Get to know Westminster blues musician Christopher James
Christine Ottoni • March 13, 2018if( has_post_thumbnail( $post_id ) ): ?>
Meet Christopher James
Christopher James is a celebrated blues musician from Westminster, Maryland. If you’re into the local blues and jazz scene, you probably know his music well, and if you’re not, maybe you recognize his song, “Catch That Train”, from our Ting Westminster commercial, “A great town deserves great Internet”.
That’s one of the great things about James. He’s immersed in the music world. A teacher at Coffey Music on Main Street, a performer, a session artist and a touring member of various groups, James has made a solid, storied and successful career without having to leave home. At least, not for too long.
We’re proud to have the opportunity to connect with artists and musicians in our Ting Towns. When we make a commercial celebrating a town, we do our best to partner with local bands and artists. It’s more complicated than grabbing a track from a royalty-free music service but it supports local artists and personifies our local approach. It also gives us the chance to meet artists like James and to hear their stories. In short: worth it.
We had the chance to catch up with Christopher James and chat about his story. How music continues as a key part of his life in Westminster, Maryland, his career in and out of town and how he strives to share his passion with students.
Making a musician
James has been drawn to music his entire life. He started playing instruments when he was young and got his first guitar when he was six.
James names B.B. King as an important early inspiration. “Seeing him play after I started playing the guitar, it wasn’t just something that was pretty good. It was that expression of something everybody feels, joy and hope and consolation.”
James dedicated himself to the guitar when he got his first electric guitar in the eighth grade. He continued his focus through high school, and eventually got a band together and started playing their first gigs around town. He started college in classical guitar, but quickly discovered this wasn’t the path for him.
“I was majoring in Classical Guitar and did it for as long as I could. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I left town with an amplifier, an electric guitar and I had a classical acoustic guitar too. I thought I would bring it just in case I had to sell something to get back.”
With a few hundred dollars in his pocket, James picked up and moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi. He chose Clarksdale because on one roadtrip, his family passed through town and visited some of the local landmarks like the Delta Blues Museum, and discovered the rich local history.
“A lot of blues players lived in and around that area, like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.”
On his very first day in town, he heard music playing in a venue, walked in, introduced himself, and was quickly connected with a band in need of a bass player. He played on stage that night.
“I was down there for about half a year and it was like years packed into that time.”
Westminster as a connecting point
When James came back to Westminster, he wasted no time in getting another band together.
“There’s a lot of great musicians, great local musicians, in jazz and rock and with the blues, and we’ve always had a nice following of people who come out when we play at the local street festivals and around town.”
As the band grew they started to play in the mid-Atlantic area and Baltimore. They put out their first album in 1998 and won a competition to represent Baltimore at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, going up against bands from across the US and around the world.
Time passed and James put out some more music, picking up instruments along the way, eventually expanding his repertoire to include the mandolin. He also found himself spending more time teaching. He started teaching workshops at Common Ground on the Hill, a local arts initiative in Westminster that seeks to create learning opportunities for students with artists who are masters in their field.
By teaching mandolin at Common Ground, James eventually met and played with Guy Davis. He would go on to record with Guy and tour with him, playing blues shows across the country, in Utah, New York and Massachusetts.
James took up the mandolin to “just learn something for the fun of learning it.” In many ways, this sums up his approach to music.
“I found myself turning inward and doing a lot more learning and playing instruments, and I got into the mandolin. I taught myself to play from listening, taking what I know from music and putting it on the mandolin.”
Picking up different instruments and versatility is one way in which James sets himself apart as an artist, teacher and as a collaborator. As a teacher at Coffey Music, James leads lessons in guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, harmonica and more. He teaches private lessons to students of all ages (his youngest student is six and his oldest is over 80) as well as collaborative sessions where students can learn to make music together.
“A lot of teaching is getting people to be ready to learn and not be afraid… when you make music with your own hands, it’s a really wonderful thing.”
James has seen the arts and music scene grow up in Westminster, as it’s changed and evolved from events scattered across town into something more cohesive and communal.
“We want to keep seeing that growth continue to the point where, whenever you come to town, there’s always something going on in the music, in the arts. Westminster has enough talent and people interested in the arts to do that kind of thing. Music and the arts are going to keep on growing.”
How Ting met Christopher James
In case you’re wondering how we, as Ting, came to be connected with Christopher James and his music, Andrew Moore-Crispin, Director of Content and Brand for Ting tells that story:
“We prefer a hands-on approach so it makes sense that we shoot and produce all our own commercials; we like to tell these stories ourselves rather than rely on an ad agency’s interpretation.
In 2015, I was in Westminster to shoot the first of our Ting Internet commercials with our small video team. While there, I hoped we might also find a great local band or musician that we could work with. Before we rolled on the closing scene of the commercial, with the Ting van rolling into frame in front of the Carroll County Arts Council, we ran into the theater to have a look around and warm up. It was the coldest day of an already cold February. I happened upon a selection of CDs from local artists in what felt like some serious serendipity. I bought one of each CD on offer.
I drove the van around and around the block while the rest of the crew was freezing its collective butts off behind the camera (outside Ernie’s which, it turns out, is a pretty interesting place to set up shop) while we tried to get the shot we’d envisioned. Again. And again. And again.
As I drove around, I flipped CDs in and out of the tinny two-speaker sound system of the Ford Transit work van. I got to Christopher James’ Out of Wooden Boxes and felt like maybe this could be it. When the crew got together later to have a listen, we caught on the instrumental portions of his track “Don’t Cry” and decided it was a perfect fit.
Later, when we re-shot the commercial (a piece shot in the bleak of winter doesn’t play too well in the sunnier months) we again looked to Chris for music. “Catch that Train” seemed to be the musical version of everything we were trying to say and it felt like a perfect homage to our favorite (and hard-won) shot of the first commercial: The bi-weekly freight train cutting straight across the center of town. Rather than finding a song to fit our vision, “Catch that Train” helped to shape the commercial we came to town to shoot.
Also, we like Chris. He’s a good guy.”