Jontavious Willis is on a mission to spread the love for the blues

HIs new album recorded at Capricorn Sound Studios in Macon comes out this spring.
Jontavious Willis records his upcoming album, accompanied by Jayy Hopp, at Capricorn Sound Studios in Macon. (Courtesy of The Jontavious Willis Team)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Jontavious Willis records his upcoming album, accompanied by Jayy Hopp, at Capricorn Sound Studios in Macon. (Courtesy of The Jontavious Willis Team)

It was a balmy afternoon last November, almost T-shirt weather, when Jontavious Willis, a 27-year-old Grammy-nominated blues musician, sat down to record his third album at Capricorn Sound Studios in Macon.

A versatile, self-taught singer-songwriter from rural West Georgia, Willis is a multi-instrumentalist who plays six-string, 12-string and resonator guitars, the banjo and the harmonica.

Joining him on the recording was his band: bass (and washtub) player Rodrigo Mantavoni, pianist Ethan Leinwand, guitarist and drummer Jayy Hopp (a childhood friend) and vocalist Lloyd Buchanan.

At the helm of Capricorn’s state of the art recording equipment was New Orleans sound engineer Jon Atkinson, who brought an arsenal of vintage ‘40s and ‘50s equipment, including tape recorders and mikes. That’s because Willis prefers the warm, authentic sound of the past that modern digital equipment just can’t achieve.

Together they recorded about 200 takes of about 60 songs, 15 of which will make it to the album, the follow-up to Willis’ 2020 Grammy-nominated album, “Spectacular Class,” produced by Keb’ Mo’ on the Kind of Blue Music label.

The as-yet untitled record is due out in spring 2024, and Willis promises “every flavor of blues, especially Georgia blues.”

Willis' previous album, "Spectacular Class,"  was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2020.
Courtesy of Kind of Blue Music

Credit: Kind of Blue Music

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Credit: Kind of Blue Music

Spreading the gospel of the blues

Willis is the latest in a long line of blues musicians from Georgia, including Ray Charles, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Ma Rainey and James Brown. Expressive vocals, technical prowess and amiable Southern charm make him a charismatic showman and performer.

He has appeared at prestigious venues, opening for Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ on their 2018 joint TajMo, making his Grand Ole Opry debut in 2022 and opening for the Indigo Girls at Macon’s Grand Opera House last year.

But Willis is more than a blues musician; he’s on a self-declared mission to reignite the blues by introducing it to a new generation and growing an audience for what he calls “the music of my ancestors, the first American-made music.”

After all, without the blues, there would be no R&B, country, bluegrass, jazz or rock ‘n’ roll, but we don’t listen to it enough these days, he says. He’s determined to change that.

To that end, Willis studies the history of the blues, spends time with the art form’s living elders and masters, and helps educate people around the country about it. For five years he worked on his Fall Line Blues Project, collaborating with filmmaker Henry Jacobs on video interviews and recordings of living blues masters in West Georgia and East Alabama.

“We’re living in a delicate time now when our elders are passing on,” he says, “and they are literally the fabric of the blues music that I play and love.”

As he sings in his song “West Georgia Blues”: Some folks sing the blues just ‘cause they know the song / We’re singing these blues to carry tradition on.

Willis is artistic director of the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshop in Washington. Now in its 30th year, the workshop offers a week of learning, listening, composing and playing the art form.

“I hand-pick about 30 teachers, of all ages,” he says. “This year I’ve got a 90-year-old, and I’m probably the youngest at 27. I want to make it a learning place for the new generation. We usually get about 150-200 students from around the globe.”

Last November, Willis was the first music artist in residence at Mercer University’s King Center for Southern Studies in Macon, a three-day residency that included a panel discussion and performance.

“He’s a true historian of blues music who can explain what parts of the tradition he is pulling forward and what parts are uniquely his,” says history professor Douglas E. Thompson, director of the King Center for Southern Studies. “He’s a conveyor of the past who can bring that old analog sound into the digital age. And his sheer musicianship is amazing.”

Georgia bluesman Jontavious Willis has made fans of the legendary Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. Courtesy of Jontavious Willis

Credit: Courtesy of Jontavious Willis

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Credit: Courtesy of Jontavious Willis

A life steeped in music

Willis was 3 years old when his grandfather asked him to join the choir at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, and it is there, he says, he learned the back beat, timing and melody.

“My granddaddy and daddy were my first influences. My granddaddy has a wonderful voice and the way he sings his gospel songs sounds just like blues. So, I was basically already in the genre,” he says.” A lot of the lingo and language and dialects in my songs, I got from my grandparents, not from a blues record.”

At 14 his father bought him a guitar. While surfing YouTube one day he discovered Muddy Waters singing the classic tune “Hoochie Coochie Man.”

“That did it for me,” he says. “The way he sang that song and started laughing and talking to the audience and they talked back, it was almost like church.”

Willis counts Tampa Red as one of his top musical influences.

The Georgia-born musician “was one of the most popular bluesmen of the 1930s,” says Willis. Tampa Red played a resonator guitar, designed to produce a louder sound in the days before amplifiers, and Willis had one commissioned just like it with the addition of his name inscribed on the neck of the instrument. “It weighs about 35 pounds, so I only bring it with if I’m driving to a show,” he says.

In truth, though, “My voice is my No. 1 instrument” he says. “I’ve listened to so many styles of blues and learned their different cadences. I can be gravelly, dry, loud, soft, soulful, sly, whatever the song demands. I want to show every flavor of the blues.”

But most of all, Willis wants to play music that “lifts folks off their feet and gets them dancing. I want to see it like it was back in the day,” he says. “Your belly is right there on the guitar, your foot is tapping, your hand is clapping your chest in time with your heartbeat, and your audience is dancing.”

Like many of the blues elders he’s met, he plans to continue playing until he can’t.

“I’ve talked with some of the old blues masters, and they were playing all the way until the day they died,” he says. “If their hand could move, they were playing. The blues is a groove, a drive, an undercurrent in your life that is there always.”


Jontavious Willis. Feb. 3. $27.50. Pure Life, 206 Clark St., La Grange. 706-443-4838,