Is this what's going to happen now, for ever and ever? I thought they were supposed to be dead, but in real life they're just going to go on singing.
-Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet
She picks up a copy of her CD from the corner of the table where we sit. On the cover, she stands to the right, dressed in a long, clinging black gown, one hand pressed against her cheek, her mouth open in mock surprise, the other placed lightly the hand of a silver-haired gent in a tuxedo. Behind them, the white columned façade of a large house. In between them, a large black motorcycle with a patch of light glowing off the chrome of the headlamp. The stunned-happy expression on her face reflects what she seems to be saying, "Why, suh, you are such a bold rogue to be arrivin' heah with such a motorin' device. I'd might think you have wicked designs on me." Blanche DuBois about ready to become a devoted biker-babe.
"Fifty years from now," she said, "when my great-great grandchildren pick this up, they'll say, `Great-great-grandma was cool.' Or crazy."
She laughed. She did that a lot as we talked. In her rich alto timbre with just a tinge of a rasp, like the voice of an older aunt who smoked a pack of Virginia Slims a day and sipped all morning from a mug filled with cold coffee (with cream, sugar and gin in equal parts), her laugh was full, genuine, with a fizz, the kind you get after pouring a Coke out of its can and into a glass full of ice. Right before you dump in a shot of Bourbon.
My wife asked, "Is that you on the back?"
"Yeah," she replied. She turns the CD case over. It shows her and her silver-haired gentleman caller (in actuality, her husband and producer Rick) seated on the motorcycle, backs to the camera. Across her upper back is a large tattoo that runs from almost the middle of her back to her right shoulder.
"That's Jezebel," she explains. "She's my fallen angel."
"And is the tattoo real?"
Again, the laugh, this time with a nod of her head. From her laugh to her 30-plus year history as a singer in Louisville, to her work with other blues and roots performers in town, to having raised two sons twelve years apart in age and from her recent CD release Don't Blame the Blues, you get the sense that Susan O'Neil wouldn't do anything that wasn't real. She does sing the blues, after all, arguably the most real genre of American music. But she sings it not because, like other ladies in music history who sang the blues, she's had a gut-wrenching life similar to the older aunt she sounds like when she talks. She sings the blues for one simple reason.
"It's the timbre of my voice," she explains. "I also like the rootsy feel of the blues. I'm not big on synthesizers or a lot of reverb in my voice for effect. So it's just more my choice of what I really came to like and have a feel for."
The restaurant where we sat was busy for an evening early in the week. The hazy air, thick and damp, outside this time of year in Louisville normally keeps people home in the evenings. Some hate to have to go outside and feel like they're breathing through a paper towel that's been soaked in hot water. Yet there seemed to be a constant stream of people either sidling their way out or in past our table. A large O-Scale model train ran the perimeter of the restaurant on track mounted perpendicularly to the wall. We were at the Baxter Station Bar and Grill, located in the area between the Phoenix Hill and Irish Hill neighborhoods of the city, where shotgun homes and two-bedroom bungalows, renovated and run-down, share space with upscale bistros, stores, remodeled schools and art galleries.
We were just a few blocks from the Phoenix Hill Tavern, one of the venues where she used to perform in the 1970s.
"That was the place to play," she said. "You got the best crowds, people liked to come see you and your contemporaries would go there."
She started performing regularly around the time Phoenix Hill Tavern had just opened in a building that was once a brewery. It an era of such places as Eddie Donaldson's, the Whipping Post in the Highlands, the Great Midwestern Music Hall downtown on Washington Street, Joe's Palm Room in the West End (which is still in business), the Troubadour in Hikes Point. The sounds from these clubs ranged from folk and Bluegrass to rock covers and originals. They were made from Turley Richards, Another Mule, The Blue Grass Alliance, Dusty, The Cumberlands, Kessler's Friends, featuring her husband Rick and Just Foolin', a cover band featuring O'Neil as its lead singer.
"If you want to compare it to the way the clubs are now," O'Neil noted, "it was a lot different. People weren't as careful with how much they drank. There seemed to be a lot looser atmosphere in the clubs. Nowadays there's a lot more liability."
A 1969 graduate of Southern High School, O'Neil grew up in the Okolona part of Louisville, as she puts it, "ridin' horses and listening to country and pop music." Her mother always had the radio on, so there was music in the household, which O'Neil, her mother and her sisters absorbed. They would sometimes group together to sing a capella songs for anybody who would listen. As she grew older, O'Neil performed for the USO in Fort Knox and sang in variety shows around town. Joining her was Jennifer Lauletta, whom O'Neil had known since high school.
Then in 1978, she got her first paying gig as a vocalist with Just Foolin'.
"I did a lot of rock, like Pat Benetar," O'Neil said, "and Melissa Manchester and Linda Ronstadt. I had an affinity for blues music, but it wasn't what these groups called for. I would sneak in a few blues tunes here and there, do a little country.
"Actually, if somebody asked me what I thought I was best at, I'd have to say the blues. I think I finally came to what I was suited for."
The guitar part sounds as if it would cut through a wall of diamonds. Doubling the guitar note for note underneath is a pulsing Hammond organ that sounds like the breathing of a dragon that's about ready to blast out fire. Matching the two other instruments is a bass line that could be confused for the heartbeat of the Earth. The drums sound like whipcracks. Surrounding it is an ambient hiss, as if the track has time-tripped back to an AM radio station in the early 1970s, sent over the airwaves, played through the speaker of a pocket transistor radio and returned to the future to be distilled into digital clarity.
