The blues don’t seem like a young man’s game. While it might be arguable whether 39 is still young or not‘ the blues are inarguably a game Héctor Anchondo is winning.
Through the inevitable ups and downs of the music business, this singer, songwriter, and guitarist now supports a family with his art after years of day jobs. He’s penned and recorded eight albums with Burgundy and Gray, The Héctor Anchondo Band, Los Padres, and as Anchondo. Raised in Salem, Missouri, in the Ozarks, Anchondo has been local since 1999. He also started “In the Market for Blues” in 2015 with area promoter Emily Cox. This year’s festival featured over 40 bands in 12 different downtown music venues.
In recent years, Anchondo has been piling up the accolades. Since 2013, he’s won the Best Blues award from the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards four times, the Nebraska State Blues Challenge twice, and he was a semifinalist in 2015 and a finalist in 2016 at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee, where he placed eighth out of 240 artists from around the world.
In early 2018, Anchondo survived emergency gallbladder surgery, nearly losing his pancreas in the process, only to be blindsided by medical bills. He’s only recently gotten out from under that debt with the help of the Omaha Blues Society, which held a medical fundraiser for Anchondo.
During a catch-up session at Havana Garage in the Old Market, Anchondo points out how intimate the “stage” can be.” “They use those doors to go out to the patio and that’s the women’s restroom right there,” he says. Anchondo gigs here on occasion, setting up in an impossibly small space in the north corner of the bar. He says he likes a tight performance space so he can be as close to the audience as possible, a habit picked up in his younger days. “I actually like that you’re up close and personal with everybody. I played a lot of house parties back in the day. Had a lot of gear ruined by beer, but people passing right in front of us is kind of the charm of it.”
You can take the musician out of the Ozarks, but can you take the Ozarks out of the musician? While a little bluegrass “shines through” occasionally, Anchondo says his style is definitely all blues, a blend of Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago.
“There was definitely more bluegrass in Salem. There’s a legitimate hillbilly culture down there that’s pretty intense. The first actual bands I was exposed to were old-time bluegrass bands. Bluegrass players get down. It was pretty rad,” says Anchondo, who plays piano, ukulele, mandolin, drums, and bass as well as a mean six-string. “I started out wanting to learn some rock guitar. My instructor said ‘if you want to play lead guitar, then you need to learn how to play the blues.’ I got all over this blues thing just to get to that stuff. And that’s when I fell in love with the blues. I was like, ‘this is exactly what I’m talking about, you know, that was the discovery.’”
Anchondo is a pretty moderate drinker for a blues man. Not exactly a teetotaler, but he does like to keep a clear head now that he’s a father and a proper perspective as he grows into a more mature artist. While practicing at Havana Garage, he barely finishes two pints in as many hours. Anchondo admits that a few years in his early 20s were made fuzzy by partying, but there’s nothing like unaltered reality for classic blues material.
“I had a lot of alcohol, especially in my younger 20s. I never had a problem, per se, but [at] times I did drink more heavily and smoked a lot. I realized looking back it was like I couldn’t remember a lot, you know? There were times in my life where I quit drinking for a year, just to make sure that I could. That can be tough working in bars. I couldn’t even try to do that today. I would be in a coma, you know?”
The fuzziness of his 20s stands in contrast to his style of writing music today. As he matured, Anchondo started finding his artistic inspiration in the stories around him, in the lives of friends and family. A song from his album Young Guns called “Damn It” exemplifies his storytelling style.
“It’s all from personal experience,” says Anchondo for whom all parts of the human experience are valid material and all experiences are a part of existence. “I took from a few inspirations, like the relationship my mom had been in when I was growing up. ‘Breaking every dish in the house’ is the hook. A good friend of mine was in one of those relationships where it was either really, really great or really, really explosive and destructive. So I wrote about some of the crazy things that happened like when she drove her car into their house. It’s all part of experience.”
Anchondo has been working for nearly three years on his ninth album and still practices harder than ever to reach “the next level” musically and professionally.
“I love the artistry and the craft of music. It might sound kind of cheesy, but making music is like a religion, an extreme discipline. It’s part of your life. It is your life and in order to see what you are capable of by the time you perish, you got to be all in to see what you can do. I’ve been working harder than I ever have in my entire life because I’m really trying to push myself and my band to the next level. I want this album to be the best album yet.”
Visit hectoranchondo.com for more information.
This article was printed in the November/December 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.