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Live From Studio D: Country blues duo representing NH in international competition

Jim Countryman & Erin Harpe are representing New Hampshire at the International Blues Challenge beginning January 25, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Zoey Knox / NHPR
Jim Countryman and Erin Harpe are representing New Hampshire at the International Blues Challenge beginning Jan. 25 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Erin Harpe is a blues singer, guitarist and band leader who was recently named New England's "Blues Artist of the Year."

She and her long time partner and bass player Jim Countryman are representing the Granite State this week at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee.

Erin and Jim stopped by NHPR's Studio D to play an acoustic set, and to chat with NHPR's Emily Quirk about their journey toward an international stage. Below is a transcript of their conversation.


Erin Harpe: Growing up, my dad [played] acoustic fingerstyle blues — like I when I was playing here. It's called Piedmont Blues. It's also called East Coast Blues.

And so I grew up with my dad just playing that all the time. And I rebelled by playing the classical flute. And when I was in high school, a guy I had a crush on said, 'I know all the words to Alice's Restaurant, but I don't know how to play it on guitar.'

I forgot all about the boy. And just the guitar was my new, my new love.
Erin Harpe

And I was like, 'Oh, my dad knows how to play that!' I'm going to go home. Dad, dad, dad, I need to learn this song. And he's like, 'Oh, that's a hard song. I don't think you can learn it fast enough.' So I learned it in one week, flat. I mean, not perfect, but well enough to play it.

And I forgot all about the boy, and just the guitar was my new, my new love.

Emily Quirk: The International Blues Challenge down in Memphis sounds like quite the event. And I would imagine that there is vast representation from people here in the States, from folks over in England. But are there any surprises?

Jim Countryman: We played with an Israeli band that was really killer.

Harpe: Australia.

Countryman: Australia. A Japanese band was awesome. South American bands are really great. And they all have the love of the blues.

You know, that's what everybody's there for. So it's really a great time. It's an international time. Plus, you get to meet people from all over the U.S. as well, because everybody, every region has their own blues society that you have to win your regional [round] and then go to Memphis for the international [competition].

Before heading down to Memphis to compete at the International Blues Challenge, Erin Harpe and Jim Countryman, CBD stopped by Studio D for an acoustic set.
Zoey Knox
Before heading down to Memphis to compete at the International Blues Challenge, Erin Harpe and Jim Countryman, CBD stopped by Studio D for an acoustic set.

Quirk: I have to admit that I first learned about you when I was producing a segment for Give Back NH, and speaking with the folks at Granite State Blues Society. Can you talk about your relationship with them and how they helped you get to Memphis?

Harpe: Yeah, we have to give it up for the Granite State Blues Society. They're really awesome. They helped us raise money and they're just— they come to a lot of our shows and get everybody excited.

Countryman: And the problem is that [The International Blues Challenge] puts the onus on the acts to pay for your own way to get down there.

Of course, there's prizes if you win, but there's only first, second and third place out of like 400 acts. So not many people are going to walk away with a prize. So the fundraising is really helpful.

The local people in New Hampshire have been so nice helping the Granite State Blues Society raise funds for us.

Quirk: I think a lot of people would describe the blues as an old sort of person's music, right? Like your dad or your grandpa listens to the blues, your grandma listens to the blues. As a young woman who who plays the blues for a living, what do you think about that?

Harpe: So I guess at first I had this feeling that, you know, maybe people didn't want to hear some of the old stuff because it was so, you know— people didn't know about it. That people don't know about Memphis Minnie as much as...

Countryman: Bonnie Raitt.

Harpe: Yeah, as much as Bonnie Raitt. So I started writing my own blues songs and inspired by that old stuff, like 'I'm a Hard Luck Woman.' It's kind of a song about, you know, the quintessential musician story. You know, you're just trying to make a living and everything seems to go wrong and you can't pay the bills.

Countryman: Which day are you not quitting? Oh, yeah, I quit yesterday. How can I quit today as well?

Harpe: Exactly.

Quirk: Does this year feel different than past years? Do you feel like this is your year?

Harpe: I mean, I kind of do. Well, I don't want to say that, but people are saying that to me. So, you know, knock on wood.

Quirk: Well, I am just wishing you nothing but the best. And whether you win or not, have a great time and let us know when you're back and when we can expect more music here in the Granite State.

Harpe: Thanks, Emily. It was great talking to you.

Before becoming Program Director, Quirk served as NHPR's production manager. During that time she's voiced and crafted the 'sound of the station,' coordinated countless on-air fundraisers, produced segments for Give Back NH, Something Wild, New Hampshire Calling, and developed NHPR's own NHPR Music vertical with features such as Live from Studio D, and long-loved favorites like Holidays By Request.

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