James Thomson's blues to write home about

Newcastle songwriter James Thomson Picture: Ryan Osland
Newcastle songwriter James Thomson Picture: Ryan Osland

TURN off the TV, put the dog out, grab your partner and take a trip to the Junkyard pub in Maitland this Saturday night.

If you appreciate original, live music, you won't be disappointed.

Let's be frank here, Ben and 'Lissa Quinn have a reputation for supporting the best blues and country music they can get their hands on. If it is local, all the better.

This Saturday is a chance to shine on the light on James Thomson, a 28-year-old Newcastle singer songwriter who has truly come of age with his second album, Cold Moon, released in June.

The cruisy, 12-song CD is rich with sensitive blues tunes, all but one written by Thomson. It also features Hank Green (yes, the son of Johnny Green, and a young legend from the Hunter Valley) on electric and slide guitars.

While Thomson had penned a few songs for it in 2013, it was a three-month pilgrimage through the American South with his mate and photographer Joe Gibbons that provided the headspace for much of record.

Renting a car, the duo drove through Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, then headed up to California. It wasn't all big cities, not by a long shot.

Five days before Christmas, on a Sunday, they drove up to Thomson, Georgia, to find the gravestone of blues legend Blind Willie McTell next to Jones Grove Church.

There was a congregation, mostly African Americans, outside the church after service and the two Australians enquired about the location of McTell's headstone. They were politely directed to the site, and Thomson decided to pay tribute by pulling out his guitar and singing a song.

"For some reason it felt right to play a couple of his songs at the graveyard," Thomson recalls over coffee at Good Brother. "A couple of the ladies came over to see what we were doing. I didn't want to play blues - because that is the devil's music. So I started playing a spiritual song, Walk That Lonesome Valley, and they started singing with me. Here I was, an Australian songwriter singing a southern Baptist spirtual song with people I never met before. It was strange, in a nice way.

"I still get goosebumps thinking about it."

Thomson and his band, The Strange Pilgrims (featuring Adam Della-Grotta, Craig Rattray and Tim Burns) played most of Cold Moon in a set at the Dashville Skyline festival on the weekend. Among the standouts were Highway Nights, Heartless and Runaway Heart.

Highway Nights was written by Thomson in an inspirational moment on the US trip. He was holed up at a cheap motel at Twentynine Palms on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, where they'd come to pay tribute Americana music legend Gram Parsons (who died at age 26 over an overdose of morphine and alcohol in room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn).

"There's not a helluva lot to do out there at night." he says. "I just sitting there near the window, and I started playing this song looking out the window. It was coming near the end of trip, and my girlfriend had been over and I was missing her. It's one of those songs that came out as it is."

The cosmic tune would make Parsons smile. Thomson's girl, Demi Mitchell, adds sweet vocals to it on the album, too.

Thomson's music has attracted support from Australian alternative music stalwarts Stuart Coupe (Laughing Outlaw Records) and Brian Taranto (founder of Love Police Records and Touring). Thomson is on the bill for the new Out on the Weekend festival at Bella Vista farm on Sydney's northern outskirts on October 24.

Thomson's been honing his craft for eight years. The magic he's producing is getting more powerful. Expect more of it, more frequently.