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Kimmie Rhodes: Where It All comes From - And Where To Now?

Photo Credit: Christopher Durst

As a very small girl, Kimmie Rhodes was taught to sing by her dad, which sounds like a normal, sweet interaction between a father and a daughter doesn’t it? For Kimmie, it was different. Her father had been orphaned during the Great Depression and had struggled on the streets to survive. He basically wanted Kimmie to have a skill that she could rely on, in case the Gods should transpire against her in a similar way.

Hailing from Buddy Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas, Kimmie’s first performances were fronting a family gospel trio at church and civic events. They were the stepping stones to a lifetime immersed in music. While she is presently completing a book of memoirs called Radio Dreams, her career has included the release of sixteen solo CDs, the writing and production of three musical plays, and hundreds of songs - many of which have appeared in film soundtracks. Her multiplatinum songs have been recorded by luminaries including Willie Nelson, Amy Grant,Waylon Jennings, Peter Frampton, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris. She has duetted with Townes Van Zandt, recorded an album of duets with long-time friend Willie Nelson, and had a guest appearance by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on another album. The list goes on. However, it is not just the recorded versions of her music that matter to Kimmie. She obviously gets a buzz out of touring and performing for people. “I do love the whole process of touring. I’m not sure I’d like to be one of those people who gets on the road and tours all the time, but I do love it when that part of the process comes around again.”

I was speaking to her by Skype the day after she had landed in England to start a tour of the UK and Ireland. "When you write it’s a communication" she told me. "You can make records and see them out there all day long. But when you have a live performance you can actually feel the connection. I always look forward to seeing the people and the audience. That makes it fun to do the show, and to connect with the people after the show. I always go home from a tour feeling healed in some sort of way."

At his recent gig in Belfast, Sturgill Simpson commented on how quiet the audience was. He told us “This never happens in the States. Guys pay $100 and then talk right through the show”. I asked Kimmie if she had similar issues with audiences, and it seems that to her it is all about where you choose to play. “As a songwriter I try to make sure I am booked into venues that are for listening. Mostly these days I play in theatres. I started out in a country band, playing Western Swing in bars where people are dancing and chattering” she explained. “That sort of venue is a lot of fun, but for a songwriter you need to make sure you’re booked into the right venue, and theatres are perfect for me. That’s what I would play a lot of in Ireland and England. Not so much the clubs any more unless it’s a listening club.”

“Now if I had a big dance band and I was in a theatre I would be wishing that everybody would make a lot more noise. So you target venues that are appropriate for the show.”

Kimmie has recently finished a tour of the UK and Ireland accompanied by her son, the guitar virtuoso and producer Gabriel Rhodes, and her daughter Jolie Goodnight. “It’s kind of like a family vacation really” she laughed when I askd what it's like touring with her family.“I love the sound of families that sing together. I love the Carter Family, the way their voices blend.”

She obviously loves the whole element of touring and performing with her children, but I wonder if this is how she saw things panning out “I never saw it happening that way. I started making records in ’79. My late husband Joe Gracey, played bass with us for years.” He was also her producer and they travelled together a lot. “Then Gabe (Gabriel Rhodes) joined us and we used to have a big band, so it’s just ebbed and flowed over the years. “

“I guess, as life plays out, what I envisioned almost always turns out better than what I thought it would be. You sort of get a little idea and then life says hey watch this.”

There’s a side to Kimmie Rhodes that stands out. It can be too easy to watch a show, and listen to those lyrics, and forget the effort that goes into them. To really take on board what is going on behind the smiles. Kimmie’s attitude to life, like that line about how she envisioned things show an eternal optimist standing strong behind all that touring, and writing, and hard work. Her long time love, partner, producer, bassist, and husband died tragically after a struggle with cancer in 2011. They were in each other’s pockets, and then she lost him. Maybe that attitude comes from her dad – those singing lessons – that strength to meet life face on. Either way, Kimmie Rhodes is not for stopping.

Her dad’s idea to hone her musical talents to ensure she could stand on her own two feet obviously worked, though thankfully she didn’t have to endure the desperate hardships that her parents did. “My father had been an orphan on the streets” she told me. “He had a second grade education, and my mother’s background was similar. She worked very hard to stay in school, but my father – he had to work out on the streets. “

I had asked her whether she was older than her years when she had started out on her own as a young woman, and her answer, as so many others through the conversation, invariably returned to those beginnings. She hasn’t forgotten where she came from.

