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Behind The Curtain: David Vest

By Erin McCallum. Photo Credit: Harry Dunbar Photography.

The main point of difference in this column has always been that it endeavours to offer more than one might discover in a regular press release or artist’s biography; it attempts to peel back the layers that are already accessible, and find truths that will provide readers with a deeper understanding of those who are at the core of the Canadian Blues Collective. In every feature, the information does not come via a pre-meditated set of questions aimed at a particular outcome; the investigation starts with a solid foundation of biographical knowledge, paired with a genuine curiosity to learn something more. That formula serves as the conduit for something exclusive. It is important for readers to know that “Behind The Curtain” investigates artists who are at the core of the Canadian Blues Collective, so there is a wealth of biographical information to be found via other sources that cannot be documented within the confines of this particular forum – it is highly recommended that readers seek it out.

In this edition, the artist of interest is David Vest. Best known as a piano player since he went pro in 1957, Vest is also an accomplished (and prolific) songwriter, and a multi-instrumentalist. He has received awards and recognitions - and remains a sought-after player today on the live music scene. To give a sense of his acclaim, Vest took home a Maple Blues Award for Piano/Keyboard Player of the Year last year, and is currently nominated in the same category for the upcoming Maple Blues Awards. It should also be noted that David Vest has been voted a winner in the category previously (he is a 6-time winner by my own recollection), as well as received nomination in the category of Recording of the Year via the Maple Blues Awards. Vest has also received 5 Muddy Awards (Cascade Blues Association), and played on multiple JUNO Award nominated albums. Beyond the award recognition, Vest’s biography is impressive; parts of his story include sharing the stage with Greats such as Big Joe Turner and Hubert Sumlin, and that he wrote the first songs ever recorded by Tammy Wynette. In 1962, already a seasoned veteran at a young age, Vest opened for Roy Orbison too. For those who search deeper, more emerges about Vest that lends credibility to the claim that his career to date has been rich with the extraordinary. For example, Vest has released two albums at the same time (both landed in the top 10 on the Roots Music Report Canada, 2021), he went pro at the age of 14, and he is the first American artist to ever record in Romania. Cementing his place in the Canadian Blues Collective in 2012 with his first Canadian recording (“East Meets Vest”), which was named by CBC Blues Radio legend Holger Petersen as one of the best albums of the year), the record garnered a Maple Blues nomination for Recording of the Year. There’s more that can be found about David Vest that defies any typical story one might expect when considering the biography of an artist who has spent a generation steeped in music, and I suggest people search for it. After confirming many extraordinary pieces of information as true in conversation with David Vest personally, it only deepened the desire to learn more. Within the confines of this column, it makes sense to share some of Vest’s thoughts about Blues music, and to provide enough information for readers to draw their own conclusions about what parts of David’s story contribute to making him one of the living Blues Greats.

Born in Huntsville, Alabama, and as the son of a sharecropper, David Vest has been labelled by many in recent years as “the greatest living Boogie Woogie player in the World”. The first curiosity in conversation was to ask Vest what pulled him toward music. In part, this is what he offers:

“It was my grandmother and my mother who really started my interest in music. My mother was a wonderful singer. My grandmother delivered me my very first piano – it was an upright. They both loved music, and listened to all different types of music too. I also heard different kinds of music growing up too, because of where I grew up, near Tuxedo Junction in Birmingham…depending on where you were, or what radio station you were listening to, you had the chance to hear all kinds of different music that came from places that weren’t far regionally, but sounded quite different from one another; there was Dixieland, Blues, Country, Gospel…I didn’t really ever think of it in terms of genres though – to me, I’ve always just thought of it as music. I saw a lot of the Greats in person too; Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Reed, and I’m fortunate for to have been able to do that too.” (It should be noted that there are more artists who are considered to be Greats that Vest has seen a live performance setting than mentioned in the conversation. A more comprehensive list can be found via a quick internet search, for interested readers).

After learning about the influences that shaped his life in music, it is clear that Vest’s early influences, in many ways, came from being immersed in a scene, in real time, that many artists can now only study in a book. Knowing that, and the fact that he has become a Great himself, David Vest is an appropriate person to ask about the music landscape. In previous editions of ‘Behind The Curtain’, members of the Canadian Blues Collective have been asked for their thoughts about the changes in the music landscape over the course of decades. Given David’s lifelong experience, and his views on the music itself, I decided to ask David about what it is that has remained the same for him personally with respect to the music in the past half-century. In his answer, he shares a personal principle that easily serves as advice to those who are looking for it:

“The thing that has never changed for me is the necessity of being true to yourself. The task of a musician to do it as good as they can is the same too – don’t do it if you don’t believe in it. There’s no point in musicians complaining about the conditions they have to play in – just keep a good will and always do the best you can.”

Vest’s answer, perhaps, carries a little more weight, for those who know some of the incredible truths that are woven through his story. He’s been shot at and robbed, examined (wrongfully) for potential espionage in a foreign country, had his life threatened in serious ways - and he’s also been given the seal of approval from Big Joe Turner himself (who even said that Vest’s playing made him feel like he was back in Kansas City), and received the “direct laying on of hands” from a number of artists such as Texas piano legend Floyd Dixon. He has done it all while being true to himself – the successes of his career (amidst the almost implausible) prove that he’s identified something that hasn’t changed, incorporated it into his approach, and that it is, indeed, effective.

As is the case with every conversation had with members of the Canadian Blues Collective in the ‘Behind The Curtain’ setting, there are portions that will remain “off the record”. Vest’s words in this feature are exclusive to this edition, and it does offer readers a look ‘behind the curtain’, however, perhaps all of the aforementioned facts can be found via other sources if interested parties investigated thoroughly. With that in mind, Vest was asked directly if he could share something about himself that might be new to readers of this column. David Vest’s answer reveals another layer:

"I was a poet before I ever made the connection to music and poetry and realized that the two go together. I have written, and had published, some poetry…and won some awards for it.”

Perhaps Vest’s revelation is as humble as his respect for the music he creates and plays. Upon examining further, truth emerges that Vest’s endeavours as a poet have been much more significant than he takes credit for in his answer. His work as a poet has appeared in many literary magazines and a number of anthologies. In addition to that, he was requested by a university to publish his book, and the request went unanswered as Vest left town (Nashville) to embark on other interests. Also, it should be added that Vest has earned a Ph.D (Vanderbilt University), and held a teaching position at Longwood College in Virginia, and travelled to Romania as a Fulbright Scholar.

Given the experience, success, and foundation that David Vest has maintained for a generation, it made sense to ask him if he could offer some words of advice to aspiring artists who are looking to pursue a career in music. He offers this:

“Always be at the service of the song. Try to do what the song needs to be at the service of others. Try to get out of your own way and out of the way of the music, and just let it come through.”

As the conversation started to conclude, Vest was asked one final question: what is it that he hopes for the people who hear his music. His answer falls in tandem with his advice to others, and his observations about the things that have remained timeless in an ever-evolving Blues and Roots music landscape:

“I just want people to feel connection – to feel lifted up a bit, and to feel some healing. The Blues lifts you up without lying to you, or telling you anything that isn’t true. I hope people feel that healing and connection, and lifted up when people hear the music.”

Vest’s final statement punctuates the conversation perfectly. As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires them to investigate further. Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates the credibility in these conversations. In David Vest’s case, the incredible has been determined to be credible within this feature. This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via the Sound Café with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.

Photo Credit: Harry Dunbar Photography.


Photo Credit: Ken Wallis.

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.

Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound.

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