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Interview: The Christy Howard Band I Crossed the Tracks October 21, 2010

Posted by David W. King in Interview.

Another of the long-thought lost interviews.

Christy Howard is originally from the small town of Clifton, Tennessee. Singing and playing piano by age 6, she is today a Blues vocalist and songwriter based in Detroit, Michigan. Her diverse musical background, combined with her smooth and sultry vocal style, gives her a unique sound.

Drawing on her long career in the seedy music business for inspiration, her lyrics deal with cheating, mistreating, gambling, drinking and other debauchery familiar in the Blues.  She won the 2006 Detroit Blues Challenge (acoustic duo with guitarist Jeff Howard) and competed in the 2007 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee.

Recently she teamed up with Detroit Blues legend and Rock guitar pioneer, Billy Davis.  Originally from Mississippi, Billy is internationally known for his work with Hank Ballard, who had a string of R & B hits during the 1950s-60s, and played an integral role during the embryonic era of Rock and Roll music. Onstage, Billy is known for his flamboyant theatrics

Christy’s discography includes Blues for Katrina (No Cover Records, 2005) I’ve Got A Weakness( Blues-Rock), Party Girl (self-released, 2006, Southern-Rock and Country-Blues), Deep in Blues Country (No Cover Records, 2007, acoustic Chicago-Style Blues), and her newly released CD I Crossed the Tracks. It contains 13 original Chicago-Style Blues and Blues-Rock songs, and includes memorable performances by Billy Davis and Chicago bluesman Jim Kahr (Jimmy Rogers, John Lee Hooker, Charlie Musselwhite).

BDA Your vocals lack a discernible pretension. Can it also be said that you take this same approach to living, i.e., rather than being someone that you’re not, you are naturally you? How important is this to you?

Christy Howard: I probably “sound like myself” partly because I started my career singing Gospel.

I grew up in the boonies of Tennessee and come from a musical family. My dad is a great singer and since he’s a Southern Baptist pastor/missionary, I was exposed to gospel music at an early age. I was singing and playing those old church hymnal songs on piano by age 6, and singing professionally as the lead singer in a Gospel group at 13. So, naturally I began singing like “myself,” so to speak. I didn’t know how ‘not’ to sing like me. 

Later on though, as a teenager, I started singing Country and Bluegrass. I fronted my own Country band for many years. I was singing mainly at fish fries and parties because I was too young to get into bars, or honkytonks, as we call them down there. I was singing covers so I got pretty good at imitating the popular female Country singers of the day like Dolly Parton, June Carter, Tammy Wynette, and Loretta Lynn. One day my parents took me to Nashville to see the late singer/record producer Don Gibson perform at the Grand Ole Opry. After he was done, I talked my way back stage to meet him. I told him how much I liked his style of music and how I wanted to have a career in music like him. I asked him if he would listen if I sent him a demo tape.
Don Gibson told me that I should stop trying to sing like everybody else and sing like myself. I’ve been doing that ever since. As a matter of fact, that philosophy now guides every aspect of my musical life, from songwriting to wardrobe!

Don Gibson said: “I’ll listen right now,” and pointed at the piano. I was shocked and petrified, but pulled it together well enough to sing him an old Stella Parton song “I Want To Hold You In My Dreams Tonight.” He was impressed and told me I could definitely have a great career in music. He noticed my vocals sounded a bit like Connie Smith. He invited me into his studio where we recorded a demo and he taught me how to find my own style. He wanted to produce a record with me and help me launch my career but I had just gotten married, was very young, and my husband at the time wouldn’t let me do the music thing. I stayed in touch with Don Gibson for a few years, but eventually gave up. 

In answer to your question though, Don Gibson told me that I should stop trying to sing like everybody else and sing like myself. I’ve been doing that ever since. As a matter of fact, that philosophy now guides every aspect of my musical life, from songwriting to wardrobe! I have a deep faith and want people to know me for who I really am.
You have recently released a new CD entitled I Crossed the Tracks.

BDA: For you, based upon your real and present life, keeping with the connotation of this phrase, did you experience a step-up or step-down in “crossing the tracks”; into what part of town were you entering in “crossing the tracks”?