“I’ve been singing since I was 6 years old and it’s in my blood. I love it. Fate put me in a place in this world that was perfect because my parents were both basically two abandoned children who found each other and started a life” she went on. “I always say that life’s like being kidnapped, you’re born into a family of people you don’t know, then the exercise is to learn unconditional love. I just had this really interesting upbringing and learned a lot from these two people who really had to rise above some terrible hardships”

“I’m giving this answer because it’s hard for me to say how much of it that I was born an old soul, and how much of it did I acquire by being raised by two parents who had to learn to be street wise at such an early age.” 

Her last album Cowgirl Boudoir came out last year. I asked her where the name came from, and her answer went much further than simply the name. “It’s a name to this musical experiment” she told me. “My husband Joe Gracey had been a ground breaking DJ and entrepreneur in the Austin music scene in the 70s. Since he passed away I started work as an associate producer on a documentary which caused me to really explore the roots of my generation’s musical pilgrimage back to country music.”

“My husband was at the centre of the progressive country music in the 70s. It was very Austin-centric, and a lot of people moved to Austin. The hippies and the red necks – that whole freak redneck revolution thing – a lot of that centred in Austin. And he was at the heart of it.So I explored that a lot and I started doing a documentary radio show on the station that he had worked at. I did a show there after he died, a tribute, for about nine months. So I had all this retrospective, just listening to music, country music, and the Byrds and Dylan, and Blonde on Blonde. And really just started chasing that story.”

She had all that in her head as she was writing songs for Cowgirl Boudoir. So that explains the ‘Cowgirl’ part. What about the ‘Boudoir’? “I have a connection with France. We have a house there and my husband produced a lot of French artists and we had French people coming and going from our house a lot. So I created this title that was musical and also meant something to me.”

She looked up the word ‘Boudoir’ and it means ‘a place where a woman goes to brood’ apparently. She gave me a laugh when she told me that, then matter-of-factly carried on. “I was grieving and I was coming out of this place” she said. “I was ready to start writing songs and recording music again.”

Her son Gabriel Rhodes produced the record. “We called it Cowgirl because that was going to be the country, I wanted to make a record that would have all these sounds, mixed in, a melange of sounds that would have country music at the heart of it. And the Boudoir was where all the sounds from the 60s and 70s and 80s would come in. It helped us name the sound really quickly. When we were working we were able to say “Yeah that sounds really country but we need to get a little Boudoir in there too.”

As an example she gave me the track “Always Never Leave”. “We had an electric sitar. The sitar was a sound that you heard a lot in the 70s, like the Beatles would use it. We used all those different instruments that brought all those sounds in.”

She was heading back to France at the end of the tour, but she wasn't going to be resting on her laurels. “I’m actually working on a project that explores the very very roots of Americana music” she mentioned nonchalantly. “It traces it to America and beyond. That’s another documentary that I’m going to start work on. It’s with the BBC, Bob Harris and his wife Trudy Harris and their son. Our families are kind of joined together while they’re working on this.”

“The area where we have our house is an area where the Troubadours and Cathars come from. Some of the earliest songs can be traced back to there, and then they spread out through Europe, especially to Ireland, and then to America. So in France I’m working with some other people to explore all this”

When I mentioned that she doesn’t stop working, that she is prolific, she gave a fascinating insight into how she writes. “When I heard that word I was always afraid that I would stop being prolific, that I’d get writer’s block or something. But as time has gone by I’ve realised that not writing is part of the process. There were times when I thought “Oh I’m not really getting any writing done!” Then I began to realise that it’s really part of the process. It’s about taking things in and processing them. I would not write things down on purpose because I hadn’t lived enough, or soaked enough in of what I was on to, to be ready to write it down”. Her example of this was an uplifting thread back to Joe Gracey.

“For example after Joe Gracey died I did a covers record because I was still just going through the whole process of change and autonomy and grieving and all these different things. Not just this great big grief but a lot of magical life experiences were happening to me at that time, and I didn’t want to nail it down. I like to let things drift around and float in. Have time to think about them and muse over things. Then when I’m ready it’s more like sitting down to edit rather than sitting down to write, because at that point, it’s like there’s a tiny little corner of a window starts to appear and then before you know it you’re standing in the window and then you’re ready.”

Originally published in CultureHub Magazine.

"West Texas Heaven" was my introduction to Kimmie Rhodes and has been in more-or-less permanent rotation every since...

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