Playing the blues guitar helped Kelly Richey find her way in life
FARMINGTON — Kelly Richey's introduction to her musical instrument of choice came in the form of a surrender on the part of her father.
Growing up in Ohio, Richey had been banging away for months on a drumset a neighbor had given her, annoying anyone within earshot. Tired of the incessant racket, her dad wearily told her, "If you get rid of those things, I'll get you anything you want."
The younger Richey knew a good offer when she heard one. She quickly requested a guitar, latching on to it like a life preserver.
In many ways, it was. Richey — one of the headlining performers at Saturday's 10th annual Animas River Blues & Brews Fest in Aztec — described herself as a shy, awkward, gangly kid. But when she had a guitar in her hands — she sometimes spent 16 hours a day playing — she felt different.
"I was a wounded teenager with a chip on each shoulder," she said by phone last week from Cincinnati, where she was preparing to play a gig that night. "The guitar became a power symbol for me. It helped me create an identity."
The identity to which she aspired — that of guitarslinger — was most certainly not one that was widely shared by Richey's fellow adolescent females. The instrument she had embraced only set her farther apart from her peers, but it nonetheless became her closest companion, accompanying her to school each day. Richey made a habit of plugging it into a small travel amplifier and wailing away on it during her lunch break and in between classes. Eventually, school officials disconnected every exterior power outlet on the campus in an effort to discourage her.
It didn't work.
Inspired by a slew of artists, male and female alike, and bands — including Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and, especially Heart, which featured the Wilson sisters — Richey honed her chops and dreamed of playing lead guitar for a hot young band. She was defiant and determined, she said, and she didn't take no for an answer — even though that was the only answer she got for a long time. No self-respecting garage band made up of suburban, long-haired teenage boys noodling their way through "Smoke On the Water" was prepared in those days to let a girl take over the most coveted spot in the group.
"Nobody would let me play with 'em," Richey said. "I'd call about ads in the paper, and they always said the same thing: 'Oh, honey, we already filled that.' A week later, I'd call back, and they'd tell me the same thing. I'd say, 'No, you didn't, because you're still running that ad.'"
It was Richey who would get the last laugh. By the 1990s, she had landed a spot in the short-lived but critically acclaimed group Stealin' Horses, a Nashville-based roots outfit that had a deal with Arista Records. That gig afforded her the opportunity open for the likes of the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, in Daytona Beach, Fla., and even sit in with blues guitar god Albert King. It was that latter experience that made a particularly strong impression on her, sending her on a path she has followed ever since.
"That was my ah-ha moment," she said of playing with King. "I didn't realize until then that all the music I loved came from the blues."
For Richey, it was a natural progression. She had grown up attending a Southern Baptist Church where her mother played the piano, her aunt played the organ and her uncle was the preacher. But unlike most of the other Southern Baptist congregations in Ohio of that era, her church was integrated, meaning that Richey was equally comfortable with both white and black gospel — to the point that she saw no distinction between the two.
Her decision to devote herself to the blues a few years later simply felt like returning home.
"That was all the music I lived and was raised with," she said.
Having finally found her niche, Richey took to the blues with a vengeance, recording more than a dozen albums over the years, performing up to 250 dates a year and developing a ferocious guitar style that quickly quieted anyone ignorant enough to insist a woman had no place fronting a hard-core blues band. Richey opened for and held her own against such acts as Joe Cocker, Johnny Winter, Little Feat, George Thorogood and Warren Zevon.
Along the way, she sought to connect with others who might be using the guitar to establish an identity, teaching the instrument to anyone who wanted to learn. She's worked with thousands of would-be players all over the world over the years, taking advantage of Skype to provide one-on-one instruction, even when she's on the road, and producing a series of videos that students can refer to on their own time.
It's only been over the last three or four years that Richey has backed off from her busy touring schedule. She now performs a relatively modest 100 shows a year, primarily at festivals.
"I think it makes me more valuable in the market," she said, explaining that rationale. "When festivals are making their decisions (regarding who to book), if you're already playing there once or twice a year in clubs, you're not as attractive to them. So there's an element of that.
"Plus, the road's hard," she said. "(Playing less often) keeps you from getting burned out."
Though she toured with a band for decades, Richey plays mostly solo shows these days, as she will in Aztec. She acknowledged it was an adjustment to make that switch after so many years with full support, but she has enjoyed the challenge.
"It puts me on the hot seat and makes me work harder," she said.
Richey will be joined at Saturday's festival by the Harlis Sweetwater Band, the Michael Lee Band, Bill "Howl-N-Madd" Perry and the Austin Young Band. Katee McClure — president of Animas River Arts & Entertainment, the nonprofit organization that stages the event — has been with the festival in nine of its 10 years and has a longtime love of the genre. She points to a 1969 Rolling Stones concert in Los Angeles, when she saw the late B.B. King open, as the moment when she knew this was the musical style for her.
"It was the first time I heard the blues," she said. "I thought, 'Oh, I like that.'"
McClure said a core group of four people do most of the organizing work for the festival, while more than 30 volunteers who work two- to four-hour shifts on the day of the event help the festival run smoothly. The money raised from ticket sales helps fund the next year's festival, and McClure said the festival operates on approximately a $30,000 budget.
She said she'd love to attract more sponsors for the event and be able to attract big-name acts such as Raitt or Susan Tedeschi, but she believes the festival offers a great value for its ticket price, and she said keeping it affordable is a high priority. The event is attended by approximately 1,000 people each year, she said.
McClure said she's excited about the younger talent that will be displayed at this year's festival, pointing out that Lee, a Texan, is still in high school and draws comparisons to Johnny Lang, the teenage blues phenom from North Dakota who rocketed to fame in the 1990s.
McClure has missed taking part in the festival only once, in 2010, when she was caring for an ailing family member. She quickly stepped back in the next year and remains committed to it for the foreseeable future.
"I really think this is a great event," she said.
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