Once upon a not-so-long time ago, Rob Europe was a boy with a guitar growing up on Wells Avenue in Southold who wanted to learn how to play some of The Who’s classic songs. But through the twists and turns of a life devoted to music, he was in Memphis in late January competing for the title of the best solo/duo blues act in the International Blues Challenge.
Mr. Europe, now 24 and living in Mattituck, first picked up a guitar at the age of 13, under the tutelage of the late, great Southold blues guitarist and teacher Ray Penney. His teacher said young Rob was a natural. Young Rob was looking to play classic rock. But when he learned that Ray Penney loved the blues, well, that just rubbed off on him.
“It was the simplicity of it. Music at its most bare, a man and his guitar,” said Mr. Europe. “And also, from the historical aspect, it’s the prerequisite to rock music.”
It doesn’t hurt that Mr. Europe has a serious musical pedigree — his great-grandfather, James Reese Europe, was a pioneering New York jazz bandleader in the 19-teens. But bragging is something that doesn’t come naturally to his soft-spoken great-grandson, whose first self-produced album, “This is a Blues Album,” was released earlier this year:
Interview-Person: So, your album is called “This is a Blues Album?”
Interview-Person: Why is that?
Rob: It has blues songs on it.
Well, last year that album was named the best self-produced blues album on Long Island by the Long Island Blues Society, which picked Mr. Europe to represent Long Island in the IBC Championship in Memphis the third week in January.
“I would never in a million years call myself a ‘blues man,'” said Mr. Europe. “There’s no such thing as Long Island blues anyway. Real blues men are becoming very, very scarce.”
These days, Mr. Europe doesn’t go much of anywhere without his 1957 Gibson LG-1, which he bought at Rothman’s Department Store in Southold. The small-bodied vintage guitar, a favorite of Elvis Presley, has a cutting, classic blues sound — great for slide, great for fingerpicking, and a perfect complement to Mr. Europe’s mature, full-bodied blues voice.
Mr. Europe had been asking Rothman’s owner Ron Rothman to let him know when such a machine came in, and when it did, he snatched it up, installed an electric pickup, and took the well-played instrument out on the road.
When you pick the blues to live in, you need to become a musicologist, searching out rare recordings or voices that are seldom heard.
Mr. Europe is going to see harp player James Cotton in Connecticut this month, and hoping to maybe meet him. For a while, he was listening to a player named Boyd Rivers, who was recording right up to the 1990s. But, even in the age of the internet, it took Mr. Europe a while to find out if Boyd Rivers was even still alive. He isn’t.
It’s impossible to discuss the blues without mentioning Robert Johnson, the Delta blues icon who said he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in order to become a better guitar player. Rob Europe listens to plenty of Robert Johnson.
Last August, he got into a car with some friends near Washington, D.C., and headed out toward the deep south, through Charlotte and Asheville in North Carolina, then to Nashville and Memphis and down to Clarksdale.