"This isn't all glamour, this life on the road. B.B. King said, when he was asked why he still does 200 shows a year, "Let me put it this way, they pay me to travel and I sing for free!" Maria Muldaur

Get Ready to Sizzle with Maria Muldaur and Her Red Hot Bluesiana Band

An Interview with Maria Muldaur
By Mariah Fleming

Maria Muldaur

Maria Muldaur is one of those rare artists whose voice is inimitable. Her singing style is instantly recognizable. Muldaur has recorded 40 albums thus far in her career and her latest, 2012's critically acclaimed tribute album titled First Came Memphis Minnie, finds her in perfect voice. In fact, if it's possible, every year she sounds even better. And Maria Muldaur and Her Red Hot Bluesiana Band are bringing their sizzle to the Musical Instrument Museum on Saturday May 25th at 7:30 PM for what promises to be an outstanding show. Tickets are $27.50 to $32.50 and there's not a bad seat at MIM.

With her first big hit "Midnight at the Oasis" Muldaur established herself as one of the most beloved and influential singers to emerge from the fertile Greenwich Village music scene of the 1960's. She's a multi Grammy Award nominee and is nominated for the Blues Music Awards just about every year. I talked with Muldaur the day before she traveled to the 34th Annual Blues Music Awards in Memphis, where she was nominated for the Koko Taylor Award. "I’m nominated almost every year for something and I have yet to win. I’m like the Susan Lucci of the blues awards," she joked. "I go every year and have a great time getting together with all these other people in the blues community. We all try to do everything we can to keep the blues alive and well!"

Without a doubt, Maria Muldaur is keeping the blues 'alive and well' and then some. Muldaur's musical roots are deep. She is a captivating singer and storyteller with an endearing sense of humor. You can look forward to that and more at her MIM show.

Q. Your music has been part of so many lives since your first big hit "Midnight at the Oasis." I've been a fan for ages and I'd like to tell you my fondest memory of your music, ok?
A. Sure! Please do!

Q. Years ago I drove from Arizona to New York and painstakingly picked out some of my favorite music to take on the trip. I chose maybe ten albums and three of them were your first three. So, I sang my way across the United States with you! It's one of my most enduring memories of that trip.
A. Wow. I love hearing stories like that. I'm honored.

Q. I want to say congratulations to you on being nominated, once again, for the Koko Taylor Award at this year's 34th Annual Blues Music Awards. You should win!
A. Thanks! I’m nominated almost every year for something and I have yet to win. I’m like the Susan Lucci of the blues awards. (laughs) I’m usually nominated in the best traditional female blues artist category, which now they call the Koko Taylor Award because she won it so many years in a row. But I've also been nominated at various times for various albums I've put out.

Q. I’m looking forward to seeing you and your Red Hot Bluesiana Band show at the Musical Instrument Museum. Are you familiar with the Musical Instrument Museum?
A. Yes. I've heard nothing but great things about it. I really want to go through the museum when I'm there. The boys in my band are really anxious to go through the museum, and look at all the displays of amazing instruments. I hope we have time to do it. We're looking forward to coming there.

Q. What can we expect to hear from you at your MIM show?
A. We'll be doing some songs from my 40th and newest album First Came Memphis Minnie, as well as music from my 39th album, Steady Love, which I recorded in New Orleans a year and a half ago. My newest album, First Came Memphis Minnie, is a tribute to Memphis Minnie, an amazing woman blues artist who was a contemporary of Bessie Smith.

Q.You grew up in New York City and were there at the genesis of the Greenwich Village scene, during the resurgence in vintage music in the 1960's. You had a friendship with Victoria Spivey, who was a contemporary of Bessie Smith's. Didn't she turn you on to Bessie Smith and tell you about Memphis Minnie and a lot of other people… can you talk a little bit about her?
A. Yeah, she did. Victoria Spivey was one of the original classic blues women. And they're categorized as - the classic blues queens - they sang the blues but they were backed up by what would be considered traditional jazz band instrumentation. If you look at the instrumentation on a lot of the Bessie Smith cuts you'll see that Louis Armstrong and his band were backing her up. Not always, but often, and Victoria Spivey was one of those.

Q. When is the first time you heard Memphis Minnie?
Maria Muldaur A.It was at Victoria Spivey's apartment that I first heard a scratchy old 78 of Memphis Minnie singing "Tricks Ain't Walkin'" and I was immediately transfixed! I fell in love with the music of Memphis Minnie and recorded a few of her tunes over the years, notably Chauffer Blues in 1969 with my husband Geoff Muldaur. But over the years I've continued to love her music, so I thought it was time I paid tribute to her, and I’m glad so many of my sisters in the blues participated.

