In the early 90’s James got plenty of exposure to his musical influences, including Albert Collins, who spent quality time with James and taught him a few tricks. Shortly after that he was discovered and signed by HighTone Records while playing in a Santa Monica bar, later immortalized in his song Mr.B’s.Then, just as he was about to tour with his critically acclaimed first album Sleeping With A Stranger, tragedy struck. The events surrounding a home invasion left Armstrong without the use of his left hand and arm, including permanent nerve damage. This threatened to end his career forever. But, thanks to the support of friends, fans and the blues community Armstrong came back two years later with a second album, Dark Night.
What Armstrong lost in the tragedy he gained in “a whole new respect for the music itself, the power in slow blues, how the silences between the notes are as important as the notes”. Armstrong also turned his efforts to perfecting his songwriting, vocal and slide guitar skills, all the while developing his gift for turning hardship into song. The results were a third album, Got It Goin’ On. The CD garnered two WC Handy award nominations for best blues guitarist and for best song of the year with Pennies and Picks. The CD, Got It Goin’ On, with its new grooves and surprises, was praised by critics for its part in redefining the blues and keeping the genre alive.
Over the years Armstrong has performed in many countries including North America, Europe, Scandinavia, Asia and the Middle East. He has worked beside Albert Collins, Keb Mo, Coco Montoya, Tommy Castro, Roy Brown, Shemekia Copeland, Chaka Khan, Charlie Musselwhite, Ricky Lee Jones, Joe Louis Walker, Mitch Michell (Jimi Hendrix’s drummer), Peter Tork (The Monkees), Jan & Dean, just to name a few.
James skill as a performer has not gone unnoticed by filmmakers. Several of his songs have been chosen for movie soundtracks. Bank of Love was used in Hear No Evil, with Martin Sheen and Marlie Matlin. Two Sides to Every Story is featured in Speechles with Micheal Keaton and Geena Davis also in The Florentine with Jeremy Davies and Luke Perry.
Armstrong’s latest release Blues at the Border, recorded in New York and Texas for his new label, Cat Food Records, manages to honor the sound of traditional blues while giving it the contemporary grit his fans have grown accustomed to hearing from James. Instead of buckling under the pressures of being a touring bluesman in the 21st century, he’s made them the topic of many of the songs on his much awaited new album. While economic hard times and a climate of fear after 9-11 have ended many careers in the industry, James is not a stranger to hardship. “As a survivor of a violent home invasion, I’ve always known that life is not about how many times you fall but how many times you get back up. I wanted to make an album to reflect how much the world has changed.” Producers Michael Ross, Bob Trenchard, and Armstrong went with Blues at the Border as the title cut to illustrate James’ point. The song reflects a 21st century frustration when crossing borders.
Young Man with the Blues is his most autobiographical song to date. It pays tribute to James’ father, a musician himself who gave James the gift of music, a love of the road and, despite the absence of a mother, a happy childhood. “Young Man With The Blues surely has to be the best original blues song written this year… an absolute gem!”
By drawing on his rock, country and folk influences as well as his deep blues roots, Blues At the Border manages to transcend the constraints of tight musical boundaries. “The blues is evolving like every other genre” he says. “You can be authentic and contemporary at the same time. It’s all about balance” It is evident that James’ years of heavy touring have honed his skill and unique style.
Jim DeKoster of Living Blues Magazine states, “Likely one of the year’s best, and not to be missed”.
Seen live, Armstrong has a confident stage presence that combines grace with mischief. Few blues artists know how to play the crowd as James can, shifting dynamics from a whisper to a growl. Wherever he travels around the world his magnetism continues to hush a noisy rabble or entice a crowd to follow him out into the street or down the length of a beach. Little wonder he’s been dubbed: The Ambassador of the Blues