The music of Shelley King draws from and blends a spectrum of roots music styles, but one word succinctly describes it: soulful. Be it R&B, folk, blues, country, bluegrass or rock — or combinations of and variations on those themes — she delivers the goods straight from the heart with a voice that's splendidly rich and warm and as big as all outdoors. Writing "a proverbial trunk full of instant hits and yet-unheard classics," as the Austin Chronicle describes her songs, King has risen from the vibrant music scene in the Texas capital city to charm fans across North America, Europe and Japan, win two Austin Music Awards, and be named the Texas State Musician for 2008.
And now she truly finds her sweet spot on her aptly titled new album Welcome Home. Recorded and co-produced with John Magnie, Tim Cook and Steve Amedée of The Subdudes — rated by All Music Guide as "stellar musicians of the swampy jazz-rock-blues New Orleans persuasion" — it's a roots music tour de force where the spirit of the church meets the soul and spices of the South and the many moods and modes of the human heart.
From the opening and intoxicating sunshine of "Summer Wine," Welcome Home travels the musical highways and byways below Mason-Dixon to echo the finest traditions and open new musical dimensions, thanks to a magical marriage of the multi-instrumental gifts and vocal blend of Magnie, Cook and Amedée with the splendorous humanity and emotiveness of King's singing and songs. On tracks like the call and response of "I Remember," the hymnal "Welcome Home" (written just after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans) and the prayerful "Grain of Sand," King and company draw from the gospel oak to create spiritual sounds for the modern age. "Asking Too Much" and "It's Starting To Rain" renew classic New Orleans R&B, and "I Can't Make It Easy" is a swooning swamp pop slow dancer. The lilt of bluegrass meets the zest of Cajun music on "Everything's All Right," and King and company summon up a spirited fais do do with the boogie-woogie of "How You Make Me Feel" and swing of "Falling Fast" before closing out with the acapella and handclaps of "Welcome Home Reprise." All told, Welcome Home is a listening experience sure to be treasured and relished by all it touches for years to come.
King's voice first rang out at the age of four in a tiny rural one-room church in her native Arkansas and then bloomed further as she grew up singing in parishes large and small across her home state and Texas. Listening to her uncles sing and play songs on their acoustic guitars by Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills & Nash also instilled in her a sense of songwriting excellence from an early age. After working her way through college by starting and running her own business, King stepped onto the club and concert stage fronting bands in Houston before moving a few years later to Austin, the longtime noted nexus of roots music authenticity and innovation as well as superlative songwriting that proved to be a welcoming home for her talents.
She had been writing songs since her early teens, and in Austin her gifts found a place to bloom without the strictures of style or commercial concerns. "I just started writing for myself. I don't care what kind of song it is — it might be bluegrass, it might be blues, it doesn't matter — it's whatever mood I'm in and whatever the song needs."
After King gave a copy of her debut album Call Of My Heart to Toni Price, Austin's beloved and long-reigning favorite female voice, Price recorded two of the tunes on it — the title track and "Who Needs Tears" — for her 2001 album, Midnight Pumpkin. Her version of "Call Of My Heart" went on the win Song of the Year at the Austin Music Awards, where in 2005 King and her group were also named Roots Music Band of the Year. Price recorded another King song, "Tennessee Whiskey" for her 2003 album Born to be Blue. Then after Lee Hazelwood heard King's "Texas Blue Moon" on the radio during a drive through the Lone Star State, he and Nancy Sinatra cut the song for their album Nancy & Lee 3.
For her second album, The Highway, King traveled to the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama where icons like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and many others have tracked classic recordings. Her 2004 live album, Rockin' the Dancehall, captured her dynamism as a performer at the famed Gruene Hall in Central Texas, and was declared "an exuberant breath of air" by the Austin Chronicle and named a Top Recording of the Year by Buddy magazine for its "excellent, high-energy country-rock-pop-blues-gospel-soul, delivered by a tight, experienced band." King's catalog also includes the compilation Armadillo Bootleg #1 that features live and studio tracks including a live cut from her all-woman Southern rock band Sis Deville, a collaboration with Sara Hickman and two Subdudes covers.
As the Dallas Observer says of King, "Onstage, she leads her band through tangents of electric Southern blues and acoustic folk, revved-up Cajun country and rock and roll with a charismatic ease that evidences the resilience of a lifelong performer." And for more than a decade now, she has taken her act across the U.S. and Canada and as well tours of Europe and Japan, sharing stages with scores of noted performers from a range of styles (including such top acts as Patty Griffin, Los Lonely Boys, The Flatlanders, Mavis Staples, Ricky Skaggs and many others), appearing at major festivals in North America and Europe, and performing live on XM satellite radio and the internationally syndicated concert show Woodsongs, among many other radio and TV appearances.
King's fervent Texas following led her to be nominated and then selected as the Texas State Musician for 2008. She shares the honor with such acts as Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel and Dale Watson, and is the first woman to hold the prestigious annual post.
The origins of her collaboration with members of The Subdudes was first seeing the band in 1993 in Austin and being knocked out by their show, and then buying a cassette of one of their albums in a used tape bin. "I could not take it out of the tape player in my car for months," King recalls. "I just got into the groove where that was my music and the soundtrack to my life." She later met and befriended the group running into them on tour and playing shows together.
Welcome Home started out informally with an initial session at Magnie's home studio in Fort Collins, Colorado. "I really just went to demo a few songs and kind of goof around in the studio with them," explains King. "We were in the studio for three days and came out with five songs, and had just an amazing time together. I wasn't trying to do a record. But when I started listening to it all afterwards, I thought, wow, this is really special, and I'd really love to do it again."
Over two subsequent visits to Fort Collins, a full album took shape. "It came about really organically," King enthuses. "We didn't get together and say we're going to produce a record. We were just thinking about the music and having fun recording with no pressure, and whatever comes of it comes of it. When it all came down I had recorded a whole record. I savored every moment of it and didn't want it to end. It was a total labor of love."
Welcome Home is now sure to reside in the hearts of all that hear it as a contemporary classic of soulful American music. Yet for all the honors, praise and success King has achieved — and doing so by booking her own tours and releasing her albums on her own Lemonade Records label — the ultimate rewards for King are those of the soul. "It's joyous work," she concludes of her career. "It's what I love doing and it's such a blessing to be able to do what you love every day."