They're a little bit hazy now, these memories. They stretch back nearly 50 years. But for John McVey, an ace blues guitarist who has called St. Louis home since last August, they remain his first ties to the city.
"St. Louis goes all the way back to my childhood," McVey says. "My dad was from Marthasville, Missouri. Several times, when I was a child growing up, we'd come up and visit, and every trip we'd come in for a couple of baseball games. I saw the old Cardinals play, with Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. And every time we'd drive by the Budweiser brewery, it'd look like a castle on a hill. We've bought a house right across from it; we can see it from our front door. That's just a thrill that connects me right back to my childhood."
A storyteller by nature, McVey's got the look of a Texas bluesman (the wide-brimmed hat, the leather vests and boots, the full goatee) as well as the pedigree. After coming of age in Arkansas, where he also discovered his musical abilities, he spent twenty years as a professional in the clubs of Austin, hitting the road with a variety of name acts. That was followed by ten years in another part of Texas — Houston — moving from a music-rich town with dozens of live blues venues to one with exactly three.
"Houston's not a music city," McVey says directly. "And as my wife and I were closing in on 60, with her kids grown, we thought, 'What do we want to do with the last third our our life? Let's have an adventure.' I wanted to live on the Mississippi. Memphis has more of a studio scene. I knew St. Louis had a happening music scene — I played in a lot of road bands, back to the early '80s. I knew that there was a good scene here. We researched the heck out of it on the Internet. And I had some friends up here, already: John Logan, Preston Hubbard, Hudson Harkins. So I didn't come in here completely cold."
He did come without a band, but he solved that problem quickly. After spending time in the open mic scene, McVey found kindred spirits in the form of an experienced, talented rhythm section: Joe Meyer on drums and Tom Maloney on bass.
"That's my basic, core group right there," McVey says. "We're at Hammerstone's every Wednesday night. Those guys, well, I got very fortunate being introduced to them. We played a couple of impromptu things, hit it off and now we're doing this thing. It's inspired me to write songs again. I go in waves, and when you get inspired — pal around with new people, all that shit — you write new songs."
Meyer muses that a lot of bandleaders "say that they want you to play like yourself," but then pull back from the promise. But Meyer insists that McVey follows through on that. ("He and Tom both have room to create," McVey agrees.)
Meyer and McVey work so well together, in fact, that both have now joined the Soulard Blues Band for its decades-old Monday night jam at the Broadway Oyster Bar. Asked into the fold, McVey accepted — with one friendly caveat.
"I'm a straight blues guitarist," he says. "I haven't had to join a classic-rock cover band. I don't do R&B very much. And when I'm hanging out with musicians, I put it right out on the table that blues is my love. I don't wanna piss anybody off. One of the reasons I'm with the Soulard Blues Band is that they tailor the set to me playing blues songs, and there are so many good guitarists here that can play the R&B, have been playing that their whole lives. I told Art [Dwyer, bassist] that 'I'm a really good blues guitarist.' That's our agreement.
"When Art was kind enough to give me the gig for Monday nights, I said, 'Cool, thanks,'" McVey remembers. "So I have two regular residencies every week. When we first moved here, it was the end of summer. Everything was booked and I didn't expect to play much until after the first of the year. By the end of December, I was playing more gigs than I was in Houston. We decided to not push, to let things happen organically and to become a part of the community. That's what I wanted, to be part of a family. And things have been rolling along really well."
As he speaks, McVey is trading quips with Vinnie Valenza, the owner of Blues City Deli, who is manning the register. Here, McVey is at his home away from home. It's a place where he can spin stories at leisure. Even after a couple months of shows, Meyer observes, "He's like an onion. I keep learning new things about him, I keep hearing new stories."
Stories like the time, as a college baseball star, that McVey blew out the rotator cuffs on both arms within a five-minute period. ("I spent a couple years as a drunk and a fry cook after that.") About how an old girlfriend tossed a beat-up acoustic guitar on the front lawn when he was being, um, relocated from their apartment. ("I picked it up and starting playing; turned out I had a real knack for it.") About how he came to sing. ("In 2004, when I had my first record deal, someone had to sing. And I was the only one who could sing even a little bit.")
"People who play with me have to play with passion and power," McVey says. "Down in Texas, none of us are laid-back. It's a pedal-to-the-metal thing. I prefer having cats that can kick ass and keep up. If they can't, it's been nice to meet ya."
He adds, "I'm always very friendly and positive to musicians, if they're young or just starting or playing for years. The world is full of negativity, and I've learned to look on the positive side of things. In the music business, especially, it's real easy to get super cynical. And that took me a long time, to change myself.
"I went through a bunch of changes," he continues, "after going through an addiction phase and coming through that — and I'm not ashamed of that. I came out of the other side, which some of us don't. Things seem against you in that situation. I imagined a better life and a better person. I had to do that slog and I did it. I left Austin one step ahead of ex-wives and two steps ahead of the police. I was attracting too much attention due to partying. And I had to change my ways. Going down to Houston was about getting my life back on track. I met my wife, and she's helped me clean up and I've been rocking and rolling ever since. At almost 60, I'm in the best place I've ever been. And being in St. Louis has contributed a lot to that feeling. And it's a wonderful feeling."
A wizened bluesman, singing the praises of St. Louis, the land of opportunity. Nice. Let's rewind that tape and hear just a bit more.
"Touring was fun in its time; partying was, too," McVey says. "But there's a space and time for everything. Now, I play three nights a week and sleep in the same bed every night, right next to my wife. And I like that. Coming here's given me a place to play the blues and not be on the road. I'm a working-class kid and a working-class guitarist. This is a straight-up town. Working class, blue collar, no-bullshit. I'm straight with the people here and I really dig that."