Kids Shannon Curfman, Jonny Lang Taking The Blues Reins

Some of the top sellers of the genre seem far too young to even know what they're singing about.

When B.B. King,

COLOR="#003163">John Lee Hooker or

COLOR="#003163">R.L. Burnside sing the blues, there's no

denying the music's reflection of the singers' lives and hard times. So

where does 14-year-old Shannon

Curfman get off singing to us about her love life, as she

does on "Hard to Make a Stand," a Sheryl

Crow-penned tune on her debut album, Loud Guitars, Big

Suspicions?

Atop the charts is where, apparently. The album's been among

Billboard magazine's weekly list of top-selling blues albums for

more than six months now, since it was released just after Curfman's

14th birthday.

But Curfman's not the only small-fry singing the blues to an older

audience. Elder statesman Kenny Wayne

Shepherd — he's 23 now — is one of the hottest

names in the business these days; he recorded a chart-topping album when

he was just 17. Fresh-faced Jonny

Lang's been opening shows for the likes of

COLOR="#003163">Aerosmith, the

COLOR="#003163">Rolling Stones, King and

COLOR="#003163">Blues Traveler since releasing his 1997 debut

album, Lie To Me. And he's still not old enough to drink.

And there are others. Singer Shemekia

Copeland, 21, this year was the youngest artist ever

considered for the prestigious W.C. Handy award for blues artist of the

year. Derek Trucks, the nephew of

Allman Brothers Band drummer

Butch Trucks, recorded his first

album at 18, having by then long since spent time jamming with the likes

of Buddy Guy and even

COLOR="#003163">Bob Dylan before joining the Allmans in 1998.

And Bostonian Mike Welch is another

who made his mark as a blues artist deserving of notice before reaching

his 20th birthday.

But is it really so strange for young players to make a mark in the

blues? Robert Johnson, a seminal

figure in blues history, left a stunning legacy of songs and playing

despite his death at age 26. Multiple Handy award-winner

COLOR="#003163">Rory Block appeared on New York's Town Hall

stage when she was 14, and by the age of 16 had recorded a blues-guitar

instruction record. At just 21, Bonnie

Raitt recorded an impressive debut with fully formed

renditions of blues classics including Johnson's "Big Road Blues" and

Sippie Wallace's "Mighty Tight

Woman" (

href="http://www.sonicnet.com/artists/clip.cgi?track=%7Eq-XXXXXX%2F00196

36_0102_00_0002.ra">RealAudio excerpt), dressing them up with

that soulful bottleneck slide guitar she's been known for ever since.

Angst Is Not Enough

But is adolescent anguish sufficient to fuel a blues career?

Curfman, whose voice has been compared to those of both Raitt and Crow,

grew up in Fargo, N.D., where she picked up a guitar at age 8 when a

friend of her grandmother was offering guitar lessons. She soon gave up

the lessons in favor of playing by ear, and listening to a varied crop

of musicians.

"My musical heroes are people like Stevie

Wonder, Santana, Rory

Block, Prince,

COLOR="#003163">Dwight Yoakam, Chaka

Khan, John Prine ... I

could go on," she said. "My goal is to be like Sheryl Crow — she

writes, plays a lot of her instruments, sings, produces. I'm definitely

a hands-on person, I like doing things myself." That extended to writing

seven of the songs on her debut release. Loud Guitars, Big

Suspicions (RCA) includes the rockin' "True Friends" (

href="http://www.sonicnet.com/artists/clip.cgi?track=~ccc-484908/0236029

_0103_00_0002.ra">RealAudio excerpt) and the bluesy "No Riders"

(

href="http://www.sonicnet.com/artists/clip.cgi?track=~ccc-484908/0236029

_0102_00_0002.ra">RealAudio excerpt).

Running counter to another stereotype — of the blues being rooted

in the South — Lang, like Curfman, hails from Fargo. He's four

years Curfman's senior, and teamed up with her to write "Like That" and

play guitar on several of the album's tracks.

Lang has his own impressive résumé, starting with his A&M

debut, Lie To Me, which was released in January 1997 and entered

the Billboard new artist chart at #1. He also was named by the

editors of Newsweek as one of 100 Americans expected to be

influential in this millennium.

Passion Of Youth

It is true that most young blues stars today are recognized more for

their musical skills than the lyrical content of their songs, as are

other prodigies in the musical world, whether it be classical, country

— as in Lee Ann Rimes — or

even in pop music (Michael Jackson).

Maybe it's just that some of them at least have the time to practice.

"From 11 to 14, I was totally immersed in blues," recalled Welch, who

got his introduction to the blues — at least in the musical sense

— through his father's record collection. "He had the

COLOR="#003163">Beatles, [

COLOR="#003163">Jimi]

COLOR="#003163">Hendrix, every record

COLOR="#003163">Eric Clapton played on, plus one

COLOR="#003163">Muddy Waters, one

COLOR="#003163">Albert King, one

COLOR="#003163">Howlin' Wolf. ... From

COLOR="#003163">Cream's version of "Crossroads" (

href="http://www.sonicnet.com/artists/clip.cgi?track=%7Ebb-XXXXXX%2F0012

247_0103_00_0002.ra">RealAudio excerpt), I sought out Robert

Johnson."

By the time Welch turned 15 and prepared to make his first album,

These Blues Are Mine, the magazine Rolling Stone called

him "a young teen who can rip off the top of your head and cram your

brains into your neck with his blues guitar work."

The years will tell whether Shepherd, Curfman, Copeland and other young

phenoms have the maturity to grow in music. For now, it's clear they

have the passion. "It wasn't something somebody suggested to me to do,"

Block recalled of her introduction to the blues in the 1950s. "I

had to do that music. It was like being run over by a freight

train." Nearly four decades later, Copeland echoed Block's revelation:

"It was like a light went on in my head," she said. "I just had

to sing this music."