"Learning slide guitar has been one of the most joyful things I've done in my life and I love spreading the joy."
By Linda Cain
Photo: David Tepper
Donna Herula is a Chicago-born blues singer, songwriter and slide guitarist who has a passion for playing traditional Delta and Country Blues, early Chicago Blues, folk, Americana, and roots music. Using electrified resonator guitars, her sound combines her love for the music of the Deep South and Chicago with her love of blues guitar improvisation. Her songwriting tips the hat to the tradition while creating fresh, contemporary perspectives on blues and roots music.
Donna has been a regular performer at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago since 2012 and has opened for Buddy Guy numerous times, including for his January residencies.
Also in 2012, Donna was a semifinalist in the Yamaha Six String Theory international guitar competition. She placed in the top 6 of the blues guitarist category among contestants from 58 countries.
The versatile guitarist was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame on October 16, 2016 at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago.
Donna was the co-winner of the Chicago Blues Challenge, solo/duo category two years in a row; in 2010 with harpist John Jochem and in 2011 with blues singer/songwriter, Liz Mandeville. She competed at the 2011 and 2012 International Blues Challenge in Memphis as a semi-finalist and made a name for herself there. Donna also won the 2008 Illinois Central Blues Clubs blues challenge as a solo performer and competed at the 2009 IBCs, where she met the producer (Jon Shain) and sound engineer (FJ Ventre) of her 2021 release, Bang at the Door.
When the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 devastated the music business, as live music events all over the world were canceled and venues went dark, depriving musicians of their livelihoods, musician/educator Donna Herula was able to thrive.
A guitar teacher at the venerable Chicago institution the Old Town School, Herula switched to teaching online when the school shut down. Soon all of her classes were filled and she had to turn away students. “It seemed like everyone was taking guitar classes during the pandemic – and that was good news for me.” While there were no opportunities to perform live, Donna traveled back and forth to North Carolina to record her new album Bang at the Door.
CBG contributor Steve Jones reviewed Bang at the Door and remarked: “This album certainly will be destined for awards -- it’s the best acoustic blues and roots album I’ve heard in at least a year, if not longer. I most highly recommend this CD for all lovers of traditional and acoustic blues. It’s a wonderful mix of Delta and Chicago blues with some great folky overtones.”
READ THE REVIEW HERE
Jones’ prediction has come true. Since its release in May 2021 Bang at the Door quickly rose to hit the #1 spot on the blues and roots charts and remained there for 9 weeks. The album has been nominated for Blues Blast Award for Best Acoustic Blues Album 2021 and continues to receive airplay on prominent blues stations, like B.B. King’s Bluesville on Sirius.
Summer of 2021 found Donna performing at many outdoor shows and festivals all over Chicagoland, including the inaugural Berwyn Blues Festival at FitzGerald’s in September.
The Donna Herula Band will take the stage for a special show on Saturday, November 20th at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Szold Hall along with special guests Erwin Helfer, Anne Harris, Katherine Davis and Rebecca Toon. For ticket info, CLICK HERE
We caught up with the busy performer to talk about her exciting past, present and future in the blues.
Photo: David Tepper
Q. At what age did you start learning to play music? Did you take formal lessons and which instrument(s)?
I began playing piano at age 5 and guitar at 10-years-old. I took piano lessons but really wanted to learn guitar. So when I was 10, I asked my older brother’s friend to teach me how to play the blues and that’s how it started. I took jazz guitar lessons in high school and played in my high school jazz band. I also wrote, arranged and performed my first original blues song when I was 15-years-old, a song called, “Mid-Term Blues,” at my high school variety show – including back-up singers and a full band including horns.
I learned classical guitar in college, took boogie-woogie piano lessons from Erwin Helfer, and, more recently, learned mandolin and a little harmonica. I learned blues fingerstyle and slide guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. Now I am an instructor there and teach blues fingerstyle, acoustic slide guitar and electric slide guitar.
Q. How many instruments do you now play?
I play guitar (fingerstyle and slide, acoustic and electric), piano, mandolin, and use a stomp board/foot percussion when playing solo or in a duo.
Q. Who were your early musical influences?
I’ve loved the guitar since I was a little kid and have a deep appreciation for many guitar styles – blues, rock, acoustic fingerstyle, jazz, gypsy jazz, classical and flamenco. My main inspiration for learning blues slide guitar was attending a live concert where Eric Sardinas, an electric resonator slide guitarist, played his version of “Can’t Be Satisfied,” a Muddy Waters tune. I was awestruck. At the concert, and on his first album, “Treat Me Right,” Eric played modern versions of songs by Mississippi Fred McDowell, Robert Nighthawk and even played a song with Honeyboy Edwards on the album. At the time, I didn’t know who some of these artists were, and through Eric’s music, I discovered these great blues men and women. When I heard a recording of Son House singing his heartbreaking song, “Death Letter Blues” - pounding on his resonator guitar - I knew this was the music I wanted to pursue. So, I went to the Old Town School of Folk Music to learn more.
