More than any other genre, blues is the music of experience—usually of the hardscrabble variety. Take singer-guitarist Labron Lazenby, of local blues quartet Labron Lazenby and the LA 3.
Though his playing and performing have been known to cross over into the realm of country music—thus his ever-present thumb pick, a la Merle Travis—Lazenby's a bluesman at heart. And though he's still under 40, he's looking back at 22 years of hard dues paid, from his earliest shows playing flashy blues and country licks as a skinny 16-year-old in the former Fort Sanders bar and laundromat Gryphon's and his erstwhile jam-band the Boogeymen to backing late local blues singer Sara Jordan and jaunts playing country music in Texas.
Now five years in with the LA 3, Lazenby wouldn't mind cashing in, maybe with a real blues record label. "I've been doing this two decades," he says, seated in a booth at Preservation Pub, still nattily dressed for church in black button-down and tie on a Sunday afternoon. "And there have been so many opportunities come, but it's never really happened yet. I'd love to get on with someone. Hopefully, it's our time coming."
Lazenby and company may be helped along by their showing in this year's International Blues Challenge, an annual competition held in Memphis. The LA 3 were selected for the showdown by the Smoky Mountain Blues Society, the second time the band had been thus honored.
This time, though, the Knoxville band (besides Lazenby, it includes Kevin Redding on drums, Andy Lewis on bass, and Bob Knapp on saxophone) made it to the finals at Memphis' Orpheum Theater, meaning they were one of 10 bands to survive the final cut out of 162 that made the trek to Memphis.
Their placing—though not their showing—in the final was less gratifying. "We didn't place great in the final; the judges felt we were too ‘swingy'," says Lazenby. "Which I didn't understand, because the competition was supposed to represent all kinds of blues styles. But other people who saw us told us we were beyond anybody else there. We had the audience going like no one else."
They also earned notice from other quarters, resulting in opening slots for Matt "Guitar" Murphy, a spot in the Junkyard Juke Festival in Alabama, and a place on the roster at the Blue 5 Club in Roanoke, Va. "It did a lot for us," says Lazenby.
Lazenby and the LA 3 do have one locally released CD; in keeping with the themes of hard times and dues dearly paid, it's titled Nothing to Show. Lazenby's proud of it; though the band's approach is primarily "Texas and Chicago-style blues, with some heavy R&B thrown in", the CD offers an interesting grab-bag.
Says Lazenby, "The CD's pretty cool; we didn't overplay. It's rockin'. Then there are a couple of slow blues. There are a couple of acoustic things. There's a gospel song. There's even one tune that reminds me of an old Black Sabbath song. It's pretty heavy."
Unlike many blues acts, Lazenby's band performs a set list of mostly original tunes. He says the quartet has a bank of new songs large enough that a new local CD may be forthcoming soon.
But if the years of playing and traveling have yet to put Lazenby over the top in the music business, they've at least taught him a thing or two. "I've opened for Blackfoot, Gatemouth Brown, Ray Price," Lazenby says. "Experience has pushed me to strive to be a better player and singer, that's for sure.
"I used to play a lot," he says, remembering his days as the hot-shot underage kid who used to stun Gryphon's patrons with run-on solos and dazzling licks. "It was how many licks you can play. Now I know it's about how you play them. It's about playing straight from the heart, not just putting 50 riffs in a solo."