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Archive Interview: Tracy Bonham (2012)

Tracy Nelson has had one amazing career. From hanging in Chicago blues clubs as a teenager to her success with Mother Earth in the 60's and early-70's to her many solo albums and her work with such legends as Irma Thomas and Marcia Ball, Nelson has assembled an extensive repertoire of music and stories that would make her the envy of many artists.

Nelson released her latest solo album, Victim of the Blues, in 2011 and is readying a new release for September with her group the Blues Broads made up of Nelson, Dorothy Morrison who wrote and sang Oh Happy Day with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Annie Sampson who was originally with the group Stoneground and Angela Strehli who has sung with many of the greats of blues and was instrumental in the opening of Antone's in Austin, TX.

We had the pleasure of recently talking with Tracy about her amazing career and music.

VVN Music: You've had this amazing career where you've been able to record in so many...

Tracy Nelson: [laughs] You mean where I survived?

VVN: Well, you've recorded in so many genres. I guess you could call it eclectic.

TN: That's the name of our record label, Eclectic.

VVN: I know a lot of people think of you as a blues singer but you prefer to be considered an R&B singer instead.

TN: Well, somehow it seems more the style of what I've always done but I say that and then I make a classic blues record. I understand why people say that but R&B now means a whole different thing than it does to me. To me R&B is what was coming out in the late-50's and early-60's.

VVN: I would totally agree with that. That's what I think of when I hear soul & R&B. I don't think of it as what they call R&B today.

TN: Janet Jackson is not an R&B singer, I'm sorry.

VVN: I know that you've emphasized blues in the last few years between your last album and your work with the Blues Broads. Is that really the direction that you want to go at this point?

TN: Well, no. We just call ourselves the Blues Broads because it serves as a name we started using but we do a whole variety of stuff. The set, at best, is half blues and the rest is gospel and R&B so, once again, it's a convenient catch-all. I've been called a lot worse than a blues singer, so I'm not really complaining. That just seems to be where things settled in.

VVN: Way back in the beginning when you were a teenager, you said that you first listened to R&B on a station in Madison, WI.

TN: This is really a strange story. I wish someone would make a movie or write a book about this. WLAC came out of Nashville and during the day it was just a traditional AM station but at night, these wild men, John R. Richbourg and Gene Nobles, started broadcasting black music. They were all white but they came across on the air as black DJs and they just saw an empty hole and filled it with black music. It was one of those [clear channel] giant signals that covered a good bit of the country. It made it up to Madison at night when the weather was clear so that's how I happened to be able to hear that music because this crazy little station out of Nashville, TN could broadcast black music.

There was a station out of Chicago that we got occasionally, I think it was WLS, that had black music, too, but this was from nine through the night. Sundays they would broadcast gospel music. It was just a treasure.

I know people from Boston who used to get it. It bounced around the country and I hardly know any musicians who didn't tune it to that. They just found it and listened. I was fortunate enough to get to know John R. when I first moved to Nashville but I really became friends of Hoss Allen who is just a jewel of a guy. The stories he used to tell about those days were just priceless.

VVN: What actually drew you to that particular sound. Were there particular artists that really influenced you?

TN: R&B influenced me in the sense that I would hear them do a song that I loved and I'd try and do it. I get asked that question all the time and I'm sure most white musicians that settled in on black music get asked the question. I defy anybody to come up with a good answer. It's like anything that you're drawn to. It's nothing concrete. It just grabs you or doesn't and that music just totally captured me and I couldn't begin to explain why.

VVN: I think there's an emotion in the music that's different than, and not to put them down, but there's an emotion in R&B music that's different than, say, the Beach Boys or somebody like that.

TN: That's part of it. There's emotion in a lot of different types of music. One of my favorite records to listen to when I was really getting into music was that Bulgarian folk record, the women's choir from Bulgaria, that I listened to over and over and over again. I couldn't understand a word they were saying but the emotion in it really does grab you. I loved that record. It was a wonderful record to listen to.

VVN: Your first album was folk-blues, so you had a little bit of influence from both sides. Was that from before you went to Chicago.

TN: I recorded that record in Chicago although I was still in college in Madison. I came out of a whole folk music thing via folk-blues which was a very common trail and I met Charlie Musselwhite who played harp on that record. Then I started hanging out in Chicago when Charlie and I were seeing each other. I never actually lived in Chicago but I spent most of the time I was supposed to be attending classes in Chicago.

