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Corey Harris stays rooted to the future

For Journal Register Newspapers

» See more SOUND CHECK

Corey Harris figures that, if nothing else, he’s been consistent.

Whether singing on the street for passers’ donations, or playing clubs and concert halls or appearing on PBS, the Denver-born troubadour has stuck to a rootsy synthesis of blues and folk, with occasional touches of country and African styles. It’s been good for 11 studio albums since 1995, and Harris figures there’s still a lot more where that’s coming from.

“I’m giving a message,” explains Harris, 43. “The message is to hold to your roots, to hold to your traditions, and by doing that you can chart a course for the future. That’s what I’ve been doing with the music for a while now ... playing a lot of roots and blues and traditional type of music, and also writing a lot of new music.

“So that’s the message — hold on to your roots, but at the same time chart a course to the future.”

Harris will explain that philosophy in-depth this weekend as he films a documentary about his career with the Farmington Hills-based American Music Research Foundation. He’s no stranger to that world — he was part of Martin Scorsese’s PBS miniseries “The Blues” in 2003, after all — but reviewing his life and times is still a heady prospect.

“I realize there’s only so much music I can hold in my head at any given time, and that a lot of the music I used to play that I don’t anymore is kind of buried,” explains Harris, who will be performing with his Rasta Blues Experience band and guests Thornetta Davis and harmonica player Phil Wiggins. “I might not remember how I play it, so there’s a lot of remembering going on ...

“But I look at it like this; I produce a product, and I want people to know what I’m producing. I want people to know my message, and opportunities like this allow me to get my message out.”

Harris’ path to his particular brand of roots music came from being exposed to both “Soul Train” and “Hee-Haw” on TV as a child “and realizing, ‘Wow, this is all music, but two totally different takes on basically the same chords and scales.’”

He recalls hearing ZZ Hill’s “Down Home Blues” at a house party when he was 7 or 8 years old, and he was already playing piano, recorder, violin, trumpet and other instruments when his stepfather took him to a B.B. King concert when Harris was 12.

“It really put a mark on me,” Harris recalls. “I had heard people play the guitar like that, but to actually see how someone does it, how he bent the strings and interacted with his band and just did what he did, that really had an impact on me. It felt like some kind of mystical science — How does he make it sound like that? — and it made me really want to crack that nut.”

Not surprisingly, he started playing guitar shortly after the show — using a pick that King gave him that night.

Harris studied at Bates College in Maine and later in Cameroon on a Watson Fellowship in language research. He had a Teach For America post in Napoleonville, La., and started out as a street performer in New Orleans before beginning his recording career with 1995’s “Between Midnight and Day.” He’s also traveled extensively around the world exploring different musical styles — particularly African and Caribbean — and joined forces with Mali’s Ali Farka Toure on the 2002 collaborative album “Mississippi to Mali.”

Harris — who was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007 — also appeared on the two “Mermaid Avenue” albums, helping Wilco and Billy Bragg write music for unrecorded lyrics written by the late Woody Guthrie. He also recorded a version of “Redemption” for the 2003 “Johnny’s Blues: A Tribute to Johnny Cash.”

Harris’ most recent album, “Rasta Blues Experience,” came out in 2011. He envisioned it as stylistically similar to 2009’s “blu.black” but “after a while I started writing more and more songs ... and it started to acquire its own character, its own flavor, its own identity.

“That’s the thing about albums; It’s kind of like you take a snapshot of how you are at that particular time,” Harris adds. “Each record is like that; it’s a document of ... what I felt I needed to say at that time. You really can’t think about it. It’s like digestion; it just happens.”

Harris — who now lives in Richmond, Va., with his 6-year-old daughter (he also has a 13-year-old son) — isn’t sure what will happen next. “You have to let the ideas come naturally,” he explains. But he’s confident he’ll continue to spread his message and continue looking for new avenues to present it.

“I realize at this point I’m getting close to being a veteran in this business,” Harris notes. “I see the path behind me and I see the path ahead of me, and I feel like this is a good time to be very thankful for the opportunities that have come to me and for all the things that have happened to me.”

Corey Harris and his Rasta Blues Experience — with guests Thornetta Davis and Phil Wiggins — perform at 5:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, March 17, at Callahan’s Music Hall, 2105 South Blvd., Auburn Hills. Tickets are $30 per show, $50 for both. Call 248-858-9508 or visit www.atcallahans.com.

Web Site: www.atcallahans.com

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