Aside from their original, highly stylized forms of folk and blues music, what is most unusual about "Reverend Truman Goines" and "Junior Bliggins," which are stage names for Seth Grossman and Bob Liana, is their day jobs. Both are highly trained professionals in their respective fields, community planning and computer programming. They play music strictly as an avocation. But the funny thing is, their music is highly professional, not what you’d expect from two guys who earn decent incomes at their day jobs.
On Saturday, July 16, they will play at the second annual Sourland Music Festival at Mignella’s Hillbilly Hall in Hopewell, which they helped start last year. They will be joined by musicians Filthy Rich McPherson, of Cranford, and Bucks County-based (full-time) harmonica player Steve Guyger. Guyger is widely regarded as one of the most exciting harmonica players in contemporary blues.
Geoff Caldwell and Guy DeRosa, both Sourland region natives, will also perform. The concert benefits the Sourland Planning Council.
Reverend Truman Goines, guitar and vocals, is Seth Grossman, community planner by day, who currently manages the Ironbound Business Improvement District in Newark. As an expert in urban revitalization, he has worked in a consulting capacity with more than 75 municipalities around the state. Grossman is also an ordained minister at the Heart River Healing Church, based in New York City. He graduated from Rutgers College, New Brunswick, in 1978, and has since received his masters in education from Rutgers. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in public administration at Rutgers University in Newark.
Junior Bliggins, harmonica and vocals, is actually Bob Liana, a high level computer programmer for Unisys Corporation. Liana, who graduated from Rider University in Lawrenceville, travels extensively around the United States, Canada, and Europe for work, and he was in Toronto at the time of this interview.
Both grew up on Poor Farm Road in Hopewell Township. The two have known each other since they were kids. "I grew up right on the edge of the Sourlands region," Grossman says. "I actually grew up on the original Poor Farm, which my father bought from Bob Liana’s father. I’ve known my musical partner at least since I was 10."
Asked about the genesis of their musical duo, Grossman says he had been away from the area for a number of years, living in New York City, and when he came back, he discovered his old friend had become quite a reputable harmonica player. "We officially started as Bliggins and Goines three years ago," Grossman says in a phone interview from his home in Hopewell. "We’ve been lifelong friends, and we got together to play some music and realized we had something special." Bliggins lives in Stockton when he is not on the road for Unisys. Grossman says he was impressed by how far his old friend’s harmonica playing had progressed.
"We took up our monikers because it helps us separate our business life from our personal life. By this point, we have our own music business life, and this really helps us make a proper distinction," Grossman says.
Recalling their youth on Poor Farm Road – hard to imagine such a place with such a name in upscale Hopewell Township – Grossman says: "We didn’t always play music together, but we played on and off for many years. Bliggins plays a very unique style of country harmonica, and I play a mixture of Piedmont blues that has some elements of Django Reinhardt as well as soul."
Grossman describes the music the two make together as Sourland Region Piedmont blues, and says their influences include Rev. Gary Davis, Josh White Sr., Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and Geoff Muldaur. Muldaur himself was a resident of Rocky Hill in the 1980s and early ’90s, when he ran Carthage Records for Princeton-raised music impresario Joe Boyd.
Grossman points out that the difference between the kind of Piedmont style blues he and Bliggins create and that of other artists stems from the fact that both Grossman and Liana are children of the 1960s, influenced by radio stations from New York and Philadelphia. "When I was a kid, growing up where we did, we heard a lot more urban, soulful kinds of music," Grossman says. Both men will turn 50 later this year.
Junior Bliggins and Rev. Truman Goines are winners of the 2005 New Folk Songwriters Contest, held at the New Jersey Folk Festival at Douglass College in April. They have recorded and released their own album, "The Legend of Jr. Bliggins and Rev. Truman Goines, Volume 1: Roots/ Traditional Music from New Jersey’s Sourland Mountain," which is composed almost entirely of original songs with some traditional blues like "Lost John" and "Diggin’ My Potatoes."
"We recorded the album with a fantastic engineer, Tom Reock of Hamilton Township," Grossman says. "Tom is a musician who plays in a lot of bands, and he also plays on the album. He’s just a great engineer, musician, and musical coach." Reock plays drums, guitar, and keyboards.
Grossman recalls that Mignella’s, or Hillbilly Hall, used to be a rough-and-tumble juke joint. As a teenager, his parents didn’t want him hanging out there but he was drawn to the place just the same. "They had country music and bluegrass and a bar and a pool table and some wild, wild folks," he says.
Fans of traditional folk music and acoustic blues will find plenty of interest at the July 16 concert at Mignella’s. "Our sound is the guitar and harmonica sound, but it’s very distinctive because our twist is it has a bit of the Philadelphia soul and New York folk influences mixed in," Grossman says. He adds the audience will hear "the best of New Jersey folk and blues and the kind of guitar and harmonica stylings that you might think you’d have to go into the deep South to hear. But it’s right here in New Jersey."
Sourland Music Festival, Saturday, July 16, 7 p.m., Mignella’s Hillbilly Hall, North Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Admission $7; age 13 and under, $5; children under age 6, free. 609-466-9856.