A lifelong obsession with the instrument started when he was a toddler
Nathan Pope has been carrying around a guitar since about the time he started talking, bonding with the instrument in the way that some toddlers latch onto a favorite blanket or stuffed animal. He’s about to leave middle school and he can hold the guitar on his own, but he still needs his parents or an adult to drive him to the gigs that he plays with the instrument.
There’s something incongruous about the concept of a blues prodigy. The blues is a form that suggests the wisdom of lived experience, suffering and endurance. It’s not so much about virtuosity — though there’s that, too — as it is about a philosophical perspective. One doesn’t necessarily expect kids to come by that perspective in middle school. Being venerable is probably more valued in the field than being fresh-faced. But, depending on how you think of it, the tradition needs young keepers of the flame to convey the depth of the music to future generations. Nathan Pope is a 14-year-old guitarist and singer who has been studying up on the blues. Pope lives in Liberty, in Randolph County, and he’ll be part of the youth showcase at the Carolina Blues Festival at Barber Park in Greensboro on Saturday, May 20. (The festival, which features Eric Gales, Luxuriant Sedans, Brandon Santini, Big Run Hunter, and others, is put on in association with YES! Weekly.)
Pope, who got his first six-string from his grandmother when he was two years old, is fond of visually arresting guitars modeled after classic Gibsons — Flying Vs, Gold Top Les Pauls, etc. His dream guitar is the classic double-neck SG made famous by Jimmy Page. These are not the guitars of subdued backing-guy players. You generally don’t gravitate toward a Flying V or a double-neck unless you’re wanting to strut your stuff a little bit. And that’s probably as it should be. Teenage guitarists are probably supposed to be a tad showboaty. You can learn restraint later on, right? Pope fronts his own trio, the Nathan Pope Band, so a little frontman pizzazz is probably in order anyway.
His grandmother plays guitar in church, so Pope’s earliest exposure to the instrument was in the context of praise music, playing accompaniment while people sang hymns. It’s probably the definition of playing with humility.
“She is my greatest influence,” Pope says of his grandmother. The teenager still plays with his grandmother in church when his family spends time with her on the weekends.
But Pope’s guitar tastes and musical interests have branched out and away from the sacred, to music that he says might not be appropriate in church. It’s not profane, necessarily, just way secular. Lots of gospel music might share the blues’ harmonic structure, the chromatic flourishes and vocal aesthetic, but it’s the focus of the energy, the spirit that makes one Sunday morning music and the other Saturday night music.
Pope’s working on a debut recording that will feature some original tunes. And he’s trying to stay true to the write-what-you-know ethos, taking ideas from his life and experience. Mining his tender years for material means that Pope’s writing process is sort of slow at the moment.
“A lot of my songs are based on things that are parts of my life,” says Pope. “That’s why I only have 10 songs.”
There’s nothing more indicative of an old-fogey perspective than the observation that times really have changed. But, times really have changed. When I was a kid, it wasn’t unusual to know middle school students who were stoked to soak up Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton riffs. But that is, admittedly, ancient history. And today guitar players like Pope may find themselves engaged in an anachronistic pursuit. It’s not like being a Civil War buff or a vintage train-set enthusiast, but almost. Pope says that his musical interests are mostly met with head-scratching from his peers.
“I’m different. I stick out,” says Pope. “I’m not your typical kid.”
With guitar idols like Joe Bonamassa and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Pope has been paying close attention to players with no shortage of chops. But he’s also been studying up on blues history, having gone to music-minded events like the Pinetop Perkins masterclass workshops in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Pope sees this as a lifetime pursuit.
“To be able to make a living off doing something that I love to do, it’s not every day that somebody gets to do something like that,” says Pope.
Pope is single-minded at this point, figuring that watching great players and picking up technical tricks will only help him out in the long run.
“I’m doing this because I’m trying to get myself out there,” says Pope. “This is what I want to do with my life. I don’t have a plan B.”
Wanna go? See Nathan Pope as part of the 4 p.m. youth showcase at the Carolina Blues Festival on Saturday, May 20 at the Barber Park Amphitheater (1500 Dans Road, Greensboro). The festival runs from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tickets are $38 – $44. For a more information about the schedule, tickets, vendors and more visit fest.piedmontblues.org.