By Jim Schutze
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Shelley King is onstage at a smoky punk dive on an oppressively humid summer night, hundreds of miles from home, in the middle of the Midwest. It's close to 100 degrees in the bar, and as she plays guitar and sings, even her knuckles are sweating. Her eclectic country songs have absolutely cleared the leather jackets and liberty spikes out of the room, and she hasn't even finished the first set. Welcome to Shelley King's worst nightmare.
"I remember going out into the parking lot between sets and I was on the verge of tears," she says with a somewhat sour laugh. "I kept thinking, 'Why am I in Cleveland? Get me out of here. Get me back home, where they love us.'"
Literally and figuratively, the punk club in Ohio is thousands of miles behind her, something that she can look back at with a laugh. It opens up the floodgates to an assortment of wince-inspiring stories about her struggles early on: leaving puking bass players at the side of the Texas highway, finding last-minute substitute guitarists while en route to gigs and logging tens of thousands of miles to play in every imaginable environment. More than a decade after King began forging a solo career, she is able to bear these battle scars with pride. It helps that she's found a loving home in Austin. King has become a dominant force in the city's highly regarded songwriting circle since she migrated there in 1992, gaining notoriety as both a songwriter and performer.
"You know, somehow things always work out, and I think I've always known that things just will work out," King says. "We drove up to Dallas one time with no guitar player, so we decided to play acoustic and call up a friend of ours to play harmonica to fill things out. But when we got there one of the most fabulous guitar players in Dallas just happened to be there. He had just got done with a gig and had nothing to do. The harmonica player showed up in the middle of the first song, and with everyone playing it was like magic."
Maybe King has a charmed existence, but her ability to make magic happen is mostly the result of her determination as a songwriter and bandleader. 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.
"I guess the more I keep going at it the better luck I have," King says. "I've been lucky over the years to play with people I admire and play to people who want to listen. Sometimes I joke that God is my booking agent. I should get a bumper sticker or something that says that."
The musicians who surround her--including her husband, Perry Drake, on drums, lead guitarist Kyle Judd and upright bassist Marie Harrop--all stand out as distinctive players in their own right, rambling through the set with a coy energy that glues together the songs' divergent styles. One moment Judd is nailing spot-on bluegrass licks to progressive, jazz-infused country guitar solos; the next he is freestyling psychedelic accounts of staring at spinning 45 labels on the Fisher-Price turntable of his youth. And somehow it all makes sense. King's songs, while musically diverse, are tied together with a storyteller's voice that has become something of a tradition for Texas-born greats such as Lyle Lovett and Townes Van Zandt.
"In Austin, people really mix things together--they almost expect it," she says. "There is country and blues, folk and rock. Everything gets wrapped up in there. For songwriters, that kind of thing is encouraged. For me, that was so welcoming because after having been in other markets it wasn't that way. In Houston...well, they didn't know what the hell my music was up there."
Maybe King should spread some promo copies of her latest, The Highway, through the streets of Houston. The disc, released last winter on King's own Lemonade Records, plays like a road map touching on every subset of neo-traditionalist Southern country music, from Appalachian bluegrass to Texas-imbibed zydeco. At the forefront throughout the record is King's warm alto, narrating with a kind of soul power that can only be born in one place: a church.
"It was just a little one-room church in Arkansas," King says of her first performance venue. She started singing there, in the church choir of her grandmother's congregation, when she was just 4 years old. "There wasn't much music happening outside of that church, and singing the gospel songs was something that I fell in love with. When I was a little older I was singing solos in church. This wasn't a fancy place, there weren't microphones or anything, and it was there I learned that I had to sing to the back row if I wanted people to hear me."
In slow increments, King has reached beyond the back row of that church to roots-music fans across the country. In addition to her relentless touring, her songs have been championed by Austin notable Toni Price. Price recently brought King's music to international audiences with performances of "Call My Heart" and "Who Needs Tears" on Austin City Limits.