Is it something in the water? Something in the land? People can analyze all they want, but Southerners have a different relationship to music than others. Beth McKee is prime example number one.
This Jackson, MS girl has toughed it out as a musician with a career that has been going strong for a good, long while. Her one brush with fame so far has been with the band Evangeline that Jimmy Buffett signed to his now-defunct Margaritaville Records. This wonderful all-female ensemble formed in New Orleans nearly made it big. Their second record actually featured "She's A Wild One" that later became Faith Hill's first huge hit.
That's the biz. What launches one career can often be the end of another. Still, McKee pressed on spending time in Austin before relocating to Orlando, where she now lives with her husband and collaborator, Juan Perez.
For artists like McKee, music is not a piece of fashion or stage in life. It is life. It is a vocation, a calling. She gives meaning to the term "working musician" as someone who lives by and on the power of the music she creates. With her musical journey through wonderful towns like Austin and New Orleans staying close in her rear view mirror, McKee chose a perfect way to truly launch herself as a solo artist.
I'm That Way is an album totally made up of Bobby Charles songs. This is an apt match because Charles's long and deep influence on music has been relegated to unfair obscurity in the same way talented artists like McKee have too often found themselves.
I say "unfair obscurity" because Charles has written a canon of classic songs, two of which ("See You Later Alligator" and "Walking To New Orleans") McKee covers on I'm That Way. If an artist had written only one of those hits let alone two, he should be known throughout the world. "Alligator" was one of the first rock and roll records and "Walking" is easily one of the most important New Orleans songs in a town that also birthed most of our modern music traditions.
An ethnic cajun born in Abbeville, LA, Bobby Charles defines Swampland artistry at its finest. He grew up listening to his native cajun music mixed with Hank Williams on the radio. After hearing Fats Domino as a teenager, Charles and his musical journey reached a new threshold.
From there, he became a songwriter and recording artist. When he began to have some local hits with his wonderful amalgam of country, blues, soul, and R&B, during a time when most of these genres didn't even officially exist, Charles was signed as an artist to Chess Records, the Chicago-based label that was home to transplanted Southern legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. Imagine their surprise, when Charles arrived in Chicago as a white cajun, not the black man the Chess Brothers expected to see.
Any early hope Bobby Charles had in establishing a career as a recording artist was over before it started.
Charles later turned up in Woodstock in 1972 on the lam from a drug possession charge in Nashville. He quickly fell in with the Band, made his first official solo album, and appeared in the Last Waltz. From there, he went dormant again only to reemerge with a handful of great solo albums appearing in each of the last three decades.
McKee couldn't have chosen a better man for a musical tribute, and she's also the perfect person to do it. I'm That Way draws upon Charles's entire career showing that his gift for songwriting never seems to fail him even though the "hits" dried up many years ago.
For those that have heard Charles's records (and everyone should), he reveals himself as an extremely moving singer and performer. His recordings feel like conversations with a wonderful character that you might meet on a bar stool well off the main streets in New Orleans.
As opposed to so many tributes that have multiple artists, McKee acting as the single voice for Charles's musical legacy works far better. She understands this music. She also can perform with the same languid vocals, the same Louisiana piano flavor, and the same heart and emotion as a musician who knows what it's like when music remains your life's primary calling.
A special note should also go to all the people involved in this wonderful project. McKee's husband, Juan Perez, co-produced and plays drums. Perez is part of the same loose Orlando collective that is also responsible for the Galloway Kelliher album that ended up as one of 2008's best releases according to GRITZ.
If there is any justice, I'm That Way should open the world's eyes to the talents of both McKee and Charles. Even if it does not, we all know that both of these true artists will continue to make their music keeping our Footprint's strong musical legacy alive for generations to come.
- Jim Markel