Christy Howard:That song is based on a true story that was a life-changing experience for me. Because of my dad’s missionary work, we moved around a lot. At one point we lived in Shelby, Mississippi which is in the famous part of the Mississippi delta where many Blues artists came from. Since my dad was pastoring a church there, and it was a rich cotton-gin town, the congregation hired my parents a black maid and a nanny to watch my brother and I after school. My mom would take her home and I would go too, so I knew where she lived. I loved my nanny, so, sometimes, I would sneak over to her house on the weekends when my parents would be busy at church or something.

So, when I say I crossed the tracks, I was literally crossing the railroad tracks over to the black side of town where I wasn’t allowed to go. The black plantation workers would be sitting on the porch singing and playing guitars and harmonicas, and having a good ole time. I know now that they were playing the Blues.

My nanny was appalled the first time I showed up, but I kept going back and they would hide me in the back of the porch so nobody passing by could see me. I didn’t know it then, but they were taking a real chance just by having a little white girl there – they could have been burned out or even lynched for that. All I knew was that I loved their music and they were so nice to me. They made me feel like one of them. They gave me a lot of attention and encouraged me to keep singing.

I’ll never forget the time this one old gentleman was trying to teach me how to sing a sad Blues song and he said: “Girl, just look out there at that road and pretend your dog just got run over by a car. But you’ve got to really feel it, so just close your eyes and really think about it.”

Anyways, I’d go over there and they’d let me sing along and stay there for a while. Then they would put me in the car, and make me hide down in the floorboard, and drive over by my house to where they could let me out without anyone seeing. I just thought they were doing it so I wouldn’t get in trouble; so, I never told anyone about it!

Now, looking back, I realize that I really learned to love and respect black people from that experience. It was a spiritual experience that changed my life. I guess that’s why I’m still singing the Blues!

BDA: Of the thirteen tracks on this CD, how many did you write? Can you share with us your creative process in writing a song?

Christy Howard:My husband Jeff and I wrote all 13 songs on the CD. We write all of our stuff together.

We met eight years ago when I moved into the apartment two doors down from him. At the time, he was lead guitarist and bandleader for the late Butler Twins, who are legends of the Detroit Blues scene. Jeff was walking by with his guitar on his way to a gig and we got to talking. I told him I was a singer, but I was only singing in church at that time. We fell in love and got married. We were married for a while before I let him hear me sing. I guess he kind of freaked out when he finally heard me and he encouraged me to sing Blues and start writing songs.  

Jeff and I are true soul mates, and we find that when we put our thoughts together, the final product ends up better than if either one of us did it by our self. Some of the songs on our new CD Jeff wrote before we met, so we modified them to suit me better. The ones that needed a male vocalist were sung by our drummer, Jan Abrams, who has an incredible voice. 

 The creative process in writing a song can happen for us in many different ways. Usually, when I write it just comes to me all at once, and it’s always the words that come first. Sometimes it’s me that later adds the music that I write on piano, but usually Jeff does the music. For me it usually starts with an idea. Jeff is always working on new music and lyrics, but songs don’t usually come to him all at once. He says he likes to: “Let them stew in the crock-pot for a few months.” I do know the song “Six Feet Down In The Blues” came out of Jeff pretty much all at once, music and all. Then we tweaked it a little bit later. I know Jeff often gets the idea for the hook first, and then goes from there. Sometimes we get song ideas from dreams, me more so than him. I dream a lot and remember everything. I think it’s the Cherokee Indian in me. I wrote most of the song “I’ve Got A Weakness” while I was at a Magic Slim concert. I just heard the word “weakness” and was inspired somehow! I’m totally addicted to writing my own songs now, thanks to my husband Jeff.

This new CD features John Lee Hooker’s Guitarist, Chicago Bluesman, Jim Kahr and Rock Guitar Pioneer, Detroit’s own, Billy Davis. How did you hook-up with both of them? Describe your experience recording with them.

I met Jim Kahr online through Broadjam.com. That’s a web site for songwriters where you review other people’s music and they review yours. Jim liked our stuff and we liked his stuff. So, we communicated online for maybe a year, but never met him in person because he lives in Germany. Then when it came time to start recording I Crossed The Tracks, I told Jim we were about to start recording it and I said to him: “Too bad you’re not in the States.” He wrote back and said: “Well, I could be.” So, long story short, he flew over from Germany just to record with us!