VVN: Through Charlie, you fell into the crowd with Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. That must have been...

TN: We were able to go hear them in clubs and Charlie knew most of those folks. I got a chance to meet them briefly. It's not like we became pals and I sat in with them.

VVN: You got to see them later in their careers in a lot of cases.

TN: Their heyday probably came sometime after that. At that time, they were mostly South Chicago local bands. When Bill Graham started putting them on the Fillmore stage, that's when they became really more nationally known. They had done some of the folk festivals like Newport but, for the most part, they were just playing in their local halls like Pepper's, Sylvia's...Buddy Guy and Junior Wells were at Theresa's, Johnny Young was at Rosa and Kelly's, which was my favorite place. A tiny little neighborhood bar. Charlie played their most of the time so that's where we hung. They were just there every single weekend. It was just pure, wonderful music.

VVN: It had to be amazing to be able to see all of them.

TN: I left the mid-west soon after that and Pepper's moved uptown. The whole racial thing got a little more heated and I think that was about THE time. After that, I don't think it was ever quite the same. It's something I treasure almost above anything in my life to be able to do that.

VVN: What made you move then to San Francisco.

TN: My best friend from childhood got busted for selling pot and I was going to be called as a prosecution witness. He would go down to Chicago and I would ride with him to see Charlie and he'd go do something and then come back. They had been watching him, knew I made made those trips with him and just assumed I could testify against him.

I had no intention at that time of trying to become a professional musician but I won a contest where first prize was a two week gig at this club in L.A. I took them up on the gig and got out of town real fast. Was that the answer that you expected?

VVN: Not really.

TN: I was going to say “Oh, I just had a hankerin' to get into music” but, no, I had to get out of town.

VVN: By that time, you had recorded and released the folk-blues album.

TN: If you read the liner notes, I state quite unequivocally that I am in college studying social work and I have no intention of becoming a professional musician. So, be careful what you say.

VVN: So, you went out to San Francisco. How long after you got there did you form Mother Earth.

TN: It's so kind of vague. I went first to L.A. to do this gig and I stayed there I think about a month and then I went to San Francisco and began trying to find musicians. I really didn't have a lot of luck. I got together with Ira Kamin and Powel St. John and we were all looking to do the same thing. Well, Powel was a whole different thing. He's what made us significant in that era because he was just this amazing poet but he didn't do blues or R&B at all. He did a few blues songs but his thing was just totally new and different and unique.

We were just wanting to do blues and R&B and we couldn't find musicians anywhere. When we first put the band together, it had to have been a year after I got there. Maybe a little less.

We tried people who said they played blues but they thought Jerry Garcia was a blues guitar player, so we weren't really finding people who even understood what we liked. This guy moved in and became our manager for a long time. He was managing editor of the San Francisco Oracle which was an underground newspaper. He came to us one day and said “I've found a great R&B rhythm section for you” and we said “Great! Where did you find these guys?” He said, “Oh they're all from Texas” and I said “No kidding. I can't believe it. I've been looking for people like this the whole time I've been here.” Basically, it was Doug Sahm's rhythm section. Doug Sahm was the Sir Douglas Quintet.

I told him “We can't just steel somebody else's rhythm section! What makes you think that we can just do that. It's not right.” Charlie said “Fuck him! He just ran off with my wife.” So, we ended up with these great guys from south Texas. George Rains who plays now with Jimmy Vaughan and is part of the whole Antone's blues thing and Wayne Talbert who is this amazing, wonderful piano player and singer who was a pretty bad junky and is no longer alive.

So, that was when the band came together and that had to have been about a year after I got there. '66 and maybe '67 when we really got together and started actually doing gigs.

VVN: So you were only there for about a year playing gigs before you went to Nashville?

TN: We moved to Nashville in February of '69.

VVN: What prompted that move?

TN: We ended up in a tour there and decided to record at [Owen] Bradley's Barn. Harvey Mandel had told us he had done a record there and it was a great studio so we decided to just stay there for an extra month or two when we ended the tour. We rented an old farmhouse near the studio.

