Born in New York State, blues guitarist, singer and songwriter Cathy Grier has been living and working out of Sturgeon Bay since 2016.
Last summer, in the midst of a pandemic, this hard-working performing musician released her 14th album, “I’m All Burn,” recorded in Milwaukee with many local musicians.
But it’s only now that she’s really getting the chance to share the music with audiences, including at an upcoming show at Lake Park’s Musical Mondays free concert series.
In advance of that show, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., Monday, Aug. 23, we caught up with Grier to ask her about her long career, releasing a recording during a shutdown and what fans can expect when she and her band, The Troublemakers, play in Milwaukee next week.
OnMilwaukee: For those who don't yet know about your long career playing the blues, can you tell us about your roots and what led you to the blues?
Cathy Grier: I began playing professionally in 1978, I was raised during a time of the Civil Rights movement, Woodstock, and the Vietnam war. As a young songwriter, and loving the music of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Taj Mahal and others, I learned music is a powerful source to bring people together. The guitar was a perfect instrument to introduce me to the blues and roots music.
Although I love folk music, it was the blues that turned my head. And as a woman, I tried to emulate the music of Bonnie Raitt, Alberta Hunter, Janis Joplin. Being introduced to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Rory Block and so many others, also helped to inform my knowledge of blues musical structure.
Throughout my life, the blues has been at the core and foundation of what I feel and write. Musically speaking, I love to groove, and to find rhythmic patterns that echo the blues musical form of I-IV-V chords while mixing in chords that are more jazz in structure.
Your last record came out in July 2020, in the midst of all this madness. How did that timing affect the record and how you would traditionally get it out there in front of audiences?
Although I have recorded in the studio since 1979, I have been for the most part a live performer. My fan base has developed from performances, and that’s something you almost can’t ever completely capture on record.
Since forming the band in 2017 fans were asking for a recording, and all I had were solo recordings. With the pandemic though, this was the first time I released a record first to radio.
The 2020 album was intended to be a selling point at the band's live performances. The amazing surprise was that the radio play brought me many new fans who heard my musical artistry without the benefit of seeing me live.
I assume it's been a pretty tough stretch for any performing musician. How have you gotten by? Have you been able to put the time to good use, by writing or recording, etc.?
Of course the loss of performance income was definitely a financial blow. I didn’t really warm up to doing virtual concerts much, although I did a few from my home studio. I tended to my garden, rested my body – having carried a heavy electric guitar for decades and the way I like to run around stage and sing at the top of my lungs, the break was a welcome respite.
I spent a lot of the winter going through old journals and clearing out archives. Indeed I wrote, mostly in my journal. I was super mindful of my health and safety. I’ll be in my garden later today.
Are you excited to be back out there? Nervous?
Frankly, I am nervous to perform inside, and when I see large gatherings even outside with people unmasked in close proximity. But I am happy that these summer months since being vaccinated, have brought me and the Troublemakers band some fun outdoor gigs.
I am thrilled to be out performing again, but it’s bittersweet with so many people still unvaccinated. When the pandemic first arrived I cancelled gigs. I had friends in Europe and in NYC so I knew what was coming.
I am a performer who believes that my music should bring happiness and good will. My big concern was that gathering people to have a good time, might be a way for many to be sick and possibly die. Those thoughts kept me up at night bringing a lot of stress that I didn’t know how to navigate.
Currently, the only solution is to keep aware of what is happening and be ready to shift. But the pandemic being far from over, still I go out and I play and that makes me very happy which is great soul medicine.
Tell us a bit about "I'm All Burn."
The album was recorded in Milwaukee at Makin’ Sausage Studio. Owner/engineer Steve Hamilton helped me to produce the album, and also brought in many notable artists in the blues world that call Wisconsin home! It is a 16-song production of original songs, including one cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.”
Four of the songs were written at the Steel Bridge Songwriting Collaborative that I am a part of, and the reason why I ended up moving to Wisconsin in 2016 from New York City. I love the sound and groove of a horn section, and five tracks have horns led by Andrew Spadafora (sax). Greg Koch and Billy Flynn added guitar parts and Jimmy Voegeli (of The Jimmys) keys, Matt Liban (drums).
Steve Cohen (harmonica) played on most tracks, but also Howard Levy, Billy Flynn, pAt macdonald and Johnny O played harmonica. Backing vocalists included the amazing Deirdre Fellner and Liv Mueller. I am thrilled that the album features many artists from the Milwaukee area.
I know that you perform solo and with The Troublemakers, which can vary sometimes, with a horn section or without, as a three-piece or a quartet ... what can folks expect at the Lake Park show?
I am thrilled to say that we will be a seven-piece band with special guest Steve Cohen on harmonica. The Troublemakers band and the core group on the album “I’m All Burn,” is Tony Menzer on bass, Jamey Clark on drums, Larry Byrne on keys, Jim Ohlshmidt on guitar and Deirdre Fellner on vocals. We will be giving a full throttle show!
A fun moment for me is when I play slide on a four-string cigar box guitar and strut around.
Finally, a more philosophical question: what does the blues have to give us or teach us today?
It’s a great question that is hard to answer in a few sentences. Blues to me is a way of being. In today’s pandemic world, so many are experiencing the blues. I am fundamentally aware that blues music came out of the core of people oppressed, enslaved and discriminated against and never suggest that I have any ownership in that. But if we can all recall that information, and bring it to date with all that we are living today, blues music is very important in 2021.
I have my own personal stories of loss, and hardship. Through empathy and compassion, I see a world that needs to be more inclusive. Those are the things that my blues soul wants to express. The musical genre has just the right musical tension and release to bring that feeling. Once you add in life experience of loss and hope to lyrics, then there is something quite powerful and important to express.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.