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Navy blues: Reservist on cusp of living his dream as musician

Oct. 4, 2012 - 06:29PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 4, 2012 - 06:29PM  |  

If you find yourself in Kuwait and happen to hear the note-bending wail of a blues guitar floating on the desert wind, you may just be lucky enough to find yourself in the company of Petty Officer 1st Class Darren J. Fallas. It may not look like it, but even amid a career-limbo reserve mobilization, he's one of the happiest blues musicians you're likely to meet. And it's been a long time coming.

Fallas was already singing the blues when he shipped out for Navy basic training 16 years ago at age 21.

Never mind that it was New Year's Eve. Never mind that the Florida native was on a bus bound for Illinois' blustery snow-covered proving grounds at Naval Station Great Lakes.

Fallas was singing the blues because he was giving up on his dream.

"I'd never even seen snow before," he says of that lonely bus ride to boot camp in the final hours of 1996.

Fast forward to today: Fallas — better known now by his stage name as the frontman and lead guitarist for Memphis-based Darren Jay and the Delta Souls — is still singing the blues, but says he's finally on the cusp of living that dream.

Since forming two years ago, his band has garnered a house-rocking reputation on Beale Street, the Memphis artery that has pumped the blues from the heart of the Mississippi Delta since its earliest days. The band's debut CD, "Drink My Wine," was released Sept. 18 and is already getting rave reviews.

But like any good blues song, it took some soul searching, tough times and a rambling road to get there.

Lost in Miami

With a raspy Stevie Ray Vaughn voice and a fast-fingered genius for fiery guitar riffs, Fallas was wowing the Miami nightclub scene by the age of 15. Trouble at home, though, had him moving out while still in high school. After playing with a string of bands, he figured he was on his way to the big time when he landed a spot with a group that had already nailed down a recording contract.

But about a year later, that band had fallen apart, too.

"I was kind of lost and trying to do my own thing when my dad suggested I look into the military," Fallas says. "I was so frustrated. By that time, I was ready to give up on music, so I decided to give the Navy a go."

Figuring his guitar-shredding days were over, Fallas threw himself into his new Navy career as a paper-pushing yeoman. But the siren song of performing kept beckoning him back to the stage.

"I didn't play that much the first few years, but I was always drawn to the music," he says. More and more, anytime he'd catch a live band, he'd find himself muttering, "I could do that."

"I started missing it. A lot," he says. By the time he was stationed in Japan aboard the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, Fallas was tuning up a new guitar.

"I'd go out into town and sit in with a bunch of Japanese bands. The next thing I knew, I was playing every chance I could. I just kept going with it. My whole mindset changed, and soon I was thinking I could definitely do this. I didn't know why I'd given it up."

‘I'll show them'

"The blues tells a story. Every line of the blues has a meaning," legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker once told a reporter.

In 2005, after nine years on active duty, Fallas decided it was time to rewrite the meaning of his story.

By then, the Navy had taken him to assignments in the Florida Panhandle and the California desert.

"I started writing music again before I got out, and I remember there were people who didn't believe I could do it. I just kept telling myself, ‘I'll show them.'"

Fallas channeled the discipline and mission focus he'd learned in the Navy into doing just that. "I put a band together and just worked, worked, worked."

Initially based in Pensacola, Fla., he formed the Darren J Trio and was quickly averaging more than 150 shows a year.

"Most musicians I know nowadays, including myself, are doing everything themselves, from generating the flyers, to putting the word out on social media, to running their own websites, booking their own shows," he says. "It goes on and on — not to mention all the hard work that has to be put into creating great music and a great show."

By 2007 he had released his first album, "Panhandle Blues," which garnered critical praise for his songwriting and guitar chops. Success, however, was still elusive.

"The business side of music is hard and unforgiving," Fallas says. "There's a lot of work involved with little to no reward back at times. We always joke around that we get paid to set up and break down our equipment."

That's one of the reasons why he stayed in uniform part time in the Navy Reserve.

"My plan was to stay in the reserves and use that as income to pay the bills," he says. "It is at times really tiring. I've pushed myself many times to find the energy to perform."

In 2008, he shifted to Washington, D.C., where he was recruited by Stacy Brooks, another up-and-coming blues artist, who needed a new guitar player. After helping lay down tracks for her debut studio album the following year, Fallas decided it was time to take another stab at forming his own band, this time in Memphis.

That's where he met bass player Laura Cupit, an established veteran of the Memphis blues scene who also was looking to launch a new project. The fellow travelers soon became fast friends. With the addition of Hubert "H-bomb" Crawford on drums, the band was born.

‘Drink My Wine'

Production for the Delta Souls' debut CD was wrapping up early this year just as Fallas got word he'd have to deploy to Kuwait. He laughs at the suggestion that the title "Drink My Wine" holds a certain irony for man now doing time in the land of General Order No. 1, which prohibits alcohol consumption by deployed U.S. troops.

"I hadn't thought of that, but it's true," he says. "I knew this deployment was coming sooner or later. I'm just blessed to have a great manager in Laura who has kept people interested in the record. We have built a momentum of interest that I believe will have people curious to see what it's all about when I come back."

Reception has been positive.

The 11-track album is "full-blown electric Blues, replete with great guitar, soulful lyrics and a host of great Memphis musicians," declared online music journal American Blues News.

"This is some of the finest music to come out of Memphis in a long time," says Wayne Jackson, the Grammy-winning trumpet player who lent his horn to several of the cuts on the album. Percussionist Rodd Bland, son of blues icon Bobby "Blue" Bland, is among other contributors.

Due to return stateside in December, Fallas is enjoying all the buzz from afar, even as he makes the most of his time away.

"The coffee shop on base has an open mic night that I've been playing," he says.

"I've been writing a lot of music while I'm here, too. I've got a lot of time over here to do that," he says. The harsh weather, the dessert landscape, the constant rumble of combat units on their way to and from Afghanistan — it's all dripping in the blues, he says. "I'll have enough material for another album when I get back, for sure."

Meanwhile, he's just eager to get back on the road. "My idea of success is to be able to play our music all around the world while making enough money to pay the bills. That's it for me — that's all I dream of. I don't aim to be the next Eric Clapton or B.B. King. I just aim to be the next me. I believe I'm really close to realizing that dream."

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