Moving to Charlotte, North Carolina seemed like a good idea at the time. Harmonica player Ben Hernandez and fellow San Diegan singer/guitarist Nathan James had established an international presence as a rootsy blues duo by 2008. After playing together for seven years, they had won awards and toured the U.S. and Europe, predating the Americana boom. “We were cutting edge Americana before O Brother, Where Art Thou came out and people started rediscovering American roots music,” says Hernandez.
They played the Belly Up. “We got to open for Dr. John and the Blind Boys of Alabama,” Hernandez tells the Reader. But life took its course. “My wife wanted to start a family. She didn’t want to be by herself when I went on tour, so we moved back to North Carolina where she had family.”
The idea was that Hernandez could move and still tour with James, and that this southern city (not that far from Nashville or Chapell Hill) would have some kind of a soulful music scene that would support his appreciation of gospel, blues, and bluegrass.
Not so much. “Charlotte is the second largest banking city in America after New York,” says Hernandez. As it turned out, there were very few traditional music professionals in Charlotte. “It just doesn’t have the culture. There were very few musicians or venues that would hire live musicians like L.A., Orange County, or San Diego. I was quickly disappointed.”
Hernandez got a marketing job with a national sportswear company, but his new job made him feel like a “square peg in a round hole… that gnawing sensation [to play music] never left me. Finally it wasn’t a whisper anymore. It was more of a call.” After ten years in Charlotte, “I moved back a year ago.”
But before that, “I had gotten in touch with the guitarist for Mavis Staples, Rick Holmstrom, who I had met on the road.” The two worked on a record that Hernandez says has an “Alabama Shakes kind of juiced-up rock and roll.”
Hernandez says the record “…mixes traditional [gospel] singing style with the sounds of cicadas singing in the trees.” He used the recording, which mixes synth tracks and organic roots music, to assemble his newest band, Malachi Henry & the Lights.
Hernandez explains the new band’s unusual name. “My wife and I used to volunteer at a transitional housing place for single moms coming out of a bad marriage to get into a home. There was this little five year old named Malachi who was really a social little kid. You could tell his mom was shielding him from all the things that were happening to them in their life, to make sure he didn’t know he was homeless. Yet he still had this joy and innocence. It just stuck with me.”
“In my childhood I was fascinated with John Henry the steel-driving man who beat the steam engine. The two names in the band brought together the way we can bring together the innocence and joys of a child into real life.”
“We played our first show at the Casbah, thanks to Tim Mays, who remembered us from before.” Their second show is Sunday, April 15, at 10 am, when Malachi Henry and the Lights appear at the Fallbrook Avocado Festival, followed by Delaney & Co., and Shane Hall.