When blues harpist Mark Wenner founded genre-blending stalwart The Nighthawks in 1972, he never imagined he’d still be talking about the group 47 years later.
Now that he is, he figures he might as well go for the gusto.
“I think I’d like, just for the sake of saying it, to be able to say I did 50 years, 50 years in The Nighthawks,” Wenner said during an interview before the Washington, D.C., band headlines the Central Virginia Blues Society’s annual Blues Festival this Saturday in Afton. “I just got to get through another three years, which I think I can do that standing on my head. Then I'll fall apart.”
The Nighthawks became a D.C. music staple before reaching wider audiences with a constant tour schedule. Starting in the late 1970s, the band spent an entire decade jamming from one end of the country to the other while playing about 300 shows a year. By 1986, The Washington Post reported, the group had played in 49 states and 10 foreign countries.
“Growing up, The Nighthawks were a big part of my blues education as a musician,” said Andy Burdetsky, president of the Central Virginia Blues Society, who grew up in D.C. “... You always went out and saw The Nighthawks. They were out playing somewhere in the D.C. area. They were the band — D.C. bad boys, they used to call them.”
Over the years, the band shared the stage with blues legends including Muddy Waters, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker as well as other music icons like Carl Perkins and Gregg Allman, who played around 20 shows with the band over a six-month stretch.
Four decades and seven iterations of members later, The Nighthawks — which won Best Acoustic Album of the Year at the 2011 Blues Music Awards — are still going strong and plan to head into the studio to work on another album next month.
“We got two new guys in September, and it's really taken the band to a whole new level,” said Wenner. “Musically, instrumentally, vocally, material-wise there’s some really strong writing going on.”
Before The Nighthawks hit the Central Virginia Blues Society’s stage, Wenner talked about musical stew, being part of the band Greg Allman wanted to join and the continuing appeal of the blues.
People didn't mix genres back then the way they do now. Yet, when you founded The Nighthawks, you were combining all sorts of genres into a kind of musical stew. What can you tell me about that?
“My musical tastes were formed in the ’50s. Before all the doors closed, I was exposed to everything. I first started listening to the radio in ’56. In ’56 and ’57 to about ’58, it was just wide open. My little, local rock ‘n’ roll station was playing country music, and they were playing real jumpin’ R&B, real hard blues, even. ... It didn’t matter. It didn’t have to be, ‘This is called rock ‘n’ roll’ and ‘that’s called rhythm & blues’ and ‘that’s called country western.’ I’ve always just carried that flag into battle.”
So, basically good music is good music.
“Exactly. And the greatness of this American music, whatever we call it, that has totally changed the world and dominated the world ... it is this ultimate conglomeration of all these roots and ethnic musics that have come in, just like America is really supposed to be as a people. It’s all these weird people from all over these weird places that all come together and form a new thing."
There have been several iterations of the band. What's the deal with Gregg Allman? Because apparently he was as an unofficial member.
“He wouldn’t tell me he was a member, but he told Rolling Stone in an interview that he was joining The Nighthawks. That's a good story — it's all kind of crazy. He was back from California, back in Georgia. Twiggs Lyndon, the Allman Brothers’ roadie ... he was a big fan of us. He grabbed Greg, shoved him in the VW and brought him over to Jacksonville, Alabama and [Greg] sat in with us. He played guitar, which for us was awesome, but he was also drunk as [expletive], which was less than awesome.
"Then a couple nights later, he played with us in Atlanta. A month later, he showed up in D.C. [He played with us] on and off. We never knew if he was going to show; the only time we ever told anybody he was really coming, he didn’t show. Then at one point, he was supposed to meet us somewhere and we never saw him again until 20 years later.”
What would you say your split is between original music and covers?
“The covers tend to outweigh the originals, but, then again, I like making covers that are almost unrecognizable. When [a band we covered is] halfway through [the track], they go, ‘Oh, this is our song.’”
Why do you think audiences connect with the blues the way they do?
“It's still fundamental. It’s the basis for everything else. It's the core. It's good, simple music. It connects, really directly emotionally a lot of the times. There’s such a direct connection to the immersion.”