The first time, he stayed for a long weekend and laid down 4 or 5 tracks. Last fall, he came back over and played some shows with us, including the CD release party, and helped with some of the final mixing.

Jim is great in the studio since he has some great rhythm lines and he can usually play an incredible solo with one take, right on the spot. We also recorded live on a local radio station and at the CD release party. Jim really tore it up. He has some incredible stories about growing up on the south wide of Chicago, getting robbed with Junior Wells, and on and on. Jeff is working with him on his biography.

I met Billy Davis at a festival we were both playing near Detroit. I didn’t know who he was. He came up to me after we had finished our set and introduced himself and said: “I’ve thought and thought and thought and I can’t figure out anybody that you sound like. Not anybody, you just sound like you. Make sure you keep it that way. And I like your music too.” That’s the first thing he ever said to me and I’ll never forget it. I didn’t really think anything about it until I started learning who he is. Turns out Billy played with Hank Ballard and The Midnighters (who were the number one group in the U.S. during the late 50s-early 60s), was a close friend of Jimi Hendrix, and personally knows everybody from James Brown and Elvis Presley, to B.B. King, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackie Wilson and Chubby Checker! He really has some stories too, man.

Since Billy Davis lives here in Detroit, I started running into him around town and seeing him perform. Next thing I know he says he’s written some songs for me and wants to record and play with my band. So, that’s what we’re doing. He’s really easy to work with in the studio. He just comes in and does it right on the spot.

That’s him on “Six Feet Down In The Blues” and “Same Place, Same Thing.” He has such really cool guitar fills and rhythm parts. We just recorded two new songs with him and are now in the process of putting out a Blues-Rock CD with Billy. Jeff is also recording some stuff on Billy’s new CD, which is almost done. Billy is a prolific songwriter; all of his songs are originals.

Being in the recording studio with Jim and Billy was like opening up a big huge present with a big huge surprise. You never knew what they were going to come up with, and everything they came up with was so cool and fit in so well with what we were doing. You could tell their heart was in it and they really felt it. They were happy to be there and weren’t doing it for money. They wanted to do it because they liked it. And that made it really fun to do. And they still want to be a big part of it!

BDA: You have either been nominated for, or have received a couple of awards. What were these awards and do you anticipate receiving another award for this new release?

Christy Howard:I won quite a few talent contests as a teenager, and used to sing jingles for Sears on the radio in Tennessee. I was selected as a lead singer on a remake of the Hee Haw show back in the day. I was chosen to close out the show with “How Great Thou Art,” for which I received a standing ovation. That was a very exciting moment for me in my early career.  

More recently, Jeff and I won the Detroit Blues Challenge in 2006 as an acoustic duo, and competed at the 2007 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. That was great because my family from Tennessee came to see us, including my grandma who is 85.

I was nominated for a Detroit Music Award in 2008, but my new CD hadn’t come out yet. Maybe next year!

We have been playing free concerts here in Detroit for disabled American veterans at the V. A. Hospital, and homeless vets at the Viet Nam Vets center, for many years. The Michigan Veterans Foundation gave the Christy Howard Band a service award a few years back, of which we are very proud.

We have also played concerts to help raise money for cancer research, and Jeff gave guitar lessons last year at Gilda’s Club (Gilda Radner’s foundation for cancer victims) to help children affected by cancer.
In truth, it’s not about awards for me. Don’t get me wrong. They are nice and I sure love to get them, but what it’s really about for me is the people listening and buying my music. If through my music, I can give someone fun, enjoyment, make them laugh through hard times and maybe even validate painful experiences they have gone through in their past or even now in such difficult times, I’ve done my job. This is what keeps me singing, writing music, and entertaining. It is my reward! 🙂

For more information contact:
Christy Howard Music LLC
P.O. Box 1273
Royal Oak, Mi.
Bookings through Steve Allen:
Telephone: 248-249-5287
or Linda Francetich:
Telephone: 734-934-6900

For any other questions you can contact Jeff at
Telephone: 248-224-1791

To buy CDs:
Website: http://www.christyhowardband.net
You can also check us out at:
and http://www.livebluesworld.com/profile/christyhoward


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