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The Traditional Delta and Country Blues

Featured Interview – Kelly Richey

The line between being at the peak of the summit or being at the very bottom of the valley is a thin one.

One day you’re at the top of your game and the next day you’re not sure what’s going to happen.

Such were the winds swirling around the fabulously-talented vocalist, songwriter and guitarist Kelly Richey back in 2005.

“I developed trigger-finger (snapping of the flexor tendon) on my left thumb and I was devastated. I had been playing so good and everything was going great (in her career) and then a hand injury,” she said. “They were telling me in order to fix it, I was going to have to have surgery and I was not about to do that. When that hit me, I really had to step back.”

As it turns out, Richey, who also teaches guitar, avoided surgery by using one of the techniques that she shows her students.

“I’ve taught almost as long as I’ve played guitar and one of the exercises that I would have my students do is to practice playing with no thumb (touching) on the back of the guitar to build hand strength. Well, that saved me. I had to play month’s worth of gigs without my thumb touching the neck of the guitar,” she said.

A potential career-ending injury is never a good thing, but this one ended up having a positive, but unexpected, effect on Richey’s explosive guitar playing.

“During that process, I had to slow down a little bit and make every note count. That made me a better player. I was ‘talking’ too much,” she said. “I was playing too many notes, and this made me stop and think. I can look back and see a definite growth period during that time. What could have been catastrophic ended up being a real blessing in disguise. It’s ironic how you can look back on things and think they’re terrible, but in the end, they really help you. Now, my thumb doesn’t bother me at all anymore.”

Hearing the first few notes from the Kelly Richey Band’s new live CD – Live at the Blue Wisp (Sweet Lucy Records) – will let a person know that Richey is as fit as a fiddle these days and is playing up one heck of a storm. A real burner from start to finish, Live at the Blue Wisp is packed with all the ingredients that have led to Richey being rightly heralded as one of the hottest guitarists on the scene. Even though the disc has been on the streets for less than a month now, positive receptions have been flowing in.

“It’s really been fantastic and I’ve put out a number of live releases in between studio albums throughout my career,” Richey said. “But I think it’s the strongest live CD that I have. It’s my first live album to feature all original material on it. And the rhythm section I have is just world-class. They’re tremendous and the organic chemistry going on onstage is very powerful.”

Richey’s finely-tuned rhythm section is Ken ‘Big Bamn’ Smith on drums and Freekbass on … well, bass. And as Live at the Wisp proves, adding that duo to the mix is akin to throwing gasoline on Richey’s already intensely-burning fire.

“They force me to give absolutely everything I have, and then go inside and look for a little bit more. I’m used to wearing out my rhythm sections and I can’t wear these guys out,” she laughed. “I’m trying and it’s not over yet, but so far I haven’t been able to.”

With Big Bamn and Freekbass both having survived interstellar orbit with stints in the great Bootsy Collins’ band, it’s to be expected that they would bring a large degree of funk with them to the Kelly Richey Band. And that they do, creating a match made in Heaven, even though there may have been a moment of early trepidation.

“When he (Freekbass) found out I was going to make a change (in bass players) and he contacted me, I thought about it decided that this is either really going to work or it’s going to be a mess. It’s not going to be anything in between,” Richey said. “And it works. The holes that he creates, I can fill up, and vice-versa. It just works very well. It gives me the platform rhythmically to bounce off of that I’ve always wanted. Those two are just so rock-solid.”

With a drummer and bass player behind her that’s steady enough to set your watch to, that leaves Richey the luxury to do what she does best; lean back and let it rip.

“I don’t have to worry about any fluctuation in the groove or tempo at all. I can just close my eyes and take off, and when I come back, they’re standing there looking at me,” she said. “That’s comforting to know that I’m so well supported up there and that I don’t have to continue to invent the wheel onstage all night long.”

Blues lovers around Richey’s home base of Cincinnati, Ohio may have noticed a new band popping up now and again – the Kelly Richey Blues Experience.