The vocalist begins the first verse. Her voice fits the mood the instruments have set for her: a resonant burr. She's joined in the chorus by a trio of women whose harmonies float around the other part of the song like ghosts.
It is the title track to O'Neil's CD Don't Blame the Blues. And if the blues mean business, she sings as if she's their spokeswoman.
Three years in the making and more than twenty years past the time when she first took the stage fronting a cover band, Don't Blame the Blues comes as the fulfillment of a dream and a tribute to all the local musicians with whom she has played.
"It was essentially something I always wanted to do as a performer," she said. "I had," here she paused to think of a word that best suited her lyrics, "'poems' I had written. I don't think of myself as a musician. I'm a singer. I don't read music, I don't play. I had ideas on how I wanted it to progress. I just wanted to get it down and I wanted to collaborate with all my friends, people like Jennifer [Lauletta] and my husband. And when we did the cover, I thought of what would be funny for my great-great grandkids to pick up and listen and get an idea of who we are.
"So I guess it's for posterity, more than anything else."
It is rare to hear a performer make such a selfless claim as to why he or she made a record. Usually it is done at what the musicians hope will be the start of a long career, something to wave in the face of any promoter, potential manager, or label representative.
Susan O'Neil, instead, made something for her great-great grandchildren to enjoy.
She isn't striving for blues immortality like Muddy Waters or Willie Dixon or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Nor is she hoping for stardom like Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, or even her favorite blues performer Etta James.
"I don't ever expect to achieve that kind of success," O'Neil admits. "That's not why I do it. I do it because I love it. I love the music and I love having fun with all my friends. These are people I've known for 30 years."
And what fun they must have had, bringing forth such songs as "Thank Another Man," about a woman who thwarts an affair she's about to begin and instead rushes home to her sleeping husband, whom she awakens just before she physically proves her love and devotion to him. Think of it as the flipside to Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones," but in this version she gets tired of meeting the schmuck everyday at the same café at 6:30. The song on the jukebox isn't her favorite anymore and if she hears it one more time she's going to roll the damn thing out into the street. It has a simple instrumentation, with Greg Walker on guitar, Jimmy Brown on bass and Joe Lauletta softly wire-brushing the drums. Walker's steamy-window arrangement of the song is sensual, underlying the seductive lyrics.
Or there's the swing-style horns and honky-tonk piano that decorate "Calling All Doctors," or "Down on the Corner" about street-corner drug dealing and the law enforcement that seems powerless to stop it. And "Lonely Town," co-written by O'Neil and her friend Jennifer Lauletta, telling the tale of a barfly obsessed with a musician playing in the bar that's her second home.
Billed as Sue O'Neil and Blue Seville whenever she and her band perform, normally at Stevie Ray's, Jim Porter's Tavern and the Smyrna Inn, O'Neil is always happy to play out with her husband and the other friends who contributed to the CD, but she keeps a realistic view on her expectations for the recording.
"When you do something like this, you can't expect to connect with everybody," O'Neil said. "Nobody does. You just hope somebody hears something they like and that they'll want to buy it so you don't have to paper your walls with them. So I usually take three or four every time we play. I sell a couple and I'm happy. I knew I wouldn't get rich and I knew I wouldn't go platinum."
Like many musicians in Louisville, she does have a full-time job. Hers is as an executive assistant with L&F Design Build. She also has two sons, 23-year-old Ricky, a student at the University of Kentucky and 11-year old Blake.
Even with a veteran crew of talent behind her and several choice venues in which to perform, O'Neil is a little concerned at what she sees as a decline in interest in the Louisville blues scene.
"To me it has shrunk tremendously from its heyday in the late `80s, early '90s," she said. "There was a vibrant blues scene here with national acts coming in every other month. Local artists had an opportunity to warm them up, hobnob with them. That doesn't happen anymore."
The causes? For O'Neil there are two.
"I think the people that were coming out back in the heyday have all aged, of course and I just don't think the blues grabbed the next group that is coming out. A lot of them don't know how to appreciate live music. They grew up on MTV and they didn't go to concerts. They had it all on TV."
The other? Karaoke. "The big enemy for live music," O'Neil called it with a laugh.
She continued. "I think there is a lack of somebody real strong in contemporary blues to pique the interest of the younger listeners. They relied on the old guard for too long."
With a number of blues performers crossing over into mainstream pop and soul, most notably Bonnie Raitt, who can still pull off a blues lick that could kick your ass if she played it miles from where you stood, traditional blues recordings and the performers who make them may not be reaching the younger audiences they need in order to re-grow a fan base. That doesn't mean pre-schoolers need to listen to hours of Buddy Guy. But perhaps there should be traces of the traditional sounds of the genre left here and there. A recording like O'Neil's isn't for the posterity of her family. It could be one of the many left for future listeners to discover and enjoy, listening to the sound that is called the basis for all American music.
"Blues people will tell you that it's all blues based," O'Neil said. "Maybe it's the idea that people don't like going backwards. But rarely have I gotten a feeling from a pop song that I could get from the old blues. The real blues. Because it's all about feeling."