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Moon Over Memphis 

Award-winning blues band on the rise

The lives of the members of Delta Moon have changed considerably since last October, when the Atlanta-based group graced the stage of the Double Door Inn and ended up winning the Charlotte Blues Society's 8th Annual Blues Talent Contest. Taking first place in this competition provided the band with the opportunity to represent Charlotte in Memphis, TN, and compete, along with 49 other acts, in the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge this past February. Once again, Delta Moon held off the competition and won first place in the contest.It takes more than Lady Luck to pull off these extraordinary distinctions. Recently, the three original members of Delta Moon -- Gina Leigh, Mark Johnson and Tom Gray -- sat down to discuss their success, their influences and their plans for the future.

Creative Loafing: In early 2002, you released your self-titled debut disc. How has the overall sound of the band changed from its earliest days, and what influenced this metamorphism?

Tom Gray: We started the band with two voices, two acoustic guitars, and percussion. We also sometimes worked as a trio with no percussion. Then after the release of that album, we settled on a permanent rhythm section we call "The Quarter Ton," with Johnny McKnight on drums and Jon Schwenke on bass.

Mark Johnson: The sound of the band really changed when I switched to electric guitar, which I feel is more my "voice." It provided more contrast in the sound, but it also demanded a bass guitar. Now we're starting to get funky, which we all love.

It's fairly common for groups to incorporate multiple instruments in their line-up, but if memory serves me, Delta Moon was the first in a while to enlist twin slide guitarists [Tom on lap-style and Mark on bottleneck]. Was this intentional?

Mark Johnson: The idea of the two slide guitars came from me. I saw Ry Cooder and David Lindley play at the New Orleans Jazz Fest one year and came home and called Tom, whom I had first met when I was taking lap steel lessons from him. I was inspired by the show and asked him if he wanted to give the band a try with Gina and me.

On the album Delta Moon, you effectively blend a collection of originals, with Tom being the primary songwriter, and treasured classics from many of the true pioneers of the blues world. Much to your credit, the original compositions flow well alongside the covers from classic country and delta artists like Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Willie Dixon.

Tom Gray: There are many more originals, and some will be on the next CD. I'm encouraging Mark and Gina to write regularly and feel it's very important that we write together. I'm very pleased with the results so far.

Mark Johnson: We're as influenced by current artists as we are the old masters. We love Robert Johnson, RL Burnside, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Ry, Lindley, Jerry Douglas, Blind Willie Johnson, Sonny Landreth, John Hiatt, Steve Earl, and a lot of rock & roll: the Stones, Zep, and on and on.

Winning the Charlotte Blues Society (CBS) 2002 Talent Contest allowed you the opportunity to represent the CBS at the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge in Memphis earlier this year. Joining 49 other competitors for the coveted prizes (cash, studio time, club and festival bookings, radio airplay), what was the consensus of the group going into the event?

Tom Gray: Initially, the IBC was just an experience we were taking part in. Once we got into the competition, though, we could taste it. Saturday afternoon, Mark and I spent most of the time lying on our beds in the hotel room in the dark with sleeping masks on, playing every note of that night's set in our heads. When we hit the stage, we were there to win.

Gina Leigh: Well, Mark was saying, "I'm here to win," I was saying, "We're just here to make contacts and never mind winning," and Tom was conspicuously silent. And grinning. I really had no inkling that we could win. But I think we struck a chord because we're different.

How do you expect this honor will change the future of Delta Moon, and what doors are suddenly opening up for the group?

Gina Leigh: The package that came with the award included guaranteed bookings at a list of festivals and clubs all over the country. We've confirmed many of those, and we've gotten other opportunities we wouldn't likely have had otherwise. So it looks like we'll be doing a lot more traveling.

Tom Gray: Doors are certainly opening, but it's up to us to get through them. To take advantage of the situation, we'll have to work harder than ever. We'll be opening the W.C. Handy Awards in May and the King Biscuit Festival in Helena, Arkansas. We won studio time both in Charlotte and in Memphis. Having CDs pressed (1,000 from Charlotte, 1,000 from Memphis) will save us some money. Other prizes, like the booking consultation with Intrepid, are impossible to put a dollar value on. But I think the most valuable thing to come from all this is the nationwide buzz about the band.

What's next for the group, and when can we expect to receive new material?

Tom Gray: We recorded a live CD at Tree Studio in Atlanta on February 21 and hope to get it out in a few months. And we continue to record other material in various studios. We're constantly working on new music, both honing the band's sound and looking for fresh elements to inject.

Delta Moon will perform as part of the Charlotte Blues Society's 10th Anniversary Party at 8pm Sunday, April 6, at the Double Door Inn, 218 East Independence Boulevard. The bill will also feature The Robin Rogers Band. A silent auction will also be conducted, and hors d'oeuvres will be available. General admission is $10. For more information, call 704-376-1446, or go online to www.carolinablues.org.

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