Q. So, you would say Victoria Spivey was hugely instrumental in your formative years as a blues singer?
A. Oh, yeah. She took me under her wing. She took me to her apartment and started playing old 78's and different recordings of blues tunes she thought might be suitable for my young, undeveloped voice to sing. And when I think about it now, I’m just blown away that I had the good fortune to connect to a woman like that, who was such an important link to our musical past, to the rich tradition of the blues and our musical heritage. And she taught me a lot.

Q. What about her own music; did she have any hit records?
A. She had a lot of hits back in the day and also was in a movie or two! She was one of the blues queens from the 1920's who survived the ensuing decade. And when I was just coming up she was alive and well and living in NYC. She was one of the first artists I know of to be savvy enough to have her own record label. She was out on the scene talent scouting for her record label all the time, and that's how I met her. In fact, Bob Dylan recorded on her label before he recorded for Columbia!

Q. Wow. I didn't know Dylan recorded elsewhere before he recorded at Columbia. What was the name of her label?
A. Spivey Records. (laughs)

Q. Of course! Victoria Spivey must have been a real powerhouse.
A. Yeah, she was. She was always out talent scouting to sign bands and she was signing a band that had a bunch of my friends in it called the Even Dozen Jug Band.

Q. With John Sebastian and David Grisman, right?
A. Yes, exactly. And she told them, according to them, "You boys play great but y'all need some sex appeal." And these guys were, shall we say, still in their Clearasil stage. Some of them were teenagers. (laughs) Well, she'd seen me playing the fiddle and singing around the village and on the scene. And she told them, "Why don't you get that gal up there playing the fiddle and get her in your band, then you'll really have something!" And so they came up and asked me and it sounded like fun, so I agreed.

Q. Let's get back to Memphis Minnie. What in particular draws you to Memphis Minnie's music?
A. She was a pioneer in every way, and a great role model both musically and personally, to me and to many women who have come after her in the blues. Unlike Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and Sippie Wallace and a lot of the classic blues women, she didn't just stand in front of a band and sing. She wrote and recorded over 250 of her own songs, which are wonderful songs that people are still singing today. And also played bitchin' guitar! So I decided to pay tribute to her with this album. And I called on my soul sisters in the blues to participate in the project.

Q. Tell me more about your Memphis Minnie album.
A. The Memphis Minnie LP is mostly vintage, mostly acoustic blues. All this fall and spring I toured in Europe and in the UK. I took a show that was a lot of tunes from the Steady Love album, a lot of tunes from the First Came Memphis Minnie album, plus everybody's old favorites…the ones that people who fell in love with my music way back in the day want to hear.

Q. You said you called upon your 'soul sisters' for your Memphis Minnie tribute album. Who participated in your tribute album?
A. Well, Bonnie Raitt is doing a cut on there and let's see, Koko Taylor is doing a cut, which she recorded shortly before she passed away. And Ruthie Foster, another one of my favorite newer blues artists, and Rory Block, and the late, great Phoebe Snow. And that just gives you an indication of how many women artists - kind of diverse women artists - have drawn a lot of inspiration from Memphis Minnie. I just want more people to know who she was…and the album turned out great.

Q. So, a lot of your fans know the name Bessie Smith, but haven't been familiar with Memphis Minnie?
A. Right. If I’m at a gig and I ask people in the audience "OK how many of you have ever heard of Bessie Smith?" almost everybody raises their hands, but if I say "How many people have ever heard of Memphis Minnie?" way fewer people raise their hands. Making this album was my little way of changing that equation a little bit and shining a light on what a wonderful pioneer she was and how inspiring she was in so many ways.

Maria Muldaur

Q. You have a formidable body of work in many different genres. It's always interesting to hear what you come up with for each new album, and it must be endlessly interesting to do.
A. Yeah, I've done all kinds of projects: Jazz, Blues, Blueisana, R&B, Children's, Jug Band Music….all kinds of things. And over the last dozen years or so, I've recorded a series of mostly acoustic albums, paying tribute to the various pioneers in the blues. I've won three Grammy nominations behind it…all self produced: Richland Woman Blues, Sweet Loving Old Soul and Naughty Bawdy and Blue. I returned to my jug band roots to do an album called Maria Muldaur and Her Garden of Joy. And of those four, three of them were nominated for Grammy Awards. They were nominated for various blues awards, and they were all vintage songs, which is amazing in itself, because they're all vintage songs played in a totally traditional, vintage fashion.