I am a big fan of Son House, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Booker White, Furry Lewis, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie, Tampa Red and Blind Willie Johnson. I love electric slide guitar players like Hound Dog Taylor, Elmore James, Robert Nighthawk and more contemporary players like Johnny Winter, Rory Block, Bonnie Raitt, Bernard Allison, the Allman Brothers and Roy Rogers. I’m also a fan of blues singers Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Q. How and when did you first hear blues music?
I was born and raised in Chicago and the blues was always around me. My older brother was an amazing saxophone player and would frequently play in Chicago neighborhood bars. So, I mainly heard blues music through his influence. I was very interested in blues guitar at a very young age. By 14 or 15-years-old, I bought my first electric guitar and played lead guitar in an all-girls rock band, “No Men Momentum.”
Q. Who are your biggest blues influences most recently?
My biggest blues influences most recently have been Buddy Guy and Bobby Rush. They are both terrific performers and can capture an audience both as a solo performer and with a band. I am particularly struck by their use of dynamics in their live performances. I have been lucky to have opened for both of them and seen some of their incredible shows at Buddy Guy’s Legends as well as other venues.
Q. How would you describe your approach to the blues genre?
My approach to the blues is tipping the hat to traditional blues and bringing a more contemporary and modern approach to the song – either with the words or instrument style. For example, on my latest album, Bang at the Door, I wrote a traditional ragtime blues song called “Movin’ Back Home” but wrote words that are relevant today. The song is about moving back to your childhood home – but as an adult! This is something that a number of people have experienced in recent times. On “Fixin’ to Die,” a Booker White cover song, I recorded the song with two guitar parts – playing the song with a traditional acoustic blues approach on resonator guitar and then overdubbing slide guitar solos to give it a more modern feel.
Q. What do you hope to bring to the future of the blues as an artist?
I hope my music bridges a connection between traditional blues of the past and the blues of today. The words of a song mean a lot to me and I take my job as a songwriter very seriously. My hope is to continue to write songs that have a lot of heart that people can relate to. I would also like to continue to use the guitar or slide guitar in new or interesting ways in my songs.
Photo: Robert Erving Potter III
Q. Tell us about your journey as a professional musician.
It has been a wonderful blues journey as a performer and a guitar and slide guitar teacher. Because of music, I’ve met a lot of interesting people over the years who have become good friends. I traveled to distant locations and had once-in-a-lifetime experiences that would never have happened if I didn’t love the blues.
The first turning point for me was when I participated in the 2009 International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis, when I played a solo set of Delta Blues. Jack Myers and Terry Buckalew from the Delta Cultural Center (DCC) saw me perform and invited me to visit the DCC in Helena, Arkansas and play on “King Biscuit Time” with legendary blues radio DJ host “Sunshine” Sonny Payne. When I played on the show, Sonny and I hit it off and, he became a mentor, advocate and cherished friend. Through the DCC, I was invited to play at some great music festivals -- the Mother’s Best Music Fest (where I met Sam Carr, Robert Nighthawk’s son), King Biscuit Blues Festival (multiple times) and performed a Robert Nighthawk tribute for the DCC in Helena, which was Robert Nighthawk’s hometown. I learned a lot from the DCC exhibits. I felt accepted, appreciated and valued. On “King Biscuit Time,” I had fun playing with amazing artists like James Cotton and Robert Hill, who became a slide guitar inspiration to me. I met Dave Riley and Bob Corritore through the DCC as well.
At the IBC, I also met fellow competitors, blues duo Jon Shain (guitar) and FJ Ventre (upright bass), who ended up producing and recording my latest album, Bang at the Door. The IBC is a great place for artists to make connections, even if they don’t win.
Secondly, that same year, Barry Dolins hired me to perform an hour solo tribute for the Robert Nighthawk Centennial Celebration at the Chicago Blues Festival. I was hired in February and the festival was in June. It took a lot of effort to work up an hour of Robert Nighthawk slide songs and adapt them to solo acoustic songs in that time-frame – but I was up for the challenge. I had mostly played on vendor side stages or as a street performer (on the street going into the Chicago Blues Festival) before then, and this was a huge opportunity to be playing on one of the bigger stages at the Chicago Blues Fest. I’ve gone on to play a number of times at the Chicago Blues Festival, but playing there the first time was particularly meaningful to me since Chicago was my hometown and I had been going to the Chicago Blues Festival since I was a teenager.
