Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Lenny Lasater and Sonia Tetlow of the Atlanta-based "alterna-grass" band Roxie Watson about using Kickstarter to fund their second record, why they feel comfortable on any stage and the pros and cons of being an all-female group.
CP: Tell me about alterna-grass. What is it and why is it different from bluegrass?
LL: We coined that phrase because we are not married to one particular style. Bluegrass has a particular style and energy, and we don't subscribe necessarily to that one style. We incorporate zydeco, straight up classic country, Appalachian, a little R&B, rock'n'roll and a little New Orleans sound into our sound. We didn't feel like we could call it bluegrass without upsetting bluegrass purists. Alterna-grass is a good description of our sound. We definitely have a little twang with the banjo and the mandolin, but we're not straight-up bluegrass by any stretch of the imagination.
CP: Does that genre straddling make it harder or easier to get bookings? I could imagine a few traditional bluegrass festivals looking askance at those electric instruments.
ST: It might make some of the bluegrass musicians look askance at us, but generally, we just do what we do, and when the audiences respond, that makes booking the next time a little easier. That's what it's about: making good music. When people like what you're doing and are enjoying the music, they don't really care what you call it. They just like it.
LL: I think we felt comfortable plugging into the language of Americana or alt-country, which are established definitions. Alterna-grass is not something you can find anywhere else. I don't see alterna-grass anywhere, except my iTunes because I plugged it in to my stuff. If you need an established label for us, I guess we would fit into Americana or alt-country. We don't mind being put in the bluegrass category, either.
CP: So you're not married to the idea of being in one specific genre.
ST: No, really, we just want to play songs and make them the best songs they can be without worrying too much about the genre. They're all different and have a different voice.
LL: There are several bluegrass folks who have heard us live and were really impressed with our sound and liked our music. I'm always excited when people who describe themselves as bluegrass purists get on board with Roxie Watson. We're preaching the gospel of alterna-grass and getting a lot of converts, and a lot of those are bluegrass fans.
CP: Roxie Watson sounds like a person, not a band. Where did the name come from?
LL: Beth Wheeler - Beewee - and I started the band as a duo back in 2006 or 2007, just kicking around playing Dolly Parton and all kinds of covers of Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn. My grandmother's name was Roxie Johnson and Beewee's grandmother's name was Mary Watson, who happened to live to the ripe old age of 100. When we got our first booking, we were trying to think of a name for the band and decided to honor our grandmothers by naming it Roxie Watson. It turns out that's a pretty darn good alterna-grass name, I think. There is a tradition of many Watsons in the bluegrass field already.
CP: What were the circumstances around you forming the band?
LL: I grew up in West Tennessee but went to school in Nashville. I was college friends with Beewee's older sister. When I moved to Atlanta several years later, Beewee and I hooked up and became friends. Our age difference didn't matter anymore since we were adults.
Beewee had been in many bands in Atlanta over the years as a bass player. We started kicking around a band called SRDK that played '80s one-hit wonders kind of like bluegrass. The rest of the band wanted to be rockers, but we realized we wanted to play bluegrass numbers.
Bewee wanted a band that could play off the back of her Ford F-150 pickup truck. We had our first truck show as SRDK, and Beewee is a good carpenter, so she built the stage on the back of that F-150. We threw a generator down, literally strapped ourselves down into the bed of the truck and rode in a couple of parades playing music. Roxie Watson actually does a lot of truck shows and parades. We've played many shows off the back of that F-150.
Having grown up in Tennessee, neither one of us were fans of bluegrass, but found that Dolly Parton's "The Grass is Blue" and "Little Sparrow" touched us both and got our attention. The energy and the harmonies and the fretwork on those two albums really excited us. We were like, "That's the kind of music we want to play. Everyone's playing rock'n'roll. We want to play that kind of music."
That's the kind of music we started playing in Beewee's kitchen. Right after that, Linda Bolley joined us, who is our electric/acoustic guitar player. Not too long after that, Sonia picked up a banjo and had been secretly writing a lot of cool alterna-grass songs while she was a rocker. Our final member to join was Becky Shaw, who play lap steel, button accordion, harmonica and guitar.
CP: Sonia, what makes a song alterna-grass? Is it what you're singing about or how the music is played?
ST: I write a lot of songs, but certain ones definitely feel like Roxie songs. It's more of a feel rather than subject matter. I think subject matter wise, it can run the gamut. It's more about the feel of the music. If it comes from a human place and it feels true, I think that's what's most important. If you're being funny, but seriously think it's funny, then that's true. If it's coming from a different, heavier place where you're writing a prayer that turns into a song, well, that's true, too. That's what makes it resonate.
