A Conversation with Kelly Richey, by Ed Commons and Will Murphy

A Conversation with Kelly Richey, by Ed Commons and Will Murphy

Ace September 1992

“The blues are the blues. They still are. Everybody’s had the blues. To play them, you may have to live them a little bit longer.”

Kelly Richey believes that.

From New York to Texas and in between, she’s been playing and singing the blues. She has fronted for big names like James Brown, REO Speedwagon, and the 1990 Farm Aid.

Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, Richey first went on the road in 1983, performing in the northeast and midwest, both in bands, and as a solo artist.

Few guitarists play with Kelly Richey’s energy and passion.

Even fewer women.

What follows is our conversation with her:

ACE: There are other lead women singers aren’t there?

KR: There are a lot of women who strum a guitar and sing, but their bands do the playing. Bonnie Raitt’s about the only woman who plays. She doesn’t do a lot of playing. She mainly sings.

ACE: Do you give credit to anyone for your music? Did it just appear one day? Were you in the family garage, or was somebody instrumental?

KR: My first guitar teacher is the only reason that I learned to play guitar. He was a rhythm and blues player. I mean, he played everything; he lived a hard, hard, hard, fast life. Eddie Beckley kept me mad enough to practice twelve hours a day. All I really wanted to do was shut him up.

ACE: What made you so mad?

KR: He’d bring in songs to teach me. If I wanted to come to my next lesson, I probably ought to know it. Almost any idea or anything I’d do, he’d laugh at me, and always remind me he could do more with one note than I could do with anything I figured out. He was a great teacher.

That was really my introduction to music. I had grown up in a very white Baptist environment. But our church was the first church to integrate, so I was exposed to a lot of black music. And black gospel fascinated me. I just loved it. I could definitely see the difference when the black folks got there. There was no comparison.

ACE: What do you remember about rock and roll during that period?

KR: I had never listened to a lot of rock until I got into about ninth grade. A boyfriend with long hair turned me on to rock and roll. I had listened to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 and Barry Manilow. I’d never heard of Jimi Hendrix; I’d never really listened to the Beatles until I was out of high school. When I got turned on to this kind of music, it was a flood. Where had this been all my life? Who were these people? All these questions that I heard about body counts in Vietnam, I sure didn’t hear about them in history class in school. You know I started piecing together a big portion of society and my life and some answers from 60s music. I could see the turmoil of the 70s. It gave me some insight to what was going on that didn’t seem to be voiced anywhere else.

There was a real drug culture in the 70s; I think moreso than in the 60s. People in the 60s were finding out about it, and there were a lot of extremes. People in the 70s were just drunk and stoned. There was no D.A.R.E. to keep your kids off drugs. Parents were in heavy denial: “My kids wouldn’t do that.” Well, they were.

ACE: So the music was good. Who were some of the best.

KR: People like Joe Walsh, the Eagles. The bands like Led Zeppelin I love.

I tried to meet most bands at Rupp Arena. That was my task when I was in high school. A friend of mine and I, we used to take signs to concerts that said, “I play guitar.” We did anything to get backstage to meet people. I met about 80 of the bands we saw. No matter what it took, staying up all night, camping out, sneaking in hotels — whatever it took.

I just liked to go backstage and watch was going on. The setting up, the tearing down. I never bugged a soul. I asked a couple of people for their autographs, the ones I really admired a lot. I actually went to them in an apologetic way; I didn’t want to bother them.

ACE: Did you ever get acknowledged by some of these people?

KR: No. There’s never been much acknowledgement for me.

ACE: I meant, backstage, on those occasions, did they ever say, “You’re a musician. Go for it?”

KR: No, not really. Id tell people that I played. They’d look at me like, “Oh, that’s nice.” You know, “get out of here.”

ACE: Did you ever have any doubts about being a female performer because there were few idols to follow?

KR: No! I had a lot of anger about being a female, ’cause none of the guys would let me join their bands. I mean, it must just be like girls trying to get on the Little League team. Before school, I would plug in my amp outside school and play for the kids. Eventually, the school officials eliminated those electrical connections.

All the guys in high school were mean to me. None of them would let me play. When I was a senior in high school, they had a real big to-do talent show. Bands had tried out and rehearsed many nights, several weeks, leading up to this big talent show. The day before the talent show, somebody backed out. The guy called me to see if my band would play. I didn’t even have a band. But he said, “Can your band play?”

“Sure. We’ll be there. What time?” And so I got a drummer and a friend of mine that I wrote music with, and we threw a band together in an afternoon. We worked up a couple of tunes and went. And we won. I’ve never seen people so mad and pout so much. I did a little guitar solo, in between the two songs, and they tried to have me disqualified because we did three songs. They were nasty. We took our $50 we won. We went to the nearest bar and drank every penny of it. All of us were 17 years old.

ACE: Should secrets be told?

KR: Someday. Someday, it will be even better.

ACE: Do drugs make music?

KR: I think drugs stifle music. Sometimes it’s a two-edged sword. I had so many people give me so many drugs. It made me wilder and crazier. Totally uninhibited. I was a lot like a real flamboyant Jimi Hendrix. Especially right out of high school. I mean, I dressed wild. I played the guitar with my teeth, behind my head. I stood on my head at my first gig. It was everything to the edge. Everything to the limit. It’s what rock and roll was. Today, I see corporate rock. So it doesn’t much matter whether there’s drugs or not. Today, the evil drug seems to be cocaine. That’s really where careers end, very abruptly, I think, and creativity stops.

ACE: You don’t have a drug dependency, or need to be that way?