Q. There seems to be a real thirst for vintage music these days, don't you think?
A. It's really true. And a couple of years ago my booking agent said to me, "You know, Maria, you've been getting all this recognition for all these vintage, acoustic blues albums you're doing, but when you go out on the road with your electric Bluesiana band you play something quite different. If you could make an album that represents the kind of music you play live, then you'd probably better represent what you're doing." And I thought that was an excellent idea.

Q. So that's when you decided to do Steady Love?
A. Yes. I went straight to the heart of the matter, and the scene of the crime in New Orleans and got together with my favorite New Orleans musicians and made what could only be called the "Bluesiana" album, my 40th album Steady Love. It's bluesy and funky, very raw, high-powered, high-octane electric blues and R & B, and the songs are very, very well received. We toured behind this material last year and I couldn't believe how well received it was.

Q. You've spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and it's like your second home, isn't it?
A. Yes, kind of spiritually and musically it's my home. I almost actually physically moved there several times in the last 15 or 20 years. I always say my furniture is still in California but my heart is in New Orleans. (laughs) I have a lot of friends there. I spend a lot of time there and some of my favorite musicians are there.

Q. So, what a terrific name for your band: Maria Muldaur and Her Red Hot Bluesiana Band. "Bluesiana" is a great term! Where did that come from?
A. Bluesiana is a word I made up almost 20 years ago to describe the kind of New Orleans flavored Blues, R & B and what we call Swamp Funk that we like to perform. Actually I found out later that my old friend Dr. John had used it in the title of an album he had done called Bluesiana Triangle so we both had thought of the word separately. So I called him up and asked him if he minded and he said 'not at all' so, great minds thinking alike… (laughs)

Q. Your songs bring back memories for so many people…you must see that a lot at your shows.
A. Yes, it seems to rekindle wonderful memories for people…in fact according to what people tell me, often x rated memories. (laughs) Apparently three songs in particular were the soundtrack to many a love and lust affair. If I'd been writing these stories down from when people started telling me so long ago, I could probably have published quite a little x rated book by now.

Q.I bet I can guess which songs people want to hear. Which ones are they?
A. Well, the guys in the band call them 'the big three' - "Midnight at the Oasis", "It Ain't the Meat it's the Motion", and "Don't You Feel My Leg" are tunes that no matter how many new albums we have out, people want to hear. And of course, we're always the most excited to come out on the road and share the newest material with our audiences. But we quickly realized years ago that we'd just better not show up without doing the 'big three' 'cause people want to hear them!

Q. Do you ever grow tired of singing your old hits?
A. A lot of people ask me that but no, not at all, because it's so fun. I save the old hits for the end of the show.

Q.It must be so gratifying to know that songs you recorded when you were starting out still resonate so deeply with your audiences.
A. Oh, yeah. It sure is. When we start to do them, to see the looks…to see those x rated memories…(laughs) and just to see happy memories flicker across people's faces while we sing 'em…well, that's better than any Grammy I could ever win or be nominated for. And to hear the stories, not just the x rated ones but stories of how my music helped people, well, like the story you told me earlier…I treasure stories like that.

Q. How do you find your material?
A. I know who the great songwriters in this country are and I know their phone numbers! (laughs) I can contact them and ask them for new material whenever I'm doing to do a new project. I don't write songs, but in retrospect, I think I've done a pretty good job knowing how to pick songs.

Q.Absolutely. I’m fascinated by all the material you've recorded over the years, and struck by the passion behind what you do…you really make the songs your own.
A. Thanks. Yeah, it's kind of a special knack to know how to pick good songs. To pick songs that people still want to hear 40 years after you've recorded them; that's pretty good. And to know that these songs that I picked somehow intersected with people's lives, and with what different people were going through in a really positive way…at the end of the day after performing for almost 50 years, that's my greatest reward.

Q. I've seen you perform many times, and it's always tremendous. Audiences adore you. What's it like for you to be on the road so much?
A. This isn't all glamour, this life on the road. BB King said, when he was asked why he still does 200 shows a year, "Let me put it this way, they pay me to travel and I sing for free." The travel can be hard, but then making the music for people live, at the end of that travel, is its own reward. You put something out and it's gratifying to see that it's brought joy to people and uplifted them in spirit. I can't think of a better way to spend one's life or use one's God given gifts. So I'm still doing it. I'm planning albums 41 and 42 right now!

Contact the author of this article at Editor@MusicAndMoreAZ.com.