It’s been said that Session Americana is a rock band in a tea cup or possibly a folk band in a whiskey bottle. The musicians in the band huddle around a little bar table, playing their heart and souls out. One of the most visible players sits stage right adding his memorable harmonica licks and riffs to each song; sometimes subtly and sometimes like a locomotive. His name is Jim Fitting. Jim has been an esteemed member of the Boston music scene since the 1980s and exudes a touch of bluesy class whenever he’s on stage.
Find out more about Jim and Session Americana on their website.
Here’s a great example of Jim and the band playing one of his signature songs, “The Coalburner.”
Has harmonica always been your instrument of choice?
Yeah pretty much. I played baritone sax for a few years. And I play guitar at home.
How did you first become enamored with the harmonica?
My brother in-law gave me one when I was a teenager. My brother Tom played guitar and we were listening to a lot of blues stuff at that time. So it worked out that my brother was patient and let me learn as I played along.
Do you have any harmonica heroes?
How long a list do you want? Little Walter, Stevie Wonder, Charlie McCoy, Norton Buffalo, Paul Butterfield, Jr. Wells, Sonny Terry, Howard Levy, Sonny Boy Williamson and Larry Adler. That’s my top ten.
Tell us about your days with the Treat Her Right. How would you describe the music you played then?
Treat Her Right was a lot of fun. We played a lot of gigs and got to travel all over the US. At the time we were trying to get away from the big rock sound that was predominant in the mid-eighties. Bill Conway played a cocktail drum that gave the music a much lighter touch than typical kick / snare thunder. Mark Sandman played a guitar through an octave divider so the bass wasn’t as heavy. We were trying to sound like an early Muddy Waters record, but with a more ‘modern’ context. For example we covered Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” with Dave Champagne singing and playing slide guitar. We had the good fortune to be around Fort Apache Studios when they just started and we were able to take our time and experiment in a loose recording environment with a good friend and excellent engineer Paul Kolderie. As a result we got some really good recordings right off the bat, which helped us get signed to RCA.
I understand that you attended Yale University. What did you study there? Somehow an Ivy League education and a bluesy rock band playing dive bars in Boston doesn’t equate.
Well that’s life. I was an English major, but it was pretty clear from the beginning that the music bug had bit me harder than academics ever would. I actually met the aforementioned Bill Conway and Paul Kolderie first semester and ended up playing in bands with them all though college.
You’ve seen a lot of changes in the music business since you first started in the 80s. You went the major label route with RCA and now it seems that the majority of artists release their albums independently. Did you encounter pushback from the label regarding creative control of projects when you were recording for the business suits working for labels?
It was exciting to be on a major label at that time. We didn’t have the stereotypical conflicts over material with RCA. It was much more about album cover artwork, the obligatory music video and who do we get put on tour with. There were fights about all those things, and they wasted a lot of our money (ie. future royalties) on crap we didn’t want. For example we did a big tour opening for the Athens, Georgia band Guadacanal Diary right when our record came out and it made no sense at all. But then we got to do little tours with the likes of Los Lobos, Little Feat and Bonnie Raitt which would not have happened without the record company and their ties to big booking agents. It is a lot tougher to get out there like that these days that’s for sure.
Your list of music credits is pretty impressive. You’ve added your harmonica playing to albums by musicians as diverse as Jules Shear to Kim Richey to the The and Juliana Hatfield. Would you agree that the “art” of playing harmonica is a fine line between the spaces—knowing when to play and knowing when to be quiet to let the other instruments of vocals take precedence?
Yeah I guess. Mostly I try to have good tone, try to be melodic and of course stay out of the way. And hope the tape is rolling when I hit a couple good notes.
Session Americana has been playing more abroad and in other parts of the country these days. You’re fantastic ambassadors of the Cambridge / Somerville music scene. What kind of reception do you get in the UK and in Scandinavia, for instance?
Well we just got back from Sweden, Ireland and Scotland and it was pretty incredible. We played a couple of festival shows to big crowds and they seemed to like it a lot. In Sweden they bought all the CDs we had. Ireland has been great for us. We have been there a few times now and they really get it, the idea of us sitting around the table trading songs. They appreciate live music there in a fundamental way that is a bit hard to describe. Needless to say we are ready to go back as soon as we can.
What’s the wildest gig you’ve ever played?
I think the wildest gig I’ve ever played was so wild I can’t remember a thing about it!
What’s the best part of being in Session Americana?
The guys I play with.