‘Blues is my business’

Locust Grove native reflects on music, life and family

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

If you ask James “Buck” Newton of Locust Grove, he might say music is merely a hobby that helps him pass the time.

James “Buck” Newton gave a special performance at the Times office after finishing his interview. Photo by Nick Vassy

But, when he starts talking about that music while bending the strings on his 30-year-old guitar, the smile that crosses his face reveals his lifelong passion for playing the blues.

“The blues, to me, is like this. It’s a feeling,” says Newton, 76. “Everything about life, to me, has got blues in it. I might play a song today, and you’ll like it. Then I’ll turn around and play the same song tomorrow, and it don’t sound worth nothin’. Blues, you play as a feeling.”

Newton was born on Aug. 9, 1939, the son of a sharecropper in Locust Grove. Being the third child of 15 – seven boys and eight girls – he only made it through the third grade because he had to work on the farm.

Newton recalls how, even as a young boy, he would lighten his load in the field by singing his heart out as he followed behind a mule in the field.

“I sang some songs you’d die laughing about if you hear ‘em,” he says.

As a child, Newton earned money for his family by raking leaves for 30 cents an hour for an educator named Kate Brown.

“I thought I was gettin’ in big, high cotton,” says Newton. “That was big money. I figured if I worked two hours, I done made me 60 cents.”

One Saturday in 1948, Brown asked the eight-year-old Newton to work all day at her farm, and to sleep overnight in Brown’s adjacent bunkhouse. His musical obsession, he says, was fueled even more that evening when he saw a guitar hanging up in the bunkhouse.

“Oh, man, I wanted to get in there,” says Newton. “I wanted to get that guitar down so bad, but I didn’t know how to play. I wanted to play. The bunkhouse was about 200 feet from the house, and she was old, you know. I got the guitar down, making all kinds of noise.”

The next morning, Newton says, Brown got onto him for playing with the guitar because it was going to her grandson who was in the Navy at the time. To Newton’s surprise, however, she later agreed to give it to him as a gift.

“Boy, that was the happiest feeling,” says Newton, beaming at the memory. “I mean, something went all over me. It was a big, white, pretty guitar. I said, ‘If you’re gonna give me the guitar, you don’t have to pay me.’ She said, ‘No, I’m gonna pay you and give you the guitar.’ So I started from there.”

Newton and his wife Deborah have been married since August of 1959, and they have four children -- Ricky, Charlotte, Tammy and Janice. Over the years, Newton has continued writing and performing songs on the side while working in farming and construction to support his family. He also owns a small landscaping business.

Through the years, Newton has encountered people who have helped to inspire him as a musician. Newton says one occasion that sticks out in his mind, in particular, is when he met Muddy Waters at the Macon Coliseum in 1978.

“You never hear him singing the same song over again when he goes to do a show,” says Newton. “He just sings a different song. But, if you like Muddy Waters, you don’t care what he sounds like.”

When asked what inspires him to write a song, Newton relies heavily on personal experience. He says the key in playing blues music is to remember that performers put different levels of emotion into their songs, depending on what they’ve been through in their own lives.

“Blues is my business,” he says. “I write my recordings according to what happened to me, and according to what I know. I’m not a famous guitar player, don’t get me wrong. I play my own style of music. I don’t play nobody else’s. If you’re a blues player and I like your music, and I try to play your songs, I never play ‘em like you play ‘em, because you’ve got a feeling for it.”

To illustrate his point, Newton harkens back to a song from one of the most well-known blues singers of all time.

“It’s like B.B. King sang, “The Thrill is Gone,” says Newton. “You got to have the same feeling he had when he stood up there and recorded it. But your thrill might not be gone.”

Newton’s thrill was certainly evident when he played some of his favorite tunes during a recent visit to The Henry County Times. Whether he was singing about family life in “Grandpa Told Grandma,” recalling his days of chopping cotton in “Mister Moe,” or reflecting on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in “Trina,” Newton’s songs evoke a variety of emotions to bring his listeners together.

Newton says “it takes a good-hearted person” to create a song that speaks to others.

“A person that don’t care about people, he can’t do that,” he says. “It takes a person that cares about life and friends. You can use a friend where a dollar won’t spend. I never been a preacher. If I did, I got no knowledge of it, but I would imagine he would feel the same way because you get up there and you’re telling a story to the people. That’s what you do with your music, and you’re telling something true. If you go to school and learn a song, you can play it anytime. But blues is not like that. You don’t play the same song every time, unless you’re a real famous blues player.”

Newton says he has managed to avoid certain vices which have marked the careers of other, more well-known musicians. In particular, he says he made the decision long ago not to drink alcohol.

“That’s why I sing the blues,” he says with a laugh. “My daddy was a drinker. My mama, I used to hear her say, ‘A man that drinks and gets drunk like you’re doing, he ain’t no good.’ She said it takes a level-headed man. So I never did drink.”

Locust Grove businessman and former Henry County commissioner, Warren Holder, has known Newton for about 50 years. In fact, he is related by marriage to Kate Brown, the educator whose generosity sparked Newton’s musical aspirations.

Holder serves as president of the Locust Grove Heritage Foundation. He notes that Newton, several years ago, was a featured performer at a concert for the organization’s Music & Memories program.

“When we started Music and Memories, we tried to get people from the community to perform, to show what our heritage is,” says Holder. “He did a good job. Buck’s worked hard all his life. Had he had the education, his music probably would have gone farther than it did. I guess he uses his music for R&R. Had the situation been different, I think he would have taken his music a lot further or in a different direction -- no question.”

Although Newton is not a professional musician, he has managed to sell some of his CDs locally and in other areas. He says he hopes to touch the lives of others with his music for as long as he can.

“I hope it gives them a good feeling, and I love to make people happy,” he says.