Becky Barksdale has always loved her blues. Her first guitar was a Kmart model that her grandfather bought for her when she was 12 years old. In high school, although she played guitar, she was “not allowed” to join a band comprising of all her male friends because she was a girl. Yet, by the time she was 16, Barksdale was already playing professionally.
In 1992 she began playing in the iconic band, Canned Heat. When Michael Jackson was seeking a guitarist for his 1993 Dangerous Tour, Barksdale auditioned, surprising many of her friends who said, “But you play blues.” She got the gig, touring with Jackson all around the world, learning everything she could. Barksdale spent time working with Marie Dixon, and the late Shirli Dixon, playing in a series of events raising money and awareness for Willie Dixon’s Blue Heaven Foundation, located at 2120 S Michigan Ave, in Chicago. Marie Dixon presented her with a Red Rooster Award for her efforts, which currently resides at the Museum of the Gulf Coast, next to her “Kmart guitar,” and the Dangerous Tour jacket that Michael Jackson had given her.
Her latest album, The 2120 Sessions, really shines. It’s a fine example of what can be accomplished on a self-produced, self-recorded album. The results are powerful and dazzling. The majority of the tracks on the album are Willie Dixon compositions, with compositions from B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and others as well. When American Blues Scene spoke with Barksdale recently, she talked about her new album, working with Michael Jackson, being a female musician today, and working with Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation.
ABS: Your grandfather gave you your first guitar when you were 12?
That’s it. That’s what caused all the trouble! It has worked out well though. It’s been quite an adventure, I’ll say that. It still continues to be. I believe he spent all of $12, and he got me one of those three quarters, scaled down for kids. It was a guitar he bought at Kmart – I think it had a Kmart sticker on it! It was made of plywood, but I loved that thing. In fact, it’s in a museum. I donated it to the Museum of the Gulf Coast. The thing is, that guitar played great. Up until the day I donated it, I still played it now and again.
ABS: You played with Canned Heat for a while. What was that like for you, to play in a group with that kind of history?
I had moved to Los Angeles, and I started playing with them in 1992. Those guys were great to play with! It was an honor for me, and I learned a lot.
ABS: How did you come to play with Michael Jackson on the Dangerous Tour in 1993?
I found out about it, and I auditioned for it. Some guys in his band heard me play at a Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation benefit concert. They were looking for a guitar player, so I went through the audition process, and I got the gig. It’s funny too, because at the time, I really needed the work. I was telling my landlord ‘Hang on. Just hang on. A couple more weeks and I’ll get this Michael Jackson job, and I’ll be able to pay you rent, I swear!’ Naturally, he looked at me like I was crazy.
ABS: What was that like, playing next to him, in a touring show of that magnitude?
I learned so much! I mean, playing next to him, is an amazing experience. Just being there, seeing that much energy, and getting that feeling from performing right next to him. Also, seeing how a tour that size operates was pretty amazing. I learned everything I know about the music business from that. There wasn’t any aspect of that tour that I didn’t learn from. Traveling all over the world, and playing music. There’s not much that’s better than that. I feel privileged and honored that I got to work with him.
ABS: You played a tour, Jennifer Batten played one, and Orianthi Panagaris was on the This Is It Tour. In fact, Jennifer Batten also played with Jeff Beck, another artist that regularly has women players with him on tour. Of course, Jack White is another. It is becoming less and less rare to see this.
It reminds me of growing up. At that time, there were very few role models, I mean, when I was a kid. Now it’s more common, which is great. I think it’s great for music, in all genres, because at a point, people would look at you as a novelty, and not really take you seriously. Now, it’s not a novelty, it’s like we are serious artists. I think a lot of people don’t even remember that it used to be like that. It’s definitely a whole different world, that’s for sure.
ABS: That’s a good thing for artists, no?
It’s great! It’s what gave me the opportunity to do this new record, The 2120 Sessions. To do it the way I wanted to do it, and be able to release it without having to have a bunch of people giving me permission. That’s how it was in the past. Now, you don’t have to have a record deal. If you believe in something, you can just create the music, and then put it out there. If people like it, they will gravitate to it. It’s just great to have that kind of freedom!
