Spokane’s Justyn Priest hits the right harmonies as both performer and musical teacher | Music News | Spokane | The Pacific Northwest Inlander

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Singer-songwriter Justyn Priest casually enters Poole’s Public House on the South Hill and sets up for a gig on the eve of Thanksgiving. There’s a quiet conversational rumbling in the pub, a sense of people enjoying the calm before the storm of the holidays.

Throughout the evening, Priest bangs out tunes on his acoustic guitar, heartfully singing his own orignal muisic along with famous classic rock, blues and modern folk crowd pleasers, while skillfully navigating the fretboard — jamming on every song, almost creating extended conversations with each melody. It’s all so seemingly effortless, like he’s just strumming from the comfort of his home, in a chair, by a fire with his dog.

I first saw Priest perform in late 2022 at Lucky You Lounge, opening for Midnight North, a band led by Grahame Lesh (son of Grateful Dead’s bassist Phil Lesh). Priest’s original compositions fit the style of the evening, and he expertly wove in a Dead cover (“Brown-Eyed Women”) for the audience of dancing Deadheads.

There’s a decent chance if you frequent the Spokane live music scene, you’ve seen Priest. Notably, he opened for Foreigner this past summer at Northern Quest Resort & Casino. He also plays with Royale, Ron Greene and Aspen Kye. This week alone he’s playing both Chan’s Red Dragon on Friday night, and will spend Sunday night at the Knitting Factory as part of Sammy Eubanks’ Blue Christmas concert (which supports the Rayce Rudeen Foundation.)

The 38-year-old Priest — who lives in Nine Mile Falls with his wife, Candice, and their Labrador mix, Willow — embodies a paradoxical blend of righteousness and humility. The songs he writes echo this. “Patience,” for example, is about not wanting to deal with incorrigible people.

“It’s about not having the patience to wait for that moment when understanding comes,” explains Priest, before wryly adding, “The song is aggressively positive.”

Priest defines good musicianship as “when you can translate emotion into sound.” He emphasized the importance of musicians to be grounded in themselves. First and foremost he’s on stage for himself, not for the sake of performance.

“Most people who write music will tell you that it’s not really coming from them. It’s coming from somewhere else and being kind of channeled through them.”

Priest’s musical dynamics are eclectic, a rock and blues style inspired by his own meanderings through a multicultural landscape of music including flamenco and latin rhythms, odd metered music (found in progressive metal and Indian tabla), blues, and rock. Priest’s improvisations echo this legacy of rhythms woven into an artistic expression.

Priest’s stage presence resembles the Southern bluesiness of Warren Haynes, with vocals comparable to Chris Stapleton or the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson.

“I don’t have the vocal capacity to even get close to those guys, but I work on it. I hope that I sound like myself more than anything,” Priest replies in a gentle tone at the comparisons.

Priest’s skillset is one that impresses even his peers.

“Who’s this kid that is playing all the right things at the right times and not playing at all the right times?” veteran Spokane singer-songwriter Cristopher Lucas recalls thinking the first time he saw Priest take that stage at a show in Coeur d’Alene back in 2008. “He has onstage tact. Sometimes you’ll have a musician who’s really hot and awesome, but they need to learn when to lay out and not show up all the time. Justyn’s always been a natural at that.”

Lucas and Priest eventually collaborated in the band Cruxie, where they played mostly Lucas’ original songs and covers. It was the start of a musical relationship that’s now spanned 15 years.

The 52-year-old Lucas recalled the first time Priest sang lead on stage in Cruxie. Lucas and his bandmates noticed that Priest had joined in singing, and all at once — with a sly signal to each other — they stopped singing and laid out on the next chorus, leaving Priest to carry the vocals alone.

“They sold me out,” Priest recalls with a laugh. “It was a good experience, though. It was like when somebody throws you into a pool, and you have to learn to swim. But then you realize it’s the shallow end.”

Although Priest is mostly self-taught, at 19 he studied for a year at the Musicians Institute of Los Angeles (MILA), attending classes with highly successful musicians such as Carl Verheyen, one of the world’s top guitarists ranked by Guitar Magazine and a member of the British rock band Supertramp. After a year, Priest opted out of pouring over a hundred thousand bucks into being taught music. It was the end of his time as a student, but not the end of his time with musical education.

Music bridges the wisdom of generations and releases what’s inside our timeless, ageless hearts. Along with a prolific music career, Priest extends his passion through teaching lessons in Spokane. His classroom is a minimalistic office space at Gabriel’s Guitars near the northern border of the Emerson Garfield neighborhood. Some of the theories he learned at MILA carry into what he teaches today.

“He doesn’t just teach you how to play music,” says Holli Ugaldea, whose two teenagers take lessons from Priest. “He teaches you the why.”

Learning an instrument requires a commitment amid the distractions of modern life. Priest, raised without high-speed internet or smartphones, emphasizes a focused learning environment by providing printed music sheets and opting for hand tuners over tuning apps. His commitment to accessibility ensures that music becomes both a personal outlet and a means of connection for his students. He tailors lessons to the kids’ preferences, inviting them to choose what to play whether it’s the Beatles or Iron Maiden, AC/DC or Taylor Swift, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers or the Indigo Girls.

Sheridan Broderick also has two children under Priest’s tutelage. She spoke to his positive influence on her 10-year-old daughter, Taylor.

“She’s shy and getting her to play guitar with someone outside the household was really a struggle,” Broderick says. “Taylor played immediately for Justyn. I was so impressed. She really looks up to him as a teacher and mentor.”

Teenagers don’t need another teacher dictating their actions. For instance, Priest began teaching my daughter Maya six months ago. He connected with her headstrong 16-year-old personality, fostering a focused and comfortable space that has turned her into a dedicated student.

Priest’s difficult journey through adolescence illuminates his ability to reach timid teens. For him, music became a refuge through a medical journey. He developed glaucoma as a baby, and doctors had to remove his right eye. Currently, he wears a glass eye, but while he was still growing, his choices were limited.

“It was between either being super uncomfortable and always having something in my eye or getting bullied most of my life… which was what happened,” Priest says.

Priest made the best out of a difficult situation by learning to shred on guitar.

The catalyst for Priest’s childhood desire to buy his first guitar (a generic Stratocaster imitation) is not an unfamiliar one — he heard Jimi Hendrix.

“I was at a buddy’s house and he was playing Hendrix, and I was like, ‘That’s what I want to sound like,'” he explains. “Those songs meant a lot to me as a kid who struggled with a lot of angst and isolation growing up.”

Priest’s influence as a teacher stems from a deeper wisdom, a knowing of how difficult the journey can be toward learning something new.

“I can definitely tell if someone has had a similar background as me,” he explains. “Kids have problems, and sometimes home isn’t a fun place to be. Music can be cathartic. The only time they get a peaceful moment.” ♦

Justyn Priest • Fri, Dec. 15 at 7 pm • Free • 21+ • Chan’s Red Dragon • 1406 W. Third Ave. •

Sammy Eubanks’ Blue Christmas with special guest Justyn Priest • Sun, Dec. 17 at 6 pm • $15 • All ages • Knitting Factory • 919 W. Sprague Ave. •

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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