“There’s a club here in town that every now and then asks me to come and do a cameo appearance, and it’s blues. I take in a little practice amp – a 1967 Fender Princeton, a couple of Tube Screamers and my old Strat, and that’s it. The first time I did this, there was a drummer and bass player there and after we played, the club owner said, ‘Wow. When you do this again, this is who I will pair you up with.’ It was really just magic. They’re two really great players from Cincinnati and when I went and sat in with them, I thought, ‘Wow, I haven’t played ‘blues’ – the really stripped-down kind – in awhile.’ What I’m doing with Freek and Bamn is blues on steroids. So that was a lot of fun. It’s really about getting back to my roots.”

She probably didn’t know it at the time, but pre-production work on her last studio album, Sweet Spirit (Sweet Lucy Records) may pay future dividends for the Kelly Richey Blues Experience in the future.

“Right before I did Sweet Spirit, I had released a poetry book (Whisperings – A Collection of Poems by Female Guitarist Kelly Richey) where I had gone through literally eight boxes – not exaggerating, 10, 000 poems that I had written throughout my life – from stuff on bar napkins to notebook paper,” she said. “And at that time, I discovered three milk-crates of old cassette tapes. And Sonya Ziegler, who does all of my photo editing and helped me put the poetry book together, said if I would transfer those milk-crates of tapes to digital, she would listen to them. I had no idea what was on those tapes, but we ended up with 74 hours of song potential that she found. She identified a collection of song ideas for me to get in and work with for Sweet Spirit. Then, she went back through and identified 28 potential new blues songs on those tapes.”

Plans are for those new blues tunes to see the light of day via the Kelly Richey Blues Experience.

“I’ve had in the back of my mind, kind of going back and connecting the dots, all of this much more traditional blues music – like Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace, Memphis Minnie – that kind of riff-driven blues music,” Richey said. “All that had been percolating, so when I started sitting in with this rhythm section, I asked them if they would like to develop these ideas – kind of like a Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsys thing; experimental. And they said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I’m starting to do some local Kelly Richey Blues Experience shows and I’m going to spend the summer working on material. With having both rhythm sections to bounce ideas off, I’m going to do a blues record this fall. No preconceived notions or anything like that; I’m just going to do this and see what happens, see what it is.”

Consider it a best-of-both-worlds scenario for Kelly Richey fans. Those that want to see her shred can still do that, and those that prefer a more traditional approach to the blues can see that, as well.

“Some people really want to be able to sit closer to the stage and experience more of an organic thing that’s not as in-their-face,” she said. “And some people, they just love watching me go nose-to-nose with Freek … now they’ll be able to do both.”

Of all places, Richey’s musical DNA has its roots in the 8-track player of an old pickup truck and in the faded words etched on an old blacklight poster.

“My mom and dad bought me an old pickup truck after I graduated high school and a friend of mine gave me an old 8-track player with a Cream live 8-track tape stuck in it. So I listened to that for at least 50 to 60 thousand of the 100, 000 miles I put on that truck,” she said. “And I only moved once as a child – from one side of Lexington (Kentucky) to the other – and when we moved into our new house, it was of course empty; empty except for this poster leaning up against the wall in the basement. It was one of those fuzzy, blacklight posters that someone had left behind. It said, ‘See you in the next world, don’t be late.’ I had no idea who the character in the poster was, I just thought it was cool and so I kept it.”

Considering that she hadn’t a clue who Jimi Hendrix was at that time, it’s a wonder that Richey didn’t simply toss that poster in the trash. Instead, it somehow worked its way into her very being.

“Yeah, ironically a lot of things that came to me (musically) were from that era. Cream, Hendrix … I just love blues-based rock. When I first heard a band in someone’s basement playing “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin, I didn’t know who Zeppelin was, either,” she said. “I had just gotten a guitar, and when I discovered this music, it’s almost like I had been raised somewhere without civilization, concerning this music. And when I found it, I couldn’t get enough of it.”

Although she might not have been familiar with Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix as a young girl, she still knew real music when she heard it.