ABS: The new album is doing well and it’s a really solid album, with a great vibe. Tell us more about it.
I worked a lot with Shirli Dixon, who The 2120 Sessions is dedicated to. We did a lot of benefit shows to raise money for her dad’s foundation. This album is for a cause as well. A portion of the proceeds are going to the Blues Heaven Foundation. In fact, most of the songs on the album are Willie Dixon songs. There’s a little B.B. King, Gatemouth Brown, John Lee Hooker, and Skip James too.
ABS: Yes, it is well rounded for sure. You’re approach to “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” and “Midnight Hour” is certainly different. Lot’s of texture, soul, and great tone. The Willie Dixon songs are performed really well too.
I’ve been wanting to do this record for a long time, and I was finally in a position to actually do it, and produce it myself. I had complete free reign to do what I wanted to do. For the first time, I actually feel like this is exactly the record I wanted to make right now. It feels good because it’s getting a lot of positive response from people. It just makes me feel good, like, ‘Hey, I’m not crazy.’
ABS: As you mentioned, you self-produced this album. It seems like artists get so much more out of the recording process when they produce their own music. For you, what are the differences between you producing versus someone else, and which do you prefer?
I think there are pluses to both sides of those things. It depends on who you are working with. If you are working with a producer where you both have the same vision, that’s going to be an awesome experience. For me, it’s a lot more work, and it’s a lot harder. It is a bit more rewarding to do it yourself, if you have a clear vision of what you want to do. You are totally free to do whatever you want. There are no police saying ‘Nope, nope. You can’t do that.’ It was a freeing experience to experiment, push the boundaries a bit, and have some fun. It’s very much a live recording, with very little done to it. For me, it was a really great experience, but a lot of work. And with the internet, I think it’s a way to clearly express your art. It’s from me to you; there’s not all these folks and ideas between me and you. I’m playing this, this is how I want it to sound, and this is how I hear it. It’s more intimate in a way.
ABS: What was it like for you working with Marie and Shirli Dixon to benefit Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation?
It was great to be a part of that. I was great friends with Shirli Dixon, and I had just started doing these Blues Heaven Foundation gigs. It was funny, because I started playing all these Wilie Dixon songs, and at the time, I didn’t realize they were his songs. So, when I met Shirli, we really hit it off. I started working with her doing these benefits, and it was great! I got to meet so many other great musicians.I did shows with B.B. King, Keb’ Mo’, and Elton John was even at one of the shows. Shirli was such a great person. It just feels good to know that you are raising money for a good cause. Know what’s cool? Marie Dixon presented me with the Red Rooster Award. I think there are only three or four in existence. That is my most prized possession! I am so honored that she gave me that for all my work with the foundation. That award is right next to that Kmart guitar at the Museum of the Gulf Coast. Right next to that is my Micheal Jackson tour jacket.
ABS: Finally, what advice would you offer young women out there wanting to pursue a career in music today?
I don’t think they really need my advice at this point. They all seem to be doing pretty well, the ones that I see up and coming. The one thing I would say, from my personal perspective, is that there was always this pressure, because you’re a woman, to be technically proficient, to be as good as the guys. You know, that whole mentality of just being technically proficient, so that when you play, they can’t say ‘Oh, she’s not as good as a guy.’ You’re always comparing yourself to that, and it is so easy to fall into that trap. It was so easy to fall into that trap. To me, it is so much more important to express yourself in your playing. If you are constantly just doing something to prove a point like, ‘I can play as good as that guy did,’ to me, that is not going to be as rewarding for you, or the audience. Play from your heart, and your soul. Play what you want to play! Don’t be competitive with anybody else. To me, music is communication. As long as you are communicating through your instrument, to me, that is so powerful! When you hear it, you know it. They can play one note, and you’re like, ‘I know exactly what she’s talking about!’