“I think that my time is just the right time,” explains singer/songwriter Valerie June, who released her debut national album Pushin’ Against A Stone on Concord Records August 13th. “You know it’s like Rev. John Wilkens says, ‘You can’t hurry God. You gotta give him time. He may not come when you want him, but he’s right on time. He’s right on time every single time.’
Several years ago, this oldest of five kids born to a gospel music promoter in Humbolt, Tennessee competed in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Her high, keening and sometimes scratchy voice sounded like a young Elizabeth Cotton or Jesse Mae Hemphill. Her guitar playing had elements of blues, gospel, soul, country, Appalachian, and bluegrass. She calls her style “organic moonshine roots music”. Coming from a little slip of a girl with Medusa dreadlocks, her performance was totally out of context with others in the competition — and she didn’t even make it into the finals.
That said, she was mesmerizing, and both my wife and I felt like we were transported back two centuries to the front porch of a slave’s shotgun shack. This delicate flower of a girl captivated us, shining so brightly she made her small audience forget their surroundings in her brilliance.
“I came into this body. I came into this life at this time for a reason, and I’m drawn to the things of the past and certain things at this time and things that will be hopefully for a reason. And I don’t judge it anymore.”
Right now is Valerie June’s time. Her just-released Pushin’ Against A Stone album was recorded at Easy Eye in Nashville, Fairfax Recording in Van Nuys, CA, and Studio H in Budapest. Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach produced and co-wrote several of the songs, and Booker T. Jones co-wrote one of the songs and performs with her on the album.
NPR has designated a cut from the CD to be one of ten songs Public Radio can’t stop playing this month. The New York Times Magazine credits Auerbach with giving her “a bit of the Black Keys’ bluesy, haze-rock fingerprints.” She’s appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, appears on David Letterman’s Late Night Wednesday, August 21st, and has upcoming gigs in Paris, The U.K. and the Netherlands.
I caught up with her in a barn at the Chenango Blues Festival in upstate New York where she was steeling herself for four days of back to back interviews from the time she wakes up until she goes to bed in France.
Don Wilcock: My feeling is that you went through hell and back before this album Pushin’ Against A Stone was released.
Valerie June: Uhm, I wouldn’t describe it like that at all.
People live life. I’ve been living life for years. Some days are good and some days are bad. You ain’t seen my birth certificate so how could you possibly know. (Chuckle). You met my mom, right?
You’re older than 31?
I don’t know how to answer your question.
I remember how good you are at this.
Oh, no, no. I’m just a country rube.
Yeah, you’re quite brilliant. I know that.
Well, so are you. It’s fascinating to talk to somebody who can match me.
Thank you. It can be lonely, can’t it?
Yeah, I mean you won’t say your age, but obviously you’re less than half my age and yet your performance – my wife and I when we saw you in that upstairs venue on Beale Street in Memphis – I don’t know if you believe in channeling or you believe in spirits, you’re carrying the spirit of somebody who goes back about 200 years. I really believe that. My wife and I both believe that.
Well, that’s interesting.
Your sound reminds me of Jesse Mae Hemphill, and it comes from a little slip of a lady like you. That’s fascinating.
Well, thank you for that. I do think it’s very close to channeling, what I’m doing. I hear a lot of voices. So I don’t think it’s just one being that’s 200 years old or whatever.
You listened to a lot of Alan Lomax. What intrigued you about specifically his recordings?
The way he bridges races and he just makes it about the music again.
He really does. He does an excellent job of all the things that he writes and all of his documenting. In every way he bridges the gap in times when white people and black people weren’t supposed to be together. He was crossing those lines and he just did not care. He more focused on the content of one’s character and the ability to make great music than he did (the thought of) “Oh, I shouldn’t be hangin’ out with this old black guy.” You know what I mean?
Are you familiar with Sunshine Sonny Payne’s story and KFFA?
I don’t know that one.
He’s a white guy. When he was 17 years old he went to work for King Biscuit Time radio show.
Oh, well, I met him, but I didn’t know the story.
Well, the story was that he was best friends with Robert Lockwood , Jr.
And he wasn’t allowed to be seen in public with Lockwood, so they would go behind Sonny’s father’s gas station, and Lockwood would teach him how to play chords on the guitar. Of course, he went on to host King Biscuit, and he loved to tell the story of how the ladies in the beauty parlors would call up the station at noon. They didn’t want anybody to know who they were, but they were listening, and they wanted to hear certain songs, and it wasn’t considered proper for these white, southern, genteel ladies to be calling KFFA and saying they were listening to Sonny Boy Williamson performing live on the air.