“I was raised in a white, southern Baptist church and our church was burned to the ground when I was 5 years old, because it was the first church to integrate. We had a lot of interaction with the African/American community and my mom played piano for the church and my aunt played organ, so I was really involved in music,” Richey said. “I saw from a young age the difference between black gospel music and white gospel music and our church embraced that. So that was in my DNA, as well. And when I heard blues-rock music, I didn’t know why I liked it better than other kinds, but I think that sound had been growing and incubating in me and it resonated for me.”

And it continues to resonate inside Richey, with the nightly time she spends up on stage serving as an oasis, letting her put aside all the rest of the hours she spends daily worrying about her record label, her publishing company and tending to every other aspect of keeping her career on track.

“When I play guitar, I want to be able to close my eyes and leave. It’s my one escape. Sometimes I feel as an independent artist, the very last thing I get to do is just play guitar,” she said. “When I finally get on stage after 20 hours of driving through the night, I want to close my eyes and leave. And that free-form blues-based music is what allows me my exit strategy. I think what people like about my playing is, they get to go, too. If I’ve had a successful night, I’ve left the building, everyone has gone with me and we came back in for a safe landing.”

Richey has constantly managed to grow, progress and, even mature, over the span of time since her first album – Sister’s Got a Problem – came out in 1994. A key component to that has been her ability to rationally look at, and critique, her own work.

“Doing so many records, both studio and live, I’ve had to really sit back and listen to myself play. And there’s a lot of things that make me go, ‘Oh, my God, that again?’ I’ve learned by trial and error. Sometimes when I listen back to my records, I’ll get a grin on my face and go, ‘Oh, yeah.’ And sometimes it’ll be like, ‘Ehhh,’” she said. “Just having to be honest and confront that is important. And I’ve also asked for people’s opinions and then I’ve listened. I’ve learned from all that. When I did Sweet Spirit, Sonya said, ‘Kelly, you do not need to do another self-indulgent guitar record. You need to do a record with songs.’ And she was right. So I made every note on that record count. It became a personal challenge to me.”

Recently, the first blues song that Richey ever wrote, a tune called “The Blues Don’t Lie,” was featured in a February episode of ABC Family’s The Fosters.

“I was really excited to have a song air on that show. That was cool,” she said. “I’ve got quite an extensive catalog of songs at this point, so my publishing is out there for consideration for different TV and film things and I hope that increases down the road.”

Richey is extremely energetic and intense about the music that she creates and the way that she plays that music live – whether with her band, solo, or with the newly-minted Kelly Richey Blues Experience. But speak with Richey for just a moment or two and it’s readily obvious that there’s something that rivals her burning fire for peeling the paint off her well-worn Fender Strat – her thirst for teaching and the passing of her knowledge to others.

“I am a passionate guitar teacher. I have a real capacity to be patient with people learning and guitar is a tricky instrument to learn to play. It’s very physical,” she said. “I just launched a new Web site and there’s a virtual classroom and I have over 120 instructional videos on there. I’ve always taught lessons, but because I’ve toured so much, it’s limited my ability to teach.”

Thanks to technology, some of those issues that existed between Richey and the time she could spend with her students have been reduced.

“I started teaching through Skype and I also became a guitar instructor through TrueFire (www.truefire.com). My students can send me a video of them playing and then I can send them a video response and that’s a wonderful format,” she said. “My virtual classroom has three packages – beginner to intermediate and then intermediate to advanced and then how to play lead guitar. So I would love to be able to focus on my guitar teaching. Five years from now, I’d love to be able to play just the shows that I really enjoy playing and teaching guitar. I just enjoy that interaction with other people that you get through teaching. I want to give back something of service. To me, that’s what music is all about.”

Visit Kelly’s website at: http://www.kellyrichey.com/
To see a video of Kelly’s amazing Blues Rock chops Click HERE
Photo by Bob Kieser.

SEE MORE AT BLUES BLAST MAGAZINE