“You’ve got to live the blues to play the blues,” the adage goes. In other words, experience matters—especially when it involves low-down feelings, physical infirmity, hard times, brushes with no-good men or women, and sometimes even drinking Sterno.
Zeppelin Murray would seem to defy this principle. First of all, there’s his age: He is 10. He’s never lived in the shadow of a levee or been in a juke-joint brawl, but no matter. In Zeppelin’s small hands, the guitar sings and screams and cries out with a fury and tenderness belying his years.
On many Tuesday nights, Zeppelin can be found inside Westville Pub in West Asheville, playing the blues. A regular performer at the pub’s Blues Jam, he is, by a long stretch, its youngest participant.
Zeppelin learned guitar from his father, Jaap Pennink. These days, he divides his time between Pennink’s house and that of his mother, Jennifer Murray. This year, Zeppelin started at Evergreen Community Charter School, which he says is “kind of hard but hands-on, which I like.”
We chatted with Zeppelin at Pennink’s house, where father and son indulged us with a bruising, 12-bar-blues number. Pennink kept a steady rhythm on an acoustic guitar while Zeppelin filigreed the chords with walk-ups, walk-downs, intervals, bends, chokes and piercing highs. When it was time to bring it home, he lifted his right hand, describing a circle in the air. And while he admitted to being nervous about the interview, he played the guitar with poise and command.
Mountain Xpress: How long have you been playing music?
Zeppelin Murray: Well, I started off with drums when I was 3. Before then I was banging on stuff and all that, but I got a drum set when I was 3. Then I got a guitar for Christmas when I was 7.
What was your first guitar?
It was a classical; I still have it. Then I got a [steel-string] folk guitar. I play my dad’s guitar now [an Epiphone Les Paul], and I’ve got a Washburn guitar over at my mom’s house. But I’m hoping to get a new one soon, because it’s getting pretty beat up.
Is the blues pretty much your thing?
Yeah, that and classic rock like Led Zeppelin and old ‘60s and ‘70s stuff, like Jimi Hendrix.
Do you worship any musical gods in particular?
Well, like Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia, you know—just all the people from those old ‘70s bands.
But aren’t they just a bunch of old guys now?
Yeah, but I don’t like new music. It sucks. [Laughs.]
How does playing the blues make you feel?
It makes me feel good. I mean, it’s like nerve-racking to get up on stage and stuff, but I like it a lot.
Do you always start the jam off when you’re at Westville Pub?
Yeah. Well, I’ve got to be out of the pub by 10 [p.m.] or whatever, because of alcohol and all that. So I usually start pretty early.
How do the older musicians react to you?
They react pretty well. Mars, the guy who runs the thing, he just started teaching me. And he thinks I’m pretty cool and stuff, and he’s always like, “Man, I don’t know what to teach you anymore. You’re gonna have to teach me.” He’s pretty cool.
When you play a solo, what are you trying to say with it?
Well, your hands develop muscle memory, so I do that. I’m all right at thinking, “OK, I want to do this or make this sound.” I don’t know, though—I just do it.
Do you do any singing?
No. I can kind of sing. I got a little from my mom—she’s got a good voice—but no, I don’t like doing it, really.
Have you ever heard that saying, “You’ve got to live the blues to play the blues”? Do you believe that?
I definitely agree with that.
Have you ever sold your soul to the devil?
Sure. [Laughs.] No.
Are you the only person in your classes whose name starts with “Z”?
No. There’s another person named Zach.
Were you named for a very large German airship?
[Laughs.] No. I was named for the band. It’s my favorite band.
Do you like your name?
It’s pretty cool having a name like that. It’s fun. When I’m at a concert and people are like, “What’s your name, like Bob?” and I say, “No, Zeppelin,” and they’re like, “Whoa! Are you serious?” and I say, “Yeah.”
How often do you play the guitar?
I try to play as much as I can. At my mom’s, maybe an hour or two. Like for an hour when I’m getting ready for bed.
What do you do when you’re not playing music?
I like just kind of artsy stuff, like drawing. And I like playing soccer. I’m pretty busy with school, too. Sometimes I get sucked into playing video games, but most of the time I try to do artsy stuff and play guitar and drums.
Do you have any advice for other kids who might want to learn how to play guitar?
You know, just stick with it. It’s going to be uncomfortable sometimes. But if you really want to do it, you can. At first, I didn’t think I could, really.
But you’ve obviously figured it out.
Yeah. I guess I have.