," Roman says. "The thing about the blues is, maybe something bad has happened to you, and you can sing about (it). Then, instead of it feeling bad, it will almost reverse the feeling into a good thing."

Among the few contemporary artists Roman enjoys are the Black Keys. He's excited that he and his parents have scored tickets to the group's October show in Phoenix.

Even though his friends don't listen to the blues, he shares interests with them such as playing outside, making up stories, reading and, especially, LEGOs. "I have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on LEGOs. Seriously," Roman confesses.

Sherman confirms this, but says it was always Roman's money, earned from busking. "We don't really pay him allowance, because he can make more money playing for tourists in front of the museum in downtown Bisbee. He goes there every couple of weeks."

Now, Roman and his parents are seeking good busking spots in Tucson.

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