Who says white women can't sing the blues? Certainly not Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, or any number of other sassy, saucy ladies with that certain six string savvy.
The blues may be rooted in the cotton fields of the deep South and the smoky clubs of Chicago's South Side, but as singer/guitarist/bandleader Kelly Richey wails in one of her signature songs, "The Blues Don't Lie," it's as much about attitude as it is about amplitude when it comes to getting down in the groove.
"When I put my first band together, I do remember thinking that blues was a form of music that I could play until the day I died," Richey reflects. "I felt so connected to it emotionally. I really had a passion for the genre. It was just something I had to play. Blues has no boundaries and is at the core foundation of all American music. Self-expression in this genre is unlimited."
According to Richey, her blues trajectory began during her early childhood, steered in part by her family's involvement with the local Baptist church where her uncle preached. It was there that she first heard her mother play piano and her aunt play the organ. When the church was burned to the ground after it integrated in 1969, the congregation opted to hold its revivals in local African-American churches.
"Those musical experiences became etched in my DNA," Richey recalls. "The black gospel music I heard during my youth had a profound influence on my choice of genre when I became a musician. Later, in my teenage years, I discovered Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Led Zeppelin as I found myself drawn to blues-based rock."
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Richey took piano lessons as a child, and later switched to the drums. When she turned 15, her parents got her a guitar as a Christmas present. "The guitar just seemed to fit me perfectly," she smiles. "I played piano from the time I could reach the keyboard of the old black Wurlitzer that was in my parents' living room. I didn't enjoy that experience. I'm dyslexic, and since piano lessons required me to read music it was a painful and difficult process... Actually, the first of many difficult experiences related to my dyslexia. When I started to play guitar, I discovered that the instrument allowed me to play with greater freedom and, more importantly, it allowed me to play by ear." Richey began performing shortly thereafter -- at church, at school, in senior retirement homes, shelters, parks and recreation facilities throughout her hometown. "I took my guitar with me everywhere," she declares. "I literally never set it down. I played for anyone who would listen!"
In 1986, Richey joined the alt-country band Stealin' Horses with whom she performed off and on for the next four years. Although the band had a major label deal with Arista Records, Richey claims she wasn't really happy. "We were all very young, and the business end of things surrounding that band was complicated. And I was a strong front person. We played almost 275 shows in one year, three of us, crammed into the front seat of a small Chevy S-10 pickup truck, traveling across the country. It took its toll emotionally, and I just wasn't mature enough at the time to handle that situation like I should have."
Freed of the band's constraints, Richey went on to record 14 albums over the course of the next 22 years, with her latest, entitled Sweet Spirit, scheduled for release on March 1. "Up until now, the stage was where I felt I captured my soul and energy best," Richey confesses. "I've always liked my live CDs better than my studio CDs. There has been more madness than method in my past recording efforts; today there is little madness, a lot of clarity, and a tremendous set of opportunities for this coming year that I embrace with a great deal of excitement.
"The new CD is all original material, new songs taken from song ideas that I had recorded years ago on cassette tapes that I had never finished. When I discovered them, I was struck by the uncompromising rawness, honesty, and gritty emotion. I wanted to capture those qualities, finish the song ideas, and incorporate the magic into my sound moving forward. It's all about great, hard rocking songs, no dead spaces anywhere, no songs that are filler. This album isn't just about me playing guitar solos -- there are guitar solos, but they're nestled inside of a structure that showcases my strengths, not only as a guitarist, but as a singer and songwriter as well."
Who she is and who she was haven't always fit into the norm. While popular music may claim to be an equal opportunity profession, women welding guitars were once seen as something of an oddity, the ladies of Heart, the Runaways, and the Bangles notwithstanding.
"From day one, I was labeled as a 'girl' guitar player," Richey remembers."When I started to play the guitar in the early 1970s, there weren't very many girls that played electric guitar, no one that I knew of, anyway. I always felt like I had to prove myself. And so I did. I admit that early on I had a chip on each shoulder, and I had an axe to grind. I encountered a lot of sexism in my career, especially in the beginning. As I began to mature, I realized that I was really only in competition with myself. I had to set my own standards of excellence. I had to let go of what some folks said about females not being able to play electric guitar. I knew that if I bought in to the negativity, I would stop growing. I've done my best to take the praise and criticism in stride. I've forced myself to play relentlessly, for over three decades --- always focusing on building my chops and keeping them strong. In doing so, I hope to leave little room for criticism... Yes, I'm female but I have a very muscular style of playing. I think that in itself makes me stand out. I also have an extraordinary work ethic, and I think that shows as well."
Far from being slighted, Richey has managed to earn some exceptional kudos. A number of critics have even bantered about comparisons to the likes of Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. To anyone less confident, that could seem somewhat intimidating. Richey, however, remains nonplussed.
"No, I was never intimidated by the comparisons," Richey responds. "Actually, I was inspired! I have never tried to duplicate Jimi or Stevie's style. I only play three tunes of Jimi's, and I don't play any Stevie Ray Vaughan material. The three tunes that are Jimi's -- 'All Along The Watchtower,' 'Hey Joe' and 'Red House' -- I have made my own, with my own style of playing. What I can say is this, I feel that I play with as much energy, freedom, and passion that my guitar idols played with, and I think that's what people connect with. My guitar style is real, it's emotional, and it's in your face. I take no prisoners and I leave blood, sweat, and tears on the stage. I give everything that I have -- that's always been my promise to myself and to my audience. Our goal as a band is to bring the house down at every show."
Kelly Richey performs at 9 p.m., Friday, January 18, at the Bamboo Room, 25 South J Street, Lake Worth. Tickets cost $15. Phone 561-585-BLUE or visit
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