Living in Chicago, I’ve also had the good fortune of playing with a number of outstanding Chicago Blues musicians over the years -- and at venues that helped me grow as a musician. Some of these musicians include Harlan Terson, Liz Mandeville, Melvin Smith, Kenny Smith, and Charlie Love (who I got to know during our travels to perform at the Durban International Blues Festival in South Africa). My friend, Lori Lewis, also brought me with her to visit and play with Honeyboy Edwards a few times at his home.
Another notable event was when Mark Maddox, at Buddy Guy’s Legends, first hired me and Liz Mandeville to play as a duo for the acoustic dinner set back in 2012. It was a big deal and a venue I have been (and will always be) honored to have played at for the past 10 years. Playing with the Chicago Women in the Blues for six years with Joan and Gary Gand, Liz Mandeville, Shirley King, Peaches Staten and other talented Chicago blues women also helped me develop as an electric slide player.
Photo: Robert Erving Potter III
Q. Did you have any mentors along the way?
A number of people helped me along the way including Chris Walz, Andy Cohen, Harlan Terson, and Liz Mandeville. Chris Walz is a great teacher, mentor, friend and now, colleague. At first, Chris was my blues fingerstyle and slide guitar teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music (OTS). After “graduating” from his Blues Fingerstyle 3 class that I took multiple times, he asked me to teach his Blues Fingerstyle 1 and 3 eight-week classes while he took an out-of-town acting job. I was a good teacher and the students liked me, so Chris recommended that the OTS hire me, which they did.
After becoming a teacher there in 2015, both Chris and electric slide guitar teacher, Jon Spiegel, invited me to perform with them at a show “The Slide Guitar Masters of Old Town School” in Szold Hall in 2017, which was an exciting experience. I really appreciate all that Chris and the Old Town School of Folk Music have done for me.
Andy Cohen also helped me by showing me a pathway to being a traveling acoustic blues performer. He insisted that I play shows with him so that he could introduce me to a number of Midwestern venues that appreciated acoustic blues, people that book acoustic blues acts -- and musicians who were acoustic blues players that I should know. Andy also asked me to co-present a number of acoustic blues workshops at folk conferences with him. Liz and Harlan were also both very helpful in my growth and development as a blues musician.
Q. What challenges did you face?
One challenge I experienced was being an acoustic blues guitar player living in Chicago - a city that is known for electric blues. Blues fans that come to Chicago are expecting the electric blues sound. I love Delta Blues and Hill Country Blues as well as Chicago Blues. So, I ended up developing a guitar style that combines the acoustic Mississippi Delta style with the Chicago blues style -- electrifying my acoustic resonator guitars and also playing extended slide solos, like in a Chicago Blues style. When I play in a band, I also wanted a combined Delta-Chicago blues sound by including an upright acoustic bass – like early Chicago Blues with Willie Dixon.
Photo: Robert Erving Potter III
Q. What are some of your career highlights?
I think the most significant career highlight has been the success of my latest album, Bang at the Door. Creating a record that was #1 on the Blues Music Chart (BMC) and #1 on the Acoustic Blues Music Chart (ABMC) – according to the Roots Music Report - for 9 weeks was really amazing. Writing an original song, “I Can’t Wait to See My Baby” that was on SiriusXM’s BB King’s Bluesville Top 15 Rack of Blues (most played songs) for 7 weeks was incredible. I was very happy that my songwriting has been acknowledged by the blues community. Nine songs from “Bang at the Door” were in the top 10 and 4 of them rose to #1 (ABMC) and 4 were in the top 11 (BMC) according to the Roots Music Report.
Other highlights were being inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame, being featured in Acoustic Guitar Magazine and playing at really great blues festivals such as the Chicago Blues Festival, King Biscuit Blues Festival, and Durban International Blues Festival in South Africa. Playing regularly at Buddy Guy’s Legends over the past 10 years continues to be a highlight and a source of joy. It has given me a great opportunity to perform for audiences that include local and international blues fans -- and playing there has shaped my style as a blues musician.
Q. What do you enjoy most about teaching?
Learning slide guitar has been one of the most joyful things I’ve done in my life and I love spreading the joy. It’s great teaching and watching students improve and reach their goals – whether that may be playing for their families in their home, in front of other people at an open mic or adding slide guitar to their existing performances. I think everyone should learn slide guitar because it is so much fun!