We did the record and everybody else went home and I stayed because we had another month rent on this farmhouse. I loved it. I loved Nashville and I never liked San Francisco. It was really, especially at that point, it had become not so great. Too much drugs and it was really starting to get seedy. I just very happily decided “This is perfect.” It was closer to the mid-west. It was closer to all the gigs we were doing. It was cheaper to live here and there were studios here. Why don't we just move here? So, we did, all except the two black musicians in the band who opted out of moving to Nashville, TN in 1969 and I can't blame them at all. We missed them but I could see why they didn't want to.

VVN: A lot of people would say Mother Earth ushered in some of country-rock. Did that come out of the influence of Nashville?

TN: Well, I don't think we did usher in country-rock. I don't think country-rock became an entity at all until long after that. We probably were the first that weren't country people that came to play in Nashville and that first record we cut there did have a country side and a city side. We took some country tunes but we didn't do them country particularly. We might have put some steal on it. We might have put some fiddles on it but it was still the kind of thing that we were doing.

Then I did the stone country record with Pete Drake and Scotty Moore and that record just never got off the shelves. There was absolutely no crossover country at that point. We dabbled in it but I can't say we created the music because it never took hold.

VVN: You did five albums with Mother Earth.

TN: Let's see. Six. Four for Mercury and two for Warner Brothers. Wait, you may be right. I might be counting the country record which wasn't a Mother Earth record. No, it was five.

VVN: Did you decide to go solo or was it just a general falling out of the group?

TN: It was pragmatism. There really wasn't a Mother Earth anymore at that point. There was not a musician in the band that was in the original version of the band except me and I guess the guitar player. We had just had such a turnover of musicians regularly. I was Mother Earth anyway. It was Mother Earth/Tracy Nelson as the same being, so we just decided that it was more convenient. It just wasn't a group anymore. It was musicians backing me. It seemed a little pretentious to call it otherwise.

VVN: So, from there, you went off and did a number of solo albums and, then, in the early-80's, you dropped out of recording for awhile. What happened during that time?

TN: The 80's happened during that time. There was just nothing out there for me at that time. There was just really no point. The kind of music I wanted to do and the kind of music that was getting out there was night and day so I just sort of laid back, did a couple of jingles, still performed but I didn't record.

VVN: Then, in the 90's, you started with Rounder.

TN: I think I did a couple of albums for Flying Fish in the 80's, but maybe they were the end of the 70's. That time is all a blur to me. There's been a lot of time inbetween.

VVN: I'm curious how the whole collaboration with Irma Thomas and Marcia Ball came about.

TN: It depends on whom you ask. Irma will say it was her idea. Brad Paul at Rounder I think, more correctly, claimed it was his idea. We were in New Orleans doing some event and all three of us were on Rounder at the time. We were all playing at the club, possibly the Maple Leaf, and, at the end of the night, Marcia and I got up with Irma and sang backup. We just had a ball and Marcia and I both came up idolizing Irma. I think Brad at that moment saw us all together and thought “How great hwould this be?”

It worked in a really odd way. We're all so different in our styles. Irma and I were more close because I copied her for a very long time. I hope at that time I had gotten away from it but she was just so strong an influence on both Marcia and me that it was real easy to slip into something where we were blending well.

My favorite thing to do is singing with others. That's what I want to do. I love singing R&B. I love having a group of people singing together. That's what I love. Singing solo is not nearly as gratifying and moving to me as having voices in harmony. That's why it worked for me but why it works for other people, I don't know.

VVN: It's one of those thing you wished could go on for more than one album and, I guess, one tour.

TN: It was kind of an extended tour. That's kind of Rounder's fault. They waited way too long. They just kind of milked this thing and didn't want to do anything else and, by the time they decided they wanted something, Marcia and I had left the label. It made it probably impossible at that point.

VVN: As long as we are talking about you with other singers, how did the Blues Broads come about?

TN: Well, again, it just kind of fell together. Angela Strehli and her husband owned this restaurant and concert room in Nicasio, CA and they would do barbecues out there in the summer. I played out there a few times and Angela and I started doing some shows together. Then they started putting together these revues for their barbecues. It was just whoever was around at the time. They'd throw them all together and we'd all do a little of our own stuff and we'd do a bunch of stuff together. It just started as being a annual or semi-annual event at the Rancho.

