Florida singer and songwriter Beth Mckee mixes up Southern music. Special photo/Shirley Rowe
The musical landscape is littered with artists who’ve managed to fake their way into the public’s consciousness ... phony British accents here, suburban middle-class “gangstas” there and armies of poor little rich kids moaning the blues.
There are some things, though, you just can’t fake.
Florida singer/songwriter Beth McKee offers up a hodgepodge of true Southern-fried influences on her brilliant Swampgirl Music album “Next to Nowhere,” influences that take her from the Mississippi Delta to the jazzy/Cajun mix of New Orleans Zydeco to the Southern rock of artists like the Allman Brothers Band.
That McKee manages to take this stew of Southern staples and throw in her own musical spices to create a recipe that is uniquely her own places her in that rare lineup of originals who’ve chased their own muse rather than waste their talent on some musical flavor of the month.
If you don’t feel the wonder of a young country girl who’d ride her bike 15 miles to the family’s Mississippi farm along the Pearl River so she could spend the afternoon riding her beloved horse or hear the creatures of the Southern woods calling plaintively to their mates in songs like “New Orleans to Jackson” and “River Rush,” then you ain’t from around here.
“Yeah, I’m 100 percent a Southern girl,” McKee said in an interview with The Herald. “It’s just all over me. I grew up in the South, lived everywhere from Texas to Florida, and while I’ve traveled extensively across the United States and abroad, I most readily identify with true Southern culture.
“I grew up near Jackson, Miss., and that’s about three hours from New Orleans and less than three hours from the true Mississippi Delta, right in the middle of those two rich musical zones. I feel very much a part of the music of both, but I also relate to the old Jimmie Rogers 78s my dad used to play. I never sit down and write a song and say ‘Let’s make this a fill in the blank kind of song. I don’t have the attention span for that. Whatever I regurgitate in my songs comes from what I picked up along the way.”
“Next to Nowhere” is filled with what McKee picked up: the Cajun influence of the title track; the New Orleans barrel-roll piano of “Not Tonight, Josephine;” the smoky blues of “Shoulda Kept on Walkin’” and “Tug of War” and the excellent Southern rock/gospel mashup of “Return to Me.”
The songs create an impression of a life fully lived, and McKee says that was her intent.
“Right straight up, this is me talking about me,” she said of the 11 originals she either wrote or co-wrote for the album. “People say you should write what you know, and I feel like I lived a charmed childhood. There’s a lot of that in those songs.
“There’s also the insecurity and fear of doing something where you’re always being judged. I don’t know if you were aware, but it’s pretty hard out there right now. And for someone who fell in love with music at 14 after the first time playing piano at church, there’s always this nagging thing of ‘is my music good enough’?”
While critics have most often compared McKee’s bluesy songs and ringing voice to Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt or even country great Loretta Lynn, the singer’s not shooting for such gender-specific comparisons.
“Last night at a gig I played, I started thinking about Etta James,” McKee said. “For some reason, I felt like I identified with her, and that’s unusual for me. I tend to think more along the lines of Doug Sahm, Howlin’ Wolf, Leon Russell, guys like that. It becomes premeditated for (critics) to compare women singers to other women singers, but I tend to like stuff with a little more of an edge.
“Of course, I am flattered when my music is compared to someone like Bonnie Raitt. She’s amazing, especially her early stuff like the ‘Green Light’ album. I’m actually good with anything nice anyone wants to say.”
Musical friends and contemporaries like McKee’s husband, drummer Juan Perez; guitarists Tony Battaglia, Tommy Calton, Justin Beckler and slide specialist Tommy Malone; bassist Barry Dean; organist Jack Bumgarner; and fiddler/mandolin player Jason Thomas add their touches to McKee’s accordion and keyboards to make “Next to Nowhere” a nice musical alternative to the cookie-cutter girl singer material currently flooding the market.
“I love making music; I’m definitely a lifer,” McKee said. “All of us yearn for financial security in our lives, and that would be nice. But I keep reminding myself that this thing is a journey, not a destination.”
And it’s a journey whose origin is as truly Southern as enjoying the contents of a quart jar in a smoke-filled blues bar or whiling away a hot summer afternoon riding a horse along the banks of the Pearl River.
(“Next to Nowhere” and other McKee albums are available at independent music stores, amazon.com, iTunes, CD Baby and McKee’s website, www.bethmckee.com.)