When Susan Tedeschi takes the stage at Willie Nelson's Fourth of July celebration at South Park Meadows in Austin, Texas, she'll be continuing the process of jamming that brought her to the blues in the first place.
"Really, it was after I got out of college that I began to get into the blues," the three-time Handy Award-winning singer and guitarist said from the road last week. "I started going to blues jams at Johnny D's in Boston and just watching the older players, and then gradually I started sitting in and getting up the confidence to play live on my own."
Looking like a young Joni Mitchell and singing with the raw passion of Bonnie Raitt or Janis Joplin, Tedeschi has an electrifying, charismatic stage presence that has led to her inclusion in the Lilith Fair tour; gigs with the Allman Brothers and B.B. King; performances on "Late Show With David Letterman," "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," CMT and TNN; and covers of Billboard, Pollstar and Blues Revue magazine.
Unusual for a blues artist, she's scored top-15 radio hits with "It Hurt So Bad" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Rock Me Right" (RealAudio excerpt), both from her debut album, Just Won't Burn (ToneCool, 1998). In addition to being recognized by the Handy Awards committee, she was a surprise nominee for a Grammy as Best New Artist earlier this year alongside winner Christina Aguilera, Macy Gray and Kid Rock.
"That was amazing," she said. "I mean just to get nominated, never mind winning. It's surprising that people even know you're out here."
Guidance From The Start
"I think I've been a performer since I was about 4," the 29-year-old Massachusetts native said with a laugh. Her mother was involved in musical theater, so as a youngster Tedeschi learned show tunes and got comfortable onstage. In addition to Broadway hits, she listened to her father's folk and blues records, which introduced her to artists such as Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt, but "It was really mostly folk, not blues at that time and John Lennon," she said.
Her high school graduation present was a summer at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, whose alumni includes Diana Krall, Melissa Etheridge, Patty Larkin, Quincy Jones, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
She liked it so much that she decided to stay, studying a variety of music-related courses. "In conducting, for example, we'd learn how to conduct Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, or in vocals we'd record some tracks in the studio and then go back the next week and do overdubs."
A highlight of her college time was the gospel choir. "We had wonderful teachers who were not only great as teachers but wonderful musicians themselves. And people came from all over the country to be in it, so we learned from each other, too."
It's an influence she still sees in her work. "I'm not singing any gospel right now, but I would love to do some in the future, and I can definitely see writing and recording a gospel album at some point," she said.
But for now, it's the blues that consume her, both playing and writing. Just Won't Burn's title track (RealAudio excerpt) is a song she wrote after the death of a loved one, while "You Need To Be With Me" was inspired by an Emily Dickinson poem. Another tune from that record, "Looking for Answers," was written in open D tuning, something Tedeschi says she learned from fellow Handy 2000 honoree Paul Rishell.
"Mostly I learned blues guitar just by watching other players, but I actually did take a couple of lessons from Paul, and he taught me a lot about open tunings, a lot of Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton stuff and a couple of Beatles tunes, too. He really opened up my horizons," she said.
When asked to name her musical heroes, Tedeschi enthusiastically cites: "Etta James, Freddie King, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, Irma Thomas, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, Big Mama Thornton, Little Walter, Jimmie Rodgers, T-Bone Walker ... there are just so many!" As for her own writing style, she said, "Well, sometimes I have a method, and sometimes I just start to sing."
On the road with King and Buddy Guy through early fall, Tedeschi is looking forward to a lot of jamming and to writing songs for her next record.
"I've got some stuff written, and some other people have, too, but I haven't really gotten the concept completely down yet," she said. "It's just a question of seeing what goes together best on a record, and I'll go into the studio in the fall and start working on that."