“I’m floored and in an altered state of consciousness over this,” says Laura Blackley of The Wildflowers band who recently won a regional Blues Challenge in Greensboro. “This is the first time I’ve won any kind of competition before!” Winning there advances them to compete with over 125 Blues infused bands from all over the world at the 33rd annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis, TN later this month. She goes on to express it like this, “…it’s quite an honor to carry that torch for Asheville and the whole of North Carolina.”The fact that this makes three years in a row (Al Coffee & the Grind 2015, Bygone Blues 2016) that a band or duo from the Asheville area has won a spot to compete in this prestigious competition does not escape either of us. And when I ask what provoked her to take the band to Greensboro (Piedmont Blues Preservation Society) to compete in their regional challenge, she raises her voice with an enthusiastic and very flattering “YOU” as her answer to ME. I tell her the story of how I came to learn about The Blues Foundation and the over 200 affiliate Blues Societies worldwide that sponsor the annual competition. We both say “thank you!” out loud to the award winning singer-songwriter and former Ashevillian, Eliza Lynn. Keeping the Blues alive in all its roots, modern and developing forms, is a common goal.
The kind of Blues that Laura creates comes from high and lonesome Appalachia. A trueborn storyteller, Blackley owns a gusty, feisty, polished, and true Appalachian voice. Her original material is wrought with eloquent and so too, rough around the edges lyrical content. In her tune “Pieces” she writes: “Part of me is drunk on freedom, and part of me is yours to keep.” It’s just one example of a multitude of compelling, colorful, and visual lines she seemingly seamlessly conjures up.
As a young child, she and her younger sister Julia listened to their parents’ (Ken, a high school baseball coach and Carol, a clerk typist) record collection that consisted of Country, Soul, and Motown. She took piano lessons as a wee one and though it didn’t stick, she bought her first Yamaha guitar from a radio trade show in her hometown of Warsaw, VA at age 18 and says, “I came home to the realization that music is a powerful, healing medium.”
Combining lessons with learning how to play guitar on her own and while at Radford University in Blacksburg, VA, she landed a weekly gig at the Best Western Lounge where she sometimes played solo and sometimes with friends. “It was as awful as you’d imagine, but I learned a lot of songs in a short amount of time. It was better than waiting tables.”
Since the age of six, writing songs, prose, and poetry has been her infatuation. The International Blues Challenge affords her the opportunity to showcase some of her more recent work, since one of the criteria for judging is “originality.” One of her early musical influences is The Grateful Dead, and she suspects, “Jerry Garcia was the one who had the uncanny depth and breadth of American music style and forms. My suspicion is he must have had a huge and varied record collection.” Other standout influences for Laura include The Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Janis Joplin.
Among the original tunes the band will perform at IBC 2017 includes a song she wrote that pays homage to one of her Blues heroes, Memphis Minnie, called “In the Shade.” The song in part tells the story of how Memphis was “neck to neck and nose to nose” with then unknown Muddy Waters in a guitar competition. “The prize was $50 and a bottle of liquor. Though she was a hell of a guitar player, she solidified her win by approaching the judges table after her set and pulled up her skirt, ensuring that Muddy Waters would remain undiscovered for at least another couple of years!”
For seven years, Laura Blackley was an on-air host and producer at WNCW 88.7 FM Spindale, NC where she spotlighted regional music, women in roots, bluegrass, and old-time music. Now she is part of a team of Teaching Artists in her day job, within the framework of a social justice program that is directed by Dr. Dave Wilken locally, called Musicworks. It’s a platform that is modeled after one in Venezuela called “El Sistema” founded in 1975 by educator, musician and activist, Jose Antonio Abreu. Musicworks utilizes music and musicianship to teach life skills to young children. Laura’s eight-year-old daughter, Mavis Jordan-Blackley, is a member of the program and has developed an affinity for music. Mavis has even “sat in” with the band many times. “She and I have been able to connect on this whole different level that was really unexpected and cool. She’s quite a singer and has a great ear for music. She’s truly a special little girl and gift to my life.”
A fundraiser, “Memphis or Bust,” is being planned and will help defray the cost of lodging, food, and travel for the band headed to this year’s International Blues Challenge January 31 – February 4, 2017. I know from experience that the financial support this fundraiser generates can make or break an act’s ability to participate once they’ve won their slot to go. It is a five-day, tremendously fun conference/competition, filled with schmoozing the Blues networking moments, but also a grueling schedule of workshops, speakers, interviews, jams, and showcases designed to teach, advance, and promote.
On Sunday, January 22nd at 7pm (TBC) a few of us local Blues musicians will perform along with the award winning quartet, The Wildflowers (Ian Harrod on bass and vocals, Josh Gibbs on lap steel, Dorsey Parker on guitar and Richard Foulk on drums), to help them raise that money! For a suggested donation of $15 per person, you’ll be treated to BBQ and the Blues while at the same time, you’ll be helping us all keep Blues alive in Western North Carolina! Tressa Thornton of Tressa’s Downtown Jazz and Blues will open her legendary establishment to welcome you all with drink specials, a dance floor, and a heapin’ helpin’ of good old Southern hospitality.
To keep up with the latest news and performance calendar for Laura and The Wildflowers, visit her website at laurablackley.com. It is certain you’ll come away from any live performance or CD purchase yearning for more. From music reviewer Jennifer Layton of Indiemusic.com: “… I don’t want to leave yet. Pass me another beer and tell me just one more story… C’mon, Laura Blackley!”
Peggy Ratusz is a songwriter, vocalist and vocal coach. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peggy will be paying tribute to “Elvis Presley, The Early Years” with Ben Bjorlie, Jonathan Pearlman and Grant Cuthbertson on Sunday Jan 8, 2017 at Barley’s Taproom in downtown Asheville, to commemorate the king’s 81st birthday.