Whenever one of us brings a song to the group, we all work on the arrangements together. That's when it turns into a Roxie Watson song. We bring that sensibility to it. There are songs that, if I do it solo, they sound different than when we do it all together. I love that. I love that it's a thing unto itself. It's a beautiful thing.
CP: In your bio, there's a line that you "took a winding road, intertwining [your] personal stories (and band lineups) before finally forming Roxie Watson, a band that [you] say finally makes [you] feel at home." What is it about this group that feels so comfortable to you?
ST: Probably a few different things. In a strange way, we've all crossed paths over the years in different ways. Some of us played in different bands together.
I used to play in a band with Becky Shaw where she played drums. It was a punk band back in the late '90s early 2000s. I played in another rock band where Linda Bolley played drums called Herman Put Down the Gun. The three of us played in a Go-Gos cover band back in the '90s. We all kind of criss-crossed paths in all these ways.
With Roxie Watson, like Lenny was saying, they started doing it because they realized they loved this music and wanted to play this music, even if it was on the back of Beewee's truck. Linda heard them doing it and had grown up with that music and knew it on guitar even though she played drums professionally in Atlanta. She picked up a guitar and was like, "Oh, this is what I grew up with" and knew all the songs.
I heard it, and I loved it. There's something so human about the melodies and the harmonies. I had been playing rock'n'roll for a really long time, and it was nice to sit there and plink away on the banjo, which was very new to me at the time since I bought it in order to plink away with them. Becky can pay anything, so she grew up with it, too.
It just feels very organic. It started with all of us wanting to sit around together in a living room and play music we loved. It very naturally evolved over time from us doing that and mostly playing covers and playing in our living room or at friends houses and parties and the back of Beweee's truck to suddenly being more of an original band playing theaters. There's an evolution that happened that caught us all by surprise.
The root of it, which was us being old friends wanting to sit around and play music together, has never changed. It feels really comfortable.
We had the honor of doing some shows with the Indigo Girls last fall to kick off their tour after they put out a new record. We played some bigger venues than we're used to. We were sitting there at the Georgia Theater in front of a couple thousand people, but we were up on stage doing what we do, and it was like we were win our living room. It was really fun.
There's an intimacy there with all of us that translates to the audience. We're up there trying to make good music because we love it, and we hope that they love it. That's what it's all about.
LL: I agree. We played a venue here in Atlanta called the Mable House Barnes Amphitheater that is a beautiful outdoor venue. I think it holds 2,500-3,200 outside the perimeter, which is significant here in Atlanta.
The folks there, the first time we played there, people lined up to get CDs and get autographs and shake our hands and speak to us. So many people were like, "Gosh, I'm so connected to your music. It really touched me. It was like sitting in a living room with you. It was so real." This was people who were suburban folks, and we're in-town gals, but it didn't matter because our music had a real-ness and intimacy, even in this outdoor venue, that reached them and touched them and connected them. That's the beauty of music, it's a universal language.
Roxie Watson has been blessed to speak a language that is universal and brings in our audience to love us and welcome us into their hearts and homes. I really enjoy the connection with our fans when we're on stage and feeling the energy coming from them. That's magic. That's just wonderful.
ST: As far as that sense of community we had, we funded our second CD by doing an initiative on Kickstarter.com. We were nervous about it because if you don't make it, it's embarrassing, but you also don't get any of the money and you're starting from zero. Becky convinced us it was a really good idea and we could do it.
The response was really overwhelming. People were so supportive and so generous. At the end of it, it was more than we asked for and more than we could have imagined. We felt so honored and so humbled that people felt so passionately about what we were doing and wanted to support us to make a recording of these songs to share with them. I can't say enough about that. It meant so much. We're so very grateful. It was a neat experience.
CP: I could see that comfort you feel in the group making those harmonies that are so central to your sound easier to achieve. Is that the case?
LL: Absolutely. As Sonia said, we each individually write and arrange as a group. The harmonies are just automatic and organic. We're all natural singers, and harmony ... we have just plugged into a really nice mix of how we blend. Making a song that has a nice layer of harmonies has come really easily to us.
What a blessing to have the low, medium and high voices that mix together so well. That's what draws people in, the harmony and musically how we're so comfortable with each other as friends and as a band. That reads to the audience, for sure. I've seen bands before where if they're nervous, I'm nervous for them. Roxie is pretty comfortable being with each other. The audience feels that, so they're comfortable being in our audience.
