Samuel James has reservations about the sepia-toned photo that graced his 2008 album cover and has followed him ever since. With James decked out in full Robert Johnson regalia, the allusion to the celebrated blues icon is pretty hard to overlook.
"That was kind of a political decision that was out of my hands," says James, who at the age of 30 has already outlived the enigmatic bluesman by three years. "It's sort of immediately obvious because I'm young and black and playing this kind of music. And it also leads to people's nonstop requests for me to play Robert Johnson songs."
So how does James respond?
"I just like to say I'll do something that Robert Johnson did, which is to play my own songs."
Even without the photo, the acoustic musician's Delta-style slide guitar and vocal phrasings might still invite comparisons. On the recently released For Rosa, Maeve and Noreen, his second album for the NorthernBlues label, James presents an engaging collection of original songs steeped in Delta and Piedmont blues traditions and infused with imaginative storytelling.
"You can just tell different stories in different styles," says James of his regional influences. "The Piedmont style is more bouncy and jumpy, so you can tell a funnier story with that kind of thing. Whereas the Delta style is a lot more singular and severe, which means you can tell that kind of story."
It's pretty easy to figure out which category songs like "Sugar Smallhouse and the Legend of the Wandering Siren Cactus" fit into. With a title that Ishmael Reed would be proud of, it's one of three songs about James' mythical "Delta adventurer" to appear in the space of two albums.
"I just like the idea of folk heroes, you know," says James. "And I think it's a shame that a lot of folk heroes only get one story. Like John Henry basically had that one thing he did, and that was, you know, going up against a machine. That's it. But Sugar Smallhouse does all kinds of stuff."
A less apocryphal figure in James' songwriting is Rosa, who in addition to sharing a third of his latest album's title, finds her way into songs like "Wooooooo Rosa" and "Rosa's Sweet Lil' Love Song." James, who refers to his girlfriend in conversation as "my darling Rosa," assures me that she's not the same woman who appears in "Runnin' From My Baby's Gun, Whilst Previously Watchin' Butterflies From My Front Porch."
"No, that was a very different period," says James. "Believe it or not, while I do write songs about women, they're not always the same women. I can't be the only musician to ever do that."
James goes heavy on storytelling compared to most contemporary blues practitioners, with a level of narrative detail that has more in common with the works of Charlie Patton and Son House.
"If you listen to those guys, or Mississippi John Hurt, their songs were detailed and had wonderful story arcs. But it just doesn't happen anymore. I don't know why that is. I think there's a wealth of things to write about, you know?"
It was the Great Depression, he figures, that brought that period of blues songwriting to a close: "It killed this sort of acoustic blues, for lack of a better phrase. The record companies just went out of business, and they couldn't sell race records anymore. And I think something similar is gonna happen pretty soon, now that the record industry is dying, if not dead already."
James' personal story arc can be traced back to his youth in Portland, Maine, where his father was a jazz session pianist.
"I was always a writer, you know, and my father's a fantastic storyteller. I'm sort of a culmination of his upbringing, I suppose."
James started playing piano himself when he was 8, and actually toured professionally at 12. That was also the year his mother died, leaving him to spend his teen years in a series of foster homes. (James and his father have since reconnected.)
Although Maine has never been known as a destination spot in the blues diaspora, it's worked well as James' home base, especially since he's started spending five months a year on the road. These days, he tours regularly as the opening act for venerable Texas bluesman Johnny Winter, who has described James' music as "traditional blues done with a hip twist."
Even though he plays solo, James' live performances don't lack for energy — "I think I'm the only person you'll ever see who sits and sweats" — and neither do his recordings. He says he's never been big on overdubs, but a few were unavoidable this time around.
"I blew out my voice singing. You get in the studio and it's like, 'All right, we're going in for 12 hours!' Well, after nine hours, it's really difficult to sing, you know? Especially if you're hollering, which is kind of the only way I know how to sing."