If there is an artist that exemplifies the “music is life” mantra, blues guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Scott Ainslie is that person.
At 15 years old, he picked up a guitar after hearing a few songs by Virginia bluesman John Jackson. It’s been 46 years and Ainslie always looks back. He pays homage to the culture that inspired him to play music and the men and women who drove him to write his own.
“I wasn’t born into that culture,” Ainslie said. “And whoever penetrates a new culture needs to figure out what’s going on in it first. ... It goes beyond just learning how to play a song.”
Ainslie took that learning seriously. He graduated with honors from Washington and Lee University. He also spent time with seasoned musicians and got educated outside the classroom in old-time Southern Appalachian fiddle and banjo traditions, as well as black gospel and blues.
Ainslie will hit the crowd with his knowledge Feb. 9 as he takes the Acoustic Brew stage at the Center for Well-Being in Lemont. His chatty stage presence and big voice are tailor-made for the intimate, historic venue. His rich, traditional stories will be on full display along with his six-string and single-string cigar box guitars.
Ainslie is a singing historian. When other kids were playing Bob Dylan and other top 40 hits on their turntables, he was studying the subtleties of North Carolina blues and gospel musicians.
“There’s something about being in your early 20s when (the music) hits you,” he said. “It becomes your musical DNA.”
Ainslie learned from musicians born in the early 1900s. He tapped into a musical culture that had roots in the 19th century, and it made him into the strong-voiced instrumentalist today who is on the road 160 days out of the year.
“It was a different world,” he said. “I know whose shoulders I am standing on.”
On stage, Ainslie goes beyond his musical pedigree. He is also a storyteller. His show is designed to connect with the audience, more so than a set list of songs played back to back. He hopes each crowd member walks out with a good story to share and a new appreciation for the culture.
“He has a real gift as a performer,” Acoustic Brew organizer Jim Colbert said. “As a person in the audience, you feel like he’s singing a song just for you. We get a lot of really great technical musicians, but when you put in the connection, Scott takes it to another level and makes it feel personal.”
Colbert said the concert series tries to bring in a diverse variety of artists, and even though Ainslie is marked as blues, he brings a lot more to the table.
“He is a blues artist, and certainly does that as well as anyone in the world,” Colbert said, “But he is also a multi-instrumentalist and killer songwriter. The resonance and dynamics of what he does are made for this kind of venue.”
With every strum of his guitar, Ainslie shares a story, connects with his audience and pays tribute to the musicians who came before him.
It’s a culture that he is proud of, and dedicated to passing along and keeping alive.