CP: Do you stick to all originals in your sets or do you fold in some traditionals or covers?
ST: It depends on how long they let us play. If we have an hour long set, we'll probably do all originals and maybe a cover at the end, something everyone can sing along to. If we have a show where we are doing a couple of sets, we'll have a little fun with it and sprinkle in a couple of covers we know folks enjoy and that we enjoy playing.
With covers, generally if we do that, it's because it's a great song. It's always nice to play a great song, but it's also nice to give folks a reference point for where we're coming from. The more songs we write and bring in, the harder it gets to choose what we play in each set. We would just keep on playing for hours if they don't cut us off. [Laughs.]
LL: We have a lot of material. We chose to cover three covers on the new CD, and there are a few covers on the first CD. We picked some that were well-known, like Dolly Parton's "Jolene" and Steve Earle's "The Graveyard Shift," which Linda Bolley tears up on that Gibson of hers.
CP: You don't hear of many all-female groups on the bluegrass circuit, certainly not five-pieces. Does that give you any kind of a leg up on the competition? Is it in any way a hindrance?
LL: You know, the business is dominated by men. I suppose you could say we have a leg up when those organizations are hunting for women to book.
ST: We haven't found any of those organizations yet. [Laughs.] I will say this, there has never been anything overt we run across. All we know about is the opportunities we've been fortunate enough to have and we're grateful for.
But it's hard not to notice the demographic sometimes. Coming from rock'n'roll like I did, I used to notice it there, too. When I played bass with a band called Cowboy Mouth, I think I spent a year on the road with them doing over 200 shows and only saw five women musicians. That makes me sad because I know there are a lot of women out there who are trying to play music. I hope that someday, the opportunities get spread out a little more so everyone has a chance to perform.
CP: Tell me about "Of Milestones and Moon Pie." That came out yesterday, right?
ST: We really just wanted to record some songs that we had that we really loved. We hoped we could record them in a way that would translate and share them. There are five of us, and it was kind of like herding cats. [Laughs.] We're pretty happy we pulled it together and got it out.
We sent it to Kickstarter people first, and the response so far has been really positive. That makes us happy because we like it. We're happy to get it out there.
We're excited to doing the CD shows. We're doing two shows at Eddie's [Attic], and then we're doing a show in Athens on Tuesday and then coming up to you all in Chattanooga. We're excited to get out there and be able to share this with folks.
We'll keep on just doing what we do. We've got some other songs waiting in the queue that we're excited to get to work on after we do these shows.
CP: How much did that Kickstarter campaign raise for the album?
ST: Close to $9,000. We set our goal at $7,000 and then made close to $9,000. We're pretty excited. We set it for 30 days.
CP: How quickly did you reach your goal?
LL: With 13 days left, we got our $7,000. We had a great response. Within the first two days, we were already at 33 percent. There was a big rush early as soon as we got the information out.
I thought, "Oh my god, if this keeps up, we're going to have a ton of money." [Laughs.] Then it fell off, but we were 100 percent funded with 13 days left. We were just shocked and humbled and so grateful that folks jumped on board and wanted to be part of it. We appreciated how well Kickstarter worked for us, for sure.
ST: Not just in the Fundraising part, but there are people who look on there for projects to fund. There are some folks who found us and hadn't been fans before but became fans and started coming to shows and found us. That was really fun. We didn't expect that.
CP: How do you see "Of Milestones and Moonpie" as representing an evolution from your first album in 2010?
ST: We're all more confident as players. Pretty much all of us were playing instruments we don't normally play. We all got more comfortable and ever more proficient. It's always a journey, there's always so much to learn, but there's a confidence there.
We put the first record out a little more than two years ago, so we've had two more years of playing together and being on the road together, which we hadn't done before we did the first album. We spent a lot of time together. We're just a lot more comfortable as a band and confident as a band as well.
The other evolution is that on "True Stories," we didn't collaborate on any songs, but there are two songs we collaborated on on "Moon Pies."
LL: The two years we've had of a lot more gigs under our belt is . I was the one member of the band who had never been in any other bands. SRDK was not a band. It was more of a hang out and play music kind of thing. The opportunity to do two years of gigs and be on the road was a great experience, and it really does hone you, musically. Our writing is much more mature and certainly our level of skill playing our instruments has improved. Our confidence and comfort has really improved, so it feels easy and more comfortable now. I feel like a real bassist now.