Isn’t that a cool story?
Yeah, it’s equally as great as the stories of Elvis where it was like not the kind of music young people were supposed to be getting into. “That’s sinnin’ music” or whatever. That’s equally as great as that.
It’s a great story.
Elvis is like that, too. Have you seen the pictures of him with B. B. King?
Oh, yeah. It’s awesome. I mean, music to me has always done that. It’s its own language, and it lives in its own world, and depending on people’s judgment.
That’s why I do what I do.
I love that about it. That’s why I do what I do, too, because I’ve always been in the middle of every room when it came to black and white. Ever since I was a little girl, I never fit in either way, and I’m not bi-racial. I’m black. It’s just people on both sides looking good, and then there’s people like Alan Lomax who look, and they say, “Hey, what’s the person’s character,” but then they know that they’re bringing to the world a beautiful thing, and that’s what he did.
He spent his whole life collecting and documenting and writing all over the world, not just in the United States. It became a bigger thing than just the south and the north. It became huge, so to spend a whole life like that you have to give him respect, even though we got crazy sometimes.
Do you think it was easier by the time you came on the planet than it was when he was doing what he was doing, and Sonny was doing what he was doing? Do you feel that you’ve had an easier time of it, or was it difficult for you, too?
I can’t even compare myself to those times. Sometimes, because I loved the music of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s so much, I wish that I could go back, but then I think if I went back and I look like I look, it probably wouldn’t be such a great time. I probably wouldn’t be able to do and enjoy the things I was hoping I’d be able to enjoy in that time period because I look the way I look.
There’s been times where I was like, “Man, it would have been great to live in the ’60s and go through that era, Woodstock and all of that stuff.” That would have been so cool, like the music, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and everybody. Yeah, ok. No! I’m here now. What can I do now? What can I do now to build the content of my character and to live a great life?
What was it like working with Dan Auerbach?
He’s like any other guy. A friend of mine, we did this thing with The Band and Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Bonnaroo. It’s called Super Jam. It’s the end of the Bonnaroo Festival, and it’s the closing ceremony kind of. Well, I sang backup, and I invited my friend ’cause Dan wanted me to bring a friend as well.
So I invited her, and we had like a week of rehearsals with The Band. I picked her up one day to go to rehearsals, and she said, “You know, I thought Dan was gonna be like a guy Justin Bieber or something.” She said, “He is like any old guy you meet at the grocery store, and you’re pushing your cart, and they’re pushing their cart, and you meet a the apple stand or whatever, and he grabs the apple you meant to grab, and he’s like, Sorry, ma-am.” You know what I mean? He’s a normal guy wearing a regular old button down shirt hanging out.
What did you expect? What did you think he was going to be?
You never know with rock stars, you know? You never know. I know I love and respect his music for years so I expected great music, but I also didn’t know if the personality would mesh well with mine, but it was great. The first songwriting session was really awesome, and the second songwriting session was really awesome.
So that was a taste of how to hang out and see if our personalities – I mean if we could work together writing. So writing was the best part about the record. I really enjoyed that. We started out at John Prine’s studio writing, and I think we wrote two songs that day, and then we had another writing session at Cowboy Jack’s studio.
The great country music producer Cowboy Jack Clements?
He just died a couple weeks ago.
Oh, my God. I didn’t realize that.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
I didn’t realize that at all. How did he pass?
Well, I’m glad I got to meet him. He told me stories about Charlie Pride. He did!
When me and Dan would take a break, I would sneak downstairs and ask him questions. “How about Charlie again?” Then, I’d take another break and go down. “Now, tell me about Johnny Cash. Tell me about Johnny Cash in the car and Charlie,” because everybody was like, “Nah, Charlie, he ain’t going nowhere. We don’t need a black country singer” when he came to Nashville, but Cowboy Jack was like, “Oh, this guy can sing. We need this guy.” He really believed in him, and he kept pushing him to different people.
So he was tellin’ me the story about how Charlie Pride, he’s gotta be known, this guy from Mississippi or whatever. So he said he started out in Memphis doing stuff at Sun, and then he ended up moving to Nashville, and yeah, it was some long, good stories he was telling me.
