Friday, February 24, 2012

Ten Questions With Beth McKee

Whatever you might be doing on February 28th, you need to stop at some time during the day, and either make a drive to your local record store or jump on the internet and get a copy of Beth McKee's new CD, Next To Nowhere.  Trust me when I tell you that if you're any kind of music lover at all, especially of blues and roots, you will be glad that you did.  McKee's an outstanding composer and performer, and this release is a potent mixture of blues, R&B, rock, gospel, and soul.  The Jackson, MS native spent the early part of the 90's with the New Orleans country band, Evangeline, whose song, "She's a Wild One," later became a hit for Faith Hill.  When the band broke up, she eventually relocated to Orlando with drummer and future husband, Juan Perez, who has continued to serve as a collaborator on both of her solo releases.  Ms. McKee was gracious enough to sit down with Friday Blues Fix and answer a few questions.....ten of them, in fact.  Enjoy!  

1. Your music encompasses blues, rock, Cajun, zydeco, and R&B.   This obviously developed over a period of time, so who are your musical influences and why? 
It’s a long and varied list so I’ll answer chronologically. Growing up in Mississippi my roots are blues, soul and country so let’s start out with names like Son Thomas, Little Milton, Al Green, Etta James and Charlie Rich. After I got out of school I moved to Austin, Texas and discovered Doug Sahm, who mixed rock & roll, rhythm & blues, Western Swing and Tex-Mex. I really liked that. Flaco Jimenez and Steve Jordan ignited the accordion lover in me and I’ve always loved Buckwheat Zydeco and Clifton Chenier. I was honored to play shows with Buckwheat in Florida recently. During my Austin time I was also inspired by the songwriting of guys like Butch Hancock, Guy Clarke and Townes Van Zandt. Later when I moved to New Orleans I immersed myself in its piano players; Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Huey Smith and Art Neville. Bobby Charles is a huge influence as a singer and songwriter, so much so that I recorded an entire CD of his songs as a tribute a couple of years ago. My husband of 15 years, Juan Perez, plays drums and writes with me. His musical sensibilities are incredibly strong and he’s probably been the biggest influence of all.

2. What kind of music did you grow up listening to? 
Whatever was around the house; my dad had a bunch of old 78s that I enjoyed - Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Patsy Cline. I also loved Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Fats Waller and Eubie Blake. Old music was a time machine that just carried me away. My mother had records by artists like Glen Campbell, Bobbie Gentry and Peggy Lee and my older sister had all the cool 70s music.
WZZQ was a cool radio station in my hometown of Jackson, MS that played stuff like The Faces and Sly and the Family Stone. Jackson State University had a station that played great blues and soul but on Sundays it was strictly gospel. I loved Sundays. I think that combination of all types of Southern roots music; rock and roll, gospel, country and funky rhythm and blues is responsible for my sound.

3. When did you decide that you wanted to be a musician? 
Deep down I always wanted that and at 14 I had my first steady gig playing the piano at church. Later, as a naïve young woman, I was afraid to commit my life to music. My family was very academically inclined and I felt that was what was expected of me. I studied accounting and dabbled with some gigs in college but it wasn’t until I went to Austin that I really starting entertaining the idea of music as my life’s work. I went out to hear live music almost every night at places like Antone’s, Hole in the Wall and the Continental Club and all I could think about was how much I wanted to be up on that stage. I think it was my time in Austin that revealed to me that music was my undeniable vocation.

4. For most of the 90’s, you were part of the group Evangeline.  How did your time with that group shape your musical vision as a solo artist? 
The Evangeline experience was special and the end of it was sad for me. I'd poured my heart and soul into it, as did the others I'm sure. I honestly think if we'd been around a little later on, we would have enjoyed greater success. Back then we were fighting an uphill battle because the music business was structured in such a way that bands needed to fit into one of a few categories and we simply didn't. We weren't the typical Nashville country act, nor were we a traditional Cajun band and we certainly couldn't be considered a rock or blues group, but there were elements of all those styles. I wanted to celebrate the fact that we had such a wide range but it was perceived as a disadvantage by some of the label people, so our diversity was reined in somewhat. The advent of Americana as a musical genre has done wonders for opening things up and with iTunes and digital downloading, people discover music on their own, now and don't rely as much on record labels to tell them what to listen to anymore. I believe that the unfortunate requirement for artists to fit into a handful of categories caused a lot of good music to slip between the cracks.
On Next to Nowhere I didn't consider trying to fit into a particular musical category for one minute and it was so liberating. When I wrote, I let myself go all over the place and trusted that my voice would tie it all together and I think it does.

