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Musician Nat Myers on the healing power of the blues
Geoff Bennett: The blues guitar legend Buddy Guy once wrote — quote — "Funny thing about the blues. You play 'em cause you got 'em. But when you play 'em, you lose 'em. The blues chase the blues away."
For many, that's still as true in the 2020s as it was in the 1920s. And its perhaps especially true for 32-year-old Kentuckian Nat Myers.
Special correspondent Tom Casciato the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
And a warning that some racial slurs Myers was called are named in this piece.
Tom Casciato: "Everywhere I have been, somebody's been abused," sings Nat Myers in his song "Yellow Peril."
"Never going to win, some of us are born to lose. The song has what NPR Music deemed a swagger that leaps out of the speaker. It's Nat Myers' reaction to the racism, particularly the anti-Asian hate crimes, that he observed during the pandemic lockdown.
Nat Myers, Musician: My thing about this song is, anything that tries to insert itself and breaks apart what it means to be a minority or a person of color in America, we ain't going to let that happen, you know?
Tom Casciato: But Nat Myers' relationship to the blues goes back a long time before that, all the way back to the beginning.
Nat Myers: I had like a pretty archetypical, just, like, American childhood, I guess, you know? Put my hand on my heart every day, said the pledge, like, watched Disney stuff.
Tom Casciato: The son of a mom from South Korea and a white dad from Indiana, he was raised in a mostly white part of Northern Kentucky.
Nat Myers: My parents didn't really kind of instill in me a sense of my own identity in terms of me being Asian. I look at younger pictures of myself, and I look at a kid who really thought he was white.
Tom Casciato: He speaks of a certain sadness growing up.
Nat Myers: I didn't have a very happy childhood. I got picked on a lot, you know what I mean? I don't want to use the terminology, but, like, but maybe I should, being called chinky, being called gookie, people pressing their eyes at you, buck-teething at you.
It's all real, you know what I mean?
Tom Casciato: He took solace in skateboarding and the folks he met doing it.
Nat Myers: The people I skated with showed me what true friendship was. And when I started hanging out with these cats, maybe it helped that they were two years older than me, though, but people stopped bullying me.
And skateboarding helped me survive.
Tom Casciato: Another thing that helped him, poetry.
Nat Myers: I was real young, when I — I didn't know what a poet was, but I wanted to be a poet. Everything in my body wanted to be a poet. It's like, write about the green grass and the blue skies, you know?
Tom Casciato: He loved the classics, Homer and Shakespeare. But nothing nourished his soul like the lyric and Musical poetry of the prewar blues.
Nat Myers: I listened to all of these kinds of Music when I was growing up, but when I started listening to, like, old blues, and particularly when I think I started getting deep into Patton.
Tom Casciato: Charley Patton.
Nat Myers: Yes, Charley Patton, I think the feeling I'd ever experienced for any Music before was dwarfed by the feeling and the emotion I got from listening to the — that old Music.
And, to me, it's the only kind of stuff I have ever wanted to play.
Tom Casciato: And play, he did, putting his own poetry to Music.
Meanwhile, he soaked up the works of artists like Furry Lewis, Big Bill Broonzy, and Mississippi's Robert Petway and Tommy McClennan.
Nat Myers: Just in terms of the sheer ferocity of their playing and their singing, Tommy McClennan sounds like he's been smoking unfiltered cigarettes for 80 years and is still able to keep a note.
Tom Casciato: But as Myers developed his own craft, he did so in private.
Nat Myers: Playing Music was something I did purely to myself and to annoy my roommates. It was something that I kept completely to myself.
Tom Casciato: It was when he came north to New York City in 2015 to study poetry at The New School that the idea of performance took root.
Nat Myers: What you really discover is how many cats are playing Music out here on the streets, whether it be on the block, whether it be down on the subways. I just started looking at them cats and was just like, what? What am I doing right now?
And I remember just going out on the block. I played for like 10 hours or something like that. I made like maybe $20. But, to me, back then, I remember that was the first money I'd ever made as a poet. People paid me to do this stuff. Maybe they Were paying me to keep quiet. You know what I mean?
But it was kind of a revelation, in terms of like, oh, man, this is where the bread's at.
Tom Casciato: Soon came COVID-19, and, like lots of Musicians, all he could do was post his work online. That's when this video on Instagram caught the eye and ear of an instant admirer.
Nat Myers: I got this random e-mail one day. It was like: Hello, this is Easy Eye Sound, the record label owned by Dan Auerbach.
Tom Casciato: Dan Auerbach is one-half of the superstar duo the Black Keys. It sounded like a joke.
Nat Myers: I was just like — I almost deleted the e-mail.
Tom Casciato: Fortunately, he returned the e-mail. And, soon, he was writing songs with noted Nashville songwriter Pat McLaughlin, as well as Dan Auerbach himself, and recording right in Auerbach's Nashville home.
The result? His debut album, "Yellow Peril," 10 bluesy tracks, he, says that owe an enormous debt to the prewar artists he so admires. The songs also perform a key function this Music has provided for over a century.
You tweeted in the summer: "On the road, I'm happy and blue. Off the road, I'm just blue."
Nat Myers: Yes.
I think I'm just — I'm just a low-down fellow all the time. You know what I mean? I'm just a sad person generally. Being by myself is something — it's a crippling kind of loneliness. And when out on the road, life gets so simple. You are just trying to get from A to B in one piece.
And when you get from A to B, just making sure that you're in, like, an energy type enough to be able to do your job, you know?
Tom Casciato: You say you're not a happy person, but when you perform Music, and you see that that's making people happy, does that make you happy?
Nat Myers: Oh, no doubt.
A lot of people say they play Music for the fans or they make the Music for these people, like, we do this all for you.
I don't abide that, because I do this Music because, like, literally, I'd die if I weren't playing this stuff. And so the fact that I can bring joy to other folks, it's such an impossible thing that I have been given the privilege to do, you know?
Tom Casciato: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Tom Casciato in Brooklyn, New York.