For Blake Nix, music and family have always been tightly intertwined. He comes from a family with deep southern roots; three generations attended Mississippi State, and his grandfather was the principal of the local Starkville, MS high school. Both his parents were musicians and teachers: his father a folksinger and his mother a classically trained pianist. Music was part of their lives from the moment they met: she sang with him perform as part of a Kingston Trio styled vocal group —Blake admits it was “a big part of their courtship”—and remained a big part of their lives. He remembers discovering the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and other 60s hits in his parent’s record collection, and hearing his mother teach local kids piano. “I grew up around family, music, and teaching,” Blake explains.” “My mother also played at the church and ended up as the choir director.” So when he was “casting about for something to do with my life, I naturally drifted towards music and music instruction.”
It is also natural that in the 21st century, when the idea of what it means to be a professional musician and how to make a living making music is in a state of flux, Blake decided to use modern technology—social media, studios on a laptop, and online distribution—to recreate his family’s mix of music and education.
Of course, the story isn’t that simple, it never is. It’s a trip that includes living in Saudi Arabia as a teenager, trying to follow the family tradition at Mississippi State, establishing a fine arts center in Huntsville, teaching guitar, doing a bit of travelling on his own, writing songs, and eventually settling back in Huntsville, the base for his three-pronged strategy of teaching, recording, and performing.
Each event has shaped Blake’s sense of purpose, and given him unique insights. Uprooted from his home when his father—a member of the Army Corps of Engineers—was called to help build King Khalid Military City, a Saudi military installation near Hafar Al Batin, in the northeast portion of the country, Blake was transplanted into a whole new world. “A Mississippi boy in the middle of the desert,” is how he describes it. Nine thousand miles away from home, “it could have been another planet. It was nothing like anything I knew.” With the city’s remote location--the closest big city was five hours away; it meant it was hard to get a sense of the local music and culture. The military base was a melting pot, with families from across America and Europe. His new friends all had their own tastes, exposing him to new music that was imported from London, Paris, and other parts of the world. It also, he says, opened up his world view. “I started seeing things in different ways,” which made it “easier for me to see things the way other people did and to understand their perspective.”
It was also where he formed his first band. He was around 13, and did what a lot of kids do. He laughs, “we started a band, and then tried to learn how to play our instruments.” He eventually became proficient, and while an attempt to follow the family tradition of attending Ole Mississippi State did not take, he ended up back in Huntsville, where he helped establish a Fine Arts Center in nearby Madison and became an in-demand guitar teacher, with over 50 students.
At that point the restlessness of a kid who moved around a lot growing up took hold and he decided he needed see the country. These travels led him to join ‘Hell’s Bells’, a Birmingham, Alabama based AC/DC tribute band, whose tours took him all over the Southeast and Midwest. He made a move up in the tribute band hierarchy when he joined Sticky Fingers, a pre-eminent Rolling Stones cover band, and as versatile utilities man learned to play parts played by Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Bill Wyman. It was in this band Blake crossed the country by playing from one coast to the other. During this time period it also afforded him the opportunity get his passport stamped on a trip to Panama which served as his new found validation as a truly “working musician”.
These experiences were a master class in rock and roll and showmanship. In studying the music and performances of AC/DC and the Rolling Stones Blake learned chord shapes and recording tricks that the guitarists and bass players of those bands used to get their distinctive sounds and, when the time came to emulate the Stones guitar players, to play in different tunings. It was also years of lessons on the business of how to keep a professional band operating. Still, something was missing. Blake wanted to put his own stamp on things, and longed to write and record his own music.
That led to the release of “Mr. Adams’ Blues”. An ambitious project for a first album, he saw it as a chance to “work out my Jimmy Page-wannabe guitar army kind of thing, but also recreate the vocal harmonies of the folk bands and big vocal ensemble music I grew up listening to”. You can hear the rock influence on some tracks but in other tracks you can also hear the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and the folk-rock that is so dear to him.
Flash forward to today. Blake is using the lessons he’s picked up over his career to not only shape his career, but to build a musical community, one that joins the traditional joy of making music with modern day social media. An intuitive and generous teacher—skills he learned from both his family and his travels—he not only teaches his students how to recreate the sounds on their favorite albums, but encourages them to improvise and find their own way to make music a part of their lives. He is also constantly being exposed to new songs as his students ask to learn contemporary sounds.
He is also passing on the new traditions. In addition to teaching his students music and performance he helps those looking to understand social media, to learn how to use those platforms to help their careers. Schooling himself on the new business model that makes every musician an entrepreneur, and perform not only on stage, but as a publicist, tour manager, merchandiser, label head, and any other job that comes up, he passes along tips on how to use Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud, and Facebook to promote their own careers. “There’s still always a lot to learn”, Blake says. “We all end up learning quite a bit together as we go along.”
He’s also been writing new songs, performing them, and getting ready to record his second album. The new songs lean a little bit more in the direction of Alt-country, all the way from Gram Parsons to Ryan Adams. “I’ll still be trying to do some of the things I tried on my first record as well as incorporating new musical ideas and sounds that have become important to me as an evolving artist. Life is short. You just never know.” Blake is using his time to work on his new music and “to do things my family would be proud of.”