KR: No, not at all. There was a time when I was growing up that I sure did. Everybody did. A lot of people that could probably have had brilliant careers didn’t even get out of the garage. It’s something that I have fought with, either drugs or alcohol. And to some degree, may always fight.

ACE: Is that what makes the sound today?

KR: Unfortunately, I think it does. There’s a real fine line. Something that woke me up, when Stevie Ray Vaughn really hit success, and when Bonnie Raitt really hit success, was when they quit drinking. Period. I think that’s been true for several artists. I think that when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison were at their peak, they died. I think it’s one of two things. You either clean up and live, and have a long, happy career, or you die. Those people happened to have amounted to something before they died, but that was luck.

ACE: You command a band, you star in a band, you write, you solo. Have you found that you have to be the sole support?

KR: Until you have the right team. The team that I have now is great. The bass player recently moved here and lives outside Berea. His name is Chuck Martin. He moved here from New York City, where he worked in a music store, and was on staff at The Record Plant. He’s an amazing bass player/singer. He studied with lots of people. He’s one of those people who, anytime he saw an opportunity to learn something, he did. His standard has helped me wear the hats I wear, so I can stay on the phone, I can book the gigs. I know I’ve got something to book it for.

Our drummer, he’s young. He’s 23. His name is Cris Dile. I played with his brother, Joe, for a couple of years. Joe used to be my bass player. Cris is a real hard worker. He has chops. He’s a playing fool He really is. He’s very seasoned, especially for his age. About the only thing he does lack is the seasoning that only comes wiith time. He and Chuck really enjoy playing together. I know those guys will be there. We do everything from classic rock, blues, to rhythm and blues, with a real rock and roll edge. The only thing we do not do is Top 40. We just don’t do it.

ACE: Just in this city?

KR: Anywhere! For any reason.

ACE: Is it hard to deal with the long-distance?

KR: I was in a band traveling all the time. You don’t have a life, and you don’t have any money. Usually it’s very expensive to be mobile. We’re booking in a 300-mile radius, anywhere we can drive within four hours. You have to run a band like a business. There’s no glory. Maybe one hour a night, on a good night, every now and then, it works. Magic. It’s what keeps you going through all this insanity. You play a gig, maybe a total of two hours’ worth of music a night, maybe three, max. You’ve got two hours set-up on the front end, two hours’ tear-down on the back end. You’ve had to invest in a $10,000 PA. You’ve gone out and gotten it and you owe your life. You’ve got phone calls, and promotions you’ve had to send. You beg, borrow, and steal to get the gig. You really have to love it to do it.

I’d never played solo until three months ago and I was petrified. That’s why I’d never played solo. I always sat behind an electric guitar. It’s only been the last few years that I started singing. Number one, I was broke and I had to. Number two, I had picked a somewhat new direction and was trying to front a band. I thought, “if I’m going to try to do this, I’ve got to be better than I am.” That forced me to strengthen my vocals and to strengthen my ability to play without it being a jam session.

I’m starting to realize what it takes to pace a set. What two or three songs can you lead up to, so you can capture the audience’s attention, grab hold of them, and punch them right in the nose? And then leave them alone for a few songs? I’m learning how to reel them in at least once a set…Be willing to be caught. If an audience is willing to be caught, I think it’s a healthy situation for everybody. You might get entertained by accident.

I think music thrives during extreme prosperity and extreme depression. That’s one reason why I picked the blues. About four years ago, I was bartending at a club in Nashville. I was very familiar with BB King; I think everyone is. My guitar teacher told me a lot about Freddie King. I had some of his records.

I wasn’t familiar with Albert King, but I’d heart a lot about him, a great blues player. Albert King came into the club to do sound check. He had two sold-out shows that night. I sayd, “Hey! I play guitar; can I sit in tonight?” He looked at me like I was out of my mind. I had played with a couple members of the warm-up band. They said, “She can play.” He scratched his head and looked at me and said, “Honey, if you show up with your guitar tonight, you can play.” I did.

After his first show was over, I went backstage. I stuck my head in and said, “I’m here to play. Did you mean it?” He looked even more worried. He said, “Come in here and sit down.” We talked for about twenty, thirty minutes.

He said some things to me that were just priceless, like “You know, you pull that guitar out, it’s like pulling a gun on somebody. You better mean to use it.” I said, “I do.” And he said, “You go on up there and kick off the show. I’ll be out for the second song.” Before he walked out of the room, he said, “Now don’t you make me ashamed.” And I said, “Yes, Sir.” I went out and I didn’t know what on earth! For the first time since I was in fifth grade did my knees shake and did I sweat. I was wringing wet. I thought, “My God! I’m in Nashville. I moved here, I’m a girl guitar player, nobody paid a dime to come see me play, and here I stand…What on earth!”

“One, two, three, four…” — they kicked it off. And fortunately someone yelled out the key. And so there we went. Albert kept me up there the entire show. He gave me a lead in every song. And we “duked” it out. And it was the most fun experience and the most learning experience I’ve ever had in my whole entire life. Then, come to find out, Albert King was the one that Stevie Ray Vaughn used to follow around. And Albert worked with Stevie Ray and got Stevie to sing and helped start his career. I thought that was really neat.

One thing I saw with Albert King — you can’t learn to play the blues, you’ve got to live the blues; he said that. I looked at him, and saw an older man who was black, who had grown up in Memphis, in the South, who had a perspective on life I couldn’t have. And I thought then that was the blues. That only he could have them. Then life kind of got rough the past few years of my life, and I realized, “Wait a minute — everybody gets the blues.”

With the changes the world is going through today, people need to play what they feel.”


Ed Commons is a filmmaker and music video director.