Born the son of a working bluegrass musician, Jonny Grave found the guitar at an early age, playing in “a bunch of angry rock ‘n’ roll and metal bands” as a schoolboy in his hometown of Silver Spring, Md.
But it wasn’t until 2003, at the age of 15, that Grave discovered his true voice on the instrument, when his father handed him a recording of 1920’s-era sides by Blind Willie Johnson, a Texas-born gospel/blues singer who gained renown for his singular slide guitar playing and his distinctive melding of the secular and sacred traditions.
“He didn’t tell me, ‘This is important; this is the roots of American rock ‘n’ roll,'” Grave recalls. “He just said ‘Here.’ There was a song on the CD called ‘God Moves on the Water.’ I heard that, and I just fell in love. I was just 15, and it sent me over the edge, really kicked me in the ass.”
Flash forward a few years, and Grave is now one of the busiest bluesmen in the D.C. area., playing acoustic roots music in a variety of traditions with other, like-minded artists, and performing electric, and electrifying blues and blues rock with his D.C.-based outfit the Tombstones.
He’s also something of a musicologist; chatting with Grave, you’ll learn more about the history of American music in 15 minutes than you’re liable to hear in a whole semester of college-level Music Appreciation. Perhaps closest to his heart is the subject of so-called hill country blues, the highly percussive, droning style of traditional acoustic blues that grew out of northern Mississippi, the music of Mississippi Fred McDowell and, later, R.L. Burnside — singer/guitarists who loomed large in the evolution of Grave’s own six-string style.
“Once I learned about that music, I started hearing it, picking out its influence in other styles, as well,” he says. “That rhythm-and-drone kind of sound. And as a guitar player, I love big, loud sounds. So I started listening to modern rock ‘n’ roll players who were playing along those lines. I started playing some of those old songs that I heard, but I also started writing that way, and contributing to the body of work.”
Which isn’t to say that Grave is easy to pigeonhole. An uncommonly facile and versatile guitarist, Grave can switch from intricate fingerstyle in various blues and folks traditions to gutbucket electric blues to Delta slide without skipping a beat.
He’s also prolific. He released three albums in 2015 alone, including a Tombstones release entitled “The Well,” and a project he developed alongside other D.C.-area musicians entitled “The Clara Barton Sessions.” For the latter, Grave and other regional players raised money for the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office, a museum devoted to Barton, who was the founder of the American Red Cross.
Grave and each of the other participating musicians recorded one Civil War-era folk song and one original for the album. “We wrote our original songs in a style appropriate to the time,” he said. “It’s an amazing project, and we raised $13,000 for the museum.”
What’s next for Grave? “I love traveling, and I love music,” he says. “I love learning about other kinds of music from people all over the world — I just got back from 10 days in the U.K. — and I love sharing what I learn with other people. I just want to keep traveling, and keep playing.”
Jonny Grave will play Preservation Pub Monday, June 13 at 10 p.m.