Blues Guitarist Deborah Coleman Impresses Her Peers

First woman nominated for W.C. Handy award as top guitarist struts her stuff on new record.

Deborah Coleman has always been up for a challenge. At age 25 she quit playing in rock and R&B cover bands, in favor of jobs as a nurse and an electrician, so she could better raise her new daughter.

Next, Coleman waded full-time into the male-dominated world of the blues guitar, a profession that's attracted few women, and fewer African-American ones.

But her undaunted pursuit paid off. For this year's W.C. Handy Blues Awards, she's nominated in two categories, Contemporary Blues (Best Female Artist) and, more historic, Blues Instrumentalist (Guitar).

"I'm really excited about the nomination in the guitar category," Coleman said, "because it's the first time that a woman has been nominated in that category — ever. So I'm just ecstatic.

"I love the guitar. I have a great passion for the guitar, and to be recognized by my peers that way, it's just a wonderful feeling."

Easy Mastery

Coleman's newly released fourth album, Soft Place to Fall (Blind Pig), contains further examples of her guitar prowess, ranging from the ominous tones of "Nothin' to Do With Love" (RealAudio excerpt) to the jauntiness of "If You Love Me Like You Say" (RealAudio excerpt).

Especially with "I'm a Woman" (RealAudio excerpt), her slyly gender-bending reworking of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man," she demonstrates an easy mastery of what "always has been associated as a male instrument, and maybe a lot of women shied away from it for that reason," Coleman said from her Chesapeake, Va., home.

"Me, I've always worked in male-dominated jobs. But I guess that comes from the fact that I want what I want. I don't believe there are any obstacles that I can't overcome."

'It's Always Been In Me'

Coleman, 42 — who, as the daughter of a military man, grew up all over the country — has taken up permanent residence in her home state of Virginia because, as she put it, "I wanted the stability for my daughter."

That stability is evident on Soft Place to Fall, a remarkably mature album that showcases Coleman's diverse guitar and singing styles in a relaxed setting.

"I think it's always been in me," she said. "But I had a great producer on this record who kind of brought out more than I was able to get on the last records," Takin' a Stand (New Moon, 1994), I Can't Lose (Blind Pig, 1997) and Where Blues Begins (Blind Pig, 1999).

Soft Place to Fall was produced by Jim Gaines (Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan's In Step), at Ardent Studios, in Memphis, Tenn.

"The first thing he does," Coleman said of Gaines, "he likes you to feel comfortable and very relaxed in the studio — and basically to just kind of let go, which is a hard thing to do in the studio. You're trying to be almost perfect.

"That's probably what made the difference," she continued. "Then ... he helped out with the song selection. I did stuff more attuned to my styles — my very numerous styles — so that was cool, too."

R&B, Soul Roots Shine Through

Coleman's R&B and soul roots show on songs such as her lovely, understated title tune and Little Johnny Taylor's "If You Love Me Like You Say," which recalls the Austin, Texas, troika of Marcia Ball, Lou Ann Barton and Angela Strehli. The blunt "Don't Lie to Me" (RealAudio excerpt) relies on some John Lee Hooker boogie, while Coleman takes a jazzy lead on "What Goes Around" (RealAudio excerpt) and evokes the menacing tone of Jimi Hendrix on "Confused" (RealAudio excerpt).

"I think the late '60s to '70s was a great period, and the '80s, so I got a lot of my influences from those times," said Coleman, who grew up listening to Hendrix, James Brown, Cream, Jeff Beck and Led Zeppelin before being introduced at age 19 to the real blues, in the form of a triple bill of Hooker, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.

"What I try to do now is keep evolving those styles as I grow — not copy from anybody but take a little bit from them and put it with my own. And hopefully what I'll develop is my own Deborah Coleman signature style."