5. You’ve played with a lot of great musicians over the years… do you have any cool stories about your playing with all these musicians, either in the studio or onstage? 
Some of my favorite memories date back to a summer, in the mid-90s, when Quint Davis (the founder of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival) assembled a tour called Festival New Orleans. A slew of Louisiana acts played amphitheaters all over the country, with multiple stages, Louisiana food vendors, strolling brass bands, art and crafts that you would expect see at the French Market. It was like the New Orleans Jazz Fest on the road and we had a blast. Evangeline was on that tour and each day, after our set, I sat in with the subdudes on a stage across the way. My band mates saw how much fun I was having and soon they were singing with the Zion Harmonizers during their set. When tour management heard of it, they thought it was a great idea and arranged for us to sit in with Buckwheat Zydeco for his headlining set and with the Radiators, too. Soon everybody on the tour was jamming with each other, it was a real Louisiana hoe down and I kinda felt like I had started it. Legendary New Orleans drummer Herman Ernst played with us for that tour and making music and hanging out with him was a highlight, too. All in all, it was not a bad way to spend the summer.

6. Your previous album, I’m That Way, was a tribute to Bobby Charles, the great Louisiana songwriter who passed away soon after its release. What was it like working with him and what did you learn during your time working with him
Juan and I self-produced I’m That Way and sent Bobby a copy. He loved it and instantly became a friend and mentor. He even asked me to sing on his last album “Timeless,” which I was thrilled to do. Recording Bobby's songs was cathartic and a bridge out of the creative rut I'd been in. Charles is known for his songs, but largely unknown even though he is a great recording artist in his own right. Taking on the challenge of celebrating his music closed the circle on the things I'd hoped to do with Evangeline. See, when Buffet first signed Evangeline to Margaritaville/MCA he wanted to find a Bobby Charles song for me to sing on our first album. I had just joined the band and hadn't developed any original material with them yet. I was stoked about doing a Bobby Charles song but other band members weren't so it didn't happen. We settled on Van Morrison’s “Carrying a Torch” and Jesse Winchester's "Rhumba Girl" for me to sing instead. All those years later, recording I'm That Way felt like taking care of unfinished business and I am so glad I did it.


7. Your newest release, Next To Nowhere, has some great songs on it.  Can you tell us about a few of them?  
Thanks, I’m proud of these songs. I chose “Next to Nowhere” as the title track because it best tells the story of the whole album. A story of hindsight and foresight, regret and hope for the future. I was full of fear and self-doubt for way too long, but had all this music welling up inside of me and I just had to get it out. “On the Verge” echoes that sentiment with an air of cautious optimism. When I traveled around the South, promoting I'm That Way, I met lots of female fans that soon became a group of friends. I started calling them my Swamp Sistas and I keep in touch with them on a regular basis, be it at my shows, online, or on the phone. They are one determined bunch of women who inspire me every day and in particular they inspired “Next to Nowhere” and “On the Verge.”
Rhonda Lohmeyer (from Evangeline) and I wrote “Not Tonight Josephine” from the perspective of Napoleon Bonaparte on the eve of his demise. It’s very tongue-in-cheek and fun. I wanted to honor my New Orleans roots so I played with a Professor Longhair piano style. “River Rush” is a nostalgic trip back to the Pearl River of my childhood days. I’m really proud of the country soul vibe we captured on that track.

8. Do you have any special projects in the works? 
Yes I have lots of things going on and that’s how I like it. I’m songwriting and already look forward to recording the next album. I'm also working on a short story and accompanying song collection with one of my Swamp Sistas, writer Sherri Phillips. The working title is Perdido and it is set on the Alabama and Florida state line near the Perdido River.
I'm planning shows in the upcoming months for our CD release tour and I want them to be special events. I'm enlisting the Sistas to help pull it all together. They inspire me to make my shows about more than music. I want each show to be an experience that shares a sense of roots and culture as well. There's tons of talent in the group, so I am going to designate some space at each show for a "Swamp Sista Swap Meet" and have them bring their creative efforts to share. I'm very excited about bringing them into the events since they are such a big part of my music and my life.

9. What is your favorite part about playing music for a living? 
The rapport I have with an audience when I am performing. I love connecting with them, seeing what they respond to and identify with. If I can touch someone with music, especially if it’s one of my own songs, that just makes my day. I also love to see people connect with each other over the music at our shows. I’ve seen people form long and close friendships after running into each other consistently at our gigs.

10. What are some of your favorite albums…. the ones you keep playing over and over? 

Sweetheart of the Rodeo by The Byrds is one I have bought a few times. I just love it and I find it fascinating that Gram Parsons grew up not far from where I live today. For my 21st birthday a friend gave me a copy of James Brown’s Live at the Apollo. What a great live album. Other favorites are Thelonius Monk’s Solo Monk,  Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul, Dusty in Memphis and Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s collaboration Painted From Memory.

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