When Rhett Yocom was a freshman at Standish-Sterling Central High School, his class hosted a special visitor who had a dramatic impact on his life.
The jovial, stocky man shared insight about his profession and his earnest approach to his craft while imparting a very simple message: “All you have to do is try.”
Later that day in the auditorium, some friends joined the man onstage as he demonstrated his mastery of the guitar, unleashing a technically impressive and emotively soul-searing brand of music that reached down to Yocom’s core and grabbed his attention.
The man, of course, was blues guitarist extraordinaire Larry McCray, one of the most talented axemen the Great Lakes Bay Region has ever produced. McCray, invited to the school by Mark Williams, the school’s obviously enlightened principal, was representing First Act, a musical instrument company that manufactures starter instruments and introduces school-age youth to the world of music.
Before that day, Yocom, like any of his classmates, had no idea who McCray was, or how his own talent, developed over years of toil and dedication, had plucked the Saginaw native from blue-collar obscurity and elevated him to stages around the world with the likes of B.B. King, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton, and many others.
After that day, every musical note, every phrase, every passage that the 15-year-old budding prodigy would hear, was colored by the blues.
Yocom already had a deep affinity for music. He had played piano since 5th grade and was involved in school band. But the blues offered a fresh tint on the world, and it was an instant influence.
“I’d never heard anything like that,” says Yocom, recalling his first impression when McCray and his band took the stage that day.
“All I knew was Motown, polka, and outlaw country,” says Yocom, describing a selection slightly more diverse than that offered by the beehive-coiffed barkeep in the original Blues Brothers movie (“We got both kinds of music: Country and western!”).
About the only thing that could set Yocom’s direction more clearly was if some unknown force placed a guitar directly in his hands. But this was Standish, not Hogwarts.
It just so happened that First Act had provided McCray with an electric guitar and an electric bass to give away to two lucky students in a drawing to promote the company’s mission of introducing young people to music.
That night, Yocom said his prayers and thought about that guitar.
Lo and behold, the next day, his name was drawn as the winner. Yocom was over the moon. Reality would soon come crashing down that same day, however, when the teen learned his grandfather had passed away.
Yocom had visited with his grandfather, who was ill, just days before. The elderly man praised the piano playing on a cassette the youth had made for him. “When the road gets rough, music will carry you through,” he said while mustering much of his remaining strength. “You have it in you to go far, and I know you will.”
From those star-crossed, bittersweet beginnings, Yocom has followed his heart and his dreams as he plies his craft and rises up the rungs of notoriety on the Michigan blues circuit.
He and McCray have remained close over the years, with the elder statesman of local blues increasingly impressed with the development of his protege, both as a musician and as a person.
“I’m appreciative of the way his parents raised him,” says McCray. “He was a good kid then, and he’s a good man now.”
Yocom, who turns 29 in July, fronts the Rhett Yocom Blues Band, joined by Marty DeShais on bass and Scott Causley on drums. The group’s eponymous debut album was recorded in early 2018, a month after the group formed.
Causley’s son, Germaine Causley, had recently begun working at Mystery Street Recording in Chicago, and some affordable studio time became available on short notice.
The seven-song eponymous effort was tracked in 9 hours, a whirlwind road trip during which plenty of “one-take wonder” magic figured into the mix, according to Yocom.
One highlight is “Big Legged Woman,” a cocksure stomper that showcases Yocom’s articulate smoothness on the fretboard with just enough grit to exfoliate your ear canal.
Yocom counts his influences as John Lee Hooker, Alvin Lee, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Wilco, Jimmy Reed, James Jamerson and, of course, McCray.
Yocom occasionally joins his idol and mentor onstage; the two paired for a memorable performance last year at Alger’s Home Pub and in early May at the Kalkaska Trout Festival.
But today Yocom and his band are earning notoriety on their own terms. The most recent accolades include being recognized as Best Blues Band and Best Blues Instrumentalist at the 33rd Annual Review Music Awards this past April.
In the words of his idol and mentor, all he had to do was try. Watching Yocom onstage, his head tossed back, lost under the spell of his instrument, the effort of fulfilling a heartfelt, inner mission outshines any showmanship.
The blues can be a beautiful thing.
Rhett Yocom Blues Band appears at Tawas Blues By the Bay Aug. 24.
16th November, 2023