Although guitarist and singer-songwriter Jeremy Wallace has always been interested in music, he considers himself a late bloomer. He didn’t discover the simple yet complex beauty of the blues until high school, through Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut album for Columbia Records, which was released in 1963. He didn’t get serious about his guitar playing until he was attending Montclair State University, where he graduated in 1994. The Montclair resident, raised in Morristown, appears at the Mine Street Coffee House in New Brunswick on Saturday, July 9.
Wallace began writing songs the way too few singer-songwriters do nowadays: he culled his personal experiences from volumes of diaries and personal journals he has kept since he was a young teen. He draws his inspiration from people he meets out on the road and back home in Montclair. Since he began performing in earnest in the early 1990s, Wallace has performed at Clinton’s Black Potatoe Festival (see story, page 38), Tierney’s in Montclair, Maxwell’s in Hoboken, and several other clubs around the northeast that are friendly to folk and blues musicians.
Wallace’s debut album was released in 1998 on New York City-based Palmetto Records. His musical influences – which include Dylan, of course, but also Howlin’ Wolf, Leon Redbone, Tom Waits, and Dave Van Ronk – are amply on display on his 2003 album, "She Used to Call Me Honey," which he self-released. Van Ronk, who was based in Greenwich Village for many years and died in 2003 at age 65 after a struggle with cancer, was best known as a folk-blues performer who had the distinction of being a mentor to Dylan.
The late Van Ronk once said of Wallace: "He’s one of the most arresting new talents I’ve ever heard. When I hear him I get the same feeling I got the first time I heard Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie."
"I took guitar lessons from Dave for about a year and a half," Wallace recalls of Van Ronk. "I later drove him around to gigs." Many of these shows in coffee houses and bars around New England would include an opening set by Wallace. Van Ronk sings with Wallace on the cover tune of "She Used to Call Me Honey"), a traditional song called "Samson and Delilah" that Van Ronk performed for many years.
Wallace, 37, makes his living as a house painter and performs his music solo and with a trio on weekends. He was raised in Morristown, where his father worked as an accountant and his mother was a housewife. "Neither of my parents were musicians, but there was music by Jim Croce, John Denver, and Charlie Rich around the house," he says. "As a young kid, I was into heavy metal rock ‘n’ roll, and I played guitar a little bit in eighth grade. But it wasn’t until high school that I got the first Bob Dylan record. I was reading the liner notes on the back of the record to find out about who he was listening to, and that’s how I found out about Dave Van Ronk.
"I bought a record of Van Ronk’s and thought it was incredible. For me, it opened up a whole new world of music, because he had such good songs. When I went to school, I wanted to be a writer and majored in English at Montclair State," he says. "I was seriously into reading and writing."
He recalls he met Van Ronk while attending open mike nights at the Speakeasy, a now-defunct club in Greenwich Village. A fellow performer told him Van Ronk taught guitar from his apartment in Sheridan Square. He called Van Ronk, who told him he was busy touring but to check back in a few months. He began taking lessons from Van Ronk in 1991.
Wallace recorded "My Lucky Day," his debut recording, for Palmetto Records in 1998, but like a lot of independent musicians, didn’t have a booking agent or manager to take advantage of the record’s release and subsequent national distribution. Frank Christian, another folk and blues singer based in lower Manhattan and a friend of Van Ronk’s, was helpful in getting Wallace signed to a deal with Palmetto.
Says Wallace: "I got some radio air play from that album, but I didn’t get any gigs through it. It’s been a hard road, but I don’t want to complain too much or too loudly." He says he is happier now because he has a Florida-based booking agent, Sean LaRoche, who is doing an excellent job.
He says his touring "has picked up quite a bit," evidenced by the fact that he has been doing less house painting and more traveling the last two summers. "I’ve had gigs opening for Steve Forbert, Dave Alvin, and John Hammond, and so I feel like I’m making some progress now."
At his July 9 performance at Mine Street Coffee House, a comfortable room located inside the First Reformed Church in New Brunswick, Wallace will perform solo. He will sing tales of love and loss and play the kind of great fingerstyle guitar he displays on "She Used to Call Me Honey," and perhaps tell a few funny stories in between tunes, in the tradition of his late mentor, Van Ronk.
"At shows, I do mostly my own originals, but the covers I do are traditional things like ‘Samson and Delilah’ and ‘St. James Infirmary,’ mostly older, bluesy traditionals." But he never strays far from Van Ronk. "Van Ronk always said, ‘Don’t get into this business, kid,’" Wallace says. "I did not heed his advice, and there have been times when I ended up quitting for six months, but lately, things have been going well."
Jeremy Wallace, with Robert Williams, Saturday, July 9, 8:30 p.m., Mine Street Coffee House, Neilson and Bayard streets, New Brunswick. $5. 732-545-1005. — the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.