The Rocky Road of Women in Blues – Part I

Silence is Deafening Graphic
The Silence is Deafening – A WiB Panel Livestream
June 28, 2020
Cathy Lemons
The Rocky Road of Women in Blues – Part II
August 4, 2020

Guest article by Cathy Lemons.


“Keep Steppin”

How hard is it for a woman to make it in blues. When they are not the child of a famous person and have no money, no self-esteem, and no one to guide them, no training, just guts. A woman in a man’s world. How hard? VERY. Maybe even damned impossible. My career in blues has been anything but a straight line up. Instead it has been a long climb up big rocky cliffs, a slow crawl down, and looooong winding road back up the big blues hill. But I always keep steppin’. A woman in blues has a special meaning to me because we are the dog that gets kicked and sometimes we don't even know it. I started singing blues in 1983 at the age of 23 years old. I am 61 years old now and on my 7th album. Blues was like a thunderclap for me when I first heard it-- to sing these marvelous songs about depravity and trickery gave me a reason to live. And I was filled with rage. I grew up thinking I was nothing. I went to 14 schools as my mentally ill mother dragged me and my two sisters literally around the world. I could never catch my breath. My mother finally landed us in Dallas, Texas in the early 1970’s. But even then, we moved back and forth, back and forth. I was terrified of life. That was my normal state. I learned not to trust people. I learned that people were horrible.

I never had a mother that said, “You can do whatever you want—you have talent—sing!”. Instead, she said “Get a day job and hold your breath until the day you die.”

I hated day jobs. Unless it was for a cause. Blues is a cause for me and always has been because it is the medium by which I can cut underneath my fear and then soar. I was told by a gifted bass player that I had an enormous crush on at the age of 19, that I could never sing blues. By the age of 24 he heard me sing in a dive club in Dallas, Texas and promptly apologized to me. He was shocked. Where did this other voice come from? This scorched earth holler. When he was used to hearing me sing soft, high folk songs or sultry swing tunes. It didn’t matter why he said what he said or what anyone else said for that matter. I knew I was for blues and blues was for me.

My advice to young women that want to sing blues is this: don’t ever let anyone ever tell you what you can and can’t do. Don’t ever let people stop you from your dream. Just roll. And get as many skills as you can.

When I was 23, I showed up at a popular night club to try out for my first blues band job. The song I sang was “Stormy Monday” and my hands were shaking so much I could not hold the glass of wine without spilling it. But I got up there and ripped through that song like it was my last. And the band hired me on the spot. The job was to sing every Saturday night at The NFL Club in Oaklawn, a middle-class neighborhood in Dallas. Every Saturday night I’d front a 5-piece band and we would play blues & soul standards to a packed house of Texas drunks.

And I went from there.

This was in the 1983. The band that backed me on those Saturday nights loved Anson Funderburg and his band The Rockets. We would go down on a Monday night to Poor David’s Pub and hang out, and sometimes I’d get up and sing a slow blues.

Anson and I got to know one another, and I took a professional liking to his singer, Daryl Nulisch. And they encouraged me.

But I watched those guys—all of them—all the blues musicians—encourage and foster other men much more than any woman. I watched them even encourage men that were just average talents. I still see that. And it really pisses me off.

I must have been pretty scary back then with my sequins and my high heels, my “don’t carish” attitude, my see-through blouses. Those men just could not make me out. I was too smart to be a groupie. And I was too beautiful not to be.

By the age of about 25 I was starting to get into hard drugs—heroin and speed. It was all around. I was scared and broke and had a very hard time hanging onto jobs. But I practiced about 3 hours a day 6 days a week. I worked very hard at my singing which came natural to me.

I grew up hearing a piano since the age of 3. No matter how many times we moved and no matter how poor we were, my mother always made sure that we had a piano in the house. My sister was a great classical pianist and she played for hours.

I guess it taught me chords. I can hear all the notes in a chord without thinking. To this day I can hear most harmonies without thinking. I can hear what should be in a song, and more importantly, I can hear what should not be in a song.

This gave me an edge on what I call “phrasing” -- that strange gift of being able to carve out a melody simply because I can hear all the notes in any given chord—all the time. You will not lose me.

Early on I listened to the great gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. Those are what I call “lick singers.” They effortless roll through lots of notes in a chord and wind it into a great melody.

I was lucky enough to see, live, some great developing talents in Dallas as a young woman. I saw at Nick’s Uptown Stevie Ray Vaughan and even sang on stage with him and Anson. I went backstage with Vaughan and hung out as they passed the cocaine around. Everyone called Stevie Ray “Jimmy’s little brother”. And everyone knew he would be a huge star.

In Dallas I also saw Kim Wilson and The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Lou Ann Barton, Marcia Ball, Larry “Medlo” Williams of the Cobras, Boz Scaggs, Johnny Copeland, Doyle Bramhall, Angela Strehli, Koko Taylor, Bobby Blue Bland, and the great Albert Collins.

But it was completely and utterly up to me to make something out of myself and I did not know how. I met people, I did play gigs, I even managed to book a few for myself. I made a studio demo of six songs with Anson’s band and it was really quite good!

Then the work dried up. The clubs started to pay less and less. The only blues bands that managed to work were able to tour-- like Anson’s.

I became very depressed. So I took a nose dive into drugs and abandoned the blues for some hard life lessons.

I started hanging out and living with heroin addicts. I ended up committing crimes and running from cops.

My beginnings were a long shot. An impossible shot. I played no instrument. No one sat me down and trained me on how to be a band leader. No one ever said, “do it this way.”

So I had to learn the hard way.

Stay Tuned for Part II!

My advice to young women that want to sing blues is this: don’t ever let anyone ever tell you what you can and can’t do.