Johnny on the Side

This year's Up-and-Coming Artist(s) of the Year are actually very familiar to Tucson music aficionados

The mercury hovers several notches above the 100-degree mark around quitting time on a recent afternoon, and East Grant Road is a raging river of speeding metal. The dark interior of the French Quarter pub at happy hour, therefore, offers welcome relief.

At the bar sits 33-year-old Mike Blommer, aka Johnny Guitar, singer and guitarist for the Bad News Blues Band, a funky blues and swing staple in Tucson music, and on the blues circuit beyond, for the last dozen years.

Blommer's here to talk about his side project--Johnny Guitar and the Thou$andaire$, a gritty, back-to-the-basics blues combo that is this year's honoree as Up-and-Coming Artist(s) of the Year in the Tucson Area Music Awards, colloquially known as the TAMMIES.

It's Blommer's first night off from playing in about three weeks, but nevertheless, he has suggested meeting in a bar. "It's where I'm comfortable," he shrugs, sipping contentedly from a glass of iced water with lemon.

Like his drink, Blommer is cool and tall, his blond hair swept into a modest pompadour and repeated in a jawful of sideburns and a skinny goatee. His white panel van is parked outside, in case you hadn't noticed, bearing the vanity plate "BAD NWS."

He graciously greets all the employees at the French Quarter, from the bartender to the cook to the dishwasher. He also evinces an old-world politeness, bowing his head slightly when shaking your hand and, when the interview ends, walking you to the door before turning back to the bar to "say goodbye to everybody."

Genuine excitement creeps into his voice when discussing Johnny Guitar and the Thou$andaire$, which is readying the release of its debut album, Still Cadillac'n, a collection of old-school blues.

In addition to Blommer, the Thou$andaire$ feature a stellar lineup of veteran local players, including bassist Steve Grams, guitarist Danny Krieger, saxophonist "Hurricane" Carla Brownlee and drummer-about-town Chip Ritter.

"Everyone in the band is an old pro. There's probably like 100 years of performing experience between us all," Blommer says. As he does more than once during this conversation, the guitarist comments on the general excellence of his bandmates by saying simply, "It's pretty cool," which appears to be his trademark--an almost Zen-like statement of laid-back approval.

Blommer, who has been playing the six-string for about 17 years, got his colorful nickname early in the history of the Bad News Blues Band when he stepped up to the microphone to sing the tune "Johnny Guitar," written by legendary bluesmen Johnny Winter and Johnny "Guitar" Watson.

"People just started calling me that after that song," he says. Doesn't hurt that his birth name is John Michael David Blommer.

It also happened to be the first song he sang professionally, he says. "Before that, I had no desire to sing. In the beginning (of Bad News), we always had somebody else in the group who wanted to be the singer. Actually, I enjoy it now."

The Thou$andaire$ formed out of the Bad News Blues Band's long-time association with Texas blues singer Long John Hunter. Bad News often has toured as Hunter's backing band.

Last year, Blommer convened the group that became the Thou$andaire$ to back up Hunter on the road for a brief period. They continued playing together after that tour ended and began working on their album last November, Blommer says.

Like the Thou$andaire$' live shows, Still Cadillac'n features an assortment of original tunes and covers of songs written by the likes of Watson, Charles Brown and Memphis Slim. The sound cocks an ear back to the vintage electric blues of 1950s Chicago--Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and the like--as well as to Texas blues a la the Vaughan brothers and some serious slow-burning soul.

Whence did Johnny Guitar's talents spring?

"I always was exposed to blues and jazz, especially the big band stuff, by my grandmother on my dad's side. My dad (Mike Blommer Sr., who has played trumpet with Bad News) has been a musician all his life, and he has a great record collection.

"But Jimi Hendrix was really the first reason I wanted to play guitar, and then I started to learning all about the players who influenced him, and it was just a process of digging deeper and deeper into the music."

Blommer cites Tucson guitarist Tony Uribe, a Bad News veteran, member of the defunct Blue Light and leader of the band Tony and the Torpedoes, as an important mentor.

"He really took me under his wing when I was younger and helped me learn about the guitar and understand why we do all this." That philosophical "all this" hung in the air implying such activities as playing the blues, maintaining a music career, living life.

Blommer's thankful that he has been able to make his living by playing music for the last seven or eight years, but he says he'd do it for free. "I don't know how to do anything else, and I really don't want to do anything else."