Q. Do you teach only blues guitar or other styles?
I used to teach other styles of guitar and was a “core guitar teacher” at the Old Town School, teaching Guitar 1, 2, 3, etc. But my heart is with the blues, and I have been teaching the blues guitar “specialty classes” for over five years now at the Old Town School. Here’s the classes that I’m currently teaching there: https://www.oldtownschool.org/teachers/Donna-Herula/
Q. You are a prolific songwriter, with three albums, and the last one of mostly original material. What is your process for writing a song?
I have written songs in different ways. The title track, “Bang at the Door”, was based off of a guitar lick that I wrote hoping to sound like RL Burnside! With other songs, like “Moving Back Home,” I wrote the words first and then figured out the style and chords later. I think about what kind of emotion I want to write about, and everything supports that emotion, such as joy and excitement when I wrote the duet “Can’t Wait to See My Baby.” The song is about the anticipation of seeing the one you love after you have been away for a long time – something we can all relate to.
I also write songs about people or experiences that are significant to me. When I wanted to write a tribute to my friend and blues radio DJ host “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, I thought about our memories together and how it felt to be on his legendary blues radio show “King Biscuit Time.” I wrote down everything that came to mind about the show and my feelings of love and admiration towards Sonny. The words came first and I wrote it originally as a Delta Blues song, but then changed the music around to make it a New Orleans celebration of his life, which I felt was more appropriate and fun.
There is no one way of writing a song. I tend to record voice memos in my phone a lot and write things down on scraps of paper so I don’t I forget the melody, licks or words that come to mind in the songwriting process. Some of my favorite songwriters include Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams.
Photo: Robert Erving Potter III
Q. What were your goals for “Bang at the Door” while you were recording and writing it?
I wanted people to feel a wide range of emotions when they heard the album – sadness, joy, humor, helplessness, strength. Robert Nighthawk did it, Lyle Lovett does it, and Bobby Rush and Buddy Guy do it every time I see them perform. I wanted to include solo songs, duo songs, small ensembles and full blown-out band songs that included blues back-up singers with three-part harmonies. I love all kinds of blues and I think it showed in the songs I wrote on the album. I didn’t plan to write a bunch of different blues music styles, but what came out was in my heart – Delta Blues, Chicago Blues, Country blues, jazz, New Orleans, ragtime, gospel and folk blues.
Q. Did you ever imagine that it would become so successful so quickly?
Bang at the Door has been very well received, topping the charts, earning rave reviews and much airplay. And a nomination for a Blues Blast Music Award.
I could have never imagined. So many good things have happened and I am so thankful for the response from radio DJs, music reviewers, blues guides and fans. The week after the album was released, I received the first review stating that the album was “destined for awards” and that it was “the best acoustic blues and roots album” the reviewer Steve Jones (Chicago Blues Guide) had heard in a year or longer. This was followed by numerous glowing reviews from all over the world – Greece, Italy, France, Spain, the UK, Croatia, Hungary and The Netherlands – and from great blues magazines like Living Blues. The album debuted at #3 on the Australian Blues and Roots Airplay Chart (and as mentioned before was #1 on both the Blues Music Chart and Acoustic Blues Music Chart for 9 weeks). And then to top everything off, Bang at the Door was nominated for best Acoustic Blues Album by the Blues Blast Music Awards – only a month after the album had been released! It has been a very exciting time.
Q. Two of your albums have been self-produced and all three have been self-released and are very professional. Is there a producer you would like to work with in the future?
That’s a hard question to answer. Jon Shain did such a fantastic job producing “Bang at the Door” that it’s hard for me to consider going anywhere else in the future. But an offer to work together has been recently extended by a multiple-BMA winner and producer that I have looked up to and wanted to work with. But again, it’s hard to imagine working with anyone else.
Q. Is there a favorite musician you’d like to work with?
Yes. I would love to work with Bobby Rush. In 2019, bassist Melvin Smith and I opened for him at Buddy Guy’s Legends. Someone told me that he watched our whole acoustic show, and later that night, he came up to me and told me how much he enjoyed my playing. He’s a real class act on the stage and off, and I really admire his work.
Q. How do you approach the business side of your music career? You seem to wear many hats: teacher, performer, writer, booking agent, record producer, manager, promoter, graphics, marketing, social media. Do you do it all by yourself?
