Music: And Justice for All

The Jon Justice Band earns top honors at the Cincinnati Blues Challenge and looks to the future

Aug 1, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Jon Justice

After jamming with Tennesse's The Recipe for several years, local singer/guitarist Jon Justice came back to Greater Cincinnati and the Blues he loves.

For one so young, Jon Justice has a lot of notches on his 24-year-old belt. He's been a working musician since childhood. His debut album, 2004's Forget About Time, will soon be joined by his as-yet-untitled sophomore album, and he and his band — the Jon Justice Band, naturally — recently scored the top prize at this year's Cincy Blues Challenge for the right to represent the city at the International Blues Challenge early next year.

Throw in the fact that Justice's first band — The Recipe, with noted Nashville keyboardist Steve Blah — was formed before he was old enough to drink in the places they played, that he's a relentless road jockey and he's a single parent with sole custody of his 3-year-old son, and you've got a readymade Blues story.

Justice's tale began in Chicago, where he grew up in the church and toured around with his father and uncle at an early age. His exposure to Gospel as a youngster gave way to Bluegrass when the family moved to Kentucky while Justice was still a child, and he continued to experience life on the road.

"Before I started playing guitar I was a drummer and that's how I got my chops, trying to play along with Bluegrass because there's no drummer in Bluegrass ... that shit is hard," Justice says from his remote home in Flemingsburg, Ky. "It was kind of a novelty thing with the older guys: 'Let's have the 12-year-old play.' But I was making just as much money as they were."

By the time Justice hit his teen years, his focus had switched to guitar and little else. Faced with declining grades and no motivation to improve them, Justice dropped out of high school.

"My dad was so busy with his business that he never noticed that I didn't go to school," Justice says. "We had this big Suburban that we used to carry my gear around in and I'd go to the lake and just open up the back doors and sit there and play guitar and smoke cigarettes."

With no prospects around Justice's Kentucky home, his cousin based near Memphis offered him some painting/wallpapering work. With his growing guitar prowess and a 17-year-old's infinite bravado, Justice moved to Memphis.

"You know, you're 17, you acquire some skills but your craft is by no means honed like you think it is," Justice says. "I tried to play with the big boys and I wasn't really ready, but I learned a lot from it."

The Recipe, Justice's first band, came together when he met Blah, a noted session player, and approached him about working together. Blah was uninterested, likely due to Justice's age and apparent lack of experience. Blah's wife recognized Justice's passion and invited him to their house. As a result, Justice and Blah jammed and put The Recipe together.

Justice eventually began to hear the solo call and assembled the Jon Justice Band, a Blues trio set-up that occasionally goes simply by Justice's name, which changes by virtue of the shifting nature of his lineup.

"I don't mean for it to be an ego trip, but it's essentially Jon Justice," he says with a laugh. "I've had so many musicians play with me, that's why I always kept it 'Jon Justice.' Right now, I'm using the Jon Justice Band because I've had the same guys for a while and I've used these guys on the (new) record. It's hard to keep guys together, especially younger guys. My drummer right now is 20 years old, my bass player is 22 and I'm 24."

Although Justice's first album, Forget About Time, has earned him good notices, he's the first to admit that it was just a starting point for him, as a player, singer and songwriter. With his upcoming album, which he and the band are in the midst of recording, he feels his creative evolution will be much more in evidence.

"The first one was a little too flashy," says Justice. "I didn't have a lot of experience doing my own stuff in the studio so it was a little overproduced. This one I'm doing myself so it's more like Led Zeppelin meets Motown. It's got that Blues/Rock edge, but I'm trying to concentrate a lot more on my vocals and my lyrics."

Justice's appreciates his win in the Cincy Blues Challenge, but he keeps it in perspective.

"We got 99 out of 100, and the comments were ridiculously funny," Justice says. "Like, 'Wow, something new and fresh to the table.' What did they expect me to do? If you're not pushing the envelope a little bit, you're going to be playing in bars for the rest of your life."

Justice has recently secured national management, which will expand his range and fortunes considerably, but there are pitfalls in that regard as well. A recent branding session gave Justice a taste of the bigger time, and he, in turn, let them know what he thought about branding.

"This chick from L.A. was there and this big promoter from Chicago who discovered Slipknot was there," Justice says. "And I seriously had to pour myself a drink, light a cigarette and tell them to kind of fuck off. I'm like, 'I understand we have to be going in the same direction, but you're telling me that, on my next record, if I want to do one mic in one room with a dobro and a slide and play Country-ass, Mississippi Hill Country Blues, it's not going to fit with what I've already done? Then I don't want to do it.' I want to do whatever I want, whenever I want to.

As Jon Justice moves forward in his career, with more touring and recording in his imminent future, he knows that whatever direction his music takes, it's got to come from within him and not from a boardroom or a focus group.

"To me, it's the artist that makes the substance," Justice says. "Look at all of the different styles that Bob Dylan has pulled off. What do you call him? A Pop/Rock artist. But the last two Dylan shows I've seen, the whole band's dressed in Country gear and he's playing a pedal steel. What do I bring that's different? I guess ... differentness. I'm not going to be tied down."

THE JON JUSTICE BAND opens the Cincy Blues Fest on Friday, playing at 5:45 p.m.