How about Dr. John?
He is amazing. I didn’t hang out with him much, but when I did hang out with him, there was only one thing that happened, and it impacted every single moment of my life before I go on stage. I said, “Oh, my God.” I walked over to him, and he was standing there with his cane and his suspenders and his button-down shirt and his pants and his cowboy boots.
I was like, “Are you nervous?” And he said, “Absolutely not.” I said, “This crowd is huge. It’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever been in front of in my life,” and he said, “You’ve done the work. You’ve all been rehearsing all week. It sounds good. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be! If the sound guys hear one thing, we hear one thing. The house hears one thing. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be.”
Was I just talking to Buddha or what? That is how I have to go into every performance now. Like I get a little bit nervous sometimes where I might be on stage, and my sound is messing up my ear monitors, or maybe the drummer can’t hear me, or his timing is off with mine ’cause he can’t hear my guitar well enough or whatever. The audience hears something totally different. The drummer hears something totally different. The background singers hear something totally different, and it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be.
You co-wrote “On My Way” with Booker T., a song about dying. Who wrote what in that song?
I wrote the lyrics to it. He wrote the music mostly. Booker was so nurturing to me. The song started with him. See, the way it happened was I had these lyrics. I took over my lyric books. I was invited to go write with Booker T. from my publishing company BMG, and I took every lyric book I had, all these lyrics with no music, and I was like, “I might not use them, but I might.” But the first few songs we wrote together, which maybe some day you’ll hear ’em, I didn’t use ’em at all, but then we took a little lunch break, and I told him, I said, “Hey, man. How was it going from Stax to where you are now?
It was like hanging out with my dad or something. He’s so cool and just so relaxed. So he said, “Well, you know I left Stax because I wanted to study and I really wanted to go to college, and I really wanted to know what I was playing,”
He said, “I was playing all their music, but I didn’t know what I was playing. I was playing by ear and feelin’ it. So it was very important to me to go to college and become educated and know what I was doing.”
At a certain point I was like, “Well, was it difficult for you to leave where everybody has you as like a soul artist from Stax, you know?” And he was like, “You can’t even let the world tell you who to be. You gotta tell the world who you are.” And he was just like, “Come in here.” And he took me into his living room with all these records on the wall, some gold and silver and platinum and stuff, and he was like, “The biggest selling record on this wall is a country record I did with Willie Nelson, ‘Stardust.'”
And he said, “If I’d have stopped with Stax alone, I never would have done that, and I’ve worked with so many artists in so many genres,” and he said, “It doesn’t matter what color you are, where you come from, nothing. If you love music, don’t let anyone tell you how to do your music or what to do.”
From there he took me back into the studio. He sat me down. He said, “I’ve got a song I’ve been working on for years, and I have no lyrics for it, and I only have the beginning stages of the music.”
So he started playing it (“On My Way”), and I was like listening, and I was like, “Oh, my God, I got lyrics for this!!” So I started thumbing through my books that I brought that I thought I wasn’t gonna use, and I was like this song came to me, the lyrics and this melody and this fit perfectly with this music that he’s been keeping for years.
So from there we wrote that song, and there was just this moment where it was like, “Do what you love,” where he was like being a mentor to me and just saying, “We both come from the same part of the world. We both come from like the Memphis-Jackson, Tennessee area and don’t let this world tell you what to be.
You said he was like your dad. How was he like your dad? What’s your dad like?
My dad is a very good listener. He’s gentle. He has his opinions, and he’ll lay down the law with you, but he’ll listen to what you have to say, too, and Booker was like that. I mean he’s got three lined up lifetime achievements awards, and I was like this little girl coming in there who’d played at King Biscuit and blues clubs and bars and country bars and stuff and nothing like him, and he treated me like equal, like I was just a kid, his daughter or something, hanging out and just chatting.
Is it real different playing overseas?
Overseas? Yeah, it’s different because some people have the knowledge of the history of the music I play, but others don’t. So it’s easier for me here in that I don’t have to explain what I’m doing. More people that are interviewing me here understand the traditions and –
My experience has been the exact opposite.
Well I was surprised. I was expecting people from the states to be clueless. I was like so shocked. I did an interview with Vogue Magazine, New York Times Magazine, with like Country Music Magazine, and people know! They know who Mississippi John Hurt is.