BY TAYLOR ROBINSON
When music journalist, Jas Obrecht, was first starting out, a game of one-on-one basketball turned into the first-ever interview with rock and roll guitar legend, Eddie Van Halen.
“You should interview me, no one ever wants to interview me,” Obrecht recalls Van Halen saying in 1978. Little did both of them know, Van Halen would become one of the most well-known guitarists and this interview would essentially lead other musicians to Obrecht’s pen, paper and recorder.
Obrecht, a writing instructor at Washtenaw Community College, is also a music journalist and has been for the past 40 years. A guitarist himself for the past 50, the ability to combine his writing with his music has allowed an abundance of opportunities throughout his career.
Beginning in highschool, Obrecht’s exposure to blues guitarist John Lee Hooker was “life-changing.”
“I didn’t know much about blues music,” Obrecht said. “It’s just a man and his guitar, keeping time with his feet and I was mesmerized…This music is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It’s really deep, it’s really beautiful, it really tells a story.”
Obrecht explains that studying music is like a backwards journey – researching one artist’s music leads to another one farther in the past, leading to another and yet another, taking him back to the earliest recordings of blues in the 1920s.
“I’m a natural born storyteller,” Obrecht said. “I thought this was a really big story to tell. It’s like all the rock and roll we have today and all the blues music we listen to today, are descendants of the music I wrote about in this book which is the first stuff that ever made it on records.”
Collecting a copious amount of interviews with musicians allowed Obrecht to build an extensive compilation which are amassed into one of his most recent works, “Early Blues: The First Stars of Blues Guitar,” to be published on Nov. 9.
It’s taken 35 years to gather all the information for Obrecht’s book and he couldn’t be happier about it. Giving thanks to the internet, it’s helped him to create a well-rounded story.
“I couldn’t have told a complete story in the pre-internet days because the material wasn’t available,” Obrecht said. “I really wanted the book to have a lot of different layers and a lot of voices coming in and out. So, I wanted to make it as three-dimensional as possible so people who read it will really get a strong sense of the lives of these blues men, and what their value’s been to us and how they changed music.”
Long-time friend and fellow writer, William Ferris, first encouraged Obrecht to write the book. Ferris, professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and named one of Rolling Stones top 10 professors in the country in the 90s, says that he’s long admired Obrecht’s work as a music critic and a writer.
“We’ve kept up over the years and I’m just really thrilled to see his latest work coming out, ‘The Early Blues,’ ” Ferris said. “No one knows the guitar history better than Jas and especially its contributions to the blues tradition and from that tradition into rock and roll. He’s interviewed so many of the great blues and rock-and-roll artists about guitar playing and this book is a very important part of that legacy he’s created.”
Not only a professor of history, Ferris is a trained folklorist and according to Obrecht, one of the best. Sharing a love for music, the two have created a lasting friendship that even nearly 600 miles of separation can’t come between.
“I love the guy, I really do,” Obrecht said. “I wish he was my neighbor. We are so similar, we love the same music and when we start talking, it just goes on forever.”
A published writer of several books himself, Ferris considers Obrecht to be an inspiration to his own works and refers to Obrecht as a seminal resource for blues music.
“Jas is among the very finest music writers today. He’s prolific, he’s written extensively and much of his work is based on personal interviews with the musicians,” Ferris said. “So, he works from the source in his articles and they represent a very important window on American music and the guitar.”
Obrecht’s extensive research and writing skills ultimately helped him land a position in the English Department at WCC more than a decade ago. After years of interviewing and writing, he’s translated his work into helping students perfect their own. Carrie Krantz, head of the department, recalls hiring Obrecht:
“When I first hired him he said ‘Yes, my wife gave me an ultimatum: I had to get out of the basement or out,’ ” Krantz said. “I think he’s got a great sense of humor and his students love him.”
As an English and creative writing instructor, Obrecht applies the knowledge he’s gained over the last few decades and strives to help his students reach their fullest potential.
“I see like, younger versions of me sometimes in the classroom and think, ‘Ya know what? This person’s got a talent, this person could really do something. I’m going to help him or her figure it out.’ So, that’s far more rewarding than the paycheck,” Obrecht said.
He says that if someone has a passion in any field, no matter what it is, if there’s a talent for writing, a person can go places they never imagined.
“Writing can transform your life in wonderful ways and beyond what most other endeavors can do,” Obrecht said. “Writing doesn’t care what you look like, it doesn’t care what time of day it is, it doesn’t care what you’re wearing. It’s just you and your creativity. That’s a wonderful world to be in and I’m happy there.”