Yes, I wear many hats and juggle many roles – guitar teacher, performer, writer, band leader, booking agent, manager, social media – like so many other musicians do. I hired a few people. As I mentioned earlier, Jon Shain produced my latest album, Bang at the Door, and FJ Ventre recorded it at Good Luck Studio in North Carolina. I met Jon and FJ when I performed at the 2009 International Blues Challenge (IBC) when we played at the same bar in Memphis. We admired each other’s playing and have been friends since then. Jon went on to win the IBC in Memphis in 2019 and he has been producing records for many years. Jon and FJ’s creativity and experience really helped my record.
Other people that were instrumental to the album’s success include Robert Erving Potter III (photographer), Al Brandtner (CD and booklet design), Mark Thompson (liner notes), Kathy Piper/Piper Web Design (website), Betsie Brown/Blind Raccoon (promotion), Jeff Carroll (mastering) and the wonderful musicians and singers on the album Daryl Davis, Anne Harris, Doug Hammer, Tony Pons, FJ Ventre, Jon Shain, Dana Thalheimer, Bill Newton, Katherine Davis, Rebecca Toon, Janine Grandsart, Chris Holda and my husband, Tony Nardiello. I am extremely thankful, grateful and happy with their outstanding work. I couldn’t have done it without them.
Q. How did you spend your time during the Covid shutdown of 2020, with all of your live shows being cancelled? You taught online classes and recorded your album. Did you perform streaming live shows for tips, like many others?
During the pandemic, I split my time between performing online shows, teaching online guitar classes, counseling people with the blues, and writing songs for the album. So I was, fortunately, extremely busy during the pandemic.
I played two shows online through the Chicago Blues Network. One was called Slide by Slide trading 4’s and included me, Joanna Connor and Katherine Davis. It was an honor and so much fun playing with these amazingly talented blues legends. Because of that show, I asked Katherine to sing back-up vocals on my new album Bang at the Door. Katherine, Harlan Terson and I also played another online show together for the Chicago Blues Network opening for Toronzo Cannon – and it was great to see Toronzo playing an acoustic guitar that evening! I also played a number of other online shows, blues music educational programs and even an album release party during the pandemic with my band and help from special guests Downtown Charlie Brown, Kary Ream and Emily Allbright.
It seemed like everyone was taking guitar classes during the pandemic – and that was good news for me. Through the Old Town School of Folk Music, I taught three online guitar and slide guitar classes every 8 weeks throughout the pandemic -- and a number of workshops teaching students to play some of my original songs on the new album.
I also wrote three more songs during the summer of 2020 for the album. So, my husband, Tony, and I traveled back to North Carolina a second time in August 2020 to record the songs and add them to the other Bang at the Door songs that were recorded in January 2020.
I am also a licensed marriage and family therapist (a.k.a. Blues Counselor) and helped a number of people who were struggling with stress or the blues due to the pandemic.
Photo: Howard Greenblatt/ Donna Herula Band at FitzGerald's
Q. Do you have some local live shows coming up, now that Covid restrictions are being lifted and venues are reopening?
Yes, I have a number of great shows coming up. One show that I am really looking forward to playing is on Saturday, November 20th at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Szold Hall with my band as well as special guests Erwin Helfer, Anne Harris, Katherine Davis and Rebecca Toon. https://www.oldtownschool.org/concerts/2021/11-20-2021-donna-herula-bang-at-the-door-celebration/
I am also happy to be back playing at Buddy Guy’s Legends! We’ve played some really fantastic shows this year and I am looking forward to the future with my bandmates Marc Edelstein (upright bass) and Tony Wittrock (guitar, mandolin, banjo guitar). We have been fortunate to have been joined by the great blues drummer, Kenny Smith, on numerous occasions this year. Please visit my website for our music schedule: https://donnaherula.com/news-and-upcoming-shows/
Q. Do you have any future plans or goals to tour in the States or in Europe?
Yes, we are hoping to tour in the US and Europe in 2022. We really hope that the effects of COVID will lessen so that live music will be here to stay both in the US and abroad. If anyone is interested in hiring us, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. Where do you see yourself and your music headed in five years’ time?
I hope that the album will open doors to new opportunities including playing music at blues and music festivals in the US and abroad. I would like to continue to write music that’s from the heart, tells the truth and respects the blues tradition - from the woman’s perspective. I would like to continue to use slide guitar in new and interesting ways. I am also hoping that other blues artists will cover my songs. There are a several, such as “Something’s Wrong with My Baby,” that I would love to hear a female powerhouse blues vocalist sing.
Q. Thank you for taking the time for this interview with CBG
Again, I would like to thank you -- my friends, family, students, blues music DJs, reviewers, photographers and fans -- for your support with my album, Bang at the Door! I really appreciate it! - Donna XOXO