Then it started just working so well. It was always Angela and me and Annie Sampson. When Dorothy Morrison agreed to be part of this thing, which just stunned me...I've spent an inordinate amount of time singing along with her Oh Happy Day on record...I was just stunned when Angela called and said that Dorothy was going to be part of this thing.

Maria [Muldaur] had done it a few times. Carlene Carter had done it a few times. We had a lot of different singers coming and going but when Dorothy came into it, it really solidified. It just had a groove organically until we just got this one good combination that was really working for us.

Then Bob Brown, Angela's husband, really got behind it and just pushed. He managed Huey Lewis and has a sense of what works. He just pushed it along to the point where we have a record coming out and hope to tour nationally. We've done a lot of touring on the west coast because that's where they live and work. We're a big group and it's expensive.

VVN: You have the new release coming in September.

TN: It's a live CD/DVD.

VVN: What about you as far as solo work? I know you've had a bit of upheaval in your life since you recorded your last album.

TN: No, we're going to really hump this thing through next summer and then I'll think about doing another record at that point. Right now, when I think about doing a record, I want to do stuff I've never done before and it's getting harder and harder to get anybody interested in that. If I do another record, they're going to want it to be blues and there's just stuff that I haven't done yet and I'm anxious to do it. I might self-release and I've got a book I have to finish. I have other things to do, too, that will probably get in the way of recording for awhile.

VVN: I was going to ask you, with your fantastic career and having worked with so many great artists, have you thought about a memoir.

TN: No I'm not working a memoir. I'm writing what I hope will be a series of autobiographical murder mysteries. I stole the idea from Kinky Friedman. He's written several books that are all mostly true stuff and then weave the murder mystery into it. That's what I'm trying to do with these books. It's fun. I kill people that I might have a long lasting grudge against. It's great fun.

VVN: There's a certain psychological advantage there.

TN: I would imagine.

VVN: Have you ever considered doing a memoir?

TN: A memoir? No. Everybody and their dog writes memoirs. That's why I'm doing these murder mysteries. It's fiction so I don't feel like I'm digging dirt on people. If I want to snipe at somebody or I want to retort something that someone else may not consider to be very complimentary, I can couch it in fiction and not be pointing my finger at a person to say “they were an asshole for this reason.” In fiction I can play with it as much as I want to.

The really interesting things about my life would make me very uncomfortable to put out in print. It wouldn't be fair to other people and, if I didn't do that, it would be a pretty boring book. But I say never say never. I said I'd never become a professional musician...

VVN: I know your voice is a little bit lower than it used to be but the strength is still absolutely there. Is there anything in particular you did to preserve your voice over the years?

TN: I know what hurts it and I don't do that and lately, in the last four or five years, I actually warm up a little before I sing which I never used to do. I know a few tricks about preserving my throat but I think part of it is that I'm kind of a freak of nature. My vocal chords are just different than a lot of other people so the more I've used them, the stronger they've gotten. I've also never been a huge touring star where I had to kill myself on the road day after day. I've been able to not abuse my throat and I'm basically lazy, so for that reason, I still have throat.

When I was first starting out, I had laryngitis all the time, but I began to learn what to do and what not to do. The first thing I learned not to do is drink. Drinking and singing don't go well together at least for me. It just made it hard to sing and it made my throat less resilient. You just kind of learn what to avoid.

I've wondered how Linda Ronstadt retained her beautiful, wonderful voice because she works hard all the time and she smokeed cigarettes.

VVN: We are seeing more and more artists now who have had to drop out for a time because they've gotten vocal nodes or torn a chord.

TN: I've never had nodes, weirdly enough.

VVN: Any particular artists of today that really impress you?

TN: If I were to pick somebody, it would be in different areas. I really like Christina Aguilera. I like the way she sings. I like the way she presents her songs.

I like Lady Gaga. I like her singing. Actually, I love her singing. I think she's a great singer.

VVN: You know, a lot of people compare her to Madonna but she has a better voice and she plays wonderful piano.

TN: She's a real musician, not just a poser. She does all this theatrical stuff that is similar to Madonna but forget that. It has nothing to do with music. Musically, she's real. She has talent. She writes well. Her tracks are fantastic. Her vocal performance is fantastic.

There are people, I fear, that I really love that I forget. They don't stick with me